What We’re Reading: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Mi Revalueshanary Fren
I should start this post with an apology and thank you to my dad. A few months ago he gave me a pair of CDs by Linton Kwesi Johnson, or LKJ, a well renowned reggae artist. I was pretty floored by the music, so when I stumbled upon LKJ’s collection of poems, Mi Revalueshanary Fren, I bought it without hesitation. I had every intention of giving it to my dad until I started reading it and fell in love. So I’ll be keeping this one. Sorry, pops. Thanks for turning me onto LKJ.
In the introduction to Mi Revalueshanary Fren, Russell Banks writes that LKJ uses a “language created out of necessity[.]” It’s nearly impossible to not read LKJ’s poems out loud in order to feel the sounds coming from your own mouth, and attempt to recreate the language he has confined, against its will, to the page.
Reading any poem out loud creates an urgency that isn’t always present on the page, but LKJ’s poems are urgent to begin with. Take “Sonny’s Lettah,” one of his most famous poems, which includes these lines describing a confrontation between Sonny, his brother Jim, and three white police officers:
dem tump him in him belly
an it turn to jelly
dem lick him pan him back
an him rib get pap
dem lick him pan him hed
but it tuff like led
dem kick him in him seed
an it started to bleed
The confrontation leads to the death of one of the police officers and the imprisonment of Jim and Sonny, who writes a letter to their mother telling her, “dont fret, / dont get depress / an doun-hearted.” LKJ calls his work “dub poetry,” and dub (reggae) music’s driving urgency is evident in his poems, even on the page where the rhythm serves the poem.
Mi Revalueshanary Fren is split up into three parts, each one containing poems from three decades of LKJ’s work, from the 1970s through the 1990s. Throughout thirty years of writing, LKJ’s work remains musical, vigorous, and political, though with a little humor thrown in for good measure. My favorite poem from the book, “If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet,” LKJ includes an epigraph from the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry: “dub poetry has been described as … ‘over-compensation for deprivation[.]’” He then describes the poem he would have written if he “woz a tap-natch poet / like Chris Okigbo / Derek Walcot / ar T.S. Eliot[.]” Every writer has thought about what they would write if they were “tap-natch,” but the joke here is that LKJ is top-notch, even if he won’t admit it.
While Linton Kwesi Johnson might not be a household name in the United States, in England he is well known for his music and poetry. He is the second living and the first black poet to have his selected poems published in England in the Penguin Classics series. LKJ’s work leaps off of the page unlike any other poet, and he has left a lasting influence on contemporary poets, from slam poets, to writers like Douglas Kearney who radically distort language in order to express a sentiment more directly and truly. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s work can’t be confined merely to the page or to the stage, but lives somewhere between, when readers read his work aloud.
Watch LKJ perform two of his poems, one with and one without music: