“Madness, madness, wahr” erupts tonight in Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center. Linton Kwesi Johnson, a father to poetic spoken word, is performing “Five Nights of Bleeding” at the podium. He comes to the refrain:
War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war
He says “war” like “wahr,” enunciating the word with righteous disdain and the Jamaican patois in which he writes all his poetry. He pauses to enjoy the word’s resonance before beginning a new verse in the reggae rhythm that defines his delivery, manipulating the volume and pace of his earthy voice. The audience is visibly swayed. Johnson reads his poetry with conviction, as if the words he utters have become engraved in his throat.
“In my early days, I called myself a reggae poet, because I was inspired by reggae,” Johnson says. “Nowadays, I am happy just to be called a poet.” Johnson, who released his first album in 1978, articulates the experience of a second generation of black British immigrants he describes as the “rebellious” generation. The first wave came from the Caribbean after World War II, often believing they’d eventually return home. The second generation, their children, grew up in the 1970s, knowing their presence was permanent.
“It brought us in conflict with British society,” says Johnson, who was born in Chapelton, Jamaica but grew up in London’s Brixton section. He was one of many black activitsts who resisted British prejudice, but Yale English Professor and acclaimed poet Caryl Phillips, Johnson’s longtime friend, credits him as being among the first to express the challenge artistically.
In evoking the violent struggle of social protest, Johnson aims to elicit an immediate, instinctual response. Even when Johnson’s tempo quickens, his words blurring and his accent obscuring their meaning, one is still drawn to the shifting pulse of his poetry. After the reading, Johnson steps outside to smoke a cigarette, and my tapping feet follow him. In a pause between drags, Johnson tells me that written poetry can be excessively cerebral. He stresses that poetry is meant to be a communal experience, that poetry should be oral, not written but performed: spoken word.
The next evening, there are again echoes of “madness, madness, wahr,” as the poets of WORD mimic Johnson’s delivery in approving jest. WORD, Yale’s first performance poetry ensemble, was founded four years ago, after a poetry slam at a Cultural Connections freshman pre-orientation. On this Wednesday night, the ensemble prepares to edit their work. The week before, members worked in groups of three to revise their seed poems, but now, as the performance element of their work begins to take shape, they will read them before the entire group.
There is an endearing vulnerability to the poets as they arise to read their poems. Alex Benz ’12 nervously shifts his weight from foot to foot as he retells the tale of Romulus and Remus, but his voice is steady, and he is attentive to the musicality of his words. His poem is perhaps too complicated to be understood when read aloud, and someone jokes that Alex should present a PowerPoint presentation on the fall of Rome as he reads it. But Jessica Abrego ’10 insists that the physicality of his final performance will communicate his intent.
The ensemble’s efforts are a logical extension of Johnson’s innovative genre. Where Johnson’s words sustained a political agenda as Britain’s black community made strides in its quest for equality, WORD looks to use spoken forms to cultivate a diverse variety of perspectives.
Amongst the work that is recited tonight, there is no one political agenda or theme. Alexandra Rodney ’12 is a feminist whose poetic refrain — “I’ve suffered from no suffrage” — advances what she stresses is a “desexualized” defense of women’s right to vote. Rodney Reynolds ’10, on the other hand, addresses “Mr. Policeman” and his racist aggression. Rodney evokes the same Civil Rights Movement that inspired Johnson but updates it, concluding, “I could be president. You could be wrong.”
The members of WORD shy away from the literal and the wordy because, like Johnson, they look to elicit a visceral response. There is no quest for heady poetry, no literary snobbery. When two members begin to question the premise of Alexandra’s poem, Jessica interrupts. She doesn’t think it should be devalued in that way. Literary rebels cannot persuade the masses if they are unconvinced by their own creed: they profess an artistic autonomy and claim the instinctual emotion of spoken word. The ensemble is relieved to know that Johnson’s “madness, madness, war” has been preserved.