Benjamin Zephaniah – who has died today, after a short illness – did more to change the face of British poetry than any writer of the past 50 years. When he started out in the late 1970s, the man on the street had never heard of “performance poetry”. Today, stars in the spoken word scene he helped to build can attract crowds of thousands – and that’s largely down to him.
When I was a teenage poet, performing in sticky-floored rooms above Camden pubs, my peers looked up to his 1970s generation as pioneers: Zephaniah fused poetry with dub reggae, just as John Cooper Clarke crossed it with punk. Both of them freed it from the dust of the schoolroom.
While some may know Zephaniah best for his children’s poems, it was a painful irony that his own inability to have kids (due to fertility issues) was one of the great sadnesses of his life. Yet today, his children are everywhere, in a thousand poetry slams and pub gigs, and taking the stage at music festivals. When we spoke about his Bafta-winning TV series Life and Rhymes – a showcase for the next generation of spoken word poets – he came close to tears when he told me, “these were the kids that were raised on my poetry.”
Meeting the dreadlocked Brummie professor – charming and funny, with a great gap-toothed smile like a slow-dawning sun – has been one of the highlights of my career as a journalist. At the time, he was a lecturer at Brunel University, with half a dozen honorary doctorates to his name. But he wasn’t especially bothered by academic debates about whether performance poetry really counted as part of “literature”.
“If people in European seats of learning want to debate what ‘oral poetry’ is, let them do it,” he told me, slipping into the rhythm of one of his performances: “We know what it means to us. We know that it saves lives, we know that it saves minds, and we know that it brings us together” – and then that smile: “Sorry. I’m talking to you like I’m on a soapbox!”
But debates about whether his kind of work had any place in universities dogged him for much of his career, at times with an undercurrent of racism. In 1987, when he was tipped for a Cambridge University post, a tabloid responded with a photo of his face beside a headline shrieking “WOULD YOU LET THIS MAN NEAR YOUR DAUGHTER?” Readers were warned: “He is black. He is a Rastafarian.” An editorial cartoon imagined Keats, Byron and Shelley turning in their graves.
Zephaniah’s response was characteristically warm and witty: he used those newspaper cuttings in a short TV film, Dread Poets’ Society, which imagined him on a Birmingham-Cambridge train with the Romantics. On the journey, he clashed with snobbish Byron, but bonded with radical Shelley, which rings true. Readers distracted by the patois and performance style of Zephaniah’s poetry sometimes missed its engagement with the literary canon. For instance, his 2001 collection Too Black, Too Strong skipped between pastiches of Larkin, Kipling and Bob Marley, but to serious effect. It was partly written as a response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the flaws in our justice system that case exposed.
Despite his personal charm, Zephaniah was never a cuddly national treasure. He never lost his anger or political edge. Shelley, who attacked a Home Secretary by name in The Masque of Anarchy, would recognise a fellow firebrand in Zephaniah, who declared in one poem “The Home Secretary is not my God”. Besides – as Dread Poets’ Society jokingly pointed out – they were both vegetarians, though Shelley never wrote a poem starting with the line “Be nice to yu turkeys dis Christmas”. Perhaps he should have.