John Agard’s Listen Mr. Oxford Don is a poem that looks at issues of language, ethnicity, and immigration in a subversive and comical style. The poem is composed of nine stanzas of irregular length, rhyme, and rhythm and the poet uses various poetic devices to subtly emphasize his frustration with the superior attitude of the “Mr Oxford Don” with regards to immigrants like himself. Since the representatives of the “Queen’s English” condemn foreigners such as himself for their use of language, Agard’s rebellion will be a verbal one. The poem is written phonetically to reflect a Caribbean accent and is best appreciated when read aloud, which you can listen to here and read here.
Analysis of Listen Mr. Oxford Don
In the first stanza, Agard distinguishes between the two contrasting figures in the poem to make clear what he is rebelling against. The first is the eponymous Mr. Oxford Don, a fictional character who serves to represent academia and the dictionary, and the second is the speaker, who represents an uneducated immigrant. Crucially, the principal difference between the two is their use of the English language, and this is the poem’s main theme.
I didn’t graduate / I immigrate.
In the above line, Agard uses a half-rhyme in the two verbs to make a clear separation between those who graduate and those who immigrate, as if implying that they are mutually exclusive. Subversively, however, Agard himself undermines this by being both an immigrant from Guyana and a highly-respected poet. Therefore, he undoes the notion that any deviation from the “Queen’s English” is inferior, showing in fact that the latter is a necessary counterpoint to the former as it represents an opposition to the voice of colonial oppression.
It is also important to notice the mention of Clapham Common in London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The poet thus provides an apt location in which the tension between these two characters will be played out.
The second stanza begins to build some tension; its repetition creating a rhythm that seems to mimic the footfalls of the “man on de run”. With this expression together with the word “dangerous”, the poet is playing on the common notion that speakers of “incorrect” English are threatening criminals. However, the expression “on de run” refers more to a state of instability and change. As an immigrant in the UK, the speaker belongs neither to his native country nor to his new one, a problem aggravated by language. This evokes the contradictions of colonialism, as Agard seems to be highlighting how the colonizers would arrive in a foreign country with its own existing cultural identity, including a language, and attempt to impose a new culture and language upon the people. The poet is showing how ridiculous it is to expect that people who already have an identity will adopt a new one easily and without error. Agard recognizes this problem and the frustration it provokes on both sides. His solution is to establish a new identity as an immigrant, an identity that comprises this mix of cultures and languages. And since we express ourselves and define our reality through our words, he will establish this new identity in a language which is English, but including the natural variations which come about from its expression by a non-native speaker.
Agard will impose this new identity through the words of his poem. He uses violent imagery: “gun”, “knife”, “axe”, “hammer” in order to violently and effectively establish it. Words are converted into weapons to emphasize their power and to show that a verbal rebellion is much more effective and long-lasting than a physical one. In this way, he looks at the ownership of language, pointing out that it can be used in a number of different ways for a number of different purposes depending on who is using it.
As well as demonstrating the power of words, Agard also explores their flexibility. The style of English that the poem is written in, although replete with grammatical and orthographical errors, is nonetheless understandable. The poet pushes the limits of understanding in order to underline just how creative and manipulative we can be with words without detracting from their comprehensibility.
The poem itself effectively subverts the very issue that it posits by displaying infinitely clever and subtle manipulations of the language it appears on the surface to incorrectly express. In the fourth stanza, Agard places physical tools next to language tools: “I don’t need no hammer / to mash up yu grammar”.
In the sixth stanza, the speaker references his literary rebellion, which is a marked contrast to a physical one since it is carried out by “a concise peaceful man like me”. He is pointing out how ridiculous it is to accuse him of “assault on de Oxford dictionary” (while cleverly making a spelling error) by making comparisons with physical violence. His poetic crimes involve not using standard English, irregular verse forms and erratic spelling and punctuation. However, Listen Mr. Oxford Don deliberately breaks the rules in a protest against the use of language as a system to oppress and control minorities. While the Oxford don would claim that correct use of the English language is a signifier of education, Agard refutes this with his beautifully crafted poem, which demonstrates a subversive manipulation and subtle mastery of the flexible and powerful tool of words. Despite its lack of adherence to a traditional metric pattern, the poem has rhythm and it implicitly both draws attention to and subverts the traditional stereotype of the immigrant as uneducated and dangerous.
One of the poem’s most memorable expressions is his claim of inciting “rhyme to riot”, skilfully undermining the eponymous Mr Oxford Don in a phrase which is both a play on words and a reminder of the poet’s freedom to use words to protest, rebel and go against the status quo. This, along with the wonderful “jail sentence” points once more to the dynamic nature of words. Referring again to the issue of ownership of language, the speaker indicates that he is only armed with “human breath”, a universal weapon possessed by all.
In this way, with Listen Mr. Oxford Don John Agard democratizes language, seeming to say that the “Queen’s English” is not the exclusive property of the Oxford Don and whatever the “offence”, it can be an “accessory” for all, regardless of a person’s cultural heritage.
About John Agard
John Agard was born in Georgetown, British Guyana on the 29th June 1949 and is a playwright, poet, and children’s writer. His love of language began at a young age and he taught English, French, and Latin in Guyana as well as writing for a newspaper and publishing two books. He moved to Britain in 1977 with his partner Grace Nichols, also a poet, after his father settled in London. The couple now lives in Lewes, East Sussex. Since 2002, his poems Half-Caste and Checking Out Me History has been featured in the English curriculum, an interesting change from the typical works of poetry taught to school children. Agard was awarded the Paul Hamlyn Award for Poetry in 1997, the Cholmondeley Award in 2004, and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2012.