John Agard and the Queen’s gold medal

Coffee in Heaven

You’ll be greeted
by a nice cup of coffee
when you get to heaven
and strains of angelic harmony.

But wouldn’t you be devastated
if they only serve decaffinated
while from the percolators of hell

your soul was assaulted
by Satan’s fresh expresso smell?

 Agard, From the Devil’s Pulpitalcreighton'sAll the talk about Guyanese-British poet John Agard recently has been centered around his being awarded The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for 2012.  His adopted society, the United Kingdom, has given him the highest recognition for his service to literature in that country for some thirty years.  But it is also a recognition of the place of Caribbean poetry in the English-speaking world today, the comfortable place it holds in the mainstream of British literature, its contribution to the creation and forward march of post-colonial literature.  But it is not his first recognition by English society, who has rewarded/awarded him more than once before, and it is not an isolated event.  Agard has been working alongside a number of other Caribbean poets to help British society, the Commonwealth and the world appreciate West Indian poetry, its contribution and its place in world literature today.  It is this that Agard’s award acknowledges.

The Queen presenting the gold medal to John Agard (Internet photo)
The Queen presenting the gold medal to John Agard (Internet photo)

Furthermore, the quality of Agard’s poetry, his craft, and linguistic achievements, as seen in his work since 1998, are not surprising given the nature of his theatrical involvements just before he left Guyana for London in 1977.  And although 1998 is mentioned because of certain milestones he achieved around that time, these very relevant features of his work, his maverick approach and outlook, his mischievous humour, use of language, sense of satire and commentary, were as much evident in his publication of Mangoes and Bullets in 1985 as they were in From the Devil’s Pulpit in 1998.  Also, he integrated his Guyanese style, folk characteristics, theatre and identity into his engagement with British society.
Of relevance also is the award of the MBE to Henry Muttoo in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in the Cayman Islands 2013 for his services to theatre in that colony, and the development of poet Marc Matthews on his move to the UK in the 1980s.  These are Guyanese comrades to whom Agard’s fortunes have been tied in relevant fashion.
In the receipt of the Queen’s Gold Medal, Agard joins a noble line including some of the most celebrated British poets whom he described as “good company” (Felicity Capon, The Telegraph, London), such as Stevie Smith, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, WH Auden and Derek Walcott.  It is a very venerable and distinguished award, founded in 1933 by King George V, whose winners are decided by a panel chaired by the British Poet Laureate.  The citation by current Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy describes the 2012 awardee thus:
“John Agard has always made people sit up and listen.  He has done this with intelligence, humour and generosity.  He has the ability to temper anger with wit and difficult truths with kindness. He levels the ground beneath all our feet, whether he is presenting Dante to children or introducing his own culture to someone who hasn’t encountered it before.  In performance he is electrifying – compelling, funny, moving and thought-provoking. His work in education over years has changed the way that readers, writers and teachers think about poetry.”

His “presenting Dante to children” refers to one of his careers in England, where for several years he worked in the British school system, visiting schools to present poetry, and through this, many of his poems have been included in curricula.  He has written several volumes for children, including his version of Renaissance poet Dante, and his adaptation of fairy tales, including Rumpelstiltskin.   He translated these into current understandable fashion, and worked in these presentations for children with his partner Guyanese novelist and poet Grace Nichols.

He has also been honoured by the BBC, who quoted him as saying “I am delighted as well as touched, to be in the company of such names as Charles Causley, Norman MacCaig, Gillian Clark, Stevie Smith, Derek Walcott.”  He was appointed the first Poet in Residence at the BBC in 1998 and out of that, produced a collection of his work The Bard at the Beeb.   He was also honoured as the first Writer in Residence at the South Bank Centre in London, and was awarded an Arts Council Bursary in 1993.

The Telegraph  believes the Queen’s Award was largely prompted by the children’s book Goldilocks on CCTV  and his Alternative Anthem  published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009.  Bloodaxe also released the DVD John Agard Live! with him performing his work. Apart from children’s poetry, one brand of work for which he is well known is performance poetry.  This performance quality is very much evident in the life, rhythm and language, the oral quality that abounds in his works. And this is where his Guyanese background is important – its contribution to the peculiar brand of the verse he continues to practise.

In 1976-77 Agard was a part of one of the most dynamic and influential performance groups in the Caribbean.  A couple of years earlier two leading Guyanese actors Ken Corsbie (of GBS Radio, and later the Department of Culture) and Marc Matthews combined to form Dem Two, which captivated the Caribbean.  The group was then expanded to include musicians Eddie Hooper and Cammo Williams as well as actors Henry Muttoo and John Agard.  These became All A We.  They presented a significant brand of Caribbean performance based on many indigenous traditions – oral literature, storytelling, jocular tales, folklore, folktales, and performance pieces from Caribbean poetry and fiction.  They made a creative theatrical masterpiece out of the performance poetry that had been building up since 1968 in the wake of Walter Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica by the Hugh Shearer government.

This was the rise of creole and performance poetry and the developing oral quality in West Indian verse through public performances led by Kamau Brathwaite and Mervyn Morris.  Out of this Dub Poetry and Reggae Poetry led by Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka emerged.  The Dem Two team followed by All A We furthered the shape of Caribbean performance by performing packages of all this combined traditional literary and oral material, which also included comic performance.  Arising from this was a new brand of humour on stage out of which others such as Paul Keens Douglas emerged.

Agard, Matthews and Muttoo took this with them when they left Guyana, and Matthews and Agard built separate careers in it in England.  Muttoo focused on theatre as a designer and director and returned to the Americas – to the Jamaica School of Drama, eventually settling in Grand Cayman.  From that background Agard produced the consistent quality of linguistic performance, of humour and satire, of Caribbean folklore and a concern for oral literature.  But very obvious in his work is a very deep intertextual engagement with English, Renaissance and Classical literature.  These are easily interwoven into the fabric of his verse after the fashion of Anansi.  An amazing factor is the way he uses these varied literary traditions, including the West Indian, to satirise and comment on British society.

Kamau Brathwaite has so far produced the most definitive poem on Ananci, the being of this spider – man – demi-god – hero – villain and trickster who squats on the edge of our language, and his place in Caribbean culture and psyche.  Agard has further explored this Anansi consciousness in Weblines (Bloodaxe, 2000) in which he intertwines the concept of the web of the spider and of the trickster of folklore with the modern technological world of the web – the internet.

Agard’s sense of humour and mischief pervades that volume, as it does in what seems to be a twin-volume – From The Devil’s Pulpit Bloodaxe, 2000).  In most of the pieces in this collection, the poet assumes the persona of Satan and is always with his usual mischievous glee, “of the devil’s party,” but, unlike Milton according to Blake, he well knows it.  Agard told The Telegraph that  “I feel an empathy with the bad character,” and throughout, he creates a slick, chatty, affable, witty character who is at the same time the trickster, the villain, the anti-hero and likeable.  In Alternative Anthem  he quotes an “Irish proverb” which says “God is good and the Devil isn’t bad either.”  But the piece de resistance is the quotation which says

Spell my name backwards.
Ask yourself: have you ever LIVED?
Yours truly, THE DEVIL.

John Agard gives British affairs very serious treatment even in seemingly light-hearted poems, and even in those with delightfully outrageous language.  He interrogates the society in post-colonial discourse and criticizes it for its attitudes to the “Other.”  He takes on many issues of immigration in the range of poems from the humorous as in ‘Alternative Anthem’ to deeply and engagingly literary such as ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don,’ ‘Memo to Professor Enoch Powell’ and ‘Once.’

This Guyanese-British poet has certainly progressed considerably from the 1980s years of performance poetry after the pioneer work of Kwesi Johnson addressing the black uprisings of Brixton and Nottingham or the murder of Walter Rodney (Reggae Fi Radni) in the dub poems of 1981.  But the essential strains of his versification have not drastically changed, except to become bolder and more innovative.  What has happened to it is its subtle anglicisation, entrenching itself in British mainstream poetry in a way that it has become accepted, despite its continued “Otherness” and “Othering.”  That is what was celebrated by Queen Elizabeth’s Gold Medal.

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