‘One day I’ll hav a proper job’

Danny Hammill reviews 'School’s out: poems for school' by Benjamin Zephaniah (AK Press 1997, pp56, £3.95)

These poems by leading rap artist Benjamin Zephaniah “have been tried and tested in the playground”. This statement is to be found in ‘Introductionary chat’, the first poem of the volume. In this ‘chat’ Zephaniah makes clear that  these poems are not intended for “poetry experts”, whose prime function is “taking the fun out of poetry”. The ethos he is trying to engender is summed up by the lines, “Poems in School’s Out should be read out/ Poems in School’s out don’t care what experts say.”

It is fair to say that Zephaniah is a respected and well known figure. At one stage he was short-listed to become professor of poetry at Oxford University - a post all “poetry experts” would kill for. The fact that Zephaniah made the short list at all scandalised a large section of the academic literary establishment, and particularly infuriated many in the tabloid press. For them the idea of a black rastafarian ‘street’ poet invading the inner sanctum of bourgeois culture was a sign that civilisation itself was in peril.

Zephaniah’s hyperactive output and creativity is enviable. He is an actor (appearing on film and television), a teacher/educationalist, lecturer, ‘poet expert’, political activist, media commentator and musician - which saw him in 1986 record the single, ‘Free South Africa’, with the Wailers, Bob Marley’s backing band. Not bad for someone who was described in his youth as “a born failure” (you can always rely on school teachers for insightful analysis though).  

You cannot help warming to the Zephaniah ethos of bringing poetry out of the lecture hall and to the masses, particularly the young: “Many of the poems in this collection/ (I have been told)/ Are not suitable for young people/ Strange/ Because young people keep asking me to read dem” (from ‘Introductionary chat’). This is an admirable and worthy objective and there can be no doubt that the poems in School’s out will strike a deep resonance with working class schoolchildren, most of whom would probably run a million miles from Shakespeare or Keats.

However, having said all that, I found this collection unsatisfying. The radical ‘poet of the streets’ image that Zephaniah projects is ultimately unconvincing. The whole tone is just too comfortable. Zephaniah may say that “Slavery is not over/ Philip Larkin means nothing to me” (in ‘Lesson number wan’), and “But I’ll jus keep reciting de poems dat I am writing/ One day I’ll hav a proper job” (in ‘It’s work’), but we all know that Zephaniah is a successful poet and “poetry expert” - he already has a “proper job”.

There is a strong whiff of ‘designer’ nihilism in School’s out. Zephaniah has obviously pitched it at the level of alienated (especially black) youth, which means that he is not endeavouring to provoke or challenge his audience. In other words, Zephaniah is playing to the gallery. Thus we get: “Loadsmoney’s broke/ He left de South fe Stoke/ He’s signing on/ His smile has gone/ He wished he never spoke” (in ‘Recession’).

Fine. In and of itself, this poem captures a certain truth. But the cumulative effect is wearisome: “We hav/ Left wing revolutions/ Right wing revolutions/ Industrial revolutions/ It is pure confusion” (in ‘Revolutions’). Amusing, yes. True, yes. But then again ...

School’s out is characterised by the lack of a fighting spirit, which is somewhat at odds with his previous reputation as the angry young revolutionary who wanted to shock the genteel poetry-reading classes and overthrow ‘the system’. This fundamental complacency is reflected in a certain aloofness at times. This can be found in the rather clichéd poem, ‘Robots of the future’, where Zephaniah’s semi-detached attitude is made clear: “They never did think for themselves/ (And they were never able)/ Beware/ Approach with caution/ They are programmed to obey.” After all, if things had been slightly different, the author of this book would have been professor Benjamin Zephaniah of Oxford University.  

It has to be said that Zephaniah’s attempts at humour can be a little strained sometimes, resulting in corny lines like, “So fuck the science/ And kiss me quick/ Let’s get wet/ And organic” (in ‘The naked truth’). More seriously, he is quite prepared to use bourgeois prejudice, if not parrot ruling class propaganda - if it helps to enhance the nihilistic premise of the poem: “And dis guy said if him don’t get some kinda/ Voice in parliament him will blow de place/ Up, and watch it fall down” (in ‘De rich getting rich’). Presumably a reference to Sinn Fein/IRA, such sentiments can act to depoliticise schoolchildren, not ‘activate’ them.

Nevertheless, some of the poems are excellent and genuinely funny. My favourites were ‘Room for rent’ and ‘Adult fun’. The former describes the efforts of a black rasta to rent a room, only to be turned down by a succession of racist white landlords. Eventually he encounters a black landlord, who is “just like me”. However, it all goes wrong: “I took my hat off to get dread air and he stared at my head/ He said, ‘Mate I can’t help you, the rumours say you’re bad’/ So rumours make me homeless/ And landlords make me mad.” This is definitely one of the bolder poems, though the description of opening Christmas presents in ‘Adult fun’ is also marvellous: “Tanks I got on Christmas Day/ With Jesus in the hay/ It was ungrateful to say/ That I may give them away.”

It is hardly surprising that Zephaniah’s poems have lost their edge. He has been incorporated into the media/celebrity/education circus - he has been contained and assimilated into the establishment, albeit as its radical ‘left’ conscience. He is also a “good mate” of Nelson Mandela, which supplies us with another clue as to his political and aesthetic trajectory. It must be pointed out as well that this a very slim volume of poetry, if you consider the cover price of nearly £4.

But despite my reservations, School’s out is a good book to give to any kid in order to overcome their defences and open them up to poetry, and literature in general.

Danny Hammill