Two Countries: Katrina Porteous, Bloodaxe

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Porteous tells us, in the introduction to this collection,  that the long poems in the book are a collage of scraps and fragments, “‘an archaeological assemblage of speech, song, litany and chant”, and that furthermore, most of these songs, litanies, chants are written in Northumbrian dialect which “eschew the personal element common to much contemporary poetry”.   The author adds that the poems are composed of sound rather than print, and are best understood as music. 

The musicality is apparent in many of the sections through the rhyme, and repetition. For example, from the long poem  ‘Dunstanburgh’:


     At the heart of the rock

     There’s a fault. There’s a crack.

     In the heart , in the soul

     There’s a splinter of glass.


     There’s a choice.

     There’s a choice.

     There’s a choice.

     There’s a choice.


But a book alone cannot truly be perceived as music - or perhaps “perceived” is not the right word. It can be perceived but not truly enjoyed. Only performance can make it so.  More and more, I feel poetry is returning to its aural, song, rhythm and chant roots. More and more, works like this require accompaniment and a live audience to be fully enjoyed. 

It is worth asking, at this stage, why writing in dialect is becoming fashionable.  I think it is safe to say that dialect as a poetic medium is becoming fashionable:  Kei Miller has just won the Forward prize with his book entitled The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion and Liz Berry won the Felix Dennis prize for best first collection with her book Black Country, both collections heavily reliant on poems containing dialect.

Translation of foreign language poetry into English is essential.  Without translation we English- speaking folk would not know the work of Neruda, of Akhmatova, of Tranströmer.

It is less easy to see the contribution of work expressed in dialect.  Highly localised speech patterns and idioms may tell us something about the nature of home, ideas of community (shared dialect = shared understanding of a shared identity). As a writer I understand these things. As a reader, however, I may find myself excluded rather than included. This does not relate to a lack of understanding on the level of intellect (“Are ye friend or are ye foe?”): rather it seems dialect is less about the human community to which we all ultimately belong, but more about a geographical and linguistic one, to which some of us may not.  Dialect is geographically highly localised, and can change within a distance of a few miles.

With regard to eschewing the “personal element common to much contemporary poetry”, the word “personal”,  when applied to poetry, sounds a warning bell.  This type of personal poetry, we worry, must be about the poet’s childhood, his or her arguments with mother, with husband/wife – maybe not as fascinating to others as to the writer. Sometimes for a reader a volume of “personal” poetry is a feeling of not being alone,  and sometimes it is a feeling of being a captive audience forced to listen to a whole pile of angst, that you wouldn’t normally listen to if you met this person in Starbucks. 

The word “personal” in poetry is increasingly used in a pejorative fashion.   But take away this “personal” element, and what are we left with?  A purely objective mind? Who among us possesses one of those? And even assuming that a poet is capable of being purely objective, what is the point of writing in dialect about a place and people, without any emotional investment?  On the contrary, to write in a dialect is not to eschew the personal, but rather, I feel, to insist upon it.

I know little about Northumberland, apart from the fact that it’s a very beautiful place, and I have visited Dunstanburgh castle and Berwick, and know that the borders have a very particular history of their own, away from and yet horribly and bloodily mixed up with both Scottish and English history. 


     So tangled up, their fortunes river-ravelled and impossible

     To separate


Many of the poems in this book are set within these beautiful and historically turbulent areas, and I loved that about them. But if I get a chance to hear the poems live, I think that would be better.


P.S.  Good news.   Bloodaxe have informed me that the e-book with audio version of Katrina Porteous’ Two Countries is available now, so the poems can be heard as well as read.

Frances Spurrier


Katrina Porteous, Two Countries, Bloodaxe, £12



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