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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Poem Focus: Great Poems from Identity Parade #02

Daljit Nagra's poem 'Look We Have Coming to Dover!' is arguably the single most important poem of this younger generation in the past decade. The poem won him many accolades and awards, and led to his being the first "British Asian" poet in decades to be published by a major press like Faber. Furthermore, few poems had been able, up until this one, to bring into their sphere of influence theories of hybridity, cosmopolitanism, post-colonialism and canonicity, with so much wit and flamboyance of linguistic play. It was as if Muldoon and Edward Said had collaborated on a work.

The poem itself is in five stanzas, of five lines each, and each stanza presents a visual "steps" form - so that the first line is followed by the next, which is slightly longer, until each of the final lines is rather elongated. The longest lines are fifteen syllables long, more or less. The rhyme scheme is subtle, if there at all. What is immediately noteworthy is the eccentric, visceral diction - part-Heaney, of course - but also partly Nagra's own: "gobfuls of surf", "vexing their blarnies", "Blair'd in the cash". This colourful language has been described as comparable to Dylan Thomas's surreal (and presumably uncontrolled) use of words, but that doesn't seem right. Instead, the inventiveness is closer to that of the Martian, though, again, more violent in its energy - almost an Elizabethan energy. In fact, there is a lot of Shakespeare (especially the comedy) in Nagra.

Of course, the poem is most famous as a send-up, or textual revision, of Arnold's 'Dover Beach' - if only insofar as this poem inverts the relationship the text has to the white cliffs of Dover, famous for welcoming immigrants, and symbolising England's promise. Here, Nagra envisions immigration as an act of slowly encroaching otherness, becoming, finally, open enough to toast their "babbling lingoes" in the clear - as England itself is changed. No longer do ignorant armies clash at night, but richly-differing cultures mesh by day.
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