Tag Archives: Linton Kwesi Johnson

80s Poetry By James Berry

The Winter 1989/90 issue of Poetry Review, the Poetry Society’s august organ, Vol. 79 No. 4, looked back over the 1980s with a number of poets looking back over the decade. This was when the Poetry Society was based in Earl’s Court and had little but sneers for spoken word. Most of the poets penning their opinions on the decade don’t get further than academia and the establishment but James Berry brings some welcome observations.

The ’80s expanded our vision a little. Fear, prejudice and injustice under attack, a little fresh consciousness seemed to emerge in the vision of our society’s institutions. They seem to have come round to looking at some cruelly excluded people’s situation. This means that protests, ongoing battles, struggles and clamours of past decades finally broke down some traditional race, sex, academic and general elite-barriers in the ’80s. Black people and women express increased participation in public life as in the arts, poetry writing reflects this.
For black writers who draw on a Caribbean culture, their participation on the British scene has meant that the narrow trail they ignited in the ’70s exploded widely in the ’80s. With their cultural distinctiveness, the Caribbean-background poets broke through and launched a poetry performance revolution. Best known as the main contributor to that enlivening of things is Linton Kwesi Johnson. In his role of both performer and recording artist Johnson’s voice rang from the ’70s to the 80’s. In his impact and influence, and with the poetry scene appearing to obviously need a fresh distinctive Black-British poet’s voice, Benjamin Zephaniah emerged.
Personally, as one of those writers whose poem was picked anonymously from thousands of entries – being the 1981 winner of the National Poetry Competition – when I was told I burst out with shocked laughter with the thrill and surprise of it. Then, later on, another pleasurable poetry involvement happened: being editor of News for Babylon working with Andrew Motion, then the Chatto Poetry Editor. To see that book arrive in print in 1984, all ready, with the work of 40 poets whose voices and experiences shared a book that had never come together before under the heading of Black-British poetry, I could hardly believe it. And still, the book makes me feel that getting it into print was a unique opportunity for me. But, also, Paula Burnett’s scholarly treatment of Penguin Caribbean Verses in 1986 amassed the overall wealth of Caribbean poetry from ‘oral’ to the ‘literary traditions’. It was good to see that self-imposed undertaking that got people’s voices together so wall as they trekked through a painful history. And now, also as editor, adding to his own prolific output, E.A. Markham works to let 1989 deliver Hinterland, the Bloodaxe Books Caribbean Verse. Significantly too, the year 1988 gave us Right of Way, some prose and poetry from the Asian Women Writers’ Workshop. Can we now look forward to a comprehensive anthology of Asian poets in Britain in the coming decade?
Released from a Russian labour camp in 1986, Irina Ratushinskaya came to Britain and brought the opportunity to hear her readings and feel the unusual spirit that appears from he work.
While poetry on TV has stayed with the comic stuff and the non-appearance of serious or simply straight contemporary writing – not given space like, say, music is – those exceptions of Derek Walcott on the South bank Show, filmed in the Caribbean, and Tony Harrison’s BBC programme ‘The Blasphemer’s Banquet’ for Salmon Rushdie exposed samples of the word art that the public was denied ordinarily, and also showed the success a wholehearted commitment to poetry can achieve. And, with radio, giving the format and space it has come to allow ‘Time for Verse’. Radio 4 has made popular radio look as if it wants to stop being condescending with the poetry it offers its listeners.
Of all the poetry books of the decade I have looked at, bought and read, none has won my admiration as much as Voices Within the Ark. Edited by Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf and published by Avon Books, New York, 1980, this amazing international anthology received that kind of unflinching commitment which brought 350 modern Jewish poets together from over 40 nations and coped with translations from more than 20 languages.

James Berry

Political Poetry

“You don’t have to be a poet, but a citizen you must be.”

This line is from ‘The Poet and the Citizen’ by Nikolai Nekrasov, written in 1856. The poem is a response to Pushkin’s ‘The Poet and the Crowd’ and written two decades after Pushkin’s death in 1837.
There is still much discussion about political poetry, can poetry be political?, can poetry change anything?
Ranting poetry was frequently political, and this continues on with Poetry on the Picket Line. I also think that who the audience for poetry is can often be political. Several poets who’ve done Poetry on the Picket Line gigs have asked should the poems they read be political? My response is that standing on a picket line to read poems is political in itself. The poems can be funny, romantic, whimsical… but it’s where you are reading them and to whom that is the political act.
There is plenty of working class poetry on this blog; from Chartists, to Black Panthers, prisoners, Ranters and Dub Poets. It’s interesting that Ranters and Dub Poets have been labelled separately in recent years whilst in the 80s it wasn’t a given distinction. We were all poets who read together, struggled together, and supported each other. One thing I personally got from poets like LKJ and Michael Smith was that if a poem in Caribbean voice could say so much and hit so hard; so could one in a Cockney, Manchester, Yorkshire one. The politics was in a working class person writing, and reading, to and for a working class audience.
The words are important, and poetry galvanises us as well as shares our voice, but actions are more important. I’ve never been one to knock on the doors of the Academy for acceptance. We’ve never been overlooked, we’re outside because that is where they want us. It’s telling to see so many poets looking to the literary establishment rather than building their own.
Linton Kwesi Johnson started writing poetry in formal English, he then switched to his own Jamaican voice. He says that one of his inspirations for doing this was Marcus Garvey who promoted people doing things for themselves. Burning Spear was a big fan too.
There are plenty of young poets doing solid work as poets and people, but given the amount of ‘woke’ young people at slams and poetry readings, and pouring forth on the interwebs, it’s a puzzle that the country, and the US too – it’s where most of Slam’s politics come from – has steadily got worse.
Lest this ends on a depressing tone, I’ll stay true to my own ‘Down with miserablism’ beliefs: to all the young ‘uns doing the do and fighting the fight – keep on keeping on. Forward ever, backward never.

LKJ – Peel Session

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s first Peel session was broadcast on 8th May 1979. John Peel introduced it by saying: “You might possibly accuse us of paying a kind of woolly Babylonian lip service to liberalism, but you couldn’t accuse Linton Kwesi Johnson of doing so, and that’s the important thing”

Down Di Road – Want Fi Goh Rave – It Dread Inna Inglan – Sonny’s Lettah – Reality Poem

Creation For Liberation

Two documentaries, the first from 1979 and the second from 1981 produced by the Cultural Media Collective (CMC) Amsterdam, Netherlands
The first is a celebration of the 10th anniversary (1969 – 1979) of Bogle-L’Ouverture Bookshop and Publishing House, in London, featuring dance, music — including blues singer Jimmy James — and two poems by reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, inter-cut with a discussion about the role of the black community in Britain . Linton’s ‘Dread Beat and Blood’ was published by Bogle-L’Ouverture in 1975. The first book they published, in 1972, was “The Groundings with my Brothers” by the Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney, former professor in African History at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, who returned to Guyana from Tanzania in 1974, and was murdered in Georgetown on 13 June 1980 .
Creation for Liberation Part Two. (1981) “Reflections in Red” is the second part of CFL, and deals with the April 1981 riots in Brixton, a borough in south London, with 30 percent sub-standard housing– mainly inhabited by black council tenants — few social amenities and a high unemployment rate. Added to this social deprivation was the attitude of the Metropolitan Police, and the heavy-handed use of the SUS laws to stop and search young blacks. An area known as the Frontline became the battleground. n 1978 the Special Patrol Group (SPG) sealed off the Frontline and searched everybody entering or leaving the area, one of several operations by the police intended to intimidate the Frontline community. Tension between the local community and the police increased in the week leading up to the riots. At 23h00 on Friday, 3 April the Frontline area around Lesson and Dexter Roads was sealed off by the police and 20 arrests were made. Throughout the following week “Operation Swamp 81” continued with 1,000 people, mainly black youths, stopped and searched. On Friday 10 April, around 5pm, a young black with a knife wound was arrested by the police. However, a group of local people managed to free the youth and he was taken to a nearby hospital. The following day the police occupied the Frontline, sitting in vans every 50 meters waiting for something to happen, and “Reflection in Red” with music by Jamaican dub poet Oku Onuora, illustrates what happened next, with footage of police, crounched behind perspex shields being forced to retreat under a hail of stones and petrol bombs. This wasn’t a race riot, as one black youth interviewed on Dexter Road explains, it was a riot against the police and the system. And his remarks and the complaints from other residents about the attitude of the police are remarkably similar to those expressed by visitors to the Bogle -L’Ouverture bookshop two years earlier. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, David McNee blamed the riots on “outside agitators” who brought petrol bombs into the area — a rather patronising remark, suggesting that the local black people couldn’t even organise a riot. “Reflection in Red” also contains footage of a demonstration outside County Hall in London where the inquest into the deaths of 13 black teenagers in a house fire during a party in New Cross was being held. The demonstation was to highlight the racist element in the New Cross fire, something the Metropolitan Police either played down, or deliberately ignored when investigating attacks on the black community. In November 1981 a retired judge, Lord Scarman, produced a report into the Brixton riots which reached an obvious conclusion, namely that “racial disadvantage is a fact of current British life” and he warned that “urgent action is needed if it is not to become an endemic, ineradicable disease, threatening the very survival of our society.” Twelve years later another retired judge, Lord Macpearson, produced a report into the 1993 murder of black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, stabbed to death at bus-stop in London by a group of white racist thugs, and concluded that “institutional racism” had influenced the initial investigation by the Metropolitan Police into the still-unsolved crime.

Apples And Snakes Anthology

The first anthology from Apples and Snakes gets a review in Jamming!, number 21, October, 1984. Funnily enough it’s an anthology that at times when Salena Godden and I are drunk we get the book of the shelf and play “Where are they now?”
Also reviewed are books by Adrian Mitchell and an anthology of West Indian poetry edited by James Berry. There’re a few poems from readers too.

Laurels And Hardy Poets

A look at the role of the Poet Laureate from Marxism Today, 4 July, 1984. Michelene Warner was writing shortly after the death of encumbant Sir John Betjeman, she’s a bit off as to her tips as Ted Hughes, who she described as being ‘deeply murky’ and ‘too steamy for the royal guardian of Parnassus’ got the job. She also thinks that ‘no woman has ever held the post, nor indeed will’ whilst things have moved on and we have Carol Anne Duffy as Laureate at present, and one who’s making good use of the position.

FOCUS
LAURELS AND HARDY POETS

Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate since 1972, died on May 19,1984. The newspapers and other media have been full of tributes to his popularity as a poet, a mild man, living simply in Cornwall, keen on lawns and cricket and the calm values of suburbia in his poetry. A man, also, who took an active role in the preservation of Victorian and other buildings of genuine architectural interest. An Anglican, Godfearing, and presumably sufficiently monarch-loving man. The tributes skate lightly over the sub-doggerel he produced in the line of royal duty; and they also don’t bother to mention the convention of the British gentleman’s sexist leering at women which were so integral to his Sunday afternoon poetry. It is absolutely true that he caught at a very powerful part of the middle-brow British imagination, and his popularity in sales terms (a quarter of a million books even before the Royal appointment) testifies to the mass of that imagination.
The many tributes that have appeared, and no doubt will continue to appear, show just respect to one of the Grand Old Men of British poetry, for of course male is exactly what they are. Despite the fact that the names of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were whispered around the nineteenth century as possibles for the Laureateship, no woman has ever held the post, nor indeed will. And anyway, if it is really the anachronism it appears to be, with no real state function in its own right, and certainly with no significant relationship to the rest of poetry scene, whether a man or a woman holds the post is entirely irrelevant.
The only minimal virtue the post has is the media attention it draws upon the two occasions of the appointing and the death of the Laureate. At those times a scattering of other establishment poetic names hit the press, a few more books by the already successful poets are sold, the bookmakers get their books out, bets are laid, words are exchanged between Buck House and the Arts Council, and there is a new appointee.
The current favourite is Philip Larkin, and by all that’s logical he should get it. Despite his more bleak outlook — he lacks the jolly hockey-sticks legacy of Betjeman’s upper-middle-class background — he carries the flag of lace-curtain suburbia high, along with a suitably repressed British sexuality. Others — such as the deeply murky Ted Hughes, and the barrack-room ribaldry of civvie street Gavin Ewart — are altogether a bit too steamy for the royal guardian of Parnassus.
Candidates who have not even appeared on the list of possibles are worth mentioning only to indicate where the taboos fall. If, for example, we wanted an articulate, moving and also sardonic satirist, it is Roger Woddis we should be after; but he is altogether too (sshh) political (I mean left-wing) to be acceptable. Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke, the two giants who have emerged through the 1970s as rhythmic and socially critical wordsmiths, both brilliant performers, both showing a streetwise verbal richness in their different ways that is highly original — well, too crude, too rude, too clever. In the very olden days satirists and political
commentators were acceptable to a degree: Ben Jonson, though not strictly speaking Poet Laureate, was certainly paid to write masques, and the first official Poet Laureate was John Dryden.
Any genuine political poetry was made tacitly impossible by the Poet Laureate who has the worst reputation: the nineteenth-century Alfred Austin, whose first public act of loyalty was to write the most appalling clip-clop doggerel in praise of the abortive raid in the Transvaal, led by Dr Jameson against the Boers. Austin’s crime was not the badness of the poem, but the fact that he expressed what was probably the real jingoism of the government of the day, who were acutely embarrassed by the Raid — not by the fact that it had happened, but by the fact that it had failed. Queen and government were right behind Cecil Rhodes and his expansion in Africa, and it was the humiliating failure that made Austin’s jingoism so embarrassing.
More important than the Laureateship itself is the state today of the art of which he (sic) is thought to be the head. Despite the recent small rumble of cabaret poetry, Betjeman’s period has been marked by an actual decline in resources for poetry. In the late 60s and early 70s there were many small poetry presses, and a great variety of material being published. Through a mixture of exhaustion, increased costs and withdrawal of subsidy, many of these have disappeared. Magazines which used to appear regularly now only appear very occasionally. The establishment of poets in residence is under threat because of the cuts. The major publishing houses cut back on poetry publishing in the mid-late 70s, and have a long way to go before they can return to some of the variety of a decade ago. The result is that the poetry ‘establishment’ is again — as it was in the mid-60s — in the hands of a small number of literary gentlemen, most of whom fetishise lack of feeling and lack of commitment to anything more than small and cautionary experience.
It is not just a matter of more money for poetry — though that would always be nice. It is also something to do with the way poetry is simultaneously revered as the highest of the arts, and treated as its Cinderella, by the literary establishment. In left-wing journalism poetry is feared or dismissed as bourgeois individualism and
discounted by radical publishers as ‘not selling’; and meanwhile all good radicals and true scribble away their closet poetry — or their closet novels.
The extraordinary thing is that poets keep emerging and poetry continues to be written. The fact that it will never die as a literary form which speaks from and to the most intimate of personal/political feeling, and the fact that it is through poetry that the meanings in language and imagery are flexed and tested, should not mean that we should not be concerned about the material ways in which poetry is distributed and encouraged. And the dazzle of the Laureate’s crown will not make any difference at all to this.

Michelene Wandor