Caribbean Poetic Influences

influence of Caribbean literary and oral poetic practices on the culture of poetry in the United States has been important but often subtle. It is—and will be—the result of a number of factors, which include the rising number of people of Caribbean descent living and maintaining their cultural identity in the United States and the fact that poets and poetry scholars of Caribbean nationality have increasingly been invited to teach at U.S. universities, where they come into contact with young American poets and poetry readers and introduce them to poetry they might not have otherwise discovered. The influence of these talented visitors and emigrants to the United States increases to the extent that they achieve literary celebrity.

Many American poetry readers have heard of St. Lucian poet and 1992 Nobel Laureate Derek walcott. Many have read his books and attended his readings, lectures, and plays. Walcott's high profile, his long tenure as a Boston University professor, and other factors, such as his close association with Robert lowell, would seem to guarantee at least that less established poets would seek him out for the stamp of his approval.

Two other significant Caribbean poets who have become highly visible and influential in the United States are Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison and Barbadian poet and scholar Edward Kamau brathwaite. If not quite as well known or widely anthologized as Walcott, both of these poets are, like Walcott, at least part-time U.S. residents, recipients of major international literary prizes, and professors at prestigious American universities. Their employment alone has positioned them to mold the tastes and attitudes of a generation or more of young American poets, readers, and future teachers of poetry.

Brathwaite and Goodison, although more recent arrivals than Walcott, are having a greater impact upon readers and writers with inclinations toward themes and styles outside the confines of Walcott's Eurocen-trism and classical British diction and style. Goodison is especially appealing to readers and writers who respond best to a poetry that is more down to earth and socially real, as opposed to Walcott's mythic meditations on history and culture, particularly those with a heightened interest in the experience and status of women. Brathwaite's appeal is strongest among African-American poets and readers who find a source of racial pride in his anticolonialist reconstruction of the history of Africa and the African diaspora, but his immense erudition, technical inventiveness, and mastery of rhythm and sound have won him many admirers among poets and readers of other races, nationalities, and backgrounds.

As different as these influential Caribbean poets are in philosophy and style, they have fundamental things in common, apart from their talent and literary success. First they are all descendents of transported slaves. Second they were all raised and educated under the aegis of the British Empire. Third they all write out of a mixed love for their homelands, one embittered by the hardships their people have suffered for centuries under the racist, imperialist system of the British and now under the scourge of economic and environmental decline, factionalism, violence, and class-based prejudice that has marred their respective nations' periods of self-rule. "And so the drought has dried my tropic," writes Brathwaite of the sad state of affairs in his native Barbados ("Sunsong" [1987]), and of

Trinidad, Walcott writes, "Hell is a city much like Port of Spain, / what the rain rots, the sun ripens some more" ("The Spoilers Return" [1981]). Goodison, in her poem "For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)" (1986), offers yet another kind of image of a ruined paradise in a glimpse of her own mother, a superwoman who could "feed twenty people on a stew made from / fallen-from-the-head cabbage leaves."

If Brathwaite, a black nationalist visionary, sees the Caribbean region as a depressing wasteland for the survivors of more than four centuries of slavery and colonial domination, he also sees it as a place with hidden cultural roots that, if nourished, will regrow into nations worthy of their precolonial past. For Walcott, on the other hand, there is no such communal hope; what he sees in his native St. Lucia is a place utterly despoiled of its old beauty and of any trace of nourishing identity. He is neither the cultured Englishman of his education and tastes nor the African of his racial heritage but finds himself, like Robinson Crusoe, a lone survivor in an unrecognizable land who must reinvent himself and build a life from the materials of his imagination. Good-ison, a realistic feminist, is neither as hopeful for her homeland's future as Brathwaite nor as hopeless in that regard as Walcott. For her, hope seems to come from the gifts that pass from one hand to another even in the worst of circumstances. In their articulation of feelings of racial pride, tragic identity, and grittiness in the face of social and economic challenges, these Caribbean poets are helping to further the politically potent sense of identity between American citizens of African descent and colonized people around the world that has been one of the principal ideologies in African-American politics of the 20th century.

Decades before Walcott, Brathwaite, and Goodison arrived on the United States shores, there came another Caribbean-born poet whose influence on poetry, literature in general, and race consciousness in the United States is beyond conjecture: Claude mckay, whose collection Harlem Shadows (1922), is credited with launching the harlem renaissance. Among its most celebrated offerings is the widely anthologized sonnet "The Harlem Dancer," in which McKay reveals his tropical sensibility and breaks new aesthetic ground in celebrating the unappreciated dignity and beauty of a black prostitute who suffers abuse from a crowd of urban lowlifes in the street: "She seemed a proudly-swaying palm / Grown lovelier for passing through a storm." McKay can, in fact, be credited with introducing the idea of the beauty of black people into American culture. It is an idea that continued to show itself in the work of numerous African American poets who followed him, in the ideas of Malcolm X, and in the slogan, "Black Is beautiful," which was a principal phrase of the civil rights struggle of the late 1960s. Another poem from Harlem Shadows, "If We Must Die," remains an anthem of courageous resistance for African Americans and was even quoted in a wartime speech by Winston Churchill.

McKay was an artist, but he was also extremely political. An early black nationalist, he contributed articles to the Negro World, a weekly newspaper published in New York by fellow Jamaican Marcus Garvey. Although the extreme anticapitalist, antiimperialist critiques that he expressed in his political writing tended to alienate literary colleagues of his time, the radical content of his poetry and his fervid vision for the progress and independence of his race established him as a precursor of American black nationalist poets, such as Amiri baraka and Jayne cortez (see black arts movement), as well as their Barbadian colleague Brathwaite.

McKay influenced American poetry not only through his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, but also in a delayed, indirect way through the influence of his earliest poems on the literary and popular culture of his native Jamaica. He never returned to his homeland after coming to the United States in 1912, yet he left behind two published volumes of poetry written in creole, the first works of literature ever printed in the everyday language of the Jamaican people. These poems, though unknown elsewhere, were widely read and recited among Jamaicans and became the seeds of a cultural revolution that was to be furthered by the better-known creole poetry of Louise Bennett decades later; they were also given an enormous boost through the continued influence of Garvey, whose ideas inspired the Rastafari religion and more secular versions of black nationalism and black power imported from the United States at the time of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Poetry has contributed to this ongoing revolution both through elevating the language of poor blacks to the status of literature and internationally popular song (reggae) and through empowering them with admirable images of their race.

The route by which the outbreak of vernacular poetry in Jamaica came to influence American poetry today is quite circuitous. It begins with the effect vernacular wordplay had, first upon the popular culture of young Jamaicans in both the Caribbean and in England, then upon African-American and Latino youth in urban neighborhoods of the United States. McKay and Bennett invested the language of the Jamaican people with a cultural authority that extended beyond literature and into the oral and musical popular culture of Kingston and London, where the largest numbers of expatriate Jamaicans lived. By the 1970s, Jamaican idioms were expressed prominently in the song lyrics of internationally acclaimed reggae artists, such as Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, and in the verbal styles of "toasters," such as U-Roy, who spun records and "skanked" (talked) artfully over the instrumental breaks in songs to incite crowds around mobile sound systems in the streets and neighborhoods of Kingston and London.

If the toaster was an entertainer and not exactly a poet, he or she was a master wordsmith and oral historian of her or his community, and her or his art inspired the often highly political spoken-word creations of dub poets, who recited their rhymes against a simplified and somewhat muted reggae background. Among the first and most famous dub poets were Lin-ton Kwesi Johnson (in London) and oku onuora (in Kingston). Although dub poetry never caught on in the United States, it had an American cousin that developed in the streets, playgrounds, and dance clubs of New York's South Bronx. It is what is known as rap or hip-hop, and has extended a powerful influence not only through its highly commercial manifestations in pop music and film, but also through the art of a generation of young black and Latino poets who have been reciting hip-hop-oriented work to packed audiences at poetry slams in American cities since the mid-1990s, and, more recently, at respected literary institutions (see poetry in performance).

To trace hip-hop's inception, it is necessary to go back to 1967 when a Jamaican later to be known as Kool DJ Herc packed up his reggae records and moved thousands of miles north to the Bronx. An expert in the music-mixing techniques and crowd-inciting rhetoric pioneered by U-Roy, Herc had put together a powerful Jamaican dancehall sound system to play music at parties and in the street. By 1974 he was a star at disco clubs frequented by young African Americans and Latinos from the neighborhood. Herc had a problem, however: The Bronx crowd was not responding to the island sound at that time and probably was not picking up on the creole lyrics or their revolutionary message. Herc wanted to keep his clients—his listeners—happy. He replaced the unpopular reggae with funk, which the crowd preferred, to dance to and, like U-Roy before him, he maintained continuity and intensity through the use of his verbal skills. He talked to the crowd directly, learned their names, and made up rhymes about them; some from the crowd rhymed back.

By 1980 the content of some of the rapping became serious, aggressively taking on issues of social justice and depicting harsh scenes of life in the ghetto, just as the earlier spoken performance group the LAST POETS had done at the height of the black power movement in the late 1960s. The most politically serious of these first-generation rappers were undoubtedly Afrika Bam-baataa and his Zulu Nation, whose vision of ghetto life and political anger were comparable to that of the dub poets in England and Jamaica. Hip-hop took on many forms. Those geared more to music and break dancing evolved to become the cash cow of America's recording industry. The more strictly verbal varieties retained the social conscience of the early political rappers and, in their quest for expanded lyrical possibilities and a larger audience, were destined to become linked to a broader, multiracial performance poetry culture that, though it has a life of its own, is not without links to literary poetry. However far it has come, hip-hop poetry's core connection to the other forms of hip-hop has remained perfectly intact.

If hip-hop poetry has gained a nationwide audience through its impact on live audiences, it has achieved even wider exposure after being featured in two successful films. The first was SlamNation, a documentary about the 1996 National Poetry Slam, where rapper and now anthologized hip-hop poet Saul Williams and fellow members of the Nuyorican team stole the show in a coup that established the work of young African-American and Latino poets as a central force in the spoken word movement. The other film is Slam (1998), a fictional portrayal of a hip-hop poet that stars and was cowritten by Saul Williams. Winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Caméra d'Or at Cannes, Slam made hip-hop poetry an international phenomenon.

Still, in spite of all the enthusiasm it has generated and the new poets it has created, hip-hop poetry has hardly enjoyed instant acceptance by the American literary establishment. The mere fact that a new kind of poetry created and enjoyed by young blacks and Latinos in their teens and twenties has had a greater cultural impact than poetries arising from university writing programs, literary journals, and major publishers seems to have spawned snobbish denials that it is poetry at all. If the randomly generated word structures of John cage, the manic and onomonapoetic improvisations of Jack kerouacs Mexico city blues, and the explicitly oral and in-your-face chants of Anne waldman's Fast Talking Woman have been accepted and anthologized as poetry, hip-hop poetry can hardly be excluded. In his introduction to the hip-hop section of The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip Hop & the Poetry of a New Generation (2003), an anthology introduced by Billy collins, a poet laureate of the United States, hip-hop poet Jerry Quickley asserts that hip-hop is simply a form of poetry "like sonnets, villanelles, litanies, renga, and other forms" and aptly points out that it incorporates "many of the technical devices of other forms, including slant rhymes, enjambment, [and] A-B rhyme schemes" (Eleveld 38).

In addition to the standard poetic features that Quickley points out, hip-hop has a signature four-beat line which, like the sprung rhythm lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins, can accommodate widely varying numbers of syllables to a common measure, as in these lines from Saul Williams "Amethyst Rocks" (2003): "I be exHALin' in RINGS that CIRcle SATurn / leavin' STAINS in my VEINS in astroLOGical PATterns" (capitalization added for emphasis). Imagine the syllables as saxophone notes, and you will hear an agile sort of jazz rhythm not unrelated to what Langston hughes and later jazz poets, such as Baraka and Quincy Troupe, try to evoke in their verses. While rhyme and rhythm of this type are common and even expected in all forms of hip-hop, hip-hop poets also employ a broader palette. They will allow themselves the liberties of free verse or use alternative kinds of patterning to achieve effects uniquely suited to their content. These unrhymed 10-syllable lines about the pain of a woman who has just buried her young son, from Jerry Quickley's "Hip Hop Hollas" (2003), provide an apt example: "and she didn't know hearts could break this hard / or what black magic makes her still draw breath." All hip-hop is poetry, Quickley explains: "Not all of it is good poetry. But it's all poetry" (qtd. in Eleveld 38).

If the influx of the literary and oral poetic practice from English-speaking nations of the Caribbean has sewn seeds of radical politics and aesthetics in the united states, so have the influx of poetry from the spanish-speaking Caribbean and the growing number of American-born poets of Hispano-Caribbean ancestry who are also descendents of slaves transported from Africa and survivors of European colonial oppression. Nowhere is the resistance against European and Euro-American political and aesthetic dominance more evident than in the poetry written by members of the community of Puerto Rican poets that sprang up on New York City's Lower East Side, or "Loisaida," as they called it, in the early 1970s and for which the Nuyorican Poets Café has served as creative breeding ground and headquarters (see poetry institutions). Victor Hernandez cruz, José Angel Figueroa, Pedro Pietri, Miguel algarín and Miguel Piñero (cofounders of the Nuyorican Poets Café), Sandra Maria Esteves, and Judith Ortiz cofer are among the better-known poets of this group.

The newest generation of poets, slam poets, and hiphop poets of varying ethnic backgrounds, who hone their skills at open mic sessions and scheduled readings at the Nuyorican Poets Café, learned much from these pioneers of Latino poetry written in English or in artful combinations of standard English, urban black English, and spanish. Although the younger performers and writers have drawn a great deal from English Language poetry of Nuyorican poets of the 1970s and 1980s and from the highly vernacular, jazz-influenced work of the BEAT poets of the 1950s and 1960s, they have also inherited much from the highly political, yet strongly lyrical work in Spanish of some of Puerto Rico's greatest poets. These include Clemente Soto-Velez and juan Antonio Corretier, Puerto Rican nationalists who were arrested and imprisoned by the U.S. government in the 1930s, and Julia de Burgos, a pioneering feminist and tireless activist on behalf of Puerto Ricans and other victims of imperialism and prejudice. Other poets who have raised political consciousness and bolstered a sense of Caribbean identity in America's bicultural Puerto Rican community include Nicolas Guillen (1902-78) of Cuba and Ernesto Cardenal (b. 1925) of Nicaragua, antecedents of the popular United States-based poet Martín espada. Committed as these earlier Puerto Rican poets were to anticolonialism and issues of social justice, it would be a mistake to think of their art as mere versification of political clichés, for it is spiritually passionate, sensual in its sounds and images, abstract, and boldly imaginative, as in Burgos's "Poems for a Death That Could Be Mine" (ca. 1953): "What does the ocean care if a river is dammed; / How is the wind tormented if a gust dies?" (Song of the Simple Truth, trans. Jack Agueros 1997).

The language of more recent Nuyoricans (both Puerto Rican and non-Puerto Rican) tends to be more "urban" in diction and tone than that of Burgos and her generation, which is made clear in Piñeros depiction of himself as a poet with a head full of precious words "strikin' a new rush for gold / in las bodegas" ("La Bodega Sold Dreams" [1985]). This shift away from the literary discourse of the academy in American poets of Hispanic Afro-Caribbean descent parallels the evolution of creole poetry in the formerly British-ruled Caribbean nations and the adoption of dialect in African-American poetry in general since the Harlem Renaissance. If the decades since Claude McKay arrived here on a boat from Jamaica are any indication, it would seem that growth in and cross-fertilization between multiple ethnic discourses in American poetry will continue, and the influence of poets from the scattered nations and territories of the Caribbean will be a significant part of the process.

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