"Polari," from the Italian "polare" ("to talk") is a coded
language, originating in the U.K. and dating as far back as the
16th century. Overheard in outdoor markets, the theatre,
fairgrounds, and circuses, it was appropriated by gay men to
provide them with cover as well as with a way to assert personal
and shared identities. It spread around the English-speaking world
via the Royal Navy, the merchant marine, and cruise ships, adding
and subverting many foreign-language words -- like polari -- along
While "Polari" does not employ this jargon or probe its success
as a mode of connection between gay men, the language of Barton's
poems may be viewed as an effective tool for communicating a sense
of history, politics, and aesthetics. Think of "Polari" as a
cross-sectional scan of a living tree that reveals ring after ring
of Barton's experience of language, with the new buds at the tips
of its branches adding colour, movement, and ornament.
Most of these poems were written using set forms drawn from
Robin Skelton's "The Shapes of our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide
of Verse Forms and Metres from Around the World" (Spokane: Eastern
Washington University Press, 2002). While the forms Barton has
appropriated are not by themselves the vehicles of a particular
sociolect or an anti-language, except, say, of poetry itself, he
have nevertheless twisted them to follow the turns of his point of
view and aesthetics.
When it comes to time, geography, and subject, "Polari" covers a
lot of ground: from child memories to the frailties and deaths of
ageing parents; from Queen Victoria's coronation to the first
ascent of Everest; from the October Crisis to the trial of Omar
Khadr. The titles of nine poems are borrowed from the Diagram
Prize, an award given out by the U.K. magazine, "The Bookseller,"
for the oddest book title of the year. The titles chosen -- an
example is "Highlights in the History of Concrete" -- may sound
frivolous, even absurd, but the poems are less or more so. The
serious nature of their themes being at odds with their titles
gives them an engaging tension, and will be read as signature of
his particular brand of polari.
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