John Agard

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Write an essay comparing John Agard's, ‘In Times of Peace', and Fred D'Aguiar's, ‘War on Terror':

The post-war Caribbean Diaspora5, and its attending aesthetic rise in poetics, is rooted in a celebration of paradox - in the disorientation and anxiety of a conflicted cultural identity, and consequentially, the self-examination and inspection it provokes. John Agard and Fred d'Aguiar are no exception as both are of Guyanese origin, and both find themselves exploring the present in Britain, a present submerged in social and political turbulence to which the war in Afghanistan is inextricably linked. We find ourselves in a divided Age, wherein troubadours and poets no longer scribble from a faraway trench nor enlist at all, but instead fight in a socio-political arena against seemingly endless cavalries of disillusionment and bureaucratic control. The stanzaic Rebel-Yell is, today, battling alienation on a pseudo-home front orchestrated by vast and impersonal forces, and as a result Fred d'Aguiar's proclamation, that “home is always elsewhere”, speaks volumes for our current condition. Agard and d'Aguiar, poets capable of fusing deep imagination with cultural and political realities, seem at once relevant voices in their potential to shed light from a paradoxical insider-and-outsider perspective. Traditionally, Agard and d'Aguiar have displayed firm grasps on iconoclastic satire and political criticism. Their poems, ‘In Times of Peace' and ‘War on Terror', respectively, stay true to this tradition while sharing many other themes including; the psychological impact of modern warfare, dislocation, ambiguity, transience, and more. For every similarity however, there are differences, most profoundly in tone. Where ‘War on Terror' is overwhelmingly elegiac with overtones of nostalgic resignation, ‘In Times of Peace' seems defiant and provocative. Through these and other varied vehicles, the poems arrive with the same didactic intention of moving us into a vital awareness and inquisitiveness.

Even at a first glance, the structural differences between the two poems are as striking as they are reflective, in that we are faced with the juxtaposition of d'Aguiar's aesthetic minimalism and Agard's erudite precision. In ‘War on Terror', the total exclusion of punctuation acts out the role of persistent catalyst for interpretation. The lack of direction created, while being profoundly symbolic of the convoluted war itself, also provokes an active readership in which the audience is forced into subjectively expressing the framework of the poem. This provocative absence almost constructs a dialogue between reader and poet, a poetic conversation and revelation free of political rhetoric but instead promoting personal understanding and endless possibilities for expression. Along with this understanding though, extreme ambiguity - the ‘fog of war' - is ever-present and is only accentuated by the final non-conclusion. The fact that the last line is left open-ended leaves an after-taste of “nightmare”2 discomfort, wherein the ambiguously prosperous war remains unanswered for and closure is left unfound; thus this purposeful omission aims for a metaphorical rereading and search for answers. In contrast, John Agard's deliberate inclusion of question-marks as the only punctuation lends to a more direct approach whereby he automatically denies any degree of finality or certainty, but in its place offers us the right questions. This careful placement, in conjunction with an apocalyptic ‘falling' trochaic metre, draws attention to the gravity of the questions being asked, or the questions that should be asked and answered. Tension seems to rise as ‘In Times of Peace' progresses along a series of internal-rhymes, with each quatrain growing closer to a complete Canzone verse - a relatively archaic form traditionally reserved for the tragic, comic or elegiac in subject; and is therefore not out of place here. In this way, as the rigidity of Agard's confrontation symbolises the homogenous production-lines of Capitalist war, d'Aguiar's free-verse compliments the lack of punctuation in projecting a disquieting awareness of entropy3.

Both poems display a deviant anaphora, with equally significant effects. In ‘War on Terror' the repetition of “as long as”2, and more consistently, “long”2, serves both to provide changing states of time and perspective, and to emphasize the severity of the paradoxical “shorter”2 in the final stanza. The theme of Time and transience is abundant throughout, with the first and second stanzas introducing a conceit paradox that will be elaborated upon gradually until echoing indefinitely in the open-ended stanzaic non-conclusion. Before doing so however, the somewhat surrealistic inclinations of “paint behind the eyeballs”2 and plethora of functioning tropes succeed in defamiliarizing the reader from the mass-media-desensitization to ongoing war, so to give way to the abrupt and dire realities where “nightmares paint”2 Post Traumatic Stress disorders and the next generation dies for today's conflict “in their sleep”2. The sense of time and relative transience is propelled by the changing metaphors and perspectives of short & long, of “as long as a piece of string”2 contradicted by “no longer than a piece of string”2, of “as long as nightmares”2 juxtaposed with the evanescence of “paint”2. Mutually, ‘In Times of Peace' uses the complexities of Time within the words, “begin”, “all there is”, “wilting”1, and urgent questioning of “are eyes ready”1, to create a sense of immediacy. Anaphora in Agard's poem comes in the form of quantifiers and adverbs (“that”, “how”, “when”1) at the beginning of lines, enabling continuity of the inquisition. Figurative use of grammar is likewise found in d'Aguiar's elegy as, in the final stanza, possessive pronouns of “this”, “our” and “their”2 are wielded to illustrate identity and allegiance - “this war in this time under this government”2 not only projects a feeling of detachment and sterile anonymity, but the inclusion of “under”2 proposes a deeper anomie, oppression and inhumanity. Contrastingly, “our children”2 evokes a possessive responsibility just as, “their sleep”2 exemplifies a human right to self-ownership (of fate). The theme of inhumanity, or even sub-humanity, is moreover exposed when the only alliteration, a signpost for natural fluency and regularity, can be found in the nostalgic “tamarind tree” and “child crying”2. Furthermore, the incongruous imagery of “radar” and “whale”2 is rooted in irony, subjectively interpreted as a comparison between the natural purity of the whale, and the disturbing ‘new nature' of technological man. This metaphor finds its feet most dramatically in Agard's commentary, where the conceit metaphor throughout is that of modern-man changing or devolving into something unrecognisable. Via anatomical referencing of “finger”, “skin”, “feet”, “bodies”, “hearts”, “human arms”, “ears”, and “eyes”1, Agard contemplates the long-term impact of cross-generational war on human nature4. The alliteration of “at home in heavy boots”1 brings us to question whether the nature of modern humanity is rooted and reliant on war, leading onto our “stepping over bodies”1 to draw attention to ruthless Capitalist careerism, and finally questioning how we will “cope with a bubble bath”1 and whether terminal damage has been done and the notion of ‘peace' is no longer relevant, but has been reduced to obscurity, to theory and vagrant optimism. Alliteration is present again in the orality of “bullet's blood”1, but as if awakening in a violent realisation the fluency is halted abruptly by the line-ending “rush”1. These dystopian visions remain central to the satirical and sceptical comparisons of index fingers with “skin”, “feet” with “foam”, “arms” with the ironic “death of weapons”, and “ears” with the romantically-natural imagery of “wings”1. Considering these interpretations, the audience can find echoes of Rousseauian6 humanism in both Agard and d'Aguiar's outlook on an anaemic mechanised society.

Within our psychological black comedy, our “Parade Sauvage”7, refuge can be found in the rarity that is the autonomous realm of poetry - no social compromise is offered, no empty promise, but in their places stands a state of rare human equality and mutual exploration. John Agard's ‘In Times of Peace' bares the ugly reality of our ‘evolution' into the modern Prometheus by veiling serious musings, of the notion of Peace as a still-tangible possibility or a faded and fellatious mirage, with a darkly comical satire. Fred d'Aguiar's ‘War on Terror', a title made metaphorical by its origins in mass-media and governmental reasoning, reflects upon the long-term consequences of war and leaves, open-ended, the prospect of a predetermined and doomstruck fate for our next generation of children.

Appendix:

Notes:

1. From focus text, John Agard's ‘In Times of Peace'

2. From focus text, Fred d'Aguiar's ‘War on Terror'

3. The focus poems both mirror each other in a stanzaic capacity for debate, with ‘In Times of Peace' separated into three thematic sections of ‘War vs. Civilian Life' (first and second stanzas), ‘War vs. Love and Soul' (third stanza), and ‘Traditional Nature vs. New Human Nature' (fourth and fifth stanzas). Fred d'Aguiar's ‘War on Terror' can be stanzaically split into two balanced faces of paradoxical Time, ‘the Indefinite' (first and second couplets) and ‘the Definite' (fourth and fifth couplets).

4. “The number of former servicemen in prison or on probation or parole is now more than double the total British deployment in Afghanistan”, and an “Estimated 20,000 veterans are in the criminal justice system, with 8,500 behind bars, almost 1 in 10 of the prison population”. - Travis, Alan, ‘Revealed: The Hidden Army in UK Prisons', The Guardian, 25 September 2009, p.1.

5. Roberts, Neil, A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2001) pg. 583.

6. Rousseau, J.J, The Social Contract (London: Penguin Group, 1968).

7. Rimbaud, Arthur, Complete Works Selected Letters, Bilingual edn (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005) pp. 314-317.

Bibliography:

- Silkin, John, The Life of Metrical and Free Verse in Twentieth-Century Poetry (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).

- Roberts, Neil, A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2001).

- Lennard, John, The Poetry Handbook, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

- Rousseau, J.J, The Social Contract (London: Penguin Group, 1968).

Focus Text:

Approaching Poetry U67010 Module Handbook Semester 1, 2009-10:

- Agard, John, ‘In Times of Peace'

- D'Aguiar, Fred, ‘War on Terror'

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