Speaking in Tongues
Where pop meets Modernism.
Courtesy NBC Publicity
The most famous poet in American history sold a million copies of his book, back in the days when a million was a lot. He had his own weekly radio show and even, for a while, his own television show. His poetry was syndicated and appeared in hundreds of newspapers. For many years he published a new poem every day—and he did not miss deadlines. And yet, as fame goes, few people today know the name of Edgar Guest (1881-1959).
More interesting than the brevity of fame is the fact that Edgar Guest wrote his poems in dialect, with deliberate misspellings and apostrophes replacing the G in words ending with “ing.” The grammar, like the spelling, impersonates an unschooled, rustic speaker. Guest's lyric style is calculated to imply that uneducated country people have special access to wisdom and a special grasp of what's most important. His immense appeal for generations of readers was rooted in that populist idea, that true feeling and insight come from plain, unschooled country people. People in towns or cities who read Guest's work in the newspaper may have associated his poems with their farmer parents or grandparents.
Along with nostalgia for that old rural life, the poems have an element of gentle condescension: an implicit, chuckling superiority along with the reverence. Guest's readers could admire his country speakers while also smiling at their dialect. If the stylized country language is clearly exaggerated beyond reality, that may have made it feel all the more amusing and reassuring.
Speculation about the nature of Guest's popular appeal is illuminated by the delicious fact that, far from any origins in rural America, this poet was born—a Brit! A native of Birmingham, England, he was 10 years old when he moved with his family to Detroit. Within a few years, he was a teenager working for the Detroit Free Press. From Birmingham (which of course had its own, Andy Capp dialect and traditions, which may have been a model) to Detroit: Edgar Guest was even less Appalachian than Bob Dylan.
This example from poetry gives a fresh way to think about things so familiar we barely notice them: political candidates who drop their G’s, or popular singers from American (or British) cities who perform in the dialect of rural Tennessee or the Mississippi Delta. Even the exaggerated, defiant spellings of hip-hop may share something with the calculated, artful misspellings of Edgar Guest.
What does it mean that, in a process accelerated long ago with the marriage of R & B with country, nearly all American popular music seems to be written in dialect? To my inexpert ear, some older stars, like Bruce Springsteen and Mos Def, still perform in language similar to how the performers actually speak. Springsteen's working-class characters are moving partly because he does not exaggerate their speech. In contrast, many white British singers of the blues sound far more black and American than Junior Wells or Buddy Guy. Across a range of genres, in the arcane subdivisions and niche variations of “hip-hop nouveau” and “retro country,” dialect seems to rule. In great-grandpa's day, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra sang so much the way they spoke that you can hear New Jersey in his singing, and maybe a touch of Yonkers in hers.
Dialect has a long, honorable literary history, including Robert Burns and the humorist Artemis Ward, said to be Abraham Lincoln's favorite writer. Lincoln, before he read the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, tried to ease tension in the meeting by reading aloud—weeping with laughter as he did—Ward's comic piece “Outrage in Utica.” Here is the opening of the piece that cracked up Abraham Lincoln: “In the Faul of 1856, I showed my show in Utiky, a trooly grate sitty in the State of New York.” This example from that time and place may illustrate the limited shelf life of dialect, or of comedy itself. It also suggests that the unreal, inconsistent, made-up quality of the spellings (“sitty” but “New York”?) may be part of the point.
The dialect of Guest's work is synthetic, well-calculated and skillful, though with the passage of time he has become (for the likes of me, anyway) close to unreadable. Here is his best-known poem:
It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home,
A heap o' sun an' shadder, an' ye sometimes have t' roam
Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind,
An' hunger fer 'em somehow, with 'em allus on yer mind.
It don't make any differunce how rich ye get t' be,
How much yer chairs an' tables cost, how great yer luxury;
It ain't home t' ye, though it be the palace of a king,
Until somehow yer soul is sort o' wrapped round everything.
Home ain't a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;
Afore it's home there's got t' be a heap o' livin' in it;
Within the walls there's got t' be some babies born, and then
Right there ye've got t' bring 'em up t' women good, an' men;
And gradjerly as time goes on, ye find ye wouldn't part
With anything they ever used — they've grown into yer heart:
The old high chairs, the playthings, too, the little shoes they wore
Ye hoard; an' if ye could ye'd keep the thumb-marks on the door.
Ye've got t' weep t' make it home, ye've got t' sit an' sigh
An' watch beside a loved one's bed, an' know that Death is nigh;
An' in the stillness o' the night t' see Death's angel come,
An' close the eyes o' her that smiled, an' leave her sweet voice dumb.
Fer these are scenes that grip the heart, an' when yer tears are dried,
Ye find the home is dearer than it was, an' sanctified;
An' tuggin' at ye always are the pleasant memories
o' her that was an' is no more—ye can't escape from these.
Ye've got t' sing an' dance fer years, ye've got t' romp an' play,
An' learn t' love the things ye have by usin' 'em each day;
Even the roses 'round the porch must blossom year by year
Afore they 'come a part o' ye, suggestin' someone dear
Who used t' love 'em long ago, an' trained 'em jes t' run
The way they do, so's they would get the early mornin' sun;
Ye've got t' love each brick an' stone from cellar up t' dome:
It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home.
The “thumb-marks on the door,” the death's angel, the roses in the last stanza: These are effective details, even though the opening exposition about “yer chairs an' tables” may be a bit repetitious and heavy. Guest is more willing to risk tedium than obscurity. In the concluding rhyme, “dome” may be lunged-for, and in language like “these are scenes that grip the heart,” Guest the literary man may be too visible behind his bucolic mask. But “Home” is far from incompetent: The poem is an expert performance, and its onetime popularity is understandable.
Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.