Conflicting Englishes

Cheap signaling and vernacular poetry

Dohra Ahmad's anthology Rotten English collects non-standard English writing
Dohra Ahmad's anthology Rotten English collects non-standard English writing

Since I’ve been offering commentaries about multilingualism for several months now and haven’t yet devoted any time to addressing poetries that use nonstandard varieties of English, I want to turn my attention to that particular elephant in the room. The question of what type of language poetry should use is, to employ another familiar expression, as old as the hills. Debates over what Wordsworth called “the real language of men” and its place in, or relation to poetry are at once passé and radically contemporary — a source of perennial debate.

This past summer, the publication of Daniel Tiffany’s essay “Cheap Signaling” drew renewed and welcome attention to the question of poetic diction and how it ought to relate to “real” language. Tiffany explores a wide array of contemporary poems that use a “fabricated language of the ‘underneath’” to queer “the diction of poetry,” mixing “a nice tranche of idiomatic talk” with the “glam-tags of theory.” Although he seems to enjoy the chatty verve displayed in these poems, Tiffany nevertheless argues that poets who mix demotic speech with high theory (a rather wide swath of contemporary writers) fail to live up to their purported mandate as a political and aesthetic vanguard. “Sheltered by the university,” he explains, these poets risk institutionalizing a “cult of the poet-intellectual” that would obscure the structures of domination that their poetry appears to unveil. 

A number of responses to Tiffany’s essay were published in September, and these engaged and interrogated his claims from a variety of perspectives. What surprised me a bit, though, was that none of the responses sought to investigate Tiffany’s central terms, “cheap signaling” and “synthetic vernacular.” The first, his title, is drawn from a poem by Prageeta Sharma, who in turn borrows it from a sociological term describing fake or light or merely aesthetic defiance. “Synthetic vernacular,” which appears about five or six times throughout the essay, was coined by the critic Matthew Hart to describe modernism’s split commitments to the local and the global. I want to focus on these terms because their own “garbled histor[ies] of transmission,” to use one of Tiffany’s evocative phrases, demonstrate the significant ways in which his discussion of class is dependent upon but hostile to a discussion of race.

The poem from which the phrase “cheap signaling” is drawn, “She Did Not Want to Embody Cheap Signaling,” deals explicitly with immigration and its attendant affects. Sharma’s elliptical phrasing refuses to pin down an exact definition, but her first stanza strongly suggests that in this poem “cheap signaling” refers to the reductionist equation of a writer’s poems with the story of her ethnic heritage: “In poems from her book she did not want to import a code of signals / that took her father’s voice / solely for her imperatives / in which they appeared as grenades, taglines / or hashtags.” The poem goes on to describe how the writer figure’s father’s “long-buried / Hindu self” cannot be captured by “untoward epistemic arrogance.” For Sharma, then, the imported signals are a specific set of narratives containing the so-called truth of ethnic experience, but they are also a readerly shorthand, a “cheap” engagement that forecloses upon the “emotive force / … hidden in the language of authorial tumult.” They are cheap because they reduce the speaker, the “she,” and the father to stock characters in an already-knowable tale of becoming (or never quite becoming) American.

Relatedly, in Hart’s coinage, “synthetic vernacular” refers specifically to the mismatch between language and nation; Hart contends that when poetry turns to the “real language of men” this language must always be synthetic. In fact, Hart suggests that poetic vernaculars can’t be authentic because poets create these vernaculars in order to express and navigate dreams of nationhood, which may ever be unfulfilled. He draws the concept of “synthetic vernacular” from Hugh McDiarmid’s invented version of Scots dialect, which McDiarmid understood as a means of reconciling Scottish nationalism with socialist internationalism. Moreover, Hart reads McDiarmid’s synthetic Scots as an expression of the contradiction between Scotland’s role as an engine of empire abroad and its dominated and politically marginal position within the United Kingdom.

Although Hart’s concept begins in late-modernist Scotland, he traces it through mid-century and contemporary Afro-Caribbean and African American poetries, examining the work of Kamau Brathwaite, Melvin Tolson, and Harryette Mullen, among others. Rooted (or routed) through the poetics of the African diaspora, the term “synthetic vernacular” specifically connotes a grappling with anti-colonialism and with the contradictions of nationalism. Take Brathwaite, for example: the new poetic diction he called “nation language” was a necessary response to what he described as the limitations of “the standard, imported, educated English.” Although nation language was created in order to authentically express “the natural experience, the environmental experience” of life in the Caribbean, this vernacular is still synthetic in the sense that it is a poetic creation. In addition to reflecting an everyday life that the iambic pentameter of conventional English verse couldn’t capture, nation language was created to reflect something more than what currently exists—Brathwaite described this as the innovation of new perceptual models that would guide the articulation of life on the islands. Nation language, then, inaugurates a revolutionary consciousness.

Although the backbone of Tiffany’s terminology seems to derive from Hart’s careful study of these racialized and localized vernaculars, the synthetic-ness they embody doesn’t line up with his answer to the apparent predicament of “cheap signaling” in contemporary poetry. Rather than accepting these carefully created vernaculars as synthetic, Tiffany argues that for their authors they are, problematically, "somehow authentic or genuine," not "forged." Instead of looking to these vernacular, anticolonial, nationalist, or perhaps Black dreams, then, Tiffany argues for “poetics of kitsch” in which poems cannot be extracted from their own “garbled histor[ies] of transmission.” Such poems would use what is apparently “cheap” to create “authentic defiance and revolt”; linguistic knockoffs would become the “instrument[s] of class warfare.”

Here’s what I don’t understand, though: the poetries of Brathwaite, Tolson, Mullen, and any number of others who use nonstandard englishes are written in anticipation of a future that radically departs from the present. In dismissing this work as inadequately synthetic, Tiffany misses the ways in which their vernaculars are signaling something more than the cheap limits of what is possible. Their striving for something beyond might be a creation just as synthetic as the invented poetic diction in which it is expressed.

If it's a vanguard you want, why look any further?