The JRB Poetry Editor Rustum Kozain reviews David Austin’s new book Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution, finding it a boon for any scholar, student or obsessed fan of this mighty poet.
Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution
Pluto Press, 2018
Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution, David Austin’s monograph on the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson (popularly known as LKJ), is a most welcome book for several reasons. It is the first published, book-length study of one of the most important poets to have emerged in the English-speaking world in the late-twentieth century (from the nineteen-seventies onwards), a poet whose past and present work can teach us much, not only about the world, but about aesthetics—and the need for craft—in left political poetry. The book is also an important contribution to the field broadly and variously known as ‘Black aesthetics’, ‘Black Atlantic’ and ‘Diaspora’ studies. More specifically, the book adds to explorations of reggae aesthetics, extending, for instance, to work such as Kwame Dawes’s Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic (1999).
Amidst the ongoing Windrush scandal, which disgraces the British government, Austin’s book also gives life—through its discussions of Johnson’s evolution as activist and poet in the context of nineteen-seventies and eighties Britain, and as Johnson’s work itself does—to second generation or post-Windrush Caribbeans in the UK.
Following World War II and the British Nationality Act of 1948, which granted UK citizenship to its colonial subjects, Britain embarked on a campaign to create a cheap labour pool for its expanding health, transport and hospitality industries. In short, British authorities encouraged immigration from their colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, the first large group from the Caribbean arriving on the ship Empire Windrush in 1948 (anticipating the passage of the Nationality Act). While not born in the UK, LKJ (who was born in 1952) moved to London in 1963 to join his mother, and soon became the voice of second-generation West Indians: a younger generation, born in Britain, who rejected their parents’ quietist attitude to racist oppression in the UK, adopting instead open defiance and confrontation of repressive state forces. As LKJ put it in 1978:
Maggi Tatcha on di go
wid a racist show
but a she haffi go
an’ Black British
stan firm inna Inglan
inna disya time yah
far noh mattah wat dey say,
come wat may,
we are here to stay
inna disya time yah …
—’It Dread inna Inglan’, off the 1978 album Dread Beat an’ Blood
Austin’s book should also be seen, then, as an indirect counter to the ‘hostile environment’ policies of Theresa May’s government and its anti-immigrant racism in the UK. The contribution to English poetics, tout court, of someone like LKJ, of Jamaican descent, can hardly be gainsaid, and is a cultural reminder of the contribution to British society, through their labour and otherwise, of people now arbitrarily, scandalously and inhumanely robbed of their citizenship.
The book is also something of a delight to me, if I may be allowed a personal digression. I started listening to LKJ’s poetry in 1980, when we were out on national school boycotts protesting the injustices of apartheid education. Reggae came to be a source of education and inspiration to some of us rapidly-politicised teenagers, helping us understand apartheid as part of a system of oppression in continuity with New World slavery and colonialism. But it was impossible to get any or much information on LKJ in South Africa then—it was pre-internet, and music magazines were beyond my schoolboy’s budget. Even at university, when I got to do research on LKJ in the early nineteen-nineties, sources—like Race Today, a magazine he co-edited with Darcus Howe—were difficult to come by. Over the last decade or so, information about LKJ has become available everywhere and is overwhelmingly manifold, a situation as maddening as when it was scarce. Austin’s book is thus valuable because it collates and references LKJ-related material—his legwork thus a boon for any scholar, student or obsessed fan of this mighty poet.
Before discussing the immediate influences on LKJ’s early development as activist, thinker and poet, Austin sets off—understandably, but perhaps a little disappointingly—by discussing poetry as the production of the poet as visionary, as someone who sees new possibilities beyond what is possible in the present. It is a fulsome discussion of both the connections between LKJ’s poetry and the philosophical underpinnings of the work of the early anti-colonial tradition on the one hand (Glissant, CLR James, Césaire, Fanon, to name a few), and also, on the other hand, of the place of LKJ the poet as ‘seer or soothsayer’ in a tradition that reaches back to the biblical Isaiah, to poets John Milton and William Blake, and forward to poets like Mahmoud Darwish, Amiri Baraka, Tupac, and others. It is the prefatory work Austin needs to prop up the object under scrutiny, a way of legitimising the poet and poetry, of justifying the reason for writing a book about the poet. It is clear why Austin does it.
In a following chapter, he mentions some critics’ disapproval of LKJ’s book Mi Revalueshanary Fren, published in the Penguin Modern Classics series in 2002—only the second time that a living poet has had this honour. To these critics, LKJ’s work is not ‘serious literary work’ and the poet is seen as ‘an oddity or novel curiosity rather than a serious poet’. My disappointment is not with Austin, but with a societal context in which work on a poet of LKJ’s stature and power still needs to be justified in this way. Notwithstanding whatever political reasons disapproving critics may have, and their ignorance regarding how their own aesthetic benchmarks of ‘serious literary work’ are historical and not some fixed Platonic ideal, LKJ is a poet whose work has captured a range of human experience and utterance—from politically trenchant call to arms (‘Fite dem back’), to the tender rumination of a son mourning a father’s passing (‘Reggae fi Dada’) or a comrade grieving the suicide of a fellow activist (‘Reggae fi May Ayim’). His aesthetics come from a different place and from a deep tradition—reggae, African-Caribbean folklore, as well as the sonic and rhythmic qualities of Jamaican patois. Sometimes even an echo of the urban modernism of TS Eliot may be heard (‘Street 66’). If LKJ’s aesthetic system—what Austin describes as ‘dread dialectics’—is unintelligible to some critics, it is a shortcoming on their part, not on the part of the poetics at play.
It is for this reason that I insist that LKJ’s poetry has enriched English-language poetics, here thinking of ‘English’ poetics as a global phenomenon and as the possession of all who speak a dialect of that language, whether mutually intelligible among the speakers on the very long, global linguistic continuum or not. For a long time now, English has been wrested from its Anglo-Saxon roots in a particular geographical region and made and re-made into a language that can answer the full linguistic needs of humans in a range of dialects across the world. And whatever we call the range of language LKJ uses in his poetry—Jamaican, Jamaican Patwa or vernacular, Jamaican or Caribbean Creole—it is a dialect of English.1 Even in England, an English literary patrimony no longer belongs only to a narrow, ethno-nationalistically defined speaker.
Another way of looking at Austin’s ‘justification’, though, is to think of his book as a sign that people are again—still?—looking for a vitality (or, in Austin’s terms, dread) in radical culture beyond the desiccated posture of a postmodernism denuded of any substance. It is a hope more fully addressed in the last chapter of the book. But early on as well, Austin is concerned not only with LKJ’s antecedent influences—a wide and deep array, stretching from the Bible and Blake through Louise Bennett and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, toasters U-Roy and the original ‘mighty poet’ I-Roy, to roots reggae and Rastafarianism, the British Black Panther movement, and Césaire and Fanon, to name only a few—but also with younger poets influenced by LKJ. In d’bi.young anitafrika’s work, for instance, Austin sees a conversation with and critique of LKJ, paying homage to his work, while also ‘demasculating’ or reclaiming the militancy traditionally associated with dub-poetry as male preserve. Part of the project of this book, indeed, is to look at popular culture for a more serious but hopeful critique of where humanity finds itself at present.
Central to Austin’s consideration of LKJ’s work is his theorising around the concept of ‘dread’, a Rastafarian term taking off from its standard English meaning and adding to it a biblical, apocalyptic sense of foreboding. ‘Dread’ can also just mean a Rastafarian person (‘dreadlocks’, one who inspires dread, hopefully in agents of Babylon). In some uses, the word is voided of foreboding and fear, and can be a celebration, as in the Black Slate song ‘Dread in the house’: ‘Dread, dread is inna di house/ Rastafari is inna di house’ (Sirens in the City, 1981). A situation can thus be ‘dread’ in a good way, but in most cases, dread proper carries a meaning of foreboding beyond semantic description. Rastafarians and roots reggae aficionados know dread, but can explain it only by pointing to it in a bass line or in the timbre, say, of LKJ’s voice. ‘Street 66’, discussed by Austin alongside ‘Reggae Sounds’ and ‘Bass Culture’, is filled with this dread—the slightly slow tempo, the bass line (in roots music, always the bass), the harmonica (typically melancholic, but here heavy with dread) and LKJ’s voice, itself often dreader than dread, ‘even more dread than what the breeze of glory bread’.2
But while I can see what Austin is gesturing at here—a way to understand, describe or delineate the aesthetic that underlies LKJ’s poetry, an aesthetic that has as its base an explicit political sentiment—I remain unsure whether the notion of a ‘dread dialectic’ helps fully to illuminate the ‘feel’ of LKJ’s work any more than the old ‘marriage’ of form and content that Bertolt Brecht proposed in his dialogue with Theodor Adorno—a ‘broken’ theatre for the irruptions of the twentieth century being more realistic, in Brecht’s view, than nineteenth century Realism. How does one explain the enigma of LKJ’s magnetism? Is it even possible to explain it? As with dread, there is something in LKJ’s work—as in most serious art—that escapes the symbolic order, that cannot be nailed down in the logic of language but must forever remain elusive, or caught in tautology, like the mythic Ouroboros.
In any event, the second half of the book presents close readings of selected poems from LKJ’s later albums—Making History, Tings an’ Times and More Time—and is exhaustive in contextual and interpretive exegesis, showing off, again, Austin’s depth of research into his subject matter. As someone who still listens to LKJ’s poetry almost every day, I found these chapters illuminating in the contextual information they provide, as well as inspiring in terms of the critical vigour and verve with which the poems are approached. The LKJ that emerges from this discussion is, unsurprisingly, a total artist, one not predisposed to writing poems based on a bucket list of apparently urgent topics deliberately chosen, but one who lives his politics and, when he writes, writes because something is under his skin or in his blood.
I recommend this book, important for finally bringing focused critical scrutiny to bear on a major poet and hopefully opening up further sustained attention on LKJ, not simply as the individual poet, but as an example of how the poetics of English has changed and is changing. British establishment critics may still dread the idea that the author of ‘All Wi Doin is Defendin’ and ‘Inglan is a Bitch’ is published as a Penguin Modern Classic, but there he is. At the same time, we shouldn’t lose sight of the paradox that an anti-establishment poet is now, slowly but surely, being incorporated into the establishment. Does it change the establishment, or does it change our sense of the poet?
A hallmark of LKJ’s poetry for me has always been the ring of authenticity I find in his work, but I am simultaneously curious about this literary quality we call authenticity. How does LKJ’s work—most often in Jamaican vernacular, by a Briton who is university educated—trouble our sense of the authentic? What governs the variation or choice between standard and a discernibly ‘more authentic’ vernacular in his poetry. And how do we read this question in conjunction with the modern classic he has become?
1. Austin has a different view. Simplifying his argument, he thinks of it, in general, as African (Akan) in syntax, with an English lexicon grafted onto it.
My own views on the labels used to describe Jamaican and Caribbean versions of English rest on the initially pejorative terms of ‘pidgin’ and ‘creole’, terms I believe have been neutralised as descriptive terms by sociolinguists working in the nineteen-eighties and onwards. They describe processes in the development of a language from lingua franca where people don’t share a common language (the pidgin), to that lingua franca becoming a mother tongue for the children born into that context (the creole). Pidgins and creoles are as a rule bound as any other version of a particular language, ‘rule’ here being a descriptive term for the pattern by which simplification or other changes happen in any particular version of language, rather than the prescriptive rules as found in a grammar textbook. ‘Pidgin’ and ‘creole’ thus describe objective linguistic process, even as, in the popular mind, alas, the terms still carry the connotations, respectively, of ‘simple-minded’ and ‘mixed’ (impure).
In South Africa, the history of Afrikaans is a good example. With Dutch as the base in a slave society, where there was no mutually intelligible language among people brought here as slaves from diverse parts of the world, and in a situation where slaves had to learn, willy-nilly, the foreign language of the master, a simplified version of Dutch acts as lingua franca—the pidgin. When the children of slaves learn that language as a mother tongue, it is called a creole. The hijacking through codification of this creole—producing dictionaries, developing prescriptive rules in grammars, translating religious texts—paves the way by which it becomes a standard (now Afrikaans), when those who codified it gain political and economic power.
At the base of this is an understanding that all languages have dialects and that the standard version of a language is just one of those dialects. The position of a standard dialect as the authoritative version of a language is dependent on extra-lingual factors. It has nothing to do with any inherent quality of the dialect; rather, its prestige comes from the power and associated prestige of its speakers. Even the dialect known as ‘the Queen’s English’ (British Standard English) has creole roots, developing out of the Germanic base of the Angles and Saxons, and taking in Latin and Norman influences.
2. There’s uncertainty about ‘than what the breeze of glory bred/bread’. Syntactically, as it stands, it suggests that the verb is ‘bred’ (past tense of breed). But the scenario described in the poem suggests a ‘session’, in which marijuana would have been smoked. My reading of this line considers the smell of marijuana, often demonised, used here as a harbinger of dread, and ‘glory bread‘ can be a synonym for ‘lamb’s bread’, a strain of marijuana: ‘Even more dread than … what, the breeze of glory bread.’