Louisa Olufsen Layne on Linton Kwesi Johnson

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH

Posted by: Louisa Olufsen Layne

Date: 27 January 2015

Linton Kwesi Johnson

My doctoral research focuses on the poetry of the Jamaican-born black British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Johnson’s main body of work was produced and published in the 1970s and 1980s, although he still tours and performs around the world, and an anthology of his poetry was included in the Penguin Modern Classics series in 2002.

He is perhaps most known for his role in defining the new literary genre dub poetry, which is a form of poetry inspired by reggae music and particularly by how reggae deejays talk or ’toast’ over dubs/instrumentals.

Dub poetry’s affiliation with reggae music has given his work a strong oral and performative dimension. However, it is not obvious how we should understand these two terms in relation to the genre. Johnson has often dismissed the label ‘performance poetry’ that has been attached to his work. Performance poetry might initially seem like an appropriate term to describe Johnson’s poetry, but does it risk underestimating the complexity of Johnson’s creative project and the critical tradition of which he is a part?

Resembling his source of influence Kamau Brathwaite, he has been critical of ways in which we create distinctions between the oral and the written, and between ‘high’ and ’low’ culture more generally. Johnson’s work regularly and ordinarily evokes these large and fundamental questions, which often cross over into the field of aesthetic theory: What is poetry? What is orality? What is medium specificity? What is performance? Dub poetry invites many discussions about how we understand poetry.  

In my thesis, I examine how Johnson’s poetry and his engagement with defining a reggae aesthetic in poetry represents an attempt at expanding our definition of the literary and challenging canonical understandings of poetic quality. I try to demonstrate how Johnson’s concern with these aesthetic issues continues and redirects a Caribbean literary critical tradition.

A wide range of central Caribbean literary figures such as Kamau Brathwaite, Édouard Glissant and Derek Walcott, have in each their way, tried to conceptualise and define a Caribbean aesthetic. By analysing parts of their critical rhetoric, I am interested in exploring how Johnson continues a Caribbean critical tradition in which aesthetics and politics are represented as inseparable.

My research also wishes to create a better understanding of why Johnson offered readers in the 1970s and 1980s a different energy than other Caribbean poets. Johnson spoke from a specifically black British perspective. The tropical tropes and postcolonial ‘writing back’ of his Caribbean predecessors and contemporaries, were supplemented by brick walls, bass culture, and punk DIY.

Louisa Olufsen Layne is a second-year DPhil student in the English Faculty.


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