“Them and Uz”: The Importance of Voices in Poetry

Emily Lawson-Todd 10 March 2022
Image Credit: https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/tony-harrison

Tony Harrison’s poem “Them and Uz” starts off with a cacophony of sounds: “[alpha]i! [alpha]i1 Ay! Ay!”, a dual representation of language that echoes the rest of the poems split nature. The distinction between the high phonetic classical cries of the academic and the colloquial “ay! Ay!” of the Northern dialect tussle and fight with one another, creating a crisis of identity that seems to ask “in this world of received pronunciation, classics, and propriety, is there a space for local voices, regional voices? Is there a space for identity?”.

Coming to Cambridge as a student from an industrial Northern city, I too was faced with the same dilemma. Could these great works of literature really ever be appreciated if I read them aloud in my, admittedly very light, Northern accent? (though if you ask anyone from South of Birmingham, I am practically incomprehensible!). It is this very question that Harrison attempts to answer in his poem. As a student from Leeds accepted into a grammar school, the poet expresses his displacement from the literature which he consumes, implying that it is “dubbed” into the blank RP of standard English. It is clear from the reaction of his teacher as he attempts to read aloud “you barbarian T.W!” that there is only room for one generic voice in poetry; any attempt to change this will be met with opposition. Harrison draws attention to the literary tradition of accents in this first stanza, discussing how he “played the drunken porter in MacBeth”. Here it becomes clear that not only are regional accents mocked and barred from poetic traditions, but when they do manage to crop up in literature, they are confined to lower-status roles. Suddenly the regional accent is a mark of inadequacy, a comedic device that is barred from the sacred hallows of proper literary tradition.

However, just as the poem is split into two sonnets, the way accents are presented in “Them and Uz” also splits into two halves. Whilst the first stanza is presented in standard English, or received pronunciation, the second stanza takes on the vowels and sounds of the poet’s real voice. From the use of colloquialisms such as “buggers”, to spellings in a dialect like the poet’s use of “yer”, a distinct and personal voice flows through the poem. There is something to be said about the effects of using one’s own distinct voice in poems; it is both simultaneously an act of expression and an act of defiance, a push against the idea that all poetry has a homogenous voice. In this second, more expressive stanza, Harrison challenges the very notions of the literary tradition that he had previously believed to be true, referencing the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth and his own regional accent. Drawing attention to how Wordsworth would rhyme “matter” with “water” when pronounced in his own voice, Harrison argues that the idea of all English literature being best understood when read in standard English is in fact a myth. Instead, by showing how great poets in the literary canon retain their own distinctive voices in their works, he draws attention to the importance of taking into account the regional identity of the poet, and the great regional diversity in dialect across the UK.

At an institution where most academics and fellow students speak in standard English, this poem was deeply validating to me in my first term. Every time I felt nervous about reading Milton in a supervision, afraid of how I might twist the vowels and consonants, might “ruin” the poem, I remembered Harrison’s 16 line poem and suddenly all those fears felt less serious. Why should all poems be read in a homogenous voice? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the great regional diversity of our country, all the voices present in our nation. There is no “right” way to read a poem, to perform onstage, no “correct” accent. So, maybe it’s time to take the regional accent outside of the confinements of comedy roles, outside the prejudices and connotations of stupidity, and begin celebrating it in its own right in the literary canon. As Harrison says, “uz can be loving as well as funny”.