Featured Poem: Toussaint L’Ouverture by John Agard
This week in our special series of Featured Poems, Andrew Forster, National Shared Reading Projects Manager, talks us through a reading of John Agard's poem Toussaint L’Ouverture acknowledges Wordsworth’s sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture”.
I first came across the work on John Agard back in the nineties when he was Poet in Residence for the BBC. Some of you may remember a series of very short poem films that would be shown unannounced between programmes. There was something almost apologetic about the way he presented the poems, perhaps aware that this wasn’t what most of the people watching had signed up for, but there seemed to me something irrepressible beneath the humble surface, a gentle subversion delivered with great humour.
More than a decade later I was lucky enough to meet him, and to finally see him perform, when he was in residence at a Literature Development Conference in Cumbria. He was, and is, an electrifying performer. There are lots of clips of him on You Tube but I vividly remember his ‘Alternative Anthem’, which you can see here. As in the video he had the whole of the audience standing to join him in reciting the final stanza. This is such a simple poem on the surface, but John, who was born in Guyana and came to Britain in the 1970’s, pokes gentle fun at that staple of British culture, the cup of tea. Here is more of that gentle subversion that I had witnessed on the TV, a wryness that comes of great intelligence and knowledge of history. Like John himself, the poems seem to have a permanent twinkle in their eye as he speaks out of a Black British experience and nudges us all towards a more open, tolerant future.
From that point I got to know him a little, hosting him and the poet Grace Nicholls, who he is married to, for a number of readings. Later I had the great pleasure of reading with him a few times when I was involved in ‘Poetry Live’, the annual series of readings for schools that also involved Imtiaz Dharker, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. John always closed the show as, even in that illustrious line-up, no-one wanted to have to follow him on stage. The first time I took part I joined the audience of 1100 teenage school pupils and watched everyone absolutely riveted by him.
I was reminded of John when The Reader’s Director, Jane Davis, recently read William Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘To Toussaint L’ouverture’, the Haitian general and leader of the Haitian revolution, a great hero in history and of course of Black history in particular. It’s a remarkable poem, in which Wordsworth seems to reach out to Toussaint to celebrate the spirit of shared humanity. I can only imagine how radical this must have seemed in the Britain of 1802. Perhaps less known, though, is John Agard’s poem in response to Wordsworth, written in the voice of Toussaint L’ouverture, which you can read here.
I used to work as Literature Officer for the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage in Grasmere. The lane that ran in front of Wordsworth’s former home was my office corridor as I moved around the site to different parts of the offices, so I was steeped in both Wordsworth’s spirit and his poetry. One of the number of occasions John came to read for the Wordsworth Trust was for Black History Month, and he read his poem: Toussaint L’Ouverture acknowledges Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’. His poem struck me then, and still does, as extraordinarily generous: to acknowledge this reaching out to Toussaint, bringing his spirit and example of fairness and equality into contemporary Britain.
Over dinner after the reading, John told me that he had been subject to a British education in Guyana and forced to learn Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, despite nobody in his class having seen a daffodil and most not knowing what one was. This didn’t predispose him towards Wordsworth. But when he read the Toussaint L’ouverture poem he was astonished at how a poet from early nineteenth century Cumbria was able to reach halfway around the world to grasp the importance of the Haitian revolutionary. Like all of John’s work, it has always struck me as at once literary, intelligent and speaking out of Black experience to a shared vision.
John’s Selected Poems, Alternative Anthem is probably the best starting point but anything by him is worth exploring, and of course lots of his performances are on YouTube.
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