Register, or how I offend people

by isabelrogers

Register: it’s a slippery thing in language. I’ve spent a lot of time recently with my head in a poem, either writing or editing one of my own, or reading the far superior stuff written by other people [yesterday I revisited an old favourite, Ian Duhig’s The Lammas Hireling, which still takes my breath away now as much as when it won the National Poetry Competition in 2000].

I’ve been thinking about this because of current giddiness here. After a spell of concentrating solely on writing my novel – basically bricking myself up into a wall – I sneaked a few poems out into competitions and submitted to magazines. One was shortlisted by Live Canon last month, another is due to be published next month (frustratingly embargoed news until then), and when I screwed up the guts to do an open-mic at the Troubadour they liked it and have asked me back to be part of an official spot in December.

I wonder whether this constant and intense exposure to the raw edge of words is cauterizing my subtlety about communication. But that is counter-intuitive: you’d think if you wrangle with words all the time you’d get more attuned to their effects, not less. But is it more like a nose used to eau de parfum failing to distinguish the grades of nuance in eau de Cologne? I could be setting myself permanently to “drench” instead of “mist” in the communication shower we all take every day. I could use metaphors inappropriately. Anything could happen.

But surely being aware of different registers by definition makes me better at using them? I wouldn’t try to talk about synecdoche or thematic imagery with the petrol station attendant. That is confined to me saying ‘no’ with increasing volume and irritation: do I have a loyalty card? Would I like a coffee with that? Do I need a receipt? Would I like a chocolate bar 2-for-1 deal? BOG OFF! Protesting too much just doesn’t cut it in that situation.

Deep breath.

Where was I? Handling registers is all about noticing cues from different situations. It is what humans are socialized to do. If you don’t, you are labelled rude, absent-minded or shunned as socially uncomfortable. Or become a petrol station attendant. As a parent I get used to switching between splitting up a sibling fight and concentrating on precisely the best verb to insert into a sentence. I am generally chirpy on Twitter. My poems lurch between idiotic rhymed jokes and heavy stuff about double murders or heartbreak. My first novel had a lot of Nietzschean philosophy and a suicide, and quite possibly needed more jokes. Wasn’t published. Register, you see? Ignore it at your peril.

PS: If you liked The Lammas Hireling, you can see a nine minute film by Paul Casey made from it here. It is hauntingly beautiful. And no, Ian isn’t paying me and doesn’t know I’m turning this post into a fanzine.