You can tell from the title that this is a conceit poem, and that it’s going to concern itself in part with language. There’s a particular formula to a conceit poem of this type – one which I rather enjoy. The voice is raconteurish and somewhat conspiratorial, relaying events in a manner which assumes we already know something of which it speaks. “You’ve heard, of course, of the Academy of New Words? Well, listen closely, traveller, and I will tell the truth of what happened.” It’s a fun way to stage what will probably, in this case, amount to a figurative tale or parable.
The first line also pulls its weight:
In the beginning, the language worked well:
The clear implication here is that at some point, it stopped working so well. We now know this is a disaster poem. We’re going to learn about what went wrong – or could go wrong – with language.
By the end of the first stanza, we have something of an idea of what sort of function the speaker believes language should serve. She/he puts it in deliberately simple, conservative terms, foregrounding that the change is going to involve complication, expansion, unwieldiness and frivolity. This is followed by five italicised lines that are perhaps intended as a demonstration of this ‘functional’ language bedding down, doing its job, naming the parts of the land and acknowledging ‘the vigorous need for moving on’.
These italicised lines may, on the other hand, be intended to invoke the voice of a different figure entirely – perhaps that of an elder tribesman of some sort. I say ‘tribesman’ because the narrative seems to place itself at the start of some civilisation’s foray into using language, or at least a language. ‘In the beginning’ suggests not just the point where the language was invented, but the beginning of a recorded history, a creation tale. Language seems to arrive in the form of – or else alongside – the tribe’s discovery of a new territory, “not so different from the old country after all”. The mud-and-straw bricks and vine roofs colour the scene, making explicit that we’re in the realms of arch rusticity, a people living in harmony with nature.
(At this point, I’ve already read ahead, and I can’t remember whether, on my first read-through, I found it obvious that this bread-baking, wheat-growing, mud hut lifestyle was going to be disturbed by the advent of technology. It’s certainly being set up as the kind of Edenic idyll that a real or metaphorical hurricane is fated to rip through.)
Now the children enter the picture, ‘dissatisfied’. It looks like generational friction is going to be the basis for the catastrophe. The ‘old belief’, we are told, wasn’t enough for the children, because the world suddenly became full of new things, like trains and electric lights. The poem isn’t clear on the cause of this influx of technology, although it seems to be implied that the children, ‘wanting more’, simply went about making important inventions and discoveries. In this parable, centuries of change are condensed into one period of mega-upheaval, a recognisably modern world emerging suddenly and chaotically from a Neolithic era, farmland to Facebook in one fell swoop. The upshot is that there was no longer ‘a name for everything’ because the older generation’s naming methods resulted in increasingly long-winded composites, their apparatus creaking under the strain of a never-ending technological revolution.
So the Academy was born.
The strangest thing about this poem is that the title conceit comes and goes in three lines. After all the build-up, the Academy is a flop, and can’t keep up with the ‘unstoppable children’. The world fills up with both ‘dazzling inventions’ and ‘the obsolete’ – presumably because, like the Academy itself, much becomes outmoded not long after it arrives. The older generation are left with their silence and it’s not clear who, in the final stanza, is actually doing the naming, since all attempts toward regulation have failed.
So what exactly has gone wrong? What is being complained of in this poem? The fifth stanza, which stands out as particularly poetic because of its trinity of similes, may be the key. The speaker regards the language, when it worked, as being intuitively understood, universal, even primal, ‘linking’ the tribe together. By the end of the poem, it has become socially divisive. The young chase neologisms, the linguistics professors hunker down in their library basements with relics, and the old abandon language altogether. Their ‘staring out of windows’ suggests an existence reduced to looking out on life, on the world that was once theirs, from within the confined space their silence affords them.
In some ways, it’s a playful reworking of a very familiar complaint: time moves on too fast, and soon we feel left behind. The young seem to come up with new toys, new fashions at an ever accelerating rate, making a nonsense of any attempt to document or lend institutional recognition to each wave or pulse of the new. Language, which we once thought of as intuitive and natural – which did its job, damn it! when we were in charge – becomes an unwelcome reminder of how out of touch we are, as it grows corpulent on the fast food of modernity.
The poem lends this highly subjective experience a mythic air, but of course we know that the speaker’s ‘elders’ and ‘old country’ are probably only themselves recent, and just as fast-moving, just as ‘unstoppable’ to the generation before, just as it’s difficult to conceive of language itself beginning at the point where the narrative commences. I imagine a bathetic zoom-out at the end of the poem, at the end of the telling, where it’s revealed that the speaker is talking about growing up in the eighties and recently turning 30.
I’m curious as to why the title suggests the Academy as principle subject though. One could conceivable read its inclusion as a critique of academia in general. Begun as a way of managing language – and by the same token, our understanding of the world and its contents – it quickly becomes a refuge for basement dwellers. The implication is that academic institutions are too ungainly and too officious to keep us usefully educated, but perfectly suited for the accumulation of ‘yellowing box-files’ and those willing to lock themselves away to study them.
The critique may be more specific, however, and aimed at outfits such as the Queen’s English Society, which in 2010 established an extremely short-lived, web-based ‘Academy of English’ whose aim was to “set down a clear standard of what is good, correct, proper English”, echoing 18th century projects toward regulating the English language. This strand of vigorous linguistic arbitration has frequently been the target of mockery, but if this is Garland’s aim, she’s extraordinarily gentle about it; her ‘Professors of Linguistics’ are studious and unassuming where the grammar purists are often zealous missionaries.
The line ‘Ten new words were ratified each week’ brings to mind the quarterly updates to the OED, which journalists regularly make play of (words added in June this year include ‘twerk’ and ‘yarn-bombing’) but which is arguably a somewhat perfunctory effort by an establishment body to maintain its authority over a language that only gets more slippery the tighter we grip it. Perhaps Garland’s point here is simply that language is and always has been beyond our control.
In the beginning the language worked well:
named the body, spoke of birth
and love and death, the vigorous need for moving on.
Look, not so different from the old country after all –
terraces gone wild, narrow fields,
the trickle of water that could become a river.
We can make bricks from mud and straw,
a roof of plaited vines, grow wheat, bake bread.
There was a name for everything.
But as the children grew taller,
dissatisfied, wanting more,
the old belief broke down – that language worked
like bird-song, linking them
the way a lullaby, a thunderstorm,
are understood without translation.
Something new was needed: how else could
a roof-tile be described, electric-light,
a railway-train? What is a can of Coca-Cola?
Stumbling towards this brave new world,
the elders’ composites grew longer:
and still more difficult, messages-that
So the Academy was born.
Ten new words were ratified each week,
chanted in unison in all the schools.
But no-one could keep up:
the unstoppable children ran on
rapping, texting, surfing, streaming.
Now Professors of Linguistics study
yellowing box-files of the obsolete
in basements of the Public Libraries
while dazzling inventions flash by week on week –
wi-fi, satnavs, the blogosphere – and the old
fall silent, staring out of windows.
From The Invention of Fireworks (Templar, 2013). Reproduced with permission of the author.