Black British Poets

This week we took a look at four prominent black British poets with four very different voices

“Dr Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born and raised in Birmingham, England. He cannot remember a time when he was not creating poetry but this had nothing to do with school where poetry meant very little to him, in fact he had finished full time education at the age of 13. His poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls ‘street politics’.”


Jackie Kay “was born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father in Edinburgh on 9 November 1961, and was adopted as a baby by Helen and John Kay, who had already adopted a boy, Maxwell. The family lived in Bishopbriggs (Glasgow)”

Jackie Kay

LEMN SISSAY MBE “is a BAFTA nominated International prize winning writer. He was awarded an MBE for services to literature by The Queen of England, The Pen Pinter Prize and a Points of Light Award from The Prime Minister.

Google “Lemn Sissay” and all the hits will be about him. There’s only one person in the world called Lemn Sissay.”


George the Poet “is a London-born spoken word performer of Ugandan heritage. His innovative brand of musical poetry has won him critical acclaim both as a recording artist and a social commentator.

Voyages of Discovery

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer – John Keats

Fra Mauro’s map of the World circa 1450

As it is Black History Month it seems timely to take a look at the new Nobel literature laureate, Abdulrazak Gurnah. I happened to be reading accounts of the voyages of Columbus and Cook and their “discovery” of “New Worlds” which had made me think about how different these expeditions would look from the perspective of the “discovered.”

Accounts of journeys and voyages to lands unknown, or if known, only by fables, to Europeans had a crucial part in creating and maintaining Europe’s image of itself and the colonial mindset. However, the form did not start with Europeans. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (879-960) wrote an account of his travels to what is now Russia, from Baghdad, and his meeting with, amongst others, Vikings. The short, University of Kent lecture by Gurnah, “Indian Ocean Journeys” traces some of the ways that information from Asian sources filtered, unacknowledged, into Europe to find its way to maps and books.

Like Ibn Fadlan, Marco Polo’s account of his journey from Venice to the court of the Kublah Khan in China, from 1271, was of discovery rather than colonisation (though both were concerned with spreading their religion). Polo’s account was hugely influential. 200 years later Christopher Columbus spent much of his first voyage to the Caribbean fruitlessly searching for places mentioned by Polo, clinging to the delusion that he had reached Asia.

The next phase in this narrative saw a major change. The development in Western Europe of ocean worthy ships, equipped with canon and other guns, meant that the explorations made by the Portuguese in Africa and beyond, and the Spanish in the Americas could be far more overtly aggressive. These explorers saw no reason why they should not plant the flags of their kings and claim the “new lands” in their name despite the fact that they knew that people were living there already. Columbus did it in Hispaniola whilst maintaining friendly relations with the cacique of the main settlement.

Cortés and Vasco de Gama were more overtly brutal. Cook, almost 300 years later (1770) was still doing it despite seeming to have been unusually sympathetic to the indigenous people he encountered, for his time.

What all this looked like from the point of view of the colonised was barely considered, in the West, until recently. Even in my own school days much of the Eurocentric colonial mindset persisted. It is changing, if belatedly and slowly. One tiny example is that what Cook named, “Poverty Bay” (the hostility of the Maoris, some of whom his men killed, rendering expectations from the British point of view, poor) is now dual named as Turanganui-a-Kiwa/Poverty Bay. Of course, the local Maori people had never stopped using the original name but Turanganui-a-Kiwa is now official.

I started out with a quote from Keats that seems to me a perfect example of the European mindset, when it comes to discovery and colonisation, that persisted into my lifetime, and how pervasive and all enveloping it was. I didn’t read Keats as a child but I did read Swallows and Amazons (1929) which starts with the above quote and dwells on the image which has fired the imaginations of the Walker children: “Where are the others?” asked mother. “In Darien,” said Roger. “Where?” “On the peak, you know. Titty called it that. We can see the island from there.”

What struck me about this was that Keats was a liberal Romantic rather than a bombastic imperialist and Arthur Ransome was a friend of Lenin, distrusted by M.I.5. Keats’s sonnet is not, The Charge of the Light Brigade, it’s a paean to the delights of discovering Homer, and Swallows and Amazons is not Sanders of the River. Yet both Keats and Ransome seem to be content with the approving description of a greed-crazed mass murderer and enslaver as, “stout Cortez.”

And, of course, at the age of 12 I didn’t question it either!

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born on Zanzibar, an island of Tanzania, in 1948. Aged 18 he fled political turmoil, settling in Britain. His novels include the Booker shortlisted, Paradise (1994) and Desertion (2005). He is Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent.

He is this years Nobel laureate for literature. Given, “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

I would just add that I saw him being interviewed on Channel Four News and he was at some pains to say that he didn’t just write about colonialism.  I get the feeling that he no more wants to be put in that box than he likes the rich complexity of his childhood home being reduced to, “The Arab Quarter”

The Child Ballads

The Child Ballads are 305 traditional ballads from England and Scotland, and their American variants, collected and published by Francis James Child (1825-1896) of Harvard University, as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

Child was not the first to record traditional ballads, Sir Walter Scott was an assiduous collector of them, the Scottish borders being a particularly rich source. But Child’s work was thorough and undoubtedly saved many of these tales from oblivion as they came, largely, from a popular oral tradition. Most had not been thought culturally and artistically important enough to commit to print, apart from ephemeral broadsheets, or by exceptional people like Scott.

No one knows how old most of the ballads are. Few have a recorded life earlier than the 16th Century but many are undoubtedly much older.  According to Terri Windling:

“Little is known for certain about how the oldest ballads would have been performed — but most likely they were recited, chanted, or sung without instrumentation. Right up to the twentieth century, ballads were traditionally sung a cappella, although today it is common to hear them accompanied by guitar, fiddle, harp, and other instruments.”

The ballads cover a lot of ground and include tales of real people such as the notorious border reiver Kilmont Willie and mythological ones like Robin Hood. Many have magical elements, ghosts and fairies are common. Ballad 34, Kemp Owyn, is about a woman who has been turned  into a dragon.

Folk musicians have long plundered the treasure trove of Child’s collection and in the 1960s some of the biggest names in popular music: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Fairport Convention and even Led Zepplin have recorded ballads from Child’s collection or adapted elements of them.

A favourite of mine is Tam Lin by Fairport Convention.  A more recent interpretation of another popular ballad,  The Wife of Usher’s Well, has been recorded by Karine Polwart

But you don’t want to hear about fairy knights.

You want to hear about a woman being turned into a dragon!

Note: There are often multiple versions of these ballads, both in Child's collection and outside it, which is why the lyrics given vary from the Youtube versions

34A.1	HER mother died when she was young,
	Which gave her cause to make great moan;
	Her father married the warst woman
	That ever lived in Christendom.
34A.2	She served her with foot and hand,
	In every thing that she could dee,
	Till once, in an unlucky time,
	She threw her in ower Craigy’s sea.
34A.3	Says, ‘Lie you there, dove Isabel,
	And all my sorrows lie with thee;
	Till Kemp Owyne come ower the sea,
	And borrow you with kisses three,
	Let all the warld do what they will,
	Oh borrowed shall you never be!’
34A.4	Her breath grew strang, her hair grew lang,
	And twisted thrice about the tree,
	And all the people, far and near,
	Thought that a savage beast was she.
34A.5	These news did come to Kemp Owyne,
	Where he lived, far beyond the sea;
	He hasted him to Craigy’s sea,
	And on the savage beast lookd he.
34A.6	Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
	And twisted was about the tree,
	And with a swing she came about:
	‘Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me.
34A.7	‘Here is a royal belt,’ she cried,
	‘That I have found in the green sea;
	And while your body it is on,
	Drawn shall your blood never be;
	But if you touch me, tail or fin,
	I vow my belt your death shall be.’
34A.8	He stepped in, gave her a kiss,
	The royal belt he brought him wi;
	Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
	And twisted twice about the tree,
	And with a swing she came about:
	‘Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me.
34A.9	‘Here is a royal ring,’ she said,
	‘That I have found in the green sea;
	And while your finger it is on,
	Drawn shall your blood never be;
	But if you touch me, tail or fin,
	I swear my ring your death shall be.’
34A.10	He stepped in, gave her a kiss,
	The royal ring he brought him wi;
	Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
	And twisted ance about the tree,
	And with a swing she came about:
	‘Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me.
34A.11	‘Here is a royal brand,’ she said,
	‘That I have found in the green sea;
	And while your body it is on,
	Drawn shall your blood never be;
	But if you touch me, tail or fin,
	I swear my brand your death shall be.’
34A.12	He stepped in, gave her a kiss,
	The royal brand he brought him wi;
	Her breath was sweet, her hair grew short,
	And twisted nane about the tree,
	And smilingly she came about,
	As fair a woman as fair could be.


The Wife of Usher’s Well

There lived a wife at Usher’s Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them oer the sea.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
Whan word came to the carline wife
That her three sons were gane.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three,
Whan word came to the carlin wife
That her sons she’d never see.

‘I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood.’

It fell about the Martinmas,
When nights are lang and mirk.
The carline wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o’ the birk.

It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o’ Paradise,
That birk grew fair eneugh.

‘Blow up the fire, my maidens,
Bring water from the well;
For a’ my house shall feast this night,
Since my three sons are well.’

And she has made to them a bed,
She’s made it large and wide;
And she’s ta’en her mantle her about,
Sat down at the bed-side.

Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the gray
The eldest to the youngest said,
‘Tis time we were away.’

The cock he hadna craw’d but once,
And clapp’d his wings at a’,
When the youngest to the eldest said,
‘Brother, we must awa’.

‘The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin’ worm doth chide;
Gin we be miss’d out o’ our place,
A sair pain we maun bide.’

‘Lie still, lie still but a little wee while,
Lie still but if we may;
Gin my mother should miss us when she wakes,
She’ll go mad ere it be day.’

‘Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass
That kindles my mother’s fire!’

There is an analysis of this ballad here:

And lots of versions of it on Youtube, including this standout one by Karine Polwart

This treasure trove of traditional ballads is available online here:

Road Trip

This week was a bit different as we took a trip across the Barvas Moor to see the exhibition of art by Jonathan (JAM) in the new community centre in the old school at Bragar. It was a great trip to an amazing exhibition and the food at the cafe was excellent. Thanks to Rebecca for organising it and apologies for the lack of pictures (I took my camera but forgot all about it until I got home!)


Change of Season

As summer slips into autumn we celebrate the change of season with two very different poets, starting with Audre Lorde

“A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. “

I don’t want to make this session all about politics, but I don’t want to downplay or skate over her importance as a feminist and black, and gay, activist either, so in an attempt to square this circle I urge you to read this excellent article by Jackie Kay:

“Lorde – black, feminist, mother, lesbian, poet, teacher, Zami – always introduced herself with a long list. It was unusual then to name yourself so particularly. She wanted to show that she was complex, that she contained multitudes, that she would not prioritise one aspect of her identity over another. The kind of person who would ask, “Is being black more important to your identity than being a woman or a lesbian?” baffled and annoyed her.”

An altogether more literal take on the year turning to autumn is this one by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh which is more Cider With Rosie than New York City. Both poets are looking back at their youth, though.

And both mention apples!

‘Of all the Irish poets who wrote before Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) is the one who most clearly prefigures – and perhaps the one who most strongly influenced – Heaney’s direct, intimate style. Here, Kavanagh recalls walking through the fields on a September morning, with a pitchfork, ready to go and help with the threshing at the mill.’

Dr Oliver Tearle

On an apple-ripe September morning

On an apple-ripe September morning
Through the mist-chill fields I went
With a pitch-fork on my shoulder
Less for use than for devilment.

The threshing mill was set-up, I knew,
In Cassidy’s haggard last night,
And we owed them a day at the threshing
Since last year. O it was delight

To be paying bills of laughter
And chaffy gossip in kind
With work thrown in to ballast
The fantasy-soaring mind.

As I crossed the wooden bridge I wondered
As I looked into the drain
If ever a summer morning should find me
Shovelling up eels again.

And I thought of the wasps’ nest in the bank
And how I got chased one day
Leaving the drag and the scraw-knife behind,
How I covered my face with hay.

The wet leaves of the cocksfoot
Polished my boots as I
Went round by the glistening bog-holes
Lost in unthinking joy.

I’ll be carrying bags to-day, I mused,
The best job at the mill
With plenty of time to talk of our loves
As we wait for the bags to fill.

Maybe Mary might call round…
And then I came to the haggard gate,
And I knew as I entered that I had come
Through fields that were part 

And to finish off this seasonal post some Corinne Bailey Rae

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Dougie Maclean’s house is in this picture… just!

This week’s topic is musical, featuring songs about travelling – or more specifially about that tension between the desire to move on to new adventures versus the urge to find a home/return home.

The Grateful Dead sum this up for me with the line in Truckin’ ‘You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel. Get tired of travellin’ you want to settle down…’

But instead of burbling on, for once, I am going to let these great lyrics speak for themselves

Another West Coast classic: Janis Joplin’s rendition of Me and Bobby McGee, where the pertinent lines are: ‘One day up near Salinas, Lord I let him slip away. He’s looking for that home and I hope he finds it.’

Closer to home, Glaswegian John Martyn singing a traditional English folk song that goes to show that these conflicting urges are nothing new

An older version vy the Copper Family

” Bob Copper collected it in about 1954 from Jim Barrett, at the Fox in North Waltham, Hants, and printed this version in his book Songs and Southern Breeze…”

Nearer still is Dougie Maclean’s Caledonia, especially as Dougie had a house in Uig. Though as, I think, it is a holiday cottage so I am not quite sure if it represents travel or home.

And finally, you could always resolve the dichotomy by staying home but driving around in a transit van (but not, please, at 106 through Balallan!)


Nostalgia nowadays  is thought of as a bittersweet emotion, associated with longing for times or places past. But originally it was thought to be a serious medical condition that afflicted the Swiss.

The term was coined by medical student, Johannes Hoffer in his dissertation of 1688 after observing Swiss mercenaries afflicted with home sickness to the point of becoming seriously ill.  With time both medical and cultural understanding of the phenomenon have changed completely, to the point that it is now considered to have potential mental health benefits.

There is a very short summation of the history of nostalgia here:

Writers have mined the poignancy of memory and its power to evoke emotion from well before the term was coined.  Take Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

The line “Remembrance of Things Past” is used for the title of Scott Moncrieff’s first English translation of Marcel Proust’s,  À la recherche du temps perdu, perhaps the most celebrated literary work to focus on memory. Shakespeare himself borrowed the line from, The Wisdom of Solomon, one of the apocryphal books of The Bible

While it is fair to say that, In Search of Lost Time (to give Proust’s work it’s literal translation) does have memory as a major theme it is a huge work that covers many other things in depth. To look at literature that is  more firmly fixed on memory and nostalgia, we are probably better off sticking with poetry.


I Remember, I Remember

By Thomas Hood

I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!

I remember, I remember,
The roses, red and white,
The vi’lets, and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,—
The tree is living yet!

I remember, I remember,
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then,
That is so heavy now,
And summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow!

I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heav’n
Than when I was a boy.

Thomas Hood was the son of a London bookseller who moved to Dundee where he had relatives due to ill health. In 1818 he returned to London , eventually becoming an editor and poet and part of the literary scene.

Philip Larkin expressly references Hood’s poem in his work of the same name, rather sourly contrasting his own lack of happy childhood memories. I think that he may also be referencing D.H. Lawrence’ Sons and Lovers. Certainly the “farm where I could be ‘really myself,’” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Hood’s poem or life but suggests Lawrence’s friendship with the Chambers family of Haggs Farm (fictionalised as the Leivers in the book).


Reply of the Zaphorozian Cossacks – Ilya Repin

That many celebrated authors and poets should also be celebrated letter writers comes as no surprise. Skill with words in one format is likely to give facility in another. But there is something else; writers often (not always) afflicted by extreme loquacity. When not writing War and Peace or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,* the writer is typically to be found expounding on the uses of the free indirect narrative voice to the bloke who has come round to read the meter or explaining the set up of The Wasp Factory to the mystified small child they are supposed to be babysitting.

But what unites ninety eight percent of writers of all types is the extreme lengths we will go to to avoid getting down to actually doing some “work.” In my own case I have even, on occasion, gone so far as to do the washing up in order to put off the moment when I had to start writing.

Writing letters might seem an odd, nay ineffective way of avoiding writing but it generally isn’t the writing that a novelist is contracted to do or the poet needs to complete before a reading. The proof of this is that when letter writing is the obligate activity the situation is reversed and writing letters becomes the thing to be avoided. James Joyce, for example, wrote Ulysses  as a way to put off writing a thank you letter to his Aunt Josephine for a  present of some socks.

The fact is that many famous writers are celebrated of their letter writing and many have had their correspondence collected into books (often posthumously). Some of the most celebrated are:  Alexander Pope, Flannery O’Conner, George Orwell and (inevitably) Emily Dickinson and equally inevitably, Jane Austen. 

To no one’s surprise the novelist famed of her sharp wit wrote amusing letters. What is a bit surprising is how brutal they can be. Austen had learned to temper her rapier wit in the novels. And bear in mind, the published letters are the ones that her sister, Cassandra did not destroy in order to maintain Jane’s reputation, which makes you wonder what was in the ones she did burn!’

“Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed[30] yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

Sir Tho. Miller is dead. I treat you with a dead baronet in almost every letter.

On a more serious note, Kurt Vonnegut is a celebrated letter writer, but none are more poignant than the one he wrote to his father to let him know that he was alive after his capture by the Germans in WWII. The letter shows that Slaughterhouse Five, for all its aliens and time travel, is fundamentally a memoire and it exhibits all the melancholy humour that characterises Vonnegut’s fiction.

“Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.”

Letters Live first took place in December 2013 at the Tabernacle in London and quickly established itself as a very powerful and dynamic event format that attracted outstanding talents to performing remarkable letters in front of a live audience.

Inspired by Shaun Usher’s international best-selling Letters of Note series and Simon Garfield’s To the Letter, Letters Live is a live celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence. Each show always features a completely different array of great performers, reading remarkable letters written over the centuries and from around the world. One of the joys of Letters Live is that one never knows who is going to take to the stage or what letter they are going to bring alive.

Warning: contains offensive language

*Coleridge may have been in a class of his own when it came to garrulosity :   

‘It was Green, too, who introduced Keats to Coleridge in April 1819, legend has it in Millfield Lane, “Poets’ Lane”. Keats and Coleridge each left an account of this, their only meeting. Keats’s: “After enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable, I walked with him at his alderman-afterdinner pace for nearly two miles, I suppose. In those two miles he broached 1,000 things – let me see if I can give you a list – Nightingales-poetry-on poetic sensation-Metaphysics-Different genera and species of Dreams-Nightmare-a dream accompanied by a sense of touch-single and double touch-a dream related-first and second consciousness-The difference between Will and Volition-so my (many) metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness-monsters-The Kraken-Mermaids-Southey believes in them-Southey’s belief too much diluted-a Ghost story-Good morning- I heard his voice as he came towards me- I heard it as he moved away- I heard it all the interval- if it may be called so.”

Kid’s Stuff

Children’s literature has enriched our culture for generations. Actually for centuries;  Kathryn Walton argues convincingly that there was a rich seam of children’s literature in the middle ages, albeit much of it oral.

We read children’s books as children, obviously, but they are often enjoyed by adults. Although this has long been the case with books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows I think that books originally aimed at younger readers are more readily enjoyed by older readers than ever before. You might call this the Harry Potter effect. I am old enough to remember when The Hobbit was firmly considered a children’s book (actually, we did it at school) and Lord of the Rings was regarded with considerable disdain by the literati, at least partly because it dealt with what were seen a children’s book subjects while clearly being aimed at adults.

Fantasy has, in fact, long straddled the divide between children’s literature and books for adults with many classic fantasy writers: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula LeGuin, Alan Garner and more, writing wholly or partly for children. Perhaps because fantasy, like children’s books, were rather looked down on by the literary gatekeepers, so there was less to lose.

It seems to me that there are two aspects to children’s literature, coming at the subject as adults: the books we enjoyed as children and those we enjoy as adults. These may be the same books or they might be very different.

As a child I loved Alan Garner and I re-read, and enjoyed The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Elidor a few years back. I compulsively read Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” books and can’t imagine enjoying them now.

I have also enjoyed some children’s books for the first time as an adult. Laura Ingles Wilder’s, The Little House on the Prairie was fascinating but I really loved Diana Wyn Jones’s, Howl’s Moving Castle.

But what about you? What children’s literature did you devour when you were young and what have you enjoyed as an adult – and how much do they overlap?

Finally, which children’s and YA books should go on a list of essential reading?