Thursday, August 31, 2006

WORDS THAT SING

The published poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson - born in Jamaica, raised in England - finally lands in the United States

Posted on Thu, Aug 31, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Mi Revalueshanary Fren
Publishing House: Ausable Press
WorkNameSort: Mi Revalueshanary Fren

For those who associate Linton Kwesi Johnson with his impressive string of reggae albums recorded in the late '70s and early '80s, perhaps the 'dub poetâ?� title ascribed to him was considered merely a cleverly worded accolade that reflected the strong lyrical content of Forces of Victory (1979) and Bass Culture (1980). In a reggae world then dominated by Rasta-centric messages, Johnson's albums were more reflective of his non-Jamaican reality; though born on the Caribbean island and entrenched in its folk culture in his formative years, he came of age in England during the 1960s, an environment so racially hostile and economically sour that LKJ's youthful militancy (he was a Black Panther) is not surprising.

Johnson has said of his early activism, 'That's where I discovered black literature, particularly the work of W.E.B. DuBois, the Afro-American scholar whose Souls of Black Folk inspired me to write poetry.â?� Channeling his contempt, Johnson opted against Huey P. Newton'style aggression in favor of Claude McKay'style expression, organizing a socialist/revolutionary poetry workshop and reading his own work in public with a group of Rasta drummers.

It's very important to remember that Johnson published two books of poetry, Voices of the Living and the Dead (1974) and Dread Beat an' Blood (1975), and was awarded a poetry fellowship before he ever released an album. His musical debut, Dread Beat an' Blood (1978), was likely only released because he happened to be working at the record label at the time ' as a writer.

The 2002 publication of Johnson's Mi Revalueshanary Fren by Penguin Modern Classics in England marked the first time that a black poet (and the second time a living poet) had been featured in the publisher's prestigious series. Needless to say, such an honor was bestowed upon Johnson not because of his role as a music-maker. The lyrically enchanting Jamaican Creole he utilizes in his poetry, combined with the stark reality he paints of being black in England, has made LKJ a serious literary figure in that country. Curiously, it's taken four years and the benevolence of Ausable Press, a small upstate New York poetry publisher, for Mi Revalueshanary Fren to see the light of day in American bookstores.

 

Language Lesson

“Not a dialect, not strictly a ‘patois,’ either, and not a mere post-colonial version of Standard English, Jamaican Creole is a language created out of hard necessity by African slaves from 17th century British English and West African, mostly Ashanti, language groups, with a lexical admixture from the Caribe and Arawak natives of the island. It is a powerfully expressive, flexible and, not surprisingly, musical vernacular, sustained and elaborated upon for over four hundred years by the descendants of those slaves, including those who, like LKJ, have migrated out of Jamaica in the second great diaspora for England, Canada, and the United States. Fortunately, its grammar and orthography, like that of pre-18th century British English, have never been rigidly formalized or fixed by an academy of notables or any authoritative dictionary. It is, therefore, a living, organically evolving language, intimately connected to the lived experience of its speakers.”

— from the book’s introduction by Russell Banks

A collection of the best of Johnson's work throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s, the book may seem to fans of his music like an extended lyric sheet, with the roots of LKJ tracks such as 'Inglan Is a Bitchâ?� and 'Sonny's Lettahâ?� being the primary content. But the works are, first and foremost, poems. Consider these lines taken from 'Five Nights of Bleedingâ?� (which tells the sad tale of violence between rival urban sound systems), 'o the stabbings an the bleeding an the blood/it's war amongst the rebel,â?� and from 'It's Noh Funnyâ?� come these words, 'people sayin dis/people sayin dat/bout di yout af todayâ?�). This is poetry that just happened to also make for powerful song lyrics.

The evocative intensity of such songs stemmed not from the impressive skills of the Dennis Bovell Dub Band, but from Johnson's ability to merge street-level language, subversive ideology and rhythmic phrasing in a wholly fresh form of poetry. This astounding collection may finally clue American audiences in to the reality that the second part of Johnson's 'dub poetâ?� reputation was always the most important.

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