Mary Dalton on Lusty Transactions with Speech

H. L. Hix: A poem such as “Down the Bay” (27) seems to me to exemplify with particular vividness a feature present in all the poems in your Merrybegot, namely a “found” character to them.  Does it matter to you if a reader views these poems as found or views them as made?


Mary Dalton: It may be that my comments in a note on the acknowledgements page and at the back of Merrybegot have misled readers. Very few of the poems can be called found poems. Most of them are fictions which I made. My raw material is a variety of English other than Standard English; that does not make me more indebted to the source than any writer who draws upon the resources of language.


Perhaps twenty per cent of the poems might be said to have some element of the found in them insofar as they incorporate quotations from the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. I’m not certain that would characterize even those twelve or so pieces as found poems, however. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English was, in addition to being a catalyst because of its bringing into print recorded speech, a direct source for some lines. But in these pieces it was often a matter of knitting lines into fictions of my own making. “Sterricky” is one such piece; “Old Roman Candle” is another.


Far more of these poems—roughly eighty per cent of them—have no element of the found; they are small monologues, small fictions which aim to evoke a world, in themselves and in their interrelations. While a scrap of incident or speech (overheard speech, not that in a dictionary) might have served as a springboard, that is a case only of the usual workings of the imagination.  As I leaf through Merrybegot—“Stark-Naked Tea,” “The School of Hard Knocks,” “Rosella and Bride,” “The Ragged Jacket”—I’m noting that the poems are entirely invention, with no quotations included.


What distinguishes the poems of Merrybegot, perhaps, is their lusty transactions with speech, whether that preserved in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English or that rippling and fizzing in my daily life. Sometimes those transactions are complicated ones, shifting back and forth between the oral and the written.


“Down the Bay” is without a doubt a double or a triple agent, if we think of the oral and written as territories with their own imperatives. It had its beginnings in a quip made by a man who was speaking of the north shore of Conception Bay, a coast more rugged, more exposed to the Atlantic Ocean than the sheltered head of the bay where he lives and now farms on family land. His phrasing struck me as a perfect little language-jig, and also as characteristic of a certain playful exaggeration common in Newfoundland speech and stories. As well, it expressed neatly a longstanding attitude of condescension on the part of the Irish-Catholic head of the bay to the rockier English-Protestant north shore. Form and content seemed to fuse beautifully.


Soon afterwards a historian friend told me that the scenario in this dandy riff was an echo of General Grant’s assertion about Georgia—that when he was through with it, it was so devastated  “A crow flying across it would have to carry its own provender.” I then assumed that the image was part of a common stock of images suggesting utter barrenness, that it was carried here and to America from the Old World. It was even possible, I considered, that the deft talker had tucked away somewhere in his mind General Grant’s statement; after all, he was a university-educated man, a former teacher who had returned to his family’s land to farm.


I decided to include “Down the Bay”in the collection—for its gusto, its revelling equally in the wild conceit and in its power as an insult, its musical shape, with its interweaving of consonance and assonance (those thin i-sounds evoking the slimness of the pickings in that forsaken place).  And because, whether oral or written in its immediate origin, on the lips of J.E.B. and on my page, it embodied the shifting relations between the two.


The poem is, then, a found one. I found it in speech; J.E.B., to whom it’s dedicated, may have found it on the lips of his father or in a book on the American South. The oral in bed with the written, and the goings-on are slippery.


Dalton, Mary.  Merrybegot.  Signal Editions, 2003.

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