The Johannesburg Review of Books (JRB) poetry editor Rustum Kozain reviews David Austin’s new book Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution (Pluto Press, 2018), calling it, finding it “a boon for any scholar, student or obsessed fan of this mighty poet.” [Many thanks to Vladimir Lucien for bringing this item to our attention.]
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. [. . .]
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? [. . .]
For full review, see https://johannesburgreviewofbooks.com/2019/03/04/illuminating-a-mighty-poet-and-a-total-artist-rustum-kozain-reviews-dread-poetry-and-freedom-linton-kwesi-johnson-and-the-unfinished-revolution/?