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This article is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

How Radio Works: Tom Raworth's Poetry 1 John Muckle

1: minutiae of sensibility

speak my language
dog1

How do we read these four words from Tom Raworth's poem of fragments 'The Conscience of a Conservative'? One of the first things we do is to naturalise them as speech. We ask ourselves who is talking. To me the four words sound like a quotation from a war film: a sadistic Gestapo interrogator slaps a stoical but quietly insolent Kenneth More, who continues to give only his name, rank and serial number - it's a serio-comic image of oppression and resistance which yields the further absurdity of demanding that a dog speak your language. Or we could imagine the ridiculously excessive anger sometimes shown by dog-owners towards their disobedient pets. Or we could imagine a dog talking, demanding that we speak its language for once. The first line, 'speak my language', is both command or exhortation, and implies a whole complex of ideas about the possession of language. It is abstract. It contains a contrast between parole and langue, bridged by that 'my'. 'Whose language do I speak?' it is already asking uncertainly, even anxiously.

The second line, 'dog', is a small noun of the order of George Oppen's 'small nouns/Crying faith/In this in which the wild deer/Startle, and stare out. '2 Oppen's deer are quite winsome creatures, with their aroused questioning look. Raworth's dog is emphatic, irreducible, a recalcitrant barking object, a concealed rock ...


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