The BBC Poetry season ended tonight with another engrossing film presented by children’s author Malorie Blackman. It’s been a wonderful season – all praise to whoever came up with the concept at the BBC. And let’s have more of this kind of TV!
Malorie described how poetry had been important to her at different times in her life. The daughter of migrants from Barbados, Malorie was born in London in 1962 and in her childhood and teens she struggled to find her own way in the face of preconceptions about what a black girl from South London could and could not do in life. ‘Basically,’ she says, ‘we were considered factory fodder.’
She was always drawn to poetry and sought it out – in all its diverse forms. ‘It was always one of the first things I would reach for,’ she says. As a teenager struggling with racism she was inspired by ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ from Myles Coverdale’s translation of Psalm 23 from the 1611 King James Bible, by Blake’s Jerusalem, and by the lyrics of Marvin Gaye (What’s Goin’ On). The flowering of black British poetry in the 1980s came as a revelation, setting her on the road to becoming a novelist herself.
Myles Coverdale (trans), Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
William Blake, Jerusalem
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
Benjamin Zephaniah, The British (serves 60 million)
Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.
Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.
Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.
Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.
Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
Then add to the melting pot.
Leave the ingredients to simmer.
As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.
Allow time to be cool.
Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.
Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.
Grace Nichols, Wherever I Hang
I leave me people, me land, me home
For reasons I not too sure
I forsake de sun
And de humming-bird splendour
Had big rats in de floorboard
So I pick up me new-world-self
And come to this place call England
At first I feeling like I in a dream –
De misty greyness
I touching the walls to see if they real
They solid to de seam
And de people pouring from de underground system
And when I look up to de sky
I see Lord Nelson high – too high to lie.
And is so I sending home photos of myself
Among de pigeons and de snow
And is so I warding off de cold
And is so, little by little
I begin to change my calypso ways
Never visiting nobody
Before giving them clear warning
And waiting me turn in queue
Now, after all this time
I get accustom to de English life
But I still miss back-home side
To tell you de truth
I don’t know really where I belaang
Yes, divided to de ocean
Divided to de bone
Wherever I hang me knickers – that’s my home.
James Berry, Benediction
Thanks to the ear
that someone may hear
Thanks to seeing
that someone may see
Thanks to feeling
that someone may feel
Thanks to touch
that one may be touched
Thanks to flowering of white moon
and spreading shawl of black night
holding villages and cities together
James Berry, Fantasy of an African Boy
Such a peculiar lot
we are, we people
without money, in daylong
yearlong sunlight, knowing
money is somewhere, somewhere.
Everybody says it’s big
bigger brain bother now,
money. Such millions and millions
of us don’t manage at all
without it, like war going on.
And we can’t eat it. Yet
without it our heads alone
stay big, as lots and lots do,
coming from nowhere joyful,
going nowhere happy.
We can’t drink it up. Yet
without it we shrivel when small
and stop forever
where we stopped, as lots and lots do.
We can’t read money for books.
Yet without it we don’t
read, don’t write numbers,
don’t open gates in other countries,
as lots and lots never do.
We can’t use money to bandage
sores, can’t pound it
to powder for sick eyes
and sick bellies. Yet without
it, flesh melts from our bones.
Such walled-round gentlemen
overseas minding money! Such
bigtime gentlemen, body guarded
because of too much respect
and too many wishes on them:
too many wishes, everywhere,
wanting them to let go
magic of money, and let it fly
away, everywhere, day and night,
just like dropped leaves in wind!
(winner of the Poetry Society National Poetry Competition in 1981)
Jackie Kay, Old Tongue
When I was eight, I was forced south.
Not long after, when I opened
my mouth, a strange thing happened.
I lost my Scottish accent.
Words fell off my tongue:
Eedyit, dreich, wabbit, crabbit
Strummer, teuchter, heidbanger,
So you are, so am ur, see you, see ma ma,
Shut yer geggie or I’ll gie you the malkie!
My own vowels start to stretch like my bones
And I turn my back on Scotland.
Words disappeared like the dead of the night,
New words marched in: ghastly, awful,
Quite dreadful, scones said like stones.
Pokey hats into ice-cream cones.
Oh where did all my words go –
my old words, my lost words?
Did you ever feel sad when you lost a word,
did you ever try to call it back
Like calling in the sea?
If I could have found my words wandering,
I swear I would have taken them in,
Swallowed them whole, knocked them back.
Out in the English soil, my old words
buried themselves. It made my mother’s blood boil
I cried one day with the wrong sound in my mouth;
I wanted them back; I wanted my old accent back,
my old tongue. My dour soor Scottish tongue.
Sing-songy. I wanted to gie it laldie.
Jackie Kay, Darling
You might forget the exact sound of her voice
Or how her face looked when sleeping.
You might forget the sound of her quiet weeping
Curled into the shape of a half moon,
When smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving
Before she left, when the blossom was on the trees
And the sun was out, and all seemed good in the world.
I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl –
Heil Ya Ho Boys, Let her go Boys
And when I stopped singing she had slipped away,
Already a slip of a girl again, skipping off,
Her heart light, her face almost smiling.
And what I didn’t know or couldn’t see then
Was that she hadn’t really gone.
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.
Hurricane Hits England read by Grace Nichols
It took a hurricane, to bring her closer
To the landscape
Half the night she lay awake,
The howling ship of the wind
Its gathering rage,
Like some dark ancestral spectre,
Fearful and reassuring:
Talk to me Huracan
Talk to me Oya
Talk to me Shango
My sweeping, back-home cousin.
Tell me why you visit.
An English coast?
What is the meaning
Of old tongues
In new places?
The blinding illumination,
Even as you short-
Into further darkness?
What is the meaning of trees
Falling heavy as whales
Their crusted roots
Their cratered graves?
O Why is my heart unchained?
Tropical Oya of the Weather,
I am aligning myself to you,
I am following the movement of your winds,
I am riding the mystery of your storm.
Ah, sweet mystery;
Come to break the frozen lake in me,
Shaking the foundations of the very trees within me,
That the earth is the earth is the earth.
- Malorie Blackman talks about turning racism upside down in her Noughts and Crosses novels (Guardian)
- Benjamin Zephaniah: We must stand up to hatred (Independent)
- James Berry: Poetry Archive
- James Berry: review of Windrush Songs
- James Berry: reads from Windrush Songs at Bloodaxe Books
- Jackie Kay: contemporarywriters.com
- Black British Literature since Windrush: BBC
- Jackie Kay: Poetry Archive
- Jackie Kay: reads Darling at Bloodaxe Books
- Poetry Class: interview with Jackie Kay