May 12, 2022

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dialectic of dread

The protracted war waged by the police against black communities in Britain is recounted in the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson. “Everywhere you go you hear people saying / That the Special Patrol themselves are murderers,” Johnson writes in his “Reggae fi Peach”.

Focusing on the relationship between Johnson’s political activism and his verses, David Austin Poetry of fear and freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the unfinished revolution draws an enlightening intellectual portrait of the man and his time. Austin situates the poet in a literary and intellectual tradition of post-war black European and English-speaking cultural production. The central figures of this milieu are Amiri Baraka and his modernist conception of blues poetry; Bob marleythe parallel remodeling of reggae for new audiences; and the philosophical interpretations of the black experience in the writings of CLR James, Frantz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire.

This broad approach to Johnson’s work opens avenues for reading her poetry into the larger streams of which she was a part. Instead of standing out as a solitary figure within an English tradition of verse, Austin is able to place Johnson in the tradition Paul Gilroy called the “Atlantic black. “

Born in Chapeltown, Jamaica, Johnson arrived in Brixton, south London, in 1963, joining his mother, who had emigrated to England a year earlier. Finding a city torn by anti-racist struggles, the poet dub joined his local branch of the Black Panther Party soon after arriving. There he learned radical politics and how to build movements. From the party library, Johnson familiarized himself with WEB Du Bois’s work as well as the black poetic tradition that was taking shape around him.

Poetry became part of Johnson’s politics; writing verses is a way of expressing political ideas in another form. In the 1970s, Johnson coined the term “dub poetry” for this form, a nickname that described the fusion of poetic, political and cultural experience. Dub poetry was poetry because it was “speech first”, by which Johnson meant that it did not subordinate the formal demands of poetry to music. It was dub because the diasporic echo between Kingston and Brixton could be heard in the music that accompanied the poetry.

In one conversation with Paul Gilroy, Johnson described the complex relationship between the two components of his gender as follows:

I was trying to think of it in terms of representation, or capturing, or encapsulation, the very pulse, the very energy, the strains of urban society in Jamaica, and that the bassline would express all of those things. . . . You could hear some violence in some basslines when there was conflicts in Jamaica, wars between rival political parties and all that stuff, and you could hear changes in the bassline as the company went. itself was changing.

By fusing dub music and poetry, Johnson’s goal is not aesthetic novelty per se. It’s an attempt to remake a song – flipping it over so that the bass, which captures the rhythms of political and social upheaval, dominates the melody and not the other way around.

When Johnson became just the second living poet to publish his selected poems in the Penguin’s Modern classics series, the response of the British literary press has been divided. Custodians of culture questioned whether his work was “really” poetry, ignoring how his use of Jamaican patois and music was an attempt to decolonize a tradition that did not reflect the assumptions underlying his standards of “real” poetry.

Austin reads Johnson’s focus on violence through the lens of Fanon’s writing. From the West Indian philosopher, Johnson draws the idea that decolonization is only possible through revolt, and that if the revolutionary path is not taken, then the subject will turn their anger against each other. “The riddim just bubbled up and turned around / Ragin ‘an’ risin ‘”, as Johnson says in “Five Nights of Bleeding”.

Austin uses the expression “dread the dialecticTo capture the fusion of optimism and pain, worked out and expressed in Johnson’s poetry. The tensions that this dialectic holds together are the different meanings of the word “dread”: fear like fear in bad times, fear like the wicks of a Rastafarian and fear like a good rhythm. The result is a music of experience whose axes are Jamaica and London, capitalism and the shadow of slavery. From these points Johnson charts a path to an aesthetic and political future. The violence in Johnson’s poetry indicates solidarity and overcoming opponents; a point of rupture or an insurrection brought closer by its articulation.

Johnson combines his critique of capitalism and state violence with a passionate belief in human action as a driving force for historical and social transformation. In his poem on the history of riots and uprisings, “Mekkin Histri,” Johnson writes: “C’est noh mistri / Wi mekkin histri / C’est noh mistri / Wi winnin victri. Riot, revolt and rebellion are social forces so powerful that they cannot be erased from history. But for this story to be a source of power and hope, it must be collectively remembered. This is the role of poetry.

In 1991, after the almost total defeat of the left on every continent, Johnson published Tings and times. In the single from this album, “Di Good Life”, the poet provided a beautiful reflection on what socialism should be. Socialism, in Johnson’s vision, is not a utopia but an ongoing process of collective struggle. It is “un sage ole shephad / Im suvvie tru flood / Tru drout / Tru blizad”.


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