Yorkshire Voices: Off t’ ‘ear some poems dahn at Sheffield

Yorkshire Voices is an exhibition and series of events at the University of Sheffield designed to explore what it means to write in the local dialect. The project is led by Dr Jane Hodson from the School of English. Upcoming events include Sing-Folk-Speak (featuring Nancy Kerr and Ray Hearne) and the exhibition will remain on display at Western Bank Library until 17 August 2013.

On 10 July 2013 poets Sally Goldsmith and Ian McMillan gave poetry readings (followed by a Q&A with Dr Hodson) in St.George’s Lecture Theatre. This event was attended by one of our current undergraduate students, Rebecca Daley, who records her response below. This post is the second to feature on the School of English Blog considering the experience of seeing and hearing poetry in performance. Do look back through our archives and read Saffron Rain and Amber McNamara on their experience seeing Tony Harrison at this year’s Lyric Festival.

And so, a big “thank you” to Rebecca for writing this post which first appeared on her own blog, Becca’s Ramblings.

–Amber Regis

There’s nothing so captivating as an audience laughing in unison. For that to be created by a poet is something quite unique. Sally Goldsmith and Ian McMillan achieved this last week as part of the Yorkshire Voices season of events at the University of Sheffield and I was lucky enough to experience this brilliant night.

Yorkshire Voices sets out to capture the heart of Yorkshire: its unique dialect. From words like ‘mardy’ to amusing ellipses like t’, I am proud to speak a dialect with such a diverse grasp of the English language. Although I don’t have the strongest of Yorkshire accents I am glad to be part of a culture and language that is so distinct.

This night of poetry was opened by Dr Jane Hodson of the School of English and moved swiftly onto Sally Goldsmith. Although she too does not have a strong Yorkshire accent, her creative manipulation of words managed to capture the sounds and speech we hear around us in Sheffield on a daily basis. Something particularly exciting about Goldsmith was her poem ‘98’, named after a Sheffield bus route. There was a buzz in the air as she recounted her memories of bus rides home through the city, local audience members sharing in this common knowledge and experience. This shared understanding was electric—flashpoints of recognition erupted into sparks of laughter, creating a community between poet and audience, and between audience members (many of whom had never met, now suddenly turned neighbours in our small city). Goldsmith wrote this poem in terza rima form, first used by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy. And so Sheffield, its dialect and voices, was placed alongside one of the greatest landmarks in literary history, courtesy of the number 98 bus route…

20130715-211652Next up was Barnsley-born Ian McMillan. I’ve been a big fan of McMillan’s work since he led a Y8 poetry workshop at my school, and I was particularly excited to see him again now I’m at University. Unlike Goldsmith, McMillan has been a Yorkshire resident all his life. This was clearly evident in his strong accent, which at times sounded more like a language of its own. McMillan told us about his interest in the quotidian, his observations on ‘everyday’ life and the mundane, and how something as simple as taking your mother to the shops ‘for a few bits’ could (and should) be transformed into the stuff of poetry. Again, there was a communal, shared laughter throughout his performance.

That poetry can come alive, that poetry can make you laugh, that poetry can be more than words on a page—these performances, shining a spotlight on the role of dialect and shared community, offered one possible means by which poetry can shake itself free of negative stereotypes: difficult, tedious, exclusionary.

The night ended with a Q&A session (the phrase ‘taking questions from the floor’ proving a source of great amusement to McMillan, and a further example of the idiosyncrasies of language celebrated by Yorkshire Voices). The poets’ answers gave further insights into their use of dialect in poetry: the downfalls, the effect on readers, how to represent dialect in the written form (and here a member of the audience admitted to having written an entire dissertation on the use of t’ in Yorkshire!). They also explained why they thought it important to preserve and record the diversity of English due to constant, daily changes in the language. For example, I speak differently to my predecessors. I often hear Yorkshire words from my Nan that don’t seem English to me. It took me until I was about 10 years old to realise that ‘on my tod’ meant ‘on my own’! Yet at the same time, despite the generation gap we still share much of the language unique to Yorkshire—I’m guilty of substituting ‘reyt’ for ‘right’ and saying ‘dahn’t stairs’ as opposed to ‘down the stairs’. But I am proud to use this dialect as it highlights my Yorkshire roots, my cultural heritage, so rich in language and history.

McMillan and Goldsmith at Yorkshire Voices reminded me very much of Tony Harrison’s recent appearance at the Lyric festival. Leeds-born Harrison has made the Yorkshire voice an integral and political part of his poetry, writing passionately against the exclusivity of Received Pronunciation. The English language is too diverse for such limits. Why not embrace dialect in poetry, creating and engaging with community of readers that speak with the same voice? I believe this is the way to encourage more people to read poetry and avoid the view that it is ‘boring’ or ‘intimidating’. My night at Yorkshire Voices really brought this home, in more ways that one. Poetry can be fun—there is no need to be scared of it!

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