The use of non-standard English in poetry can be used for several effects. I shall be looking at it in conjunction with performance poetry to see how it contributes to the construction of its reader’s responses. In particular, I will be looking at Afro-Caribbean-born poets and their work namely John Agard’s ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’, Grace Nichol’s ‘Thoughts drifting through the fat black woman’s head while having a full bubble bath’ and Jean Binta Breeze’s ‘Arising: for the youth of Azania’.
All these poets use non-standard English in their poetry and also incorporate performance into their readings and therefore add a new dimension into the construction. Firstly, I shall talk a little of the traditions of African oral literature. It was transported from the early 17th through to the 19th century from Africa to America and the Caribbean in the form of ‘story telling, proverbs, rituals and poems’ via the African slaves. Their history is underlined by the loss of their native cultures and languages whereby they then were forced to adopt the English language by their slavers.
Hence, English was, and continues to be, the language of education, law, government and economics’ (Nestor, 2003). Through the years, those who grew up in the Caribbean in particular, have developed in their poetry, a style whereby they reject the need for the use of only standard-English. This style of spoken English developed by inhabitants of the Caribbean was, they felt, rich enough in culture and in a way this was retaliation to the way they were once forced to lose their colloquial tongue.
To a certain extent this is shown in the material of their work, which takes on the political and shows struggles often experienced by black people and also tries to break down stereotypical portrayals held of them in a white society. In relation to non-standard English in poetry, the poets I am discussing also perform their poetry in a way, where they incorporate West Indian stylistic methods of performance. For instance, the use of drums and singing words aloud helps to create an atmosphere for the audience/listener; this is known as ‘dub poetry’.
Although its roots can be traced back to reggae and Jamaican popular culture, it does have a particular history within the British context, where it found a captive audience during the politicized years of the 1970s and early 1980s. Earlier British dub/performance poetry tended to comment on incidents which affected the black community directly (such as the injustices of stop and search policing), but these days, they are more indirect.
The contemporary poets I am discussing here were not born in the UK yet their poetry is primarily aimed at an English speaking audience. This is shown through the titles for one thing; ‘Listen Mr Oxford don’ and ‘Thoughts drifting through the fat black woman’s head while having a full bubble bath’. Immediately, the reader here acknowledges that their attention is required and as they read on, the poet’s use of non-standard English is established within the first lines of the stanzas; Mi mudda did fine
Wit a likkle roots wine (‘ARISING: for the youth of Azania’, 1998) The aforementioned poem is by Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, who was born and studied in Jamaica. Known as a dub poet, she began to write poetry in the 1970s, performing and recording first in Kingston then in London. ‘ARISING: for the youth of Azania’, which is from her collection Riddym Raving and other Poems (1998), is a poem which has to be performed, like many of her other poems, it has a rhythm and beat to it, even when performed without drums.
The listener of the poem is instantly aware of the change in language style, although it is essentially ‘English’, it is actually not. It takes a little moment to those who are not used to listening, to get used to the words and pick it up. The poem is, like Breeze’s other work, different from conventional poetry, it is self conscious is about poetry as much as it is about the Caribbean or the black British experience.
The structure of the stanzas is like in song form rather than usual poetry, you can almost hear, when performed, where the verses and chorus goes. The speaker of the poem is a child who ‘speaks’ in the colloquial tongue of their desire to get an education, and the fact they were discouraged by their teacher (‘But teacha buss mi finga wid a ruler/Ev’ry time I ask she ’bout a scholarship’) shows that, the poet was showing the naive attitudes some West Indians held towards the benefits of a good education.