Fair Warning: This tongue -in-cheek poem is written in a made-up backwoods Southern dialect that breaks all grammar conventions. And my intro is much longer than the poem itself, so feel free to skip the sermon and go right to the rather silly poem in bold print.
A Word on Cancel Culture
I know that dialect is not particularly fashionable in literature today. Using a dialect, especially if it is not your own, can get you in hot water, if someone takes offence. So I hope no one will. I am not a big fan of any form of literary iconoclasm. By that I mean the smashing and trashing of perfectly useful tools, beautiful objects, or books, for the sake of political correctness or purity. So permit me to wax philosophical on the topic.
I have a print from a Chicago exhibit in the late 80’s called Degenerate Art. Certain visual art was apparently frowned upon by the Nazis during WWII as being impure, and not healthy for the culture. And so they got rid of it, punishing the artists by depriving them of a market, and excluding such creations–often at the cutting edge of visual art worldwide–from their more traditional definition of “Art.” Like book burning, this practice assured the purity of thought that was so prized in that era, and is so anathema to us today. Or so I thought.
In our abundance of enlightenment today, the pendulum seems to have swung forward, toward a different, but just as limiting restriction on artistic work. Now, the books that seem to attract the most attention are those of genuine, truthful, often accusatory or harsh, but always authentic and diverse, voices. That is, in contrast to the appropriated plotlines and distorted caricatures of the white-washed past.
No doubt, hearing new voices from all races and walks of life has enriched our collective experience. It is good that we finally acknowledge, that in order for the rise of Western Civilization to happen, many other equally robust and sophisticated civilizations were forced to fall or be crushed. And they certainly were forced to be silent.
But I don’t think anyone today intends, that those who don’t fit into the definition of diverse should just stand aside and stay silent. Give up. Acknowledge that they (or more precisely, their predecessors) have had their day. And now, it’s someone else’s turn.
This self-immolating self-sacrifice strikes me as absurd. It is also a huge waste of artistic potential. Let the new voices be heard! But it is a big country and we can afford to let everyone play.
Prejudice vs. Bias
I remember in law school, there being a very fine distinction drawn, between prejudice and bias. Prejudice was made up of thoughts that went on inside your head. They were yours to think, without penalty, no matter how evil or false or outdated. Bias, on the other hand, was the preferential treatment of one group over another, without legal justification. It was an action and as such was a concern of a civil society.
Today, I often hear the word bias used as a substitute for prejudice. That is, it is something invisible, that corrupts the actions of those who possess it, and makes them, often unwittingly, act to the detriment of those they hold a prejudice against. Unlike prejudice, however, bias is not a quality that can be tolerated, ignored, or that can go unpunished. It is treated like pollution, or a contagious disease, affecting all around it. It must be rooted out. No longer do we respect the privacy within the calcified perimeters of our own skulls. We must correct our wicked thoughts.
Writers are often accused of this subconscious innate prejudice, and of appropriating experiences not their own, and of forming characters in a certain way, so as to act out cultural or racial stereotypes. The inevitable conclusion of this line of reasoning is that no one, but someone who has actually experienced something, should ever write or create any art about it.
This theory acts as a straightjacket on anyone who hopes to attempt anything in artistic form, particularly something as broad and unpredictable and wide-ranging as fiction or poetry.
Granted, dialect, as a literary device has gone out of style. Think of the school library controversies of the early 2000s. Should Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer still be allowed behind the hallowed walls of our school libraries? Using dialect of the time period, and a certain word which I shall not mention, was enough to exclude them in many institutions. Not many books considered classics in my childhood have survived the withering stare of correctness.
The rule seems to be that modern books can only use dialect if the dialect is the writer’s own.
As writers, we have few enough tools as it is, to express ourselves properly. We don’t need to be tossing them out, unnecessarily, like the baby with the bathwater.
As I wrote this poem, I thought of “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley (1885). It is a poem written almost entirely in the author’s made-up dialect.
The link above is from Wikipedia. The entire poem and a recording, done by the poet himself in 1912, are there, as well as a clearer 2010 recording.
One of my favorite poetry websites, The Poetry Foundation, no longer seems to include the poem. Although it has a nice biography page of the poet.
Perhaps this omission is evidence of the current unpopularity of writings that use dialect. Especially if they use it in a way that is outdated or that appears to be condescending or racist.
Or maybe they just don’t think it’s a good enough poem.
Still, should such writings be disappeared? I find this issue to be as perplexing as the Confederate/Colonial Statue issue. I understand why it is in keeping with modern thought and ideals to destroy these relics of the past, but is it wise?
Little Orphant Annie
Riley was so famous and beloved in his time, that he was often referred to as national poet laureate. The sitting president, Woodrow Wilson, wept when he died. There is even a 2-cent postage stamp that bears his likeness.
Chapter Two of this book explores Riley’s choice of language in some detail, with excerpts from his writings. It talks about the way his writing was being perceived by his contemporaries. Some of Riley’s own writings indicate he wrote this poem from a child’s perspective. He used childlike misspellings and a healthy disregard for grammar in many of his other works, for a folksy effect.
Apparently there was some question in Riley’s own time about whether this deviation from proper English might harm children. But this technique proved to be popular as he toured and gave performances.
(I have only done a cursory search for Little Orphant Annie within this document, not read the whole thing.)
I found another article, grounding the origin of the poem in Riley’s own childhood experience with a live-in nanny named Allie, who told scary stories. There is also a tale that “Annie” was a misprint for “Allie. She stayed in Riley’s family for a while during his childhood. She is identified as Mary Alice Smith Gray (1850-1924) and her grave is in Philadelphia. She was white.
Yet the poem sounds racist to our modern ears. Because it uses dialect. Dialect is by definition non-standard usage, which may imply poor education or what used to be called ill-breeding. From this point of view, it is but a short hop to racial slurs.
I found an interesting article talking about the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment that prevailed in Indiana during Riley’s time. He was Irish-Catholic by birth, but not a big church-goer. The images in the article really show some extreme racism and immigrant hate, fueled by phrenology, a popular but later-debunked science of bumps on the head.
As a person of Irish descent, at a time when the Irish were reviled by many–including one of the forerunners of the second KKK, the American Protective Association– Riley may have been intimately familiar with the concept of discrimination. His own poems about Irish-American patriotism were even used to help combat the prevailing anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment, that arose in the later 19th century.
As noble as that fact may seem, I also found out that Riley worked in a traveling patent-medicine company. He used his rhymes in advertising and acted as a minstrel, himself. Which means he may have worn blackface, which was perhaps not all that unusual at the time. But it is not at all cool now. Just ask Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Riley’s poem was a complicated product of its time, as was Riley.
Little Orphant Annie was his most famous work, spawning cartoons, movies and merchandise throughout the twentieth century.
So one cannot ignore it entirely. At least not if one is to embrace what it is to be an American, in all its shabby glory.
During my own childhood in the 1970’s, this poem was still widely read and taught, at least within families. It mesmerized me and gave me nightmares.
My Own Use of Dialect
All this long-winded talk about Riley is meant to justify and defend my own amateurish use of dialect. I’m going to chance it, despite prevailing sentiment. As a device for building suspense and mood, it is a winner.
RIley’s poem was on my mind, even as I wrote it: Little Orphant Annie’s warning, “The goblins’ll gitcha if you don’t watch out!” rings true, these days. Except now, it’s a virus, lurking unseen, like an cockroach. At the most inopportune time, she darts out, and scares the living daylights out of you. Until that day–and I hope that day is soon!–when you squash her flat.
So who is speaking this dialect? Let me introduce you. My middle-aged Southern white woman lives out in the boondocks. She is practical and straightforward and perhaps, not very highly educated. She doesn’t have a lot of money. She doesn’t have a lot of time to waste on nervous Nellie news or social media.
But she sure as hell knows her critters.
I hope you will take my inexpert use of dialect, in the spirit in which it was intended.
Thanks again, for coming by to read.
I seen ’em in the rafters.
I seen ’em scurry ’bout.
They skitters an’ they flitters
An’ they scurries all about.
They lives behind the floorboards.
They crawls between the cracks.
They lays there, quiet, site unseen,
An’ suddenly, attacks.
I beats ’em with a broomstick.
I squash ’em with my shoe.
I chase ’em crost the carpet.
An’ I sprays ’em, till I’m blue.
But such a nasty critter,
As I ain’t never seen!
I wisht somebody’d git ‘er.
I wisht she’d never been.
Copyright 2021 Andrea LeDew
For another poem that tries to convey the ominous foreboding of Riley’s poem, read Good Fortune.
For a very un-woke suburbanite’s view of the nationwide Black Lives Matter Protests in the summer of 2020, in response to George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the police, read Provincial.