JOAN SULLIVAN: For the love of poetry and the Newfoundland dialect

ST. JOHN’S, NL — “This culture is a huge reservoir of songs, stories, riddles, rhymes, chants, curses and proverbs that are as good as anyone in the English-speaking world,” notes Mary Dalton, poet and professor of English at MUN. the summit of his conference.

(His talk “The Vernacular Strain in Newfoundland Poetry:: The 2020 Pratt Lecture” focuses on Newfoundland: “Labrador poetry has its own story, much of which remains to be told.”)

But this was not celebrated, or verbatim preserved, until well after Confederation. “For a number of reasons, the vital oral traditions of Newfoundland culture have in recent decades begun to manifest themselves strongly in poetry that has found its way into print.

This shift to the Newfoundland vernacular in poetry began in the 1970s, not by chance a period of great cultural “renaissance”. “Until this time, when the beginnings of definite change can be discerned, the landscapes/seascapes, history and culture of Newfoundland were all but invisible in poetry that instead reflected landscapes, mores and linguistic patterns of imperial authority. , Britain.

The Vernacular Strain in Newfoundland Poetry: The 2020 Pratt Lecture By Mary Dalton Breakwater Books $14.94 64 pages – Contribution

When earlier poets like Florence Miller or Michael Harrington, for example, included Newfoundland speech in their writing, it was in quotes, separate, not part of the spirit and backbone of the writing.

Since then, two generations of poets have emerged.

From the first, Dalton cites Al Pittman, Harold Paddock and Tom Dawe, and from the second Michael Crummey, Agnes Walsh, Robin McGrath and Carmelita McGrath, among others.

They are not exactly distinct double waves, as the texts of the two groups may overlap.


“For a number of reasons, the vital oral traditions of Newfoundland culture have in recent decades begun to manifest themselves strongly in poetry that has found its way into print.


And all of these writers are influential, but in this context perhaps none so much as Dawe, who opened up poetry to great possibilities, “draws resources” by “describing many facets of Newfoundland life”, delving into areas such as folk tales and customs to do riddles and nursery rhymes and ballads.

“When Dawe decides to put discourse front and center in his poems,” says Dalton, “his tone is perfect.”

Another important publication is John Steffler’s “The Gray Islands” (1985), a seminal book of storytelling, a stick picked up by Michael Crummey in “Hard Light”, which was so narratively rich that it was adapted at the scene.

It is not just idiom, Dalton argues, but cadence, personality, and sense of community that specific words convey.

It is the cultural meaning of the meaning conveyed in the lyrics. For example, the collection below:

Land of The Rock /Talamh an Carraig: Poems By Heather Nolan Breakwater Books $19.95 104 pages - Contribution
Land of The Rock /Talamh an Carraig: Poems By Heather Nolan Breakwater Books $19.95 104 pages – Contribution

This volume — “Land of The Rock /Talamh an Carraig: Poems” — is divided into two parts, “Newfoundland” and “Ireland”, with three books, named and geographically organized, in each.

And not only does it delve into the vernacular found on both islands, it even opens with a quote from Steffler’s “The Gray Isles.” The works are part of a travelogue, observing many different sites.

But it is also a search for identity and authenticity.

In volume 1 “south shore”: “mobile bay // my father denies / any link with the place / his father was born, / or at least any attachment // it’s the people who count, he says, / blowing on the rim of his teacup / what does a place mean / when they’re gone? »

In the second book, “tilting”: in “salt fish”, someone drops by the innkeeper / wants fish, sits up / when he sees me reading al pittman, / confidence enters his eyes, tells me that ‘he’s a writer.

Such references continue to ring with quotes from Dalton.


‘what does a place mean / when they’re gone?


The third book, “Sweet Bay”, opens with a quote from Agnes Walsh. The following pieces punctuate an allocated subsistence fishery: “day 1 – 5:30 am // at dawn, a few hands move towards the wharf / to see, but they know. / the earth makes true laws / here, cursing yesterday’s still waters, / perfect weather. I should have gone anyway // and why not? // what good is bureaucracy with a storm / coming, and only ten days / to supply the freezers / for the winter? Later, “day 6” is simply “wind”.

In book four, Nolan writes of “waterford”: “field note // colloquialisms shared between newfoundland and / waterford, as heard in pubs: // townsman: someone from town // waddayat?: what’s up? // wha: a light, wispy sound, meaning ‘what?’ in a kind of ‘could/you repeat what you just said’”.

Again and again, language – dialects and languages ​​- proves to be an essential guideline.

Although it was a coincidence that I chose these two books together, in another way it is not a coincidence at all.

(Full disclosure, I’m credited for a letter of support in Nolan’s acknowledgments.)


Joan Sullivan is the editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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