Voice is a crucial element of poetry — of all literature, really. It’s the decision of the author to allow their own personality to enter the work, to fill it with their unique perspective and feeling. When reading a number of works by the same author, there tends to be a continuity of voice present. Poets who choose to really use their voice — to make their presence in the poem unmistakable — are often some of the most memorable writers who create the most memorable works, because it’s as though they are speaking to you themselves. Benjamin Zephaniah’s No Problem is an ideal example of a poem that utilizes voice in exactly this way, as best as it can be used.
No Problem Analysis
The entire poem, which can be read in full here, is divided into two verses of short lines without any particular adherence to rhyme or pattern. The primary poetic device being used is in the line breaks that isolate each idea and make sure the reader is feeling the full impact of each one.
Use of Voice
The most striking thing about Zephaniah’s work is his use of voice, which he imbues into the poem through intentionally spelling the words phonetically, rather than in a strictly “correct” way. The spelling of each word emphasizes an accent typical of the African continent, which makes sense in accordance with the message the work attempts to convey. Importantly, none of the changes in working or spelling inhibit the piece from conveying its meaning properly, but still add a new dimension to the poem. The first word in the poem is “I,” and it is followed by words that convey an accent foreign to the readership. Right away, the reader is informed that this is someone else’s story, and are told, in that one line, who that someone is, and why they should care about what they have to say — and it’s all in the voice.
“I am not de problem”
Throughout the first verse, this line is repeated several times, each time to view a different dimension of the actual problem. “I am not the problem,” the speaker declares the first time, “but I am treated as though I were.” The mention of taunts and slurs in the first few lines is a smart choice by the author, because this early into the reading, this is our only context for the speaker — that they are victimized. At the time of reading, there is no reason to assume or believe they deserve any kind of victimization, so the effect is that the reader is “meeting” the speaker for the first time, only to learn that they are bearing a weight. It is an effective and emotional way to begin the piece.
The next several lines reference the stereotype that pushes people of colour away from academia, and towards athleticism. The speaker is described as being a “born” academic and a “branded” athlete. The rest of the verse concludes similarly, with the narrator being constantly misunderstood. They are a person who could tell you about Timbuktu, but all anyone seems to care about is the dancing from the region. They are a complex individual, a unique and inspiring person, but the simplicity of the popular stereotypes overshadows them entirely.
“Just for de record…”
The last verse opens with an interesting expression; that these “conditions” might affect the speaker as they age. It is as though the opinions and scorn from others is literally debilitating, and the speaker compares it with age-related diseases. Despite this, they declare that they’ve no grudges or anger towards anyone, and point out that they actually have a number of really good friends in this same world that stereotypes and abuses them. The second verse is about putting completing the picture that the commentators quoted in the first verse get wrong. It is also about clarity; when, in the first verse, the narrator speaks of not being the problem, the repetition may imply anger to some. Understandably enough, many people would become bitter and unhappy after being blamed for so much for so long. And yet, the image painted by this poem is of someone with a great deal of acceptance for their world, and both the good and the bad within it.
It’s an interesting choice on the author’s part to use the voice that conveys the accent most associated with the stereotypes being fought by the poem. By doing this, the author creates a conflicting view by perpetuating one element of the stereotype (the accent) while dispelling the rest. This is likely a stylistic choice related to the pride referenced in the second verse: “Mother country get it right.” The speaker is proud of their accent and their country, and doesn’t want to be judged for that pride.
This is a powerful and honest poem that is more than likely a strong reflection of Benjamin Zephaniah’s own personal struggles with racism and stereotyping, which he has famously fought against in his own life. He has fought against homophobia in his native country of Jamaica, and against racism in his current country of Britain. Much of his work has been in favour of equality and social justice, and it makes sense for a poem such as No Problem to have arisen from that drive.