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“It’s my voice; that’s how I speak”: The Rhythms of Northern English in Simon Armitage’s Poetry

Claire Hélie, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3

In 1991, when asked about the use of West Yorkshire dialect in his poetry, Simon Armitage answered: "It's my voice; that's how I speak." The casualness of the phrasing and the pledge of authenticity seem to dismiss the problem of the transposition of dialect into verse as a false problem on the ground that there is no gap between oral speech and written forms in his poems. And indeed, when one reads Armitage's poetry, one can't help but feel that the poet is speaking out loud to us in a Northern accent, a hypothesis which is confirmed when one listens to the poet in performance. Yet Armitage's work is not so much a quest for a putative authenticity as a postmodern game on the rhythmical possibilities of poetry through the performance of a voice, understood as a sound emission, with its specific vowel length, intonation, speed, that is to say, with its rhythms.
    My argument is that the dialectal words, grammatical structures and intonations affect the rhythm of the poem and that, conversely, the poetic text elicits a reading out loud in a Northern accent. My analysis will consist in a typology of some of the poet's experiments with Northern-English rhythms on the page and during public readings, from the attempts at vocalisation in Zoom! (1989) to the transcription of dialect in The Phoenix (1997) and On an Owd Piktcha (2006). The study of Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2007) will attempt to show that this rhythm, which is allegedly the representation of contemporary Northern English, is still indebted to medieval alliterative poetry.

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