Oct. 26, 2004

Ode to American English

by Barbara Hamby

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Poem: "Ode to American English" by Barbara Hamby, from Babel © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

Ode to American English

I was missing English one day, American, really,
       with its pill-popping Hungarian goulash of everything
from Anglo-Saxon to Zulu, because British English
       is not the same, if the paperback dictionary
I bought at Brentano's on the Avenue de l'Opera
       is any indication, too cultured by half. Oh, the English
know their dahlias, but what about doowop, donuts,
       Dick Tracy, Tricky Dick? With their elegant Oxfordian
accents, how could they understand my yearning for the hotrod,
       hotdog, hot flash vocabulary of the U. S. of A.,
the fragmented fandango of Dagwood's everyday flattening
       of Mr. Beasley on the sidewalk, fetuses floating
on billboards, drive-by monster hip-hop stereos shaking
       the windows of my dining room like a 7.5 earthquake,
Ebonics, Spanglish, "you know" used as comma and period,
       the inability of 90% of the population to get the present perfect:
I have went, I have saw, I have tooken Jesus into my heart,
       the battle cry of the Bible Belt, but no one uses
the King James anymore, only plain-speak versions,
       in which Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead, says,
"Dude, wake up," and the L-man bolts up like a B-movie
       mummy, "Whoa, I was toasted." Yes, ma'am,
I miss the mongrel plenitude of American English, its fall-guy,
       rat-terrier, dog-pound neologisms, the bomb of it all,
the rushing River Jordan backwoods mutability of it, the low-rider,
       boom-box cruise of it, from New Joisey to Ha-wah-ya
with its sly dog, malasada-scarfing beach blanket lingo
       to the ubiquitous Valley Girl's like-like stuttering,
shopaholic rant. I miss its quotidian beauty, its querulous
       back-biting righteous indignation, its preening rotgut
flag-waving cowardice. Suffering Succotash, sputters
       Sylvester the Cat; sine die, say the pork-bellied legislators
of the swamps and plains. I miss all those guys, their Tweety-bird
       resilience, their Doris Day optimism, the candid unguent
of utter unhappiness on every channel, the midnight televangelist
       euphoric stew, the junk mail, voice mail vernacular.
On every boulevard and rue I miss the Tarzan cry of Johnny
       Weismueller, Johnny Cash, Johnny B. Goode,
and all the smart-talking, gum-snapping hard-girl dialogue,
       finger-popping x-rated street talk, sports babble,
Cheetoes, Cheerios, chili dog diatribes. Yeah, I miss them all,
       sitting here on my sidewalk throne sipping champagne
verses lined up like hearses, metaphors juking, nouns zipping
       in my head like Corvettes on Dexedrine, French verbs
slitting my throat, yearning for James Dean to jump my curb.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Pat Conroy, born in Atlanta, Georgia (1945). He's the author of several best-selling novels about dysfunctional Southern families, including The Great Santini (1976) and The Prince of Tides (1986). He grew up the oldest son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot. He said, "[My father] would make John Wayne look like a pansy." He and his siblings called his father as "Godzilla," and they frequently received beatings from him.

But his mother read Gone with the Wind to him as a little boy, and she told him stories about her aristocratic ancestors, even though she never had any. Conroy said, "She was poor white trash who spent her whole life denying it as bitterly and vehemently as she could...[she] was really the first fiction writer in the family."

For college, Conroy followed his father's wishes and went to the Citadel, a strict military academy in Charleston, South Carolina. He hated it there, and told his mother it was worse than living with his father. But he graduated in 1967, and became an English teacher.

He wanted to join the Peace Corps, but when that didn't work out he accepted a job teaching on a small island off the South Carolina coast, where the children had been isolated from the main land for so long that they didn't know they were Americans, didn't know the letters of the alphabet, didn't even know that the world was round.

Instead of using the assigned textbooks, Conroy decided to take his students on a series of field trips to his home town, to a basketball game, and to Washington D.C. The school fired him for failing to stick to the official curriculum. In response, he wrote a book about the experience, The Water Is Wide, which was published in 1972 and won several awards.

Conroy's first novel The Great Santini (1976) was loosely based on his own childhood, growing up with his father. It was a best-seller and became a popular movie, but Conroy's father didn't much care for it. He threw the book across the room when he was halfway through it. He liked it better after he saw the movie, and started autographing copies of his son's novel, signing his name as "the Great Santini."

Pat Conroy's most recent book is My Losing Season (2002) about his year playing basketball for the Citadel.

He said, "One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family."

It's the birthday of the playwright John Arden, born in Barnsley, England (1930). He's considered one of the most innovative English playwrights of the late twentieth century, the author of plays such as such as The Workhouse Donkey (1963) and Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1964). He grew up in an industrial part of England, where his father was the manager of a glass factory. In school, most of the other students were the children of factory workers, and they resented him for his family's affluence. He said, "My neat, clean clothes marked me as the enemy, and I was attacked in the street more than once."

He was bookish and well behaved until he joined the army. He said, "I began to meet soldiers who had been involved in funny little foreign wars. I heard a lot of stories which I found rather distressing and not what I thought the army was for." When he returned to civilian life, he got a job as an architect's assistant, but he began to write plays on the side that attacked British conformity.

He filled his plays with poetry, songs, dance and slapstick, even custard-pie fights. His first success was Live Like Pigs (1958) about a family of gypsies who move into an English housing development and drive their respectable neighbors crazy. He's best known for his play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959), about four deserters from the British army who try to persuade the local people in their town that war is pointless. The play was recently revived in England as a commentary on Britain's participation in the war on Iraq.

John Arden said, "Theater must celebrate noise, disorder, drunkenness, lasciviousness, nudity, generosity, corruption, fertility, and ease."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Andrew Motion, born in London (1952). He's best known for writing poems that tell long, involved stories about fictional characters in books such as Natural Causes (1987) and Salt Water (1997).

He was named Great Britain's Poet Laureate in 1999. His novel The Invention of Dr. Cake came out last year.

It's the birthday of essayist Scott Russell Sanders, born in Memphis, Tennessee (1945). He's the author of many books, including The Engineer of Beasts (1988) and Warm as Wool (1992).

He started out studying physics in college but switched to literature. He later said, "I have long been divided, in my life and in my work, between science and the arts...When I began writing in my late twenties, I wanted to ask, through literature, many of the fundamental questions that scientists ask."

His first book of essays was Stone Country (1985) in which he researched the limestone quarries in Indiana, the men who worked in them, and all the important American buildings that were made from that limestone, including The Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

It was on this day in 1881 that the most famous gunfight American Wild West took place: the shoot out at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. In 1881 Tombstone was one of the largest settlements between Kansas City and San Francisco, with a population of about 10,000. Wyatt Earp came to Tombstone from Dodge City, Kansas, where he had been a deputy marshal. He was surrounded by tall tales about his abilities as a gunfighter, but in fact, he was an effective marshal because he was able to keep order without having to fire his gun. He'd only ever killed one man in Dodge City.

He arrived in Tombstone with his three brothers, hoping to start a passenger and freight-hauling business. Unfortunately, two stage lines were already operating. So he dabbled in real estate, mine speculation and gambling. Eventually, he wound up back in law enforcement. He instituted an unpopular but effective gun control law inside city limits, which greatly reduced violent crime. But on the outskirts of the city a group of bandits lead the Clanton brothers and the Mclaurey brothers began robbing the Wells Fargo & Company stagecoaches.

Wyatt Earp wouldn't stand by as stagecoaches were robbed outside his city, so he demanded that the Clanton turn over the robbers. Instead, the Clantons and their associates the McLaurys came into town with their guns, violating the local ordinance, publicly challenging Wyatt Earp and his brothers to a fight.

The Clantons and the McLaurys took their stand in an empty lot in back of the O.K. Corral. The Earps, along with their friend Doc Holliday, approached the lot at about 2:45 in the afternoon on this day in 1881. No one ever determined who fired the first shots, but the result was a gunfight that left both McLaury brothers and one of the Clanton brothers dead. Wyatt and his brothers stood trial at an inquest, but they were acquitted.

That encounter would eventually be depicted in more than two dozen Hollywood movies, and it would usually serve as the climactic ending of those movies. In fact, it was just the first battle in what would become a drawn out gang war. One of Wyatt Earp's brothers was shot with a shotgun that following December, losing the use of his arm. A few months later, Earp's other brother was shot in the back while playing pool. Wyatt Earp spent the next several months hunting down and killing the men responsible, and then he fled to California with a murder warrant on his head.

He went on to become a successful businessman, and became friends with some famous people, including Jack London and Herbert Hoover. Teddy Roosevelt's secretary Stuart Lake wrote the first best-selling book about him: Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), which became the basis of the movie My Darling Clementine (1946), as well as the television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran from 1955 to 1961 and put Earp's name on toy pistols, comic books, and lunch boxes.

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