An you come rushin troo

The poem by Linton Kwesi Johnson, 'Sonny's Lettah', depicts a young black man who is arrested for the murder of a policeman in London. He tells the story to his mother, writing her a letter from Brixton prison. While waiting for a bus, he and his little brother Jim were accosted by three white policemen. They picked on Jim and accused him of theft. Jim backed away but the police attacked him and started beating him up. Sonny intervened to protect Jim and accidentally killed a policeman. Now he and Jim are both in gaol, one for murder, the other for obstruction.


so mi jook one in him eye an' hi stated to cry mi t'ump one in him mout' an'him start to shout mi kick one pan him shin an' him start to spin mi tump him pan him chin an' him drap pan a bin an'crash an de'd...

(Johnson 1991:25)

All narrative genres contain two elements; we might call one of these narrative progression, answering the questions 'what happened, to whom, when, where, with what consequences, and, finally, how did it all end?' The other, the narrative image, illustrates the circumstances, prevailing conditions under which the story develops. 'This is how these people live', it says. 'These problems are what they have to contend with, ones that will not necessarily change.' All three poets are interested in what happens and in what the consequences have been. But their narratives do not only engage us out of a need each time to follow everything through. Hardy's characters are left to wallow in the ironies of false marital loyalty and dreariness, or in the excitements of immorality—either way, we know their world is ruled by heavy restrictions, quasi-religious idealism, sexual dogmas designed to produce maximum unhappiness. From the other two poets we learn what it means to live in a culture where racial identity becomes a source of profound confusion and pain, even violence, and we learn about this not only through what they say but how they speak. To a community ruled by police racist intimidation, Sonny's vernacular would come across as almost a crime in itself. Hardy's voices have little say against sexual laws demanding fidelity under any circumstances. By showing us voices like these; marginal, ordinary, raw, yet full of urgency, a poem places less emphasis on narrative progression than is the case in the other genres. Instead we gain more of a sense of the cultural conditions illustrated by moments and predicaments, effects that relate to a narrative image of times and people.

The idea of narrative image, especially relevant to poetry's use of story, also has practical implications for the writing of prose fiction, drama and screenplay. All the poems so far included in this chapter could be described as 'dramatic' or 'narrative'. The difference from the other narrative genres is that poetry has is its own metabolism, converting living experience into images, compacting it instead of drawing it out, so that we quickly gain a sense of moments as turning points. Narrative image isn't the only effect poems can achieve. Matthew Sweeney's poem 'Tube Ride to Martha's' (Sweeney, 2002:37), describes some minutes in the life of one man travelling to meet his lover by tube. In the last few seconds 'as the smoke got thicker and blacker' he is caught up in an underground fire. Private lives, public catastrophes, moments when something irrevocable happens, or simply when things are not as they were; poetry can recreate such experiences, giving them meaning with dramatic impact.


In the introduction to his anthology The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse, Tom Paulin speaks of the 'vernacular imagination': 'Many of the voices here are disaffected and powerless. They know that in the public world polished speech issues orders and receives defer-ence. It seeks to flatten out and obliterate all the varieties of spoken English and to substitute one accent for all the others' (Paulin, 1996:262). Polished speech seeks to assimilate the kinds of vernacular Jean 'Binta' Breeze and Linton Kwesi Johnston use and keep in use. In each of their poems the speaker is a persona—a character in a narrative telling the story to someone else, or just telling it so that it gets heard. The use of personae allows writers access to a much wider range of experience, but it also, as in the above examples, enables them to dramatise, and thus preserve, experiences special to their cultural background. And there will be other advantages. Personae have been so widely used, especially in the poetry of the past and present century, that the reasons for its persistence might be very interesting to reflect on.

You, the writer, are imagining the voice of someone who could be a figure from history or myth, an animal, a stranger, a voice outside any of these categories, the voice of a member of your own cultural or ethnic group. In verse drama, the characters you invent will all be personae. The word 'mask' is often used to identify the voice style of a persona. Yeats speaks through the madwoman Crazy Jane; Geoffrey Hill speaks through the mask of Sebastian Aruruth, Eliot in the voice of Alfred Prufrock. Elizabeth Bishop uses the strayed crab as a persona (see p. 37). The immensely popular Carol Ann Duffy's collection of poems The World's Wife has recently made another significant impact with personae.

Why has it been so useful? Writers often need to feel able to reach beyond their own personal experience. Your life-experience can be relevant to a whole range of cultural and social questions people ask. But if the aim is to widen out, to reach others, explore new perspectives, and to revive and re-examine old ones, then to write simply as 'I'— meaning yourself—could at some point become a restriction. Equally, you might choose to think through some aspect of your own life using a persona. You can become—for the duration—anyone or anything you choose. But there are restrictions here as well. Your chosen persona—human, object, animate or inanimate—must already carry some meaning for you and your readers. Even if you choose another real person—your Uncle Robbie for instance—then you will need to make him recognisable to your readers or listeners by making him in some way typical and significant. It is a fundamental fact that a poem, while it engages its readers, must also disengage them from asking 'Why should I care about this?', 'Why does this matter?'. Why it matters must be established implicitly, first by the way it is written, then by its connection—stated or otherwise—to our human experience. The use of personae offers a surer route to collective meaning, while not excluding the personal dimension of life we all recognise as a neces-sary route to that end. Like Adrienne Rich in her poem in Chapter 1 on p. 16, we listen to another living presence, another consciousness.


On the dingy edge of a Detroit suburb, a man aged about twenty-five crouches in his mother's caravan apartment. He's scribbling a poem, crossing lines out, writing, rewriting. Conditions seem miserable. He'll never make it. Next he's in an off-stage washroom, vomiting. The audience won't wait. Someone else takes his place. Finally, he faces that audience. His name is Rabbit, an unknown, now taking the stage. Competition is fierce. All you can do is be honest, keep it real. He's terrified. 'He keeps forgettin/ What he wrote down; the whole crowd goes so loud/He opens his mouth but the words won't come out.' But the words do come out; these are the lyrics of Eminem's 'Lose Yourself', in the film of his first performance, 8 Mile.

How much do circumstances influence writing? How much should they? Of all genres, poetry responds to this influence the most, or it's assumed to. Raymond Carver in his poem 'Sunday Night' not only shares this view but demonstrates it:

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