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Does Caribbean Poetry Reflect Our Shared History English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3485 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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As a collective group, the Caribbean people celebrate an eclectic melding of the differences inherent in our ancestry with an appreciation of the influences wrought upon us by the history of the islands, and our development may be chronicled through an examination of the poetry and poetic styles of the poets who seek to give a voice to the diverse, yet collective identity of the Caribbean throughout our growth. The poetry of the region reflects the distinct composite factors which characterize the evolution of the people and the Caribbean islands: the difference is evident in the persons who composed the poems, the subject matter, form, style, the target audience, and the ideological interests which were served.

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Initially, in the eighteenth century, at one end of the spectrum there were poets who ascribed to the scribal traditions of the English verse as it had developed by that period. These poets hailed from the white master class and dealt primarily with a glorification of the “adventure” of colonization in the Caribbean. The target audience was the imperial Motherland – England, and by extension the other European nations. The pattern of the poems followed the blank verse, pastoral modes, personification, and a poetic diction consistent with the European poets of the era, such as Milton. The subject matter praised an idealized notion of the natural beauty of the Caribbean islands as in Weekes’ “Barbados” (1754): “When frequent Rains, and gentle Show’rs descend, / To cheer the Earth, and Nature’s self revive, / A second Paradise appears! the Isle / Thro’-out, one beauteous Garden seems;” (Burnett [1986], 102). The poems therefore are typified by a grandiose, eloquent style, liberally interspersed with classical allusions which celebrated the supposed grandeur of the West Indies. Singleton, in his “A General Description of the West Indian Islands” (1767), illustrates this feature: “There hollow noises, murmuring thro’ the vault, / Surprize the list’ning er; whilst from the deeps / The hoarse Cerberean yell dreadful ascends, / Three times full-echo’d from the distant hills.” (106). Juxtaposed with the idyllic Caribbean scenes described, these poets, such as Weekes in “Barbados” (1754), represent in their works a form of superficial humane concern for the slaves, coupled with an acceptance of slavery as the ultimate lot of the slave: “Close watch, ye Drivers! Your work-hating Gang, / And mark their Labours with a careful Eye; / But spare your cruel, and ungen’rous Stripes! / They sure are Men, tho’ Slaves, and colour’d Black;” (102). “The poems’ celebration of the grandeur of the tropics [italics mine] is really a celebration of the supposed grandeur of British colonialism in the Caribbean. In most cases the poems work to uphold the slave-based socio-political system of the West Indian plantation society.” (Baugh, 227-228).

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the anonymous, simple expressions of the black slaves – their folk songs, ballads, chants and work songs – which articulate their observations and emotions while enduring the slavery experience. For example, there is the poignant lament: “If me want for go in a Ebo, / Me can’t go there! / Since dem tief me from a Guinea, / Me can’t go there!” (3). In a frustrated tone, wracked with displacement and restriction of movement, the poem solemnizes the plea of the slave while voicing the collective strife of the slaves on the islands. Markedly contrasting with the poetry of the scribal tradition, the poetry of the presumably uneducated Negro slave appeared to be fresh, insightful and engaging in its’ simplicity. The poems celebrated the oral traditions of the Africans and were imbued with a creative potential which was forged from the melding of the English and West African languages. Thus, even though the poems were written primarily in English, there were distinct African qualities (for example, the folksong tradition), which was only enhanced by the combining of the European ballad tradition: “Guinea Corn, I long to see you / Guinea Corn, I long to plant you / Guinea Corn, I long to mould you” (4). Significant to note is that the poet’s focus is on the Guinea Corn of hie native homeland, and not on the sugarcane of the plantations which exploited his labour. Topically, the slave would not have thought to romanticize the natural beauty of the islands in which they now lived under such persecution. Rather, focal points of their poems may have been entrenched in the desire to retain their native identities and in finding ways of re-defining their identities in the new context of the Caribbean.

While it stands to reason that the dichotomy shown here epitomizes the expected disparity of thought and should, in fact, highlight the distinctions among the Caribbean people, the evolution of the Caribbean towards the abolition of slavery gave birth to an innovative poetic voice, one which emerged as a spokesperson chronicling the debacle of the slave trade and the slave experience:

Was there no mercy, mother of the slave!

No friendly hand to succor and to save,

While commerce thus thy captive tribes oppress’d,

And lowering vengeance linger’d o’er the west?

Yes, Africa! Beneath the stranger’s rod…

…From isle to isle the welcome tidings ran;

The slave that heard them started into man:

Like Peter, sleeping in his chains, he lay,

The angel came, his night was turn’d to day;

‘Arise!’ his fetters fell, his slumbers flee;

He wakes to life, he springs to liberty.

(Montgomery [1807], 1-5, 76-77).

This poetic voice also interwove the African oral tradition into the fabric of the European poetic form, creating a new composite form which, for the first time, attempted to bridge the gap between the Standard English language and the language of the slaves. In his pioneer attempt, Moreton’s “Ballad” (1790) is an example of this: ” Altho’ a slave me is born and bred, / My skin is black, not yellow:” (Burnett, 112).

With this initial foray into the experimental Creole art form, the fact that poets of Caucasian descent were willing to both pen and publish poems in this “native” dialect spoke loudly to the impending communal focus of poetry in the Caribbean isles, and by extension, the duality of distinct peoples writing for the same purpose: to record a shared history and to give a unique voice to Caribbean literary works. That is not to say that all poems written in this time period were imbued with a humane outlook on the Africans. Many poets who were members of the privileged class ventured into this field, using the local vernacular in their scribal works, however the intent of poets such as Cordle and Mc Turk was a humorous depiction of the everyday life of the African in an attempt to appease the target audience which was still predominantly European. A prime example of Mc Turk’s use of the vernacular to “poke fun” at the African people can be seen in his poem, “Query” (1899): “Da Backra one fo go a hebben? / Da Backra one fo raise like lebben? / Da wa’ a-we po Negah do? / Make a-we no fo raise up too?” (13). It may be noted however, that poets such as Mac Dermot, whose work displayed a Tennysonian sound and feel, as was inevitable due to continued reliance on European form, in “Cuba” (1950’s), showed the redemptive power of Caribbean unity: “But we like lovers twain / Are one in joy and pain,” (132).

The poets and poems of this era depicted, in essence, informative social history documents, however their depiction did not negate the fact that, inevitably, two distinct histories were being interwoven through the medium of the poetry which was written. Without openly acknowledging the fact, the poets became “a part of the discourse of history that they shared with historians and travel writers” (Baugh, 230). The veer towards the vernacular in poetry which still embodied European forms, and also now American forms in the writing, was extremely valuable as a reflection of social realities which no longer distinguished between the people who populated the Caribbean islands, but rather reflected the shared nature of the their heritage. This fact became more noticeable as the Caribbean and its people continued to evolve. The turn of the century was earmarked by poets such as Claude Mc Kay and Una Marson, whose poetic content highlighted the didactic shift towards a focus on black consciousness and, in Marson’s work, a predominantly feminist interpretation of the social relations of the era.

Although his later works were penned entirely in Standard English and exhibited the lineage of Milton and Wordsworth, the protest sonnets of Mc Kay, such as “If We Must Die” reflected both the black United States American situation and the Caribbean situation of the time; the racial theme is engaged poignantly, connecting the Black diaspora and speaking for the Black community generally, rather than singularly from the Caribbean perspective: “If we must die, O let us nobly die, / So that our precious blood may not be shed / In vain; then even the monsters we defy / Shall be constrained to honour us, though dead!” (Burnett, 144). If one examines Mc Kay’s Creole poetry, there is, in contrast to earlier works by Cordle and Mc Turk in which the African man was patronized, a definitive consciousness of the black people: “I born right do’n beneat’ de clack / (You ugly brute, you tu’n you’ back?) / Don’ t’ink dat I’m a come-aroun’ / I born right ‘way in ‘panish Town.” (Brown, 7).

The new female consciousness presented by Marson was also linked to black awareness on a holistic level. This black awareness fuses with class consciousness in Marson’s simple diction and syntax, while her rhyme draws heavily from the ‘Blues” tradition of the American poetic form: “I like me black face / And me kinky hair. / I like me black face / And me kinky hair. / But nobody leves dem, / I jes don’t tink it’s fair.” (Burnett, 158).

What was seen to emerge was poets working conjointly to produce a new West Indian poetic tradition. Thematically the poets wrote in the context of the changing sociopolitical consciousness, exhibiting a new level of seriousness, characterized by a nationalistic slant, an exploration of the social realities of the time, and profoundly proclaiming a search for a shared Caribbean identity. The poems which grew out of the early to mid-twentieth century gave more attention to the search for a unique voice and although typified by derivations from the modern English and American poets of the time, for example, Auden, Eliot and Pound, there was a decided split from the European tradition.

Nowhere does this split show itself to be more evident than in the secular works of Louise Bennett. Written entirely in the Jamaican Creole, Bennett’s work legitimized the Creole in a way that no-one else’s had as yet. Employing the primarily dramatic monologue, interspersed intermittently with the short narrative form, and with heavy reliance on the oral traditions, Bennett engages the reader vicariously in the grassroots wisdom of her personae. Her sharply probing yet objective eye exposes the naïveté of the Caribbean people. Her tone which is sometimes chastising, is at all times, even in the midst of her reliance on comedy as a medium of exposition, satirical as she figuratively holds up a mirror to society’s foibles. Her ideas dwell on the people’s articulation of self and their place in the history of the Caribbean. Distinguishing identity becomes an inevitable condition as the people define themselves.

In her works, for example, “Colonization in Reverse”, the reader can see how Bennett acts as a reporter and commentator on an event of both historical significance and psychological interest to the Caribbean people – the exodus of Caribbean nationals to England during the post-war period:

Wat a joyful news, Miss Mattie,

I feel like me heart gwine burs

Jamaica people colonizing

Englan in reverse…

…Oonoo see how life is funny,

Oonoo see de tunabout?

Jamaica live fe box bread

Out a English people mout’…

(Brown, 32).

The delivery is characterized by a high degree of verbal and gestural expressiveness however the irony and counter-irony of the situation chronicle the poem. The dialect which is used as the medium of delivery serves mainly to highlight the unfolding drama of West Indian consciousness as the speaker debates the issue of a counter-colonization of England, and the West Indian national’s search for an identifiable history.

To many of the West Indian poets such as Bennett, the tradition of English poetic form which was inherited as a part of our colonial history became progressively constrained and oppressive as the islands and their people moved towards self-realization. The need for a Caribbean poetry which encapsulated the essence of the Caribbean peoples’ shared history and drive towards progress and self-actualiaztion became the fore-runner of thematic influence for the poets’ topics. The desire for a poetry which spoke of, to and for West Indians was begun by poets like Bennett and realized in poets such as Derek Walcott and (Edward) Kamau Brathwaite. Their poems expressed a possibility for the creation of a new Caribbean world differentiated by its very divergence from Europe and America. Walcott’s vision essentially delineates the social realities which have to be transformed in order for a new world vision to transcend into reality. His poetry reinvented the Caribbean landscape through the language which defined the qualities of the Caribbean life and people. The vision, which was also influenced by the plight of the Middle Passage extends to all races that comprised the Caribbean. Walcott’s poetry did not highlight distinctions among the people, rather when he speaks of race he refers to all Caribbean people, and this vision further extends to embrace all human suffering and the need for survival. The Native Americans’ tragedy served only to deepen his concern for the Black diaspora, his outrage and lament not singularly focused on the Cherokee Trail of Tears nor the Gulag Archipelago, but a lament for the injustice of all systems of abuse and slavery which prioritized the financial gain of the enterprise above the inhumanities inflicted on the individual. Walcott’s poetry can be said to subsume the whole history of grief inherited by the Caribbean people. History itself, for him, becomes a centrally comprehensive theme, such that the gnarled, sea-almond trees on any Atlantic-facing Caribbean coast represent for the poet the resiliency of the people, their capacity to endure, and to build a culture out of a common catastrophe: “…their leaves’ broad dialect a coarse, / enduring sound / they shared together.” (Walcott, 23).

Brathwaite shared Walcott’s vision as he “clearly established [a] single-minded pursuit of an alternative tradition for West Indian poetry. He grounded it in the retrieval and recognition of African cultures and of communal knowledge lost or submerged in the Middle Passage…” (Baugh, 255):

…memories trunked up in a dark attic,

he stumps up the stares

of our windows, he stares, stares

he squats on the tips

of our language

black burr of conundrums

eye corner of ghosts, ancient his-


(Brathwaite, 165).

For Brathwaite, his poetry utilizes black musical expressions from both sides of the Atlantic and combines them with black vernacular and Standard English to re-enact or evoke significant moments of Black experience. His goal may be seen as to renew a sense of community and shared purpose among the dispersed African peoples. Brathwaite’s poems are simultaneously a lament and a celebration of the black diaspora, his heroes and speakers composites of all the changing faces and voices of the new Caribbean. Renewal and community emerge as the desired home out of a legacy of exile and fragmented identity. For both Walcott and Brathwaite, their representations of contemporary society resound with the understanding of the colonial legacy bequeathed to the Caribbean people.

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The latter half of the Twentieth Century heralded the emergence of yet another poetic voice. This voice was that of the West Indian feminist who sought to establish the importance of the contribution of the female figure in the West Indian community. Poets such as Merle Collins and Lorna Goodison spoke out forthrightly against male-dominated power structures and engaged questions of the woman’s role in issues of history, class and race. Goodison’s poetry for example resonates with a deep sense of history, generates a sense of creativity and focuses on the multi-dimensional roles of women in the society, sharing with Brathwaite and Walcott that vibrant sense of identity evident in her works which characteristically display Caribbean and African-American people music within a social and native consciousness that this type of music includes:

Mother, there is the stone on the hearts of some women and men

something like an onyx, cabochon-cut,

which hung on the wearer seeds bad dreams.

Speaking for the small

dreamers of this earth, plagued with nightmares, yearning

for healing dreams

we want the stone to move.

(Goodison, 4).

Poems such as this encapsulate the breadth of the female form, claiming the woman’s place as the cultural regenerator of the people.

Also extending the range of artistic use of the oral tradition into the current century, infusing it with the urgency of new, deprived generations and speaking the ‘language of the street’, the poetry of poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson gained new popularity as ‘dub poetry’, a poetry which could trace its lineage to the oral inventiveness of the tenement yards and ghettos. However, although the poetry is at times interspersed with impressions of violence, it affirms the deep cultural significance and identification of the Caribbean people with social protest:

dem is awftin decried an denied

dem is awftin ridiculed an doungraded

dem is sometimes kangratulated an celebrated

dem is sometimes suprised an elated

but as yu mite have already guess

dem is awftin foun wantin more or less

dus spoke di wizen wans af ole

dis is a story nevvah told

(Brown, 274).

The writers explored here are not all of one and the same generation. Nonetheless they identify in crucial ways the Caribbean’s origins; their sense of location is creatively problematic and their postcolonial sensibility appears uneasily chronicled. However the idea of a divided ‘immigrant’ to the Caribbean does not hold true. Rather, one can literally trace the development of the Caribbean, and its continuing development, through the voice which these poets give to their works of art. There is a specially defined relationship of the Caribbean national to his ‘home’ and ‘identity’, however multi-faceted it may appear to be. His colonial redefinition is still incomplete but the process, however delayed, is inevitable. Poets of the West Indies, through their thematic content, their use of language, their adaptation of form and their ability to acquire a target audience which was, in effect, a locally appreciative entourage, all shared in the singular rhetoric which captured the shared experience of the Caribbean people and gave to the islands a unique form of identity. As Eric Roach notes in his poem “Love Over-grows a Rock” (1992), the hope for the Caribbean peoples’ future lies summarily in transcending insularity through a shared regional identity and dream: “…So, from my private hillock / In Atlantic I join cry: / Come, seine the archipelago; / Disdain the sea; gather the islands’ hills / Into the blue horizons of our love.” (Rohlehr, 284).


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