Afro-Caribbean Poetry in English

Cultural Traditions (1970s–2000s)

by Bartosz Wójcik (Author)
©2015 Monographs 350 Pages


This book presents the phenomenon of Afro-Caribbean poetry in English from Jamaican classic dub poetry of the 1970s to (Black) British post-dub verse of the 2000s. It showcases the literary continuum, as represented by Jamaican, Jamaican-British, and ultimately (Black) British writers – Mutabaruka, Michael Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean Binta Breeze, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Patience Agbabi, respectively. The work of these authors represents a gradual shift from the emphasis on ethics to the preponderance of aesthetics that include social concerns typical of classic dub poetry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Survival
  • Mutabaruka
  • Biography
  • Neocolonialism
  • Christianity
  • Eurocentric Education
  • Rastafarianism
  • Africanism – Afrocentrism – Poetry of Ancestry
  • The Poet and His Poetry
  • Michael Smith
  • Biography
  • Neocolonialism
  • Christianity
  • Eurocentric Education
  • Rastafarianism
  • Africanism – Jamaicanism – Poetry of Natality
  • The Poet and His Poetry
  • Chapter 2: Uprising
  • Linton Kwesi Johnson
  • Biography
  • Voices of the Living and the Dead (1974)
  • Dread Beat An’ Blood (1975)
  • Inglan is a Bitch (1980)
  • Tings An’ Times (1991)
  • Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems (2002): New Word Hawdah (nineties verse)
  • Jean Binta Breeze
  • Biography
  • Early 1980s – the era of Answers (1983)
  • Riddym Ravings and Other Poems (1988)
  • Spring Cleaning (1992)
  • On the Edge of an Island (1997)
  • The Arrival of Brighteye (2000)
  • The Fifth Figure (2006)
  • Third World Girl (2011)
  • Chapter 3: Confrontation
  • Benjamin Zephaniah
  • Biography
  • Pen Rhythm (1980)
  • The Dread Affair (1985)
  • Inna Liverpool (1992)
  • City Psalms (1992)
  • Propa Propaganda (1996)
  • Too Black, Too Strong (2001)
  • Patience Agbabi
  • Biography
  • R.A.W. (1995)
  • Transformatrix (2000)
  • Bloodshot Monochrome (2008)
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Series index


The present study is based on my doctoral dissertation that I defended in 2013. The thesis was supervised by Professor Aleksandra Kędzierska (Maria Curie Skłodowska University in Lublin). At this juncture, I would like to express my gratitude to both external reviewers – Professor Jerzy Jarniewicz (University of Łódź) and Professor David Malcolm (University of Gdańsk), whose critique and criticism alike have indeed been conducive to the book’s gestation. I am also honoured that my book proposal has been accepted by Professor Marek Wilczyński (University of Gdańsk) for the “Transatlantic Studies in British and North American Culture” series of which he is the General Editor.

The monograph that I have authored is at heart a collective work. As such, it owes its existence to the intellectual and emotional hospitality of established researchers that I have been fortunate enough to meet along the way and stay in touch ever since. In particular, I am grateful to Professor Kamau Brathwaite for his insightful online and offline comments, for encouraging “actiVity” in the course of my studies and for “keepin w/the Polish connXion”. Similarly, I have benefited from numerous and fruitful exchanges with Dr Tomasz Kitliński, Dr Annika McPherson, Dr Philip Nanton and Dr Stefan Walcott, whom I cannot thank enough. And, had it not been for the acumen of singjay and toppa top selecta Andrzej Kępski, who a decade ago introduced me to the creative output of Linton Kwesi Johnson, I might still remain shamefully indifferent to the cultural diversity of the Caribbean. Laaarge up, Natty B!

The book is much indebted to Dr Sarah Lawson (York St John University, UK), whose close reading and copious suggestions have qualitatively contributed to the monograph’s present incarnation. Although I have never been officially enrolled in any of the university courses taught by Sarah, I do feel to have been her student. Obviously, all textual mistakes, analytical omissions and factual blunders are my own responsibility.

This thank-you note would not be complete without a heartfelt shout-out to outernational friends and colleagues, especially to Dr Katarína Nemoková, Dr Gregory Jason Bell (I consider Tomáš Baťa University in Zlin to be my adoptive alma mater), Dr David Bousquet, Dr Monika Szuba as well as to members of Heidelberg University’s Transkulturelle Studien. I remain obliged to Kamila Bartuzi-Monaghan, whose typesetting skills have made my manuscript reader-friendly.

As a self-funded researcher, I often relied on the unceasing assistance of my family, who have always risen to the challenge, providing me among others with much-needed moral support. Specifically, I salute my parents and grandmother, whose understanding of my professional choices has frequently alleviated my writerly agitation. Still, and this is no mere platitude or convention, both the publication and the research that underpins it would not have been possible without the tightrope-walking abilities (academic life, as many of you know, rests on a most precarious balance) of Małgorzata Paprota, my long-time partner, fellow traveller, collaborator and the fulcrum of my scholarly and otherwise endeavours. ← 7 | 8 ← 8 | 9


It is clear that in 2015, over 20 years after Derek Walcott received the Nobel Prize for Literature and over a decade after V. S. Naipaul followed in receiving the same accolade, the observation of Montserratian E. A. Markham that Caribbean authors “no longer have to put the old case that the[ir] work is invisibilised” (2001:13) seems even more justified than in 1989 when it was originally made. Nowadays, Anglophone West Indian writing is an integral part of both GCSE curriculum and the UK’s literary mainstream. Undoubtedly, as attested by the emergence of many Caribbean-British publishing houses, such as New Beacon Books (London), Bogle L’Overture (London), Hansib Publications (Hertford) and Peepal Tree Press (Leeds), long gone are the days of “the dogged lack of opportunity for black poets among the white publishing houses in Britain” (Hampson 1995:54).

Analogously, literary periodicals, such as Wasafiri or Sable, have paved the way for the development of modern British writing, further researched and disseminated thanks to the academic efforts of among others, scholars from The University of Warwick’s Centre for Caribbean Studies. Alongside scholarly volumes such as Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature, Anglophone Caribbean, African, Black and diasporic poems of often anti-establishment and/or non-metropolitan, experience were anthologised, including Michael Horowitz’s Children of Albion (1969), Andrew Salkey’s Breaklight (1971), and James Berry’s News for Babylon (1984). Although there was, in Stuart Hall’s words, “already a significant black presence in Britain before the war – seafarers, travellers, entertainers, artisans, labourers, servants” (Gilroy 2007:7), the presence itself meticulously delineated by Peter Fryer (1991), the actual term “Black British”, as observed by Catherine Murphy (2010), “was a contentious and highly contested ascription until halfway through the 1990s” (81).

However, approximately two decades after the publication of Markham’s Hinterland, a seminal collection of “poetry from the West Indies & Britain”, which anthologises a fraction of the poetic output of among others Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson, Anglophone Afro-Caribbean literature “is still marginalised1← 9 | 10 (Markham 2001:13) by Eastern European scholars2, an error of exclusion that the present monograph ventures to rectify. It seems that this academic indifference stems from the systemic, colonially foisted peripherality of West Indian literature, its being sidelined by the cultural production of the UK as well as the USA, which in turn dominates the curricula of English departments in more culturally homogeneous countries such as Poland3.

This is not to say, however, that Polish academe does not take heed of vibrant non-metropolitan/non-Western/ethnic cultural production. In recent years, postcolonial criticism has been widely represented in this country, for instance, by Kołodziejczyk (2000), Nowak (2007), and Stanecka (2011). Still, with regard to West Indian writing, there is little critical attention – Branach-Kallas (2010) discusses select prose works of Caribbean-Canadian Dionne Brand. Similarly, none of the authors analysed in this thesis has been critically discussed at length in Poland.

Similarly, for decades Polish publishers have been understandably replicating metropolitan canons, zig-zagging between European and American bestsellers. It is only when a Caribbean or Caribbean-British writer gains an international distinction (Walcott, Naipaul) or becomes a worldwide publishing sensation (Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy) that their books are translated. Exceptions to this rule, such as the solitary Polish editions of Caryl Phillips’ A Distant Shore (Muza, 2006), and Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman (Świat Książki, 2012), or single Francophone Caribbean novels4, are few and far between. To the best of my knowledge, the poetry of writers focused on in this study has yet to acquire a substantial presence in Polish. There are no translations of poems by Mutabaruka, Michael Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean Binta Breeze or Benjamin Zephaniah. The only translation into Polish that I was able to find was of “Man and Boy”, a poem by Patience Agbabi, ← 10 | 11 translated by Andrzej Szuba as “Mężczyzna i Chłopiec”, and published in the Opcje literary quarterly (Agbabi 2005).

Moreover, in the Polish context, Benjamin Zephaniah’s statement that Black presence in Britain “has received very little recognition” (Zephaniah 2001:36) gains literary (and literal) relevance. With the exception of Literatura na Świecie, NaGłos, Zeszyty Literackie, Świat Literacki, and Tygodnik Powszechny5, Anglophone Afro-Caribbean and/or Black British poetry is virtually unheard of in arts journals. The reason for such a state of poetic affairs is given indirectly by Jerzy Jarniewicz (2001), who, while analysing the reception of The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry (1994), edited by Ian Hamilton, stresses that Caribbean literature, being relatively young, is quantitatively overshadowed by British and American writing. Interestingly enough, in the selfsame W Brzuchu Wieloryba, Jarniewicz does not focus on any Caribbean and/or Black British poet. The Polish critic mentions John Agard, David Dabydeen, Fred D’Aguiar, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Benjamin Zephaniah, yet only with reference to Hamilton’s inclusion of these writers, which the Polish critic himself praises (237).

Another reason for paucity of criticism and general under-exposure is indirectly given by Habekost (1993) in the introduction to Verbal Riddim, his important monograph on Afro-Caribbean and British dub poetry. Habekost, himself a critic conversant with Caribbean writing, confesses to his interpretative apprehension, which may be also the reason why West Indian literature has not taken critical root in the Polish academy:

It is no easy task for a white European male, no matter how sincere his intentions may be, to ‘dig’ all the implications of African-Caribbean word-power and to explain these black enigmas to a heterogeneous audience (11).

Researched thoroughly by West Indian as well as European and US scholars, Afro-Caribbean poetry in English still provides literary critics with uncharted territory that requires academic attention. It is a vital, ever-mutable component of what Bruce King terms the internationalization of English literature (2005). However, the present study would not be possible without all the past research on polyphonous Caribbean culture – Hillman (2003), Manuel (2006), in particular, on the music of the West Indies – Bradley (2001), Thompson (2002), Katz (2004), on reggae music as a literary model – Dawes (1999), on the poetry of reggae lyrics – Hebdige (1987), Dawes (2002a), Walker (2005), as well as on the diversified cultural praxis ← 11 | 12 of dance/hall – Stolzoff (2000), Cooper (2004), Beckford (2006), Hope (2006), Stanley Niaah (2010).

All of the above spurred me to delve deeper into the literary “Black Atlantic” (Gilroy 1993), as represented by Afro-Caribbean and Black British poetry, which is often subsumed en masse in surveys under the rubric of post-colonial studies – Ashcroft et al. (1989, 2003), Ramazani (2001), Patke (2006), Innes (2007), Wisker (2007), Nayar (2008), contextualised as an ingredient of 20th-century poetry – Roberts (2003), treated as part of British poetry – Hampson (1995), Tolan (2010), May (2010), and/or regarded as one of the staples of Black British culture – Owusu (2000), Donnell (2002). Other important overviews devoted, more broadly, to Caribbean and/or West Indian and Black British literature are: Dabydeen (1988; 1997), Breiner, (1998), Donnell (2006) and Bucknor (2011). Among these, interestingly, Tuma (1998), discusses Black British poetry within the context of postmodernism and its reception in the US, while Pollard (2004) considers modernism to be “a travelling culture”, re-utilised and articulated by contemporary Caribbean poets. Other, more specific, frameworks employed to analyse the poetic output under discussion include women’s and/or feminist writing – De Caires Narain (2002), Sharpe (2003a, 2003b), Dowson (2005), Papke (2008), as well as attempts to envision a Black British canon – Low & Wynne-Davies (2006), or define Black British aesthetics – Arana (2009a).

While there is extensive scholarship exploring Anglophone Caribbean and Black British poetry – Brown (1984), Collier (1992), Chamberlin (1993), Procter (2003), Arana & Ramey (2004), McLeod (2004), few discuss a particular author and/or poetic style in detail. Most volumes are either conference proceedings which provide readers with articles on a number of related writers – Noland et al. (2009), or collections of diverse essays on West Indian and Black British literature published by one critic, e.g. Cooper (1993), Brown (2007).

Since at present monographs on West Indian and/or Black British verse discuss primarily either giants of World literature such as Naipaul (Mustafa 1995) and Walcott (Baugh 2006), or highly respected Caribbean writers such as Guyanese Martin Carter (Brown 2000), Guyanese Grace Nichols (Lawson Welsh 2007) and Trinidadian Eric Roach (Breiner 2008), I have opted to focus on less academically discussed poets, albeit ones already mentioned in The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature (Irele 2004). These are: Mutabaruka, Michael Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean Binta Breeze, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Patience Agbabi.

The reasons for selecting these particular authors are many. Firstly, since “Jamaica remains one of the two6 primary cultural forces in the Anglophone Caribbean” (Best ← 12 | 13 2004:1), I have opted to focus on Jamaican and Black British poets. Though not of Caribbean ancestry, Agbabi is a poet whose work bears the imprint of West Indian writing (Dieffenthaller 2009), and as such her output fits the scope of the present study, being an example of post-national literature, united by aesthetics rather than by geo-politics. Simultaneously, however, her texts are both anthologised and analysed as contemporary Black British poetry, e.g., Hoyles (2002), Sesay (2005). Secondly, Mutabaruka, the late Smith, Breeze, and Johnson are four Jamaican “major practitioners” (Manuel 2006:199) of dub poetry. Thirdly, Zephaniah as well as Agbabi, being widely published writers, are major Black British voices, inspired by the output of their West Indian predecessors. Fourthly, all these writers, despite being, as if wholesale, labelled dub/performance poets,

resist easy classification, even in terms of style, shifting across boundaries of the oral and the literary, the private and the public, as the poems they are writing demand (Brown 2005:xix).

Hence, informed analysis of such poetry is likely to bear critical fruit, providing further ground for comparative analysis. Furthermore, despite extensive attempts I have been unable to trace a comparable study of the output of these writers, leading to the conclusion that such a comprehensive study has not been undertaken so far. Finally, such a range of poets will also enable me to show the diversity of Afro-Caribbean and Black British poetry and its development from the dub poetry of the 1970s and 1980s – “when dub poetry evolved into a full-fledged citizen of the roots reggae landscape” (Walker 2005:155) – to the post-dub poetry of the 1990s and 2000s.

The aesthetic shift, observed by literary critics (Doumerc 2005), has inspired me to update the findings of Habekost (1993), and to expand the poetic scope of his breakthrough, if limited, monograph7. To do so, I have opted to include a more representative and a less male-dominated selection of writers, thereby going beyond the interpretation of dub poetry as solely “militant message” (11). Instead, rather than, as was Habekost’s premise, aiming at “a glimpse into the whole cultural spectrum of Caribbean aesthetics” (10), I will endeavour to present dub poetry as a gateway to contemporary Black British verse, paying attention to the speakers of the poems and, where appropriate, their evolution. The role of speakers, understood as the “personae of poetry, the voices the poet adopts” (Childs 2006:54), ← 13 | 14 is particularly relevant to the analysis of the output of the authors in question. According to Coyle (1993),

in the expressly politicized poetry of Black communities we find that there is a lyric practice which is public rather than private, in which the speaker defines not so much a self as a community. In many respects this poetry, often tied to performance, looks back to a broader understanding of the nature and function of lyric than the voices of the academy often entertain (196).

However, the poetry discussed in the present study showcases also more encompassing voices that, equally “central to the act of effective reading” (Childs 2006:171), typify “the sum of all the author’s conscious choices in a realized and more complete self as ‘artist’” (171). Through reading these voices I will critically consider “the image of poetic voice that emerges from the study of a range of poems by a single poet” (Culler 2000:74).

In contrast to Ian Dieffenthaller (2009), whose studiously researched Snow on Sugarcane chronologically traces the “adventure [of West Indian poetry] in the former motherland” (1) from the 1920s to the present, my book is an attempt to delineate and analyse the dub poetic continuum: from the reggae-based and socially committed printed orature of classic Jamaican and Jamaican-British dub poetry (1970s-1980s) to the more fluid and less prescriptive post-dub verse (1990s-2000s). Hence, the trajectory of the artistic development discussed will start from the separatist poetry of Jamaica that demarcates itself from the legacy of Europe and finish with the Caribbean and Black British poetry that consciously transgresses cultural labels, producing a body of cross-cultural work (Dawes 1999).

It is important to acknowledge that there exists “a growing number of Indo-Caribbean poets and their works, emerging mostly in Trinidad and Guyana” (Brown 2005:xxxii-i). However, as the present study focuses on Afro-Caribbean and Black British poets “and their history, identity, and concerns” (xxxii) Indo-Caribbean and Chinese-Caribbean literature created by both regional and diasporic writers will not be discussed. Neither will Caribbean-American nor Caribbean-Canadian.

Although Anglophone Afro-Caribbean verse “may look like English poetry [it] is undeniably a new phenomenon: a way of saying rooted in its own community” (Dieffenthaller 3). Whether West Indian per se or created by second-generation writers “informed by a vicarious West Indian heritage” (1), this poetry, apart from obvious cultural density, poses other scholarly problems, which potentially discourage fellow non-West Indian academics and/or people who are not Creole speakers from studying it in detail. Firstly, testifying to a change from “English poetry” to “poetry in English” (Brown 2007:91), this poetry is linguistically complex and ← 14 | 15 impenetrable without recourse to lexicons and grammar books8 as it is an example of “a rededication of language to specific goals of liberation and action” (Coyle 1993:1207). And, to quote Chamberlin (1993), “[n]o one holds on to language quite as fiercely as the person who has nothing else” (263). Secondly, be it Jamaican English, Jamaican Creole or West Indian-influenced English of Black Britons, the language of the poetry in question is hardly ever Standard English, making comprehension on the part of less initiated readers at times especially difficult.

In order to aid comprehension, I have decided to provide either Standard English synonyms translations or additional footnoted information concerning select lexemes. However, in order to do this poetry justice and let its voice be audible without any overt intrusion, I have resolved to keep such re-wording to a minimum. I argue that the poetry’s vividness and distinctiveness should speak for itself, beckoning readers over, inviting them to experience the linguistic Other not in a superficial way but rather to make an intellectual effort of understanding how, to evoke Gramsci and Spivak (Ashcroft et al., 2006), the former subaltern speaks.


This study shows the poets’ move from initial political and artistic consolidation towards a stance typified more by non-essentialist cross-cultural openness and literary intertextuality. My methodology throughout has been informed by the firm conviction that “[t]he critic’s business is (…) [also] to understand the contexts out of which the work that he is examining grows” (Donnell and Lawson Welsh 1996:289). Indeed, for many of the authors discussed, references to music, TV as well as other non-literary narratives are as important as typical literary intertexts. Hence, in order to present the creative output of the writers in question clearly, my analyses, taking into account historical contingencies, are grounded in contextual readings.

Correspondingly, the present study discusses heterogeneous cultural traditions, including the socio-political background, inherent in dub and post-dub poetry. As Afro-Caribbean literature, due to its oral ancestry (see: Finnegan 1979 and Dawes 1999), is inextricably bound with music, my analysis will include the impact of Jamaican roots reggae on the inception and progress of dub poetry. To the Jamaican dub poets of the 1970s – roots reggae was not only the source of prosody but primarily it was “a bridge to the wider Jamaican society” (Dawes 1999:76); back then, it was also one of the “important cultural markers that in the international world [used to] stand as symbols of Jamaica, the nation” (Best 2004:14). The critical ← 15 | 16 approach will therefore be interdisciplinary and counter-isolationist with a view to reading, as Best proposes, texts of culture as “multi-tracked” (1-2), and to rightly presenting the said poetry as an artistic phenomenon which abounds in “deep and distinctive cultural wellsprings” (Manuel 2006:177). In other words, I will attempt to read these poems closely and listen attentively to their “oral art forms” or “voicings” (Ong 2006:14).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
Rastafarianism reggae postcolonialism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 350 pp.

Biographical notes

Bartosz Wójcik (Author)

Bartosz Wójcik is a literary critic, translator and cultural manager. He holds a PhD in literature, and specialises in the cultures of the Caribbean.


Title: Afro-Caribbean Poetry in English
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