Exploring language in protest poetry

An exploration of language in John Agard’s “Listen Mr Oxford Don” and Benjamin Zephaniah’s “No rights Red an Half Dead”.

Poetry conveys ideas and emotions through the vivid and imaginative use of language. In John Agard and Benjamin Zephaniah’s poems, I would argue that language is both the means and the message. Both poets deviate very cleverly from standard English, Agard to explore language ownership and ethnicity, and Zephaniah to vividly potray the discrimination perpetrated against non-standard speakers of English, often ignored or hidden behind conventional language.

In “Listen Mr. Oxford Don“, John Agard uses literary device to create two contrasting voices: one is the addressee “Oxford don“, an allusion to both academia and the dictionary, and the other is the speaker, an uneducated immigrant as suggested by the Caribbean Creole “me not no Oxford don“. The alliteration and half-rhyme in “graduate” and “immigrate” suggest that a person can be either one or the other: educated or an immigrant, not both.  While Agard himself defies this cliché, being of Afro-Guyanese origin and a respected member of British academia, his poem also turns it on its head, hiding dictionary references – such as “conscise peaceful man” –  and cleverly misspelling them to both celebrate and challenge the cliché. Knowledge of Agard’s background thus helps the reader to understand that he is playing with expectations and the rules of conventional poetry, as many other protest poets do. In his protest, he mixes freewheeling, grammarless verse with traditional metre to challenge accepted linguistic stereotypes in Britain.  This disruption of convention extends to rhythm and rhyme, used to build up and pick apart the stereotype. The alliteration in Clapham Common for example, adds a calypso rhythm to complete the “simple” picture, but Agard then switches it to a more menacing beat with the refrain “man on de run“, the rhyme with “dangerous one“, and alliteration in “de run” and “dangerous” to evoke images of a runaway criminal’s heavy feet pounding on the street.  Almost hearing the heavy breathing in the background, the reader is reminded how speakers of non-standard English are often perceived as knife-wielding, gun-touting criminals. This is immediately mocked as Agard switches to rhyming couplets, juxtaposing instruments of offence – “axe/hammer” with instruments of language – “ syntax/ grammar” showing not only how well the speaker understands the mechanics of English, but also that the only crime being committed is on language. The “violent man” is armed with nothing but “human breath“, an interesting irony so soon after the breathless imagery evoked earlier. Standard court-room or legal jargon are similarly mimicked in the alliterative  “rhyme to riot” and in the clever play on words in “jail sentence” to comment that the only attack – or onomatopoeic and significant “slashing” – is an innocent one on the “Queen’s English“. In this clever use of personification,  immigrants are accused of assaulting the two most respected institutions of the academic upper class: the Queen and their language.

In “No Rights Red and Half Dead” Benjamin Zepheniah writes a similar kind of protest poetry but from a different perspective. Zepheniah was born in Britain to immigrant parents, had a difficult childhood and was not part of academic establishment. He writes from his own experience of prejudice as a child on the “outside” with knowledge of tensions between the black British community and the police in 1980s Britain, as compared to Agard’s ironic take from the “inside”. Zephaniah aimed to challenge the “dead image that academia had given poetry” (Zephania, 2013) rather than attacking academia itself. He uses his power of expression to reveal the very real underworld of discrimination experienced by immigrants on the streets, as opposed to the non-crime and imagined danger in “Listen Mr Oxford Don“.

No rights Red an Half Dead” features more standard verse form with a regular rhyme scheme – 8-line verses with alternate lines of eight and six syllables and alternate rhymes –  but in the same dialect voice as Agard from the opening line: “dem drag him to de police van“. The contrast for the reader between regular metre and irregular English mirrors the shock experienced by the speaker as he witnesses brutal events under the guise of normal order. The strength of the rhymes add to this, leaving no doubt about the speaker’s anger that the “ugly sight” witnessed “was not right” and that the only “fight” was in self-defence, perhaps from police street politics, or “some bad politrick”, as Zepenaniah empathically ends the second verse. It is again clear that literary canon is being distorted but unlike Agard, who uses poetic technique playfully to address linguistic stereotypes, Zephaniah uses it powerfully to draw a visual picture of the consequences of ethnic discrimination. He describes the “bloody head” of someone who had been “beaten up” and had “pissed his pants“, using strong language to paint a strong picture. The repeated references to blood for example paint a gory picture but are also part of Zephaniah’s equally clever manipulation of meaning as he mixes the visual: blood and red, with the pronunciation of the language: red and read in the title “No rights Red an Half Dead“,  tying it to the emphatic “bloody blind” at the end to emphasize the physical brutality and his anger at society’s ignoring of it.  The use of alliteration such as this, or in “rights red” or “slip an slide” along with the discerning use of internal and half-rhymes in “red/half-dead“, “slide/cried” are both poetic and powerful in how they affect the reader. In addition to the main speaker, who “started fe feel sick“, Zephaniah also introduces secondary observers such as “de press” who “were dere fe pictures” and a “high class girl” who wants to “whip his hide” . Both seem to be a metaphor for how society at large witnesses discrimination but turns a blind eye to it. Their reactions are ill-informed and stereotypical, as also insinuated in “Listen Mr. Oxford Don”.

Another similarity to Agard is that Zephaniah also ends with an inferred criticism of the British legal system: “if you tink you seeing justice, you must be bloody blind” as compared to the refusing of a “jail sentence” for “assault on the Oxford dictionary” in Agard’s poem.

In conclusion, despite different backgrounds and different perspectives both poets use language and clever contradiction to challenge the system,  deploying rhyme, rhythm and vernacular speech to reveal, one through direct  portrayal and disturbing imagery, and the other through wit and intelligent allusion, the extent of racial discrimination and the role of language in creating stereotypes and in the consequences of them.

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