Sometimes a poem finds you unexpectedly, and is all the more moving for that reason. Sonny’s Lettah, by Linton Kwesi Johnson, is one of those.
Last year a friend found a book of English poetry on the street in Berlin, and asked me for help with the language. So I started reading aloud to her the first poem in there, which was Sonny’s Lettah:
It was de miggle a di rush hour
Hevrybody jus a hustle and a bustle
To go home fi dem evenin shower
Mi an Jim stan up waitin pon a bus
Not causin no fuss
Yep, I can understand why a non-native speaker found that hard going. But read it aloud, and it all starts to come together. Still, we didn’t really know where we were headed, until we found ourselves in the middle of a police beating:
Dem thump him him in him belly and it turn to jelly
Dem lick ‘I’m pon ‘I’m back and ‘I’m rib get pop
Dem thump him pon him head but it tough like lead
Dem kick ‘I’m in ‘I’m seed and it started to bleed
Definitely doubly powerful because we had no idea where we are gong. I had only vaguely heard the name Linton Kwesi Johnson, and knew nothing about the sus (stop and search) laws which this poem was part of the movement to abolish.
I say poem, but this is very definitely performance poetry. Had I just read it on the page, I doubt it would have got under my skin in the way it did. Short of reciting it yourself, the best way to experience it is surely Linton Kwesi Johnson reading it over a bass line: