Benjamin Zephaniah’s background seems unlikely for a poet: a dyslexic who left school unable to properly read and write; a black British Brummie whose teenage years of petty crime culminated in a prison spell.
However, Zephaniah has ended up the people’s poet. Today he holds a handful of honorary degrees. In 2008 he appeared in The Times list of top 50 post-war writers.
Zephaniah’s work is often described as dub poetry, a form of oral performance poetry that is sometimes staged to music and which typically draws on the rhythms of reggae and the rhetoric of Rastafarianism. His poems are often inspired by political causes. Zephaniah has said that he ‘lives in two places, Britain and the world’, and his collections highlight domestic issues from institutional racism (Too Black, Too Strong, 2001) and the murder of Stephen Lawrence to conditions in war-torn Bosnia, the plight of occupied Palestine (Rasta Time in Palestine, 1990) and global environmental issues (see, for example, Talking Turkeys, 1994).
Unexpectedly perhaps, for a poet associated with protest literature, many of Zephaniah’s poems are tempered by hope, humour and laughter. For example ‘I Have a Scheme’, a parody of Martin Luther King’s famous Civil Rights speech of 1963, dreams of a world 'When all people, regardless of colour or class, will have at least one Barry Manilow record'. Parody is one of Zephaniah’s trademark devices. In his collection Propa Proaganda (1996), ‘Terrible World’ plays on Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’, and opens with the words: ‘I’ve seen streets of blood …’. ‘Heckling Miss Lou’ on the other hand presents a playful dialogue with the pioneering performance poet Louise Bennett. If such poems seem to trivialize politics, this is arguably to neglect Zephaniah’s sense of the political. He has said that ‘[i]t’s a hard life being labelled "political". It seems that because I’m constantly ranting about the ills of the world I’m expected to have all the answers, but I don’t, and I’ve never claimed to, besides, I’m not a politician. What interests me is people.’ The political function of laughter in bringing different people together cannot be overestimated within this context.
Many of Zephaniah’s poetry collections are written specifically for children (Talking Turkeys and Funky Chickens, 1996), and he has recently written a number of very successful novels for young people. Face (1999) is a set in London’s multicultural East End, but its focus is on a white character, and of one boy's struggles to face his badly disfigured body following an accident. Martin is largely indifferent to the black culture that surrounds him on the streets of the city, but after getting caught up in a joyriding accident that causes terrible burns to his face, he starts to see the world differently. As Martin becomes sensitized to the prejudices of others, and finds himself othered, he starts to connect afresh with those around him, black and white.
The book was inspired by an incident when Zephaniah came face-to-face with Simon Weston, a veteran of the Falklands who was facially-disfigured during the war:
'I was so taken aback by his face. I remember staring and feeling guilty afterwards - I know what it's like if I go to some villages around Britain where they don't see that many black people. I walk into a shop and people look at me, or I walk in the park and get three or four kids gawping. I thought I should know better. I wasn't being nasty to him, it was just seeing somebody who looked so different.'
In his highly regarded second novel, Refugee Boy (2001), Zephaniah tackles the theme of political asylum. Alem, the novel’s Ethiopian protagonist, thinks he is taking a brief holiday with his father in London. Everything is magical in the capital until he wakes up one day and discovers his dad has deserted him. Gradually, through a series of letters, he learns they are not on vacation at all, but fleeing the political situation in Ethiopia.
In his next book, Gangsta Rap (2004), we follow the downward trajectory of Ray, a disaffected teenager who falls out with his family, and is excluded from school before finding fame and fortune in a rap band. If Ray’s life seems to have changed immeasurably for the better, it is not long before his problems resurface and he is caught up in shootings and gang rivalry: an unsavoury underworld of male violence that eventually claims the life of his girlfriend. Male violence, and its victims, are also the central theme of Zephaniah’s 2007 novel Teacher’s Dead. The novel explores the difficult topic of a teacher being killed, a narrative told through the eyes of a sensitive 15 year old boy, Jackson Jones.
Like Gangsta Rap, Teacher’s Dead offers an anatomy of violence for today’s youth, revealing its complex causes in ways that trouble the boundaries between criminals and victims. More broadly though, and what characterises all of Zephaniah’s writing to date, is its stress on the redemptive forces of love, laughter, and peace.
Dr James Procter, 2010
We will now address the language and the style of the poem “Talking Turkeys!!” by Benjamin Zephaniah and pinpoint some specific elements the author uses in order to enhance the text:
- Playing with the language
- Tense of the verbs
- The style of the poem
- The mode of expression
- The sentence structure
Playing with the language
Benjamin Zephaniah plays a lot with language in this poem. First of all, the title has a double meaning. On the one hand, “talking turkeys” means discussing serious issues. In this case, the poem discusses meat consumption and unnecessary consumerism.
Tense of the verbs
In the poem “Talking Turkeys”, the predominant verbal tense is the imperative, as the text is structured as an appeal. However, the author also employs present tense simple, past tense simple and future tense simple.
The style of the poem
The poem is both comic and critical. The humour in the poem is created by personifying turkeys, giving them human attributes and by very direct ironies:
The mode of expression
The mode of expression is an appeal, a direct address to those used to consuming turkey meat during Christmas holidays. This is clearly indicated by the use of the imperatives:
The sentence structure
Except for the last stanza, which is made of a single, very long phrase, all the other stazas are usually made of two phrases. The sentences in the poem are rather short like “Humans get greedy” (p. 30, l. 2).
Repetition is one of the key stylistic devices used in the poem. While some repetitions form anaphors, others can function like a chorus. Here are two examples of anaphora, in which the poet repeats the same words in consecutive clauses to emphasise his message:
As we have previously mentioned, irony plays an important part in the poem. It is both a tool for creating humour and criticising:
“Can yu imagine a nice young turkey saying,
'I cannot wait for de chop',” (p. 29, ll. 19-20)