Checking Out Me History

I’m just writing about this John Agard poem for my next e-book and I thought I’d share a little about his use of patois… I like John Agard’s choices. If he’s writing about a general subject, he chooses Standard English forms, and if it’s personal to him, dialect sits right with him… so here’s an extract of what I’ve been writing…

The poem is written in first-person narrative, from his perspective. This allows us to see things from his point of view, especially when he polarises it with ‘me’ and ‘Dem’. We’ve got a choice: do we want to stand with ‘Dem’ who have ‘purified’ and ‘cleansed’ history, literally ‘white’-washing it, or do we want to see things from his point of view? This is a big theme of Agard’s poetry, about colour and race and culture, and ultimately, his view seems to be that he wants to be seen as an individual and to be free to make his own choices. In this poem, he wants to see ALL history in order to pick out what is meaningful to him, not be given a white-washed version of it.

He also chooses to write in a form of patois – the dialect of his home region, informal language if you like. Patois is a word that’s come to mean ‘English from overseas’ – where dialect is ‘English from the UK’ – I don’t like that distinction. It’s as if it’s okay for Norfolk and Newcastle, Lancashire and Cornwall to have their own dialect, and we’ll call it dialect and celebrate it as holding on to out roots, and look at Standard English dismissively, as if it’s somehow foreign to us, but Patois – that’s a whole other thing. In reality, it’s just dialect words and regional accent. I don’t like that word Patois because it has connotations for me of something ‘lesser’, like ‘dialect’, but worse. It literally means ‘rough speech’ – and it’s as if it hasn’t managed to throw off it’s ‘roughness’, whereas dialect comes simply from the word meaning ‘discourse’ or conversation. It’s like ‘Standard English’ is the acceptable ‘standard’ – the level to which we should all aspire, the ‘polished perfection; then ‘dialect’ comes next, like some quaint throwback to the past: either you use dialect grammar and accent and words because you’re ‘too dumb’ not to, and – for example- you don’t know that you can’t say ‘I were’ in Standard English, or else you use it anyway, kind of ironically, knowing it’s ‘wrong’ but proud of your roots. Then it’s as if the UK has abandoned its Empire and Commonwealth territories and whatever ‘they’ speak is like a lesser dialect. How very rude!

Here, John Agard is choosing the root I do: to use dialect and be proud of it, because it’s your heritage. It’s part of the very fabric of you. Standard English is a nice way to communicate with people in a ‘standard’ agreed way, those who might not share your understanding of your dialect rules. Standard English is very helpful in bringing together English as a global language, and making sure that Indian-English speakers and Australian-English speakers, and Canadian-English speakers and English-English speakers and Scottish-English speakers (ad infinitum!) all play by the same rules, otherwise we’d have to learn everyone else’s dialect rules and words as well, but dialect is ‘who you are’. John Agard often chooses dialect and dialectical spelling to reflect his accent when he’s making a point about himself. I find his dialect poems the most personal of all. It’s like we see the real him.

It’s a choice he’s made that felt right for this poem, the content of this poem.

Flag by John Agard

I love this poem. I love the simplicity of this poem. But before you get into it, you have to understand JUST why a flag is so important…

A flag is used as a symbol of pride in nationality. Consider the Dixie Flag, the ‘Confederate’ flag. Millions of homes in the southern states of the USA still have a Confederate flag outside their home. The Confederate army hasn’t existed for over two hundred years, so why do people still use it? Partly it’s pride. It’s a statement. It says you’ve signed up for all the values that the Confederates stood for. It’s a universal V-sign saying ‘Up Yours!’ to the Yankee Northerners with their Stars-and-Stripes flag. So partly it’s pride and partly it’s defiance. Nobody puts a flag outside their house and doesn’t expect some kind of reaction.

When the football is on, England is awash with St George’s flags – the red cross on a white background. People paint it on their faces. They use the flag in bunting. It’s both a symbol of identity: “I’m English and I’m proud of it.” and a symbol of defiance: “We’re going to beat all of you!” – it’s no different with football colours, football scarves. It’s part pride and part antagonism.

The English flag is a great example to talk about, because it’s something we all know can cause arguments and antagonism. Racist or national extremist groups adopt it as a symbol of being racially pure and it engenders discussion about who ‘belongs’ and who doesn’t. It’s sometimes used as a taunt to people. Living in France, if I were to put up a St George’s flag, I’m saying: “I’m English and proud!” but I’m also saying: “I don’t want to be French. I don’t identify with you. I’m different. England is superior to France. This is English territory right in your territory! Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” and I’m guaranteed to stir up emotion, mainly from either English people who believe I’m right to be proud of my nationality and to flaunt it in a foreign land that I’ve chosen to live in, or from French people who think ‘well, go back to England or integrate!’

As another example, a house down the road has a Welsh flag outside. Why doesn’t that do the same? Because there aren’t 1000 years of antagonism between the Welsh and the French. That Welsh flag isn’t a threat. It’s someone being proud to be Welsh. It just doesn’t stir up the same emotion.

Go to ‘border’ towns between England and Wales, though, and that flag becomes antagonistic, just like the flag on the Moon was an antagonism to the Russians, just like the Chinese flag is an antagonism in Nepal. Like dogs, it’s fine to piss in your own territory, but when you start pissing on someone else’s territory, they’ll get upset. There will be fights if they don’t want to let you take over their land. A flag brings out the primeval, the animal instinct in all of us.

Firstly, flags were used to make something recognisable – if you’re all in armour or all dressed in army clothes, a flag is a great way to identify yourself and distinguish yourselves. People use flags at big events, so that their friends can find them. It shows who you are, and where you are. After that, they began to take on a life of their own, representing a nation. In some countries, flags are everywhere: on churches, on town halls, on civic buildings. Each tiny village in France has a flag. It’s everywhere. Yet in some countries, like Japan, there aren’t many flags. Here, the flag has become a symbol of war. The Japanese rising sun is not flown in many places. The only place I saw it was at the war museum in Hiroshima. The flag is now more of a symbol of shame because it tells of things that happened in the war – things that should never have happened. National pride is one thing: flaunting it is another. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t see so many flags in Japan.

‘Capture the Flag’ was a popular game, and is the name for a series of games on war games as well as a popular paintball scenario. If you take someone’s flag, they’ve lost. That’s how important a flag is.

Comedian Tim Minchin wrote in The Observer about his arrival into Phoenix, Arizona:

“We drive out of the airport past the compulsory orgy of American flags, which despite their quiet fluttering still manage to scream: YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA!

Where am I?

Oh, yeah. Thanks.”

See. Flags mean something to everyone. Even Australian comedians.

Wow. That’s a lot of background to a flag. And a flag means all of these things. It has the potential to spur you on, to bring you to tears, to make you feel patriotic, to mark you. By using it, you’re saying ‘I’m here’ and ‘This is what I am’ and you’re also, potentially, goading anyone who doesn’t feel like you do about whatever the flag represents.

And as you can see, there’s no way on earth a flag is ‘just a piece of cloth’.

You’ll be able to read more about this poem in my ebook on Kindle, which will be up-and-running by the end of the week. In the meantime, feel free to check out my ebook about the Conflict poems from the Literary Heritage

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!