Doing voices: reading language as craft in black British poetry
Rachel Bowers, Ben Etherington, Jarad Zimbler
Journal of Commonwealth Literature
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This essay offers a detailed exploration and comparative reading of two poems published 20 years apart: John Agard’s “Listen Mr Oxford Don” (1985), and Daljit Nagra’s “Kabba Questions the Ontology of Representation, the Catch-22 for ‘Black’ Writers…” (2007). The former poem is well-known, being regarded by a range of scholars as the acme of (and often, shorthand for) self-reflexively dialogic black British voice poetry, as it emerged in the 1980s, that plays off the friction between writing and speech. The latter is a complex and satirical take on poetic convention and canonicity – including the legacies of 1980s black British poetry – that exploits a tension between written poetic convention and artifice on the one hand, and the idea of the voiced poem as conveying “presence” or “authenticity” on the other. Both poems direct us towards a structuring paradox in which the embodied immediacy of human voice is mediated through the graphic conventions of written poetry. Reading these poems together, the essay considers on the one hand, how ideas about poetic form, language, and voice emerge out of particular historical junctures; and on the other, how such attentiveness to context can help us to develop techniques of a postcolonial “close reading”, eschewing totalizing formulae or summative evaluations of linguistic dissidence.