It is probably less common today but it was once a part of one’s English classes to suffer through Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales. I say ‘suffer’ because in secondary school it was likely to have been perceived as boring and frustrating, but at university, when I first encountered it and was genuinely interested in learning something from it, it seemed far too difficult to even be considered boring. Thankfully, my knowledge of French helped me immensely: the grammatical structure of middle or Chaucerian English was fairly similar to that of modern French. Even the vocabulary looked more like French.
One might ask at this point, why attempt to read or study anything so difficult? Why not just read it in translation? Why bother at all? Quite simply, the way in which someone says or writes something can give us, as the reader, a great deal of information – particularly about a world far removed from our own. To experience or consume any work of art is to attempt to see things from the point of view of the producer, or artist.
The world as described in the poetry of Jamaican-born poet Linton Kwesi Johnson is not as far removed from my realm of experience as I would prefer, and yet I found myself in a similar position to the reading of Chaucer. Yet this time, I relied upon another language to jumpstart my comprehension of Johnson’s poetry – that of music, and rhythm.
This is no coincidence: Johnson clearly states that “I didn’t discover music… I was born with music, from the time I heard my heart beating.” As a child in rural Jamaica, he could hear drums and music systems set up for dances – miles away from where he resided. He even admits that he has a bass line at the back of his mind when he writes.
The language used in Mi Revalueshanary Fren which collects selected poems by Johnson spanning three decades is a mix of 17th-century colonial English, West African from the slaves, and a smattering of the indigenous Caribbean tribal dialects. It was not so long ago that varieties of English like this were considered inferior to the motherland’s English, but now people and academia are embracing such world varieties.
Like all consummate artists, Johnson writes about what he knows best – the double-edged sword that is colonial invasion. He spent most of his life in Britain, and has an academic background in sociology, but it is his personal experiences that he draws upon in his poetry. Despite having the sort of education that the black community in Britain was not encouraged to pursue, he remains in touch with his fellow immigrants and descendants thereof. Through his work, he communicates for them. He gives them a voice that they did not realise they were entitled to and did not have, particularly in the 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s.
Aside from the linguistic difficulties of his work, there is the emotional: this makes for disturbing reading most of the time. There are stories of calculated police brutality, violation of even the most basic of human rights and how the press sought to minimise coverage of the injustices suffered by the West Indian community centred in London. The images conjured are vivid to the point where the reader is forced to relive the experience.
One such poem that struck me in this manner is ‘Sonny’s Lettah’. Written from the point of view of a black man who finds himself incarcerated after killing a policeman in defence of his friend – a target of the police for wrongful vagrancy. You can actually listen to Johnson reading it online. The sections of the poem that seem most driven by a very obvious rhythm are the ones detailing the brutality of the police, and the men defending themselves.
One finds a similar thing in play in ‘New Crass Massakah’. Initially it starts off as being rhythmic because there is a party, which later on escalates into an act of unexpected atrocity:
'New Crass Massakah'
(to the memory of the fourteen dead)
first di comin
an di goin
in an out af di pawty
an di rubbin
and di rackin to di riddim
an di scankin
an di pawty really swingin
den di crash
an di bang
an di flames staat fi trang
an di smoke
an di people staat fi choke
and di cryin
and di diein in di fyah…
(LKJ, MRF, 52)
What starts off as a celebration of a 16-year-old (black) girl’s party in Deptford, London becomes a racially motivated arson attack to be played down by the media and subsequent criminal investigation. These are just a couple of examples that demonstrate what makes Johnson’s work so historically and culturally significant – it records the experience of Jamaican-born British immigrants, speaking for them when others would silence them. It is hardly surprising therefore that he is the second living poet (as well as the first black poet) to be included in Penguin Books’ Modern Classics imprint in the UK.
To coincide with the debut publication of Mi Revalueshanary Fren in the US, LKJ, as he is known to his fans, will be having a reading tour in selected cities throughout the States and anyone who is interested in this revolutionary man’s work is strongly encouraged to attend.
For those of us not quite so fortunate, Mi Revalueshanary Fren comes with a companion compact disc of Johnson reciting his poetry unaccompanied – this is essential if one truly wants to understand his body of work. Russell Banks’ introduction in the book is extremely well-written and informative, giving background on the poet and his work.
As mentioned in the beginning, the language isn’t always easy but the recording definitely helps, and enhances the reader’s experience and comprehension. Chaucer could tell a decent tale or two, but for now I’m inspired to discover more of LKJ’s work.