Terence Blacker: Language too rich for everyday use

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The Independent Online

It would be easy to portray the recent spat between Professor Geoffrey Hill and Carol Ann Duffy as one of those literary catfights in which the world of poetry seems to specialise. Hill, Oxford Professor of Poetry, belongs uncompromisingly to a cerebral and academic tradition, while Duffy, a superb Poet Laureate, is a communicator and a populist.

On this occasion, though, the row is more interesting and important. It is about the role of language and writing in an increasingly frenetic, chat-filled world. Launching Anthologise, a competition to encourage secondary school pupils to write poetry, Duffy spoke of poetry as the perfect medium for the Facebook generation. "It allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form," she said. In that sense, it is comparable to texting, saying more with less.

Professor Hill took issue. A text was not poetic because it was short, he argued. Turning to one of Duffy's poems, he suggested that her language was "not democratic English but cast-off bits of oligarchical commodity English such as is employed by writers for Mills & Boon".

Stripped of exaggeration (Facebook messages are a long way from poetry) and insult (Duffy's poetry is a long way from Mills & Boon), the disagreement is about whether careful, serious writing is an extension of everyday language or an escape from it.

Never have so many billions of words – personal, professional, romantic – been tapped out every day on to screens and keyboards. For reasons of speed, convenience and economy, it is often easier to write than to speak. It may be true, as Duffy says, that new modes of writing are being forced into existence by the busy fingers of the Facebook generation.

Professor Hill is right, though, to worry about what he calls "the linguistic semantic detritus of our particular phase of oligarchical consumerism". The more words are used hurriedly and casually to convey meaning, without feeling or nuance, the less weight they have. They are a means to an end. There is no room for subtlety; ambiguity is the enemy.

Our busy everyday chatter should not be allowed to infect that different kind of writing (real writing) which, with the right words in the right order, capture the complexity of a moment, a mood or a thought.

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