On John Agard

On John Agard

This week, John Agard became the first poet to win the BookTrust lifetime achievement award. Here, judge Frank Cottrell-Boyce pays tribute to him.

Before book there was breath. 

That's more or less the opening line of John Agard’s terrific history of books — My Name is Book. I love the biblical grandeur of that line. John goes on to describe how the first books were Sumerian clay tablets.  Nearly every creation story involves someone taking a handful of clay and breathing it into life. 

God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and it became a living soul. Breath becomes a living soul.  

In the end, all writing is an attempt to catch that most passing of things — a disturbance of the air — and send it where the disturber cannot go: around the world, into the future, into someone else’s heart. The commas,  and full stops invented by Irish monks, the caesuras in Anglo Saxon poetry,  the great rivers of white around a poem on a page,  the emojis, hashtags, abbreviations, these are all attempts to create a notation of breath.  To share our living soul.

And no soul breathes quite like John Agard’s.  I know this because when I tried to type up some of the urgent, staccato, popping, button-holing lines of his great poem “Checking Out Me History”, my computer kept trying to autocorrect them back into banality.

I would type Dem.  
And it would say Them.  
No, Dem.  
Doom? 
No. Dem. 
Dim?
Dem.
Dumb? No, exactly the opposite of dumb. 

Dem tell me
Dem tell me wha dem want to tell me
But now I checking out me own history
I carving out me identity

I was so anxious about reading out those lines. I thought I would have to do the accent. But you don’t. It’s all there in the cadence. Because you experience John’s poetry not in your eye but in your mouth, your breath and therefore your heart. You read it with your heart. Other people will talk today about the politics of John’s poetry — how it takes on our dodgy imperial legacy and confronts racism. And that’s massive, of course. Is there a poem we need more right now than “Flag”? Simple as Blake and complicated as … Blake. It slips into your brain and never leaves. It admits that it’s possible to love a flag while warning you about the waste and destruction that will lead to.

But when we have finally dealt with our imperial past and when racism is as remote and incomprehensible as Stonehenge, we will still need John’s poetry. Because it gives us John. At the end of “Half Caste”, he asks the protagonist to:

Come back tomorrow with de whole of yu ear
De whole of yu eye
De whole of yu mind

That’s what John does. Les Murray says “poetry is presence”, and when you read John’s poetry you read it with your heart. That actually autocorrected to "you eat it with your heart". But I’ll let that stand. Because they are nutritious and they are tasty. C S Lewis says we read so as not to be alone. When we read John’s poetry, he takes us by the hand. I say when we — but his most important readers are children, and can we take a moment to appreciate how many of them have heard him read in person, because he’s slogged up and down the country in and out of schools? That’s really important. 

It might seem indecorous to resort to quoting a different poet when praising John but maybe he’ll forgive me quoting this one.

The books I love 
I must admit do not sit
Behind a museum of glass
No the books I love
Get kissed and squeezed
And pressed against my heart.

John, this is a lifetime achievement award.  When we were judging, we were told that it had to recognise someone who had helped create a generation of readers. When a child is just stepping into the world, looking for some signs to point them to where they can stand, you have been there, offering your hand and leading them — to Mrs Seacole and Toussaint L’Ouverture and telling them Picasso is yours and Tchaikovsky is yours and all the colours of the sky are yours. And all the gifts that humans give each other.  

As I live and breathe, John, you truly have planted an orchard where the fruits could be eaten but returned to the tree
To grow all over again and be a new harvest 
In endless new autumns 

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is an English screenwriter, novelist and occasional actor, known for his children's fiction and for his collaborations with film director Michael Winterbottom.