Read John Agard’s ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’. Then read Grace Nichols’ ‘Wherever I hang’. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the two poems, ensuring that, in line with the Study Diamond, you comment on their effects, the techniques used in them, interpretations of their meanings and any relevant contextual information.
(Use no more than 1000 words)
This essay compares and contrasts two contemporary poems by British Caribbean writers; John
Agard’s ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’ a satirical backchat to Literary Canons, and Grace Nichols’ ‘wherever I
hang’, an unashamedly humble reflection of immigration. Interpretation of contrasting
techniques and evaluation of contextual evidence explores the effects relating to the evolution of
Caribbean Verse; its role in political and social protest and relevance in British Society.
Agard and Nichols were both born in 1950’s Guyana* during a wave of immigration as
commonwealth citizens were encouraged to fill Britain’s demand for menial workers. The writers
joined in England during the 1970’s* (*O’ Day et al 2011), the poems published shortly after the race
riots of the 1980’s. This shared cultural journey presents the foundation for the spirit and resilience
denoted in both poems.
Both poems are delivered in Patois (Caribbean dialect) derived from the language of West African
Slaves, used to communicate under the radar of the slave owners. Patois is by nature emotive and
unrestrained, inherent with humour and rebellious from form and both Poems draw strongly from
these characteristics. Agard’s ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’ confronts the “received pronunciation” of the
“Queen’s English” historically symbolic of class exclusivity. In ‘wherever I hang’ Nichols’ charms the
audience with informal inviting Patois, seasoned with colloquialisms the verse is fluid and calm in
contrast to the intensity adopted by Agard. Both Poems structurally lend themselves to
performance, evoking the influence of West Indian Folklore and reflecting protest poetry of “Poetry
Slams” (Open University Y180 online chapter 7).
Agard makes metaphorical references to the physical resistance to rule “I don’t need no axe to
split up yu syntax” (lines 14 & 15) and in the phrase “I slashing suffix in self-defence” (line 35). The
enactment of Agard’s poem creates literal imagery as he stands accused of “mugging de Queen’s
English”(line 12). As if in the courtroom dock, prosecuted by the crown Agard argues in contempt of
the “barbaric splendour” (Klein, J. 2009) of English Language that allows simple reason and morality
to be obscured by the complexes of antiquity. By challenging this “High English” Agard
simultaneously plants a direct hit on the aristocracy that powered the slave trade and authoritarian
figures whom incited the race riots.
By contrast Nichols implements figurative imagery to illustrate contrasting cultures “de humming-
bird splendour” (line 4) and “pigeons and de snow”(line 17), metaphors for the stark disparity
between a whimsical nostalgia of her homeland and scavenging inner-city life in cold bleak Britain.
Nichols admits changing her “calypso ways” (line 20) and getting “accustom to de English life” (line
25) she does not however loose her dialect. Through public revolt or private resistance both writers
hold dear their identity and ownership of language.
The rhythm of ‘listen Mr Oxford Don’ mimics a Calypso beat, derived from the drum of African
Slaves, this reiterates the influence of a cultural backstory. “I ent have no gun” “I ent have no knife”
(lines 10 & 11) “I am only armed wit mih human breath” (line 9), reinforces the struggle against
oppression as Agard defends himself against a modern tyranny with his own “simple immigrant”
(line 2) language. The 7 stanzas of between 4 and 8 lines are littered with conversational pauses.
References: O’Day, R., Hardy, W., Padley, Marsh, G., Padley, S. and Perryman, L.A (eds) (2011) – Making Sense of the Arts Open University p. 81
“Poetry Slams”: The Open University Module Y180 (Online Chapter 7 accessed 01.10.11.)
“Barbaric Splendour”: The Open University Module Y180 Resource Booklet 2 P.39 (Source: Klein, J. (2009) Grayson Perry, London, Thames and Hudson, p 42).
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