Poet, playwright and performer, John Agard has made a considerable splash in the UK with his unique brand of verse
During the 50th anniversary celebration of the arrival of MV Empire Windrush in 1998 John Agard played a central role as the BBC’s poet-in-residence. His poems continued to entertain during the Windrush’s 2018 edition, capping, for now, a career that goes back four decades.
John was born in British Guiana in 1948 and as a boy he developed a love for languages and writing. He worked as a teacher and librarian and was also a journalist for the Guyana Sunday Chronicle.
He settled in Britain in 1977 with his partner Grace Nichols, who is also a poet, and worked for the Commonwealth Institute in London, travelling to some 2,000 schools around the country to promote a better understanding of Caribbean literature.
Since then he has developed a brand of poetry noted for its energy, flamboyance and sharp social commentary. Critic and novelist David Dabydeen has described his work as “a wonderful affirmation of life, in a language that is vital and joyous”.
In 1993 he was appointed writer-in-residence at the Southbank Centre in London. John’s residency at the BBC formed an integral part of BBC Education’s Windrush Season, which he helped launch with a poetic summary.
In response to those who questioned his appointment he said: “I welcomed the opportunity to be ‘Bard at the Beeb’. Indeed, such a suggestion would not have caused ripples among pre-literate Celtic circles or among West African praise-singing griots or wherever poetry is part of the daily fabric of life”.
John also performed a specially composed poem, Remember the Ship, at the Runnymede Conference on Citizenship and Identity, which was widely regarded as one of the highlights of the day.
His honours include the 1997 Paul Hamlyn Award For Poetry and the Cholmondeley Award in 2004. In 2012 he received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry following a recommendation made by a committee headed by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It was based on John’s most recently published works, Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems (2009) and his collection of poems for children, Goldilocks on CCTV (2011).
John’s poems Half Caste and Checking Out Me History have been featured in the AQA English GCSE since 2002.