John Agard: in praise of poetry

Award-winning poet John Agard talks to Joanne Bladd about rhyme, race, and the art of inspiring the next generation of writers

Award-winning poet John Agard has been called many things. A grandmaster of poetry; a force; as “direct as a voice in the bus queue” – this from the writer Helen Dunmore, in a nod to Agard’s razor-sharp social observation – or simply, one of the world’s best living poets.

In person, sporting a purple hat and rolling a cigarette, and with his rumbling Caribbean voice, Agard is still instantly identifiable as the author of the coolly rebellious ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’, written nearly 30 years ago after his move to Britain from Guyana. “I ent have no gun/ I ent have no knife. But mugging de Queen’s English/ is the story of my life.”

Agard was in Dubai as part of the GCSE Poetry Live roadshow, held on the sidelines of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFOL). The tour offers live performances of poems on the UK curriculum to students, and Agard, with his trademark flamboyance, is a star of the show. 

A poet is not just a person dishing out a cerebral pain for the sake of it

John Agard

When I was growing up it wasn’t the beat of the song alone that would grab me, it was the words. If you heard Jimi Hendrix, back in the sixties, with a line; ‘Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.’ It is intriguing. At 14, I wasn’t thinking; ‘I want to be a poet,’ but I was already responding to words. All the time, without realising it, language was always nibbling and appealing to me.

The most mundane thing can inspire a poem: catching a train, sheltering from the rain, pushing a trolley in a supermarket. The most ordinary experience can become magical through the use of language.

When I went to school in the Caribbean, I didn’t like maths; I didn’t like chemistry. I didn’t take to it naturally, the way I loved subjects that dealt with language. Then when I went to A-levels, you had to make a very clear-cut decision; they used to say; ‘the sciences or the arts.’ And obviously I couldn’t do the sciences, so I gravitated to the arts. But I say now to teenagers; ‘You can be a mathematician, and a poet.’ I give the example of the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, who is an immunologist, or the Chilean poet and mathematician Nicanor Parra. Maths has its own poetic language.

People presume poetry is the job of the English teacher. It becomes this sort of rarefied thing, like a special way of appreciating how words work. But in an ideal world, one doesn’t have to be so compartmentalised. If you can bring a poem into a maths class, or science, it becomes part of the whole fabric of living. Poetry existed before there were books, as part of our rich oral heritage. Not just of one nation, but of the heritage of humankind.

Challenging society is part of your ammunition as a poet. But it depends on how you handle it, whether it comes across in a preachy and didactic way. I love Emily Dickinson’s comment: ‘Tell the truth, and tell it slant.’ Half Caste [Agard’s famed poem about race identity] shows how poems can take on a life of their own. Whenever people hear the phrase ‘half caste’, they think black and white. But I was quite excited when Isobel [Abulhoul, founder of EAFOL] said her daughter, whose father is Arab, had come home chanting the poem. Once your poem is released into the world, you no longer have any control. But to see it touch someone – a young, teenage girl who is Arab and English – as a poet, you feel happy.

You can be a mathematician, and a poet. Maths has its own poetic language

John Agard

Children naturally gravitate to the rhythmic use of language. A teenager who says they read books, but not poetry, has disconnected themselves from what would once have been a great source of spontaneous pleasure. Because even those children who go on to be mathematicians or scientists, would at some point in their life, have run around the schoolyard chanting a schoolyard rhyme. If they can hear poetry being read aloud, and not simply tied to the page, it becomes a living thing.

Many people think poetry is something highly cerebral. ‘I don’t think I can deal with that.’ That’s why sometimes poets find a way of adding another dimension to the word. One black poet calls himself a poetician. And I coined a word for myself: ‘poetsonian’. The calypso tradition is strong in the Caribbean, and a person singing a calypso is called a calypsonian. So I thought ‘poetsonian’. It is a signal to people that a poet is not just a person dishing out a cerebral pain for the sake of it, but is actually delighting in language and hoping that delight will become infectious.

My first structured piece of writing was in sixth form. Because we had inspiring teachers, they started a magazine. And when you see your poem in print at 16, you’re excited. Even when we left school, we used to meet as 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, have a meeting, a drink; ‘What poems have you got?’ And that humble magazine produced about five professional writers, who are still writing today. A lot depends on that teacher who brings poetry into your life.