Dub poetry
: a study beyond predefined interpretations

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Abstract

This dissertation examines key artistic characteristics that have made dub poetry an innovative form. Whereas previous criticism of dub poetry has offered almost exclusively sociological readings, this work thoroughly analyses its constitutive cultural elements through an aesthetic lens. In so doing, this dissertation fills a void in the understanding of the form’s aesthetic. Indeed, in current scholarship there is no academic study that takes the aesthetic of this poetic style as its main area of investigation. This work is an inquiry into the substance of dub poetry. It is an analysis of the form and the artistic choices that characterise the style of this particular poetic tradition.

In response to scholars who have taken a worldwide view to discuss dub poetry as a general phenomenon of the Caribbean literary tradition, this work offers a new angle of analysis by focusing on its development in the local context of London. Staying within a delimited space, I analyse poetic choices in relation to the specificities of the cultural context that surrounded the development of dub poetry. However, this new angle of analysis is not used to confine the poetry within the boundaries of a single place of belonging. Instead, whereas previous criticism used national interpretations to discuss the poetry as a product of Jamaican culture, I am interested in how the global context of transnational and diasporic circulations gets reworked at ground level through processes of local recycling. I thus pinpoint London as a place where a diasporic framework was forged by transnational dialogues produced by a Caribbean diasporic community shaped by the specificities of a local context. Focusing on the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Michael Smith, I therefore concentrate on the poetry’s early years, namely the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In chapter 1, I introduce dub poetry with a brief history of the form and its criticism. This chapter reconsiders the relationship between the words ‘dub’ and ‘poetry’ in order to open doors to new understandings of this poetic style. In chapter 2, I place the poetry within a historical trajectory marked by transnational dialogues. This chapter analyses the cultural context that paved the way for dub poetry’s emergence. Chapter 3 presents the theoretical basis for the construction of the complex webs of intertextuality and interperformativity in which I situate this study. These webs offer new frames for the interpretation of unexplored dimensions of dub’s poetics in relation to a mix of artistic practices. The last three chapters offer close readings of selected poems. Chapter 4 investigates LKJ’s use of rhythm in ‘Five Nights of Bleeding (For Leroy Harris)’ (1974), challenging the idea of a poetic rhythm standardised on and predefined by the rhythm of reggae music. In chapter 5, I use LKJ’s ‘Street 66’ (1975) to analyse the impact of music, and more particularly reggae and the low frequencies of its bass, on the development of poetic expression. Finally, chapter 6 examines Michael Smith’s ‘Trainer’ (1982). Rather than taking dub poetry’s performative aspect as a pregiven element of a race-based reading, this chapter demonstrates the unexplored influence of theatre on the practice of dub poetry.

The innovative methodology of the close readings offers new analytical perspectives. Dub poetry has a particular ability to present poems in different formats. A poem can be performed live or studio-recorded, with or without music. It can also appear without the performance, in a print version. This variety of forms makes the establishment of an adequate interpretative framework a difficult task, as not only the specificities of each version but also the relationships amongst versions must be analysed within a coherent interpretative system. This complexity has created a void in academic studies of dub poetry. No scholar has yet offered a convincing understanding of these different versions through a coherent and innovative investigation of their poetics. There is no study that uses the different versions of a poem as solid ground on which to unpack the poetics of dub poetry. This thesis is therefore the first to organise its approach upon the recognition of these different versions. It understands key characteristics of dub poetry as consequences of the fruitful dialogue created by the multiple presences of a poem. As different versions are held together, they shed new light on the aesthetics of dub poetry. In this work, performance is a crucial site of analysis, which uses it to help develop a comprehensive study that focuses specifically on the artistic choices of this poetic tradition. Each poem presents key characteristics often considered defining elements, and each chapter offers a close analysis of these characteristics, as they remain largely underanalysed. A comprehensive study of how they operate within this tradition is long overdue.

Finally, because a poem can be performed over three or even four decades, time brings a series of transformations that affect the realisations of a poem either in the same format or in different modes of presentation. In this work, time is an important dimension of the methodology, as it is a meaningful element in the making and development of aesthetic choices.
Date of Award1 Jul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorPaul Gilroy (Supervisor)

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