In this notebook we can watch John Agard at work as he crafts his poetry.
The notebook is full of handwritten drafts, meaning that these poems may look and sound a little different to the later versions we are familiar with. They have been printed in Agard’s books for children including Say It Again, Granny (1986), which contains poetry based on Caribbean proverbs, and the anthologies Poetry Jump-Up (1990) and Give the Ball to the Poet (2014).
What can we learn from looking at John Agard’s notebook?
The poems use ‘phonetic spelling’ – Agard spells them how he wants them to sound, not according to how they appear in the dictionary. He also varies the language structure in the poems so that it reflects the way people speak. He writes in this way to capture the pronunciation and speech patterns used by people from the Caribbean. This approach creates a strong sense of an individual voice in the poems, as though someone is talking to us.
He uses almost no punctuation and frequently uses enjambment – where the sentence goes over several lines. He structures his poems through rhythm, rhyme and repetition. Agard’s poems relate to the conventions of oral poetry, and remind us of the importance of oral history and storytelling to Caribbean communities.
Often Agard refuses to conform to the rules of the English language and does his own thing. The notebook reveals the vibrant certainty with which he writes – on some pages there are no crossings out at all.
Who is John Agard?
John Agard was born in 1949 in Guyana (then British Guiana). Guyana is considered a Caribbean country, though it is part of the South American mainland. He came to England in 1977 with his wife, the poet Grace Nichols, and became a touring lecturer for the Commonwealth Institute, visiting schools throughout the UK to promote a better understanding of Caribbean culture.
His poetry is often about identity and ethnicity, and frequently mixes acute social observation with humour. He won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2012.