Jahan Ramazani

In recent decades much of the most vital writing in English has come from Britain's former colonies in the so-called Third World. For readers of fiction the geographic explosion of Anglophone literature is by now self-evident: postcolonial novelists like Chinua Achebe, V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy have clearly redrawn the map of English-language fiction in our time. By comparison, 'contemporary poetry' remains strikingly provincial in the Anglophone West. With the exception of Derek Walcott's work, 'contemporary poetry' is typically limited to the United States, Britain and Ireland, perhaps with some inclusion of former white settler colonies like Canada. Whether favouring poetry that is 'postmodern' or 'postconfes-sional', 'neoformalist' or 'mainstream', 'ethnic' or 'white', most anthologies, critical essays and conferences reassert these boundaries. In recent years American poetry has expanded to include minority writers of African, Asian and Latino descent, and British poetry has also begun to include 'black British' writers. But the story of the globalization of English-language poetry remains largely untold.

Yet a rich and vibrant poetry has issued from the hybridization of the English muse with the long-resident muses of Africa, India, the Caribbean, and other decolonized territories of the British Empire. Postcolonial poets have dramatically expanded the contours of English-language poetry by infusing it with indigenous metaphors and rhythms, creoles and genres. The Indian poet A. K. Ramanujan imports the metaphoric compression and accentual evenness of literary Tamil into English, the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett the phonemic wit and play of Jamaican creole words like 'boonoonoonoos' for 'pretty' or 'boogooyagga' for 'worthless'. The Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek adapts vivid images, idioms and rhetorical strategies from Acholi songs: his spurned character Lawino complains — in language unprecedented in English poetry — that her husband's tongue is 'hot like the penis of the bee' and 'fierce like the arrow of the scorpion, / Deadly like the spear of the buffalo-hornet'. At the same time, postcolonial poets have brilliantly remade the literary language and forms of the colonizer. Wole Soyinka engrafts resonant Elizabethan English onto Yoruba syntax and myth, Derek Walcott turns the Greek Philoctetes into an allegorical figure for postcolonial affliction, and Lorna Goodison adapts Western figures of femininity, such as Penelope and the Mermaid, to a Caribbean geography and history. Belonging to multiple worlds that are transformed by convergence, postcolonial poets indigenize the Western and Anglicize the native to create exciting new possibilities for English-language poetry.

In light of these achievements, why is postcolonial poetry so much less visible than fiction and drama? T. S. Eliot's remark in 'The Social Function of Poetry' (1945) remains suggestive more than half a century later: 'no art', he said, 'is more stubbornly national than poetry'. Yet Eliot's transcultural practices were already stretching the European Romantic concepts of a national poetry or Sprachgeist. More recently, in the Anglophone West the field of contemporary poetry has become polarized between supporters of mainstream 'postconfessional' verse and avant-garde 'language' poetry. But neither poetry conceived as the lyric expression of personal feeling nor as the postmodern negation of commodified language is sufficient to help us understand and value poets beyond the First World — poets like Louise Bennett, Okot p'Bitek or A. K. Ramanujan, who use poetry to mediate between oral traditions and imported literary forms; to reclaim indigenous histories, landscapes and traditions; and to constitute imagined communities in the wake of their threatened colonial destruction.

Like poetry studies, postcolonial studies has also been surprisingly unreceptive to postcolonial poetry, for two primary reasons. On the one hand, the field is largely grounded in mimetic presuppositions about literature. But since poetry mediates experience through a language of exceptional figural and formal density, it is a less transparent medium by which to recuperate the history, politics and sociology of postcolonial societies. On the other hand, postcolonial studies has been preoccupied with continually interrogating itself, questioning its complicity in European discourses, the (non-)representability of 'other' cultures, and the definition of its primary terms. While such theoretical inquiry is not necessarily inimical to poetry (informing, indeed, my analysis), the genre also demands specifically literary modes of response and recognition — of figurative devices, generic codes, stanzaic patterns, prosodic twists and allusive turns.

Postcolonial studies and poetics nevertheless offer a potentially valuable blend of strategies for exploring postcolonial poetry. Poetics helps to highlight the literary energies of these texts, which aesthetically embody the postcolonial condition in particular linguistic and formal structures. The best postcolonial poems are resonant and compelling in no small part because of their figurative reach, verbal dexterity, tonal complexity, and their imaginative transformation of inherited genres, forms and dramatic characters. In turn, the concept of postcoloniality — indigenous cultures once subjugated under colonial rule and responding to its continuing aftermath — provides a useful comparative and historical framework. (I set aside as historically distinct such white settler colonies as Australia and Canada, as well as the more ambiguous case of Ireland — now of the First World but once kin to the Third.) Although the terms

'postcolonial', 'Third World' and 'non-Western' have often been criticized for erasing cultural and historical differences (McClintock), these terms can be useful in highlighting similarities and differences across various cultures still grappling with their colonial histories. They can help to illuminate the robust variety of indigenous cultures living in the shadow of empire, whereas more local perspectives (e.g. West Indian poetry, African poetry, Indian poetry) often make it difficult to recognize such cross-cultural relationships. By using national and regional contexts in concert with the postcolonial horizon, we can better appreciate how Louise Bennett, for example, participates in both a West Indian performance tradition and a broader postcolonial poetics of irony. Similarly, A. K. Ramanujan compares artificial 'Waterfalls in a Bank' in Chicago to 'wavering snakeskins' and thus borrows an ancient Tamil metaphor, but we miss something unless we also notice that his double vision is rooted in the postcolonial condition. Okot p'Bitek was trained at Oxford as an anthropologist specializing in East African oral literature, yet his poetry instances a postcolonial ambivalence towards the discipline, both appropriating ethnographic modes of representation and fiercely rejecting British anthropology's Eurocentric values and Christian bias in the 1960s.

Among the pre-eminent Anglophone poets of such decolonizing nations as India, Uganda, Nigeria, Barbados, St Lucia, Jamaica, Gambia and Ghana, we find a wide range of literary practices and proclivities, from the literary internationalism of Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka to the 'folk' orality of Okot p'Bitek, Louise Bennett and Kofi Awoonor; from Walcott's and Kamau Brathwaite's epics and Okot's long poems to A. K. Ramanujan's lyric ruminations, Bennett's pithy ballads and Lenrie Peter's skeletal lineation. What do these widely diverse poets have in common? To begin with, they were all born to colonial populations under British rule and continued to write in the aftermath of political decolonization. They all had a British colonial education, which Walcott has called 'the greatest bequest the Empire made': 'precisely because of their limitations our early education must have ranked with the finest in the world' (Walcott, 1993, p. 50). The gift of education may also have been the greatest curse of empire, purveyed initially by missionaries and then by imperial governments as a tool for altering native minds and even turning them against themselves. Educated as imperial subjects yet immersed in indigenous traditions and customs, these postcolonial poets grew up in the potentially productive tension between an imposed and an inherited culture — productive, that is, for the powerful literary mind that can create imaginative forms to articulate the dualities, ironies and ambiguities of this cultural in-betweenness. Poetry — a genre rich in paradox and multivalent symbols, irony and metaphor — is well-suited to mediating and registering the contradictions of split cultural experience. These poets respond with emotional ambivalence and linguistic versatility to the experience of living after colonialism, between non-Western traditions and modernity, at a moment of explosive change in the relation between Western and native cultures.

Postcolonial studies offers the metaphor of 'hybridity' as a potent lens through which to explore interculturation in the postcolonial world. Since the term can be misleading if it muffles the power differences between cultures or oversimplifies the multi-layered deposits within any single culture, I use it to describe the intensified hybridization of already mixed and politically unequal cultures, where 'native' represents a prior knotting together of diverse strands, as does the amalgamation 'British'. Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall, James Clifford, Paul Gilroy and others have theorized a postcoloniality that is interstitial, beyond identitarian boundaries. Other writers have revealed the hybridity of specific postcolonial regions. 'Cultural traditions in India are indissolubly plural and often conflicting', remarks Ramanujan (1989, pp. 188-9). Anthony Appiah (1992, p. 24) highlights the 'extraordinary diversity of Africa's peoples and its cultures'. And Edouard Glissant has theorized the 'cross-culturality', Kamau Brathwaite the 'creolization' of the Caribbean. Members of a small educated elite, Anglophone poets of the Third World are perhaps especially hybridized by their intensive exposure to Western ideas and values through higher education, travel, even expatriation. Further complicating the matrices of identity, many postcolonial poets have an oblique relation to the 'native' culture that they are assumed to 'represent': Walcott grew up a Methodist in a predominantly Catholic country; Ramanujan spoke Tamil at home, along with English, in an area where Kannada was the dominant language. These intercultural and intracultural dynamics - whether experienced as a condition of tragic mixture and alienation, or as the comic integration of multiple energies and sources — have fuelled some of the most powerful poetry of our time.

Before examining the hybrid language and form of postcolonial poetry, we need to remind ourselves of the primary historical cause of this confluence between Third World and Western cultures. Anglophone poetry in the Third World, like many other culturally hybrid forms, was an indirect consequence of the violent intersection between the British Empire and various native cultures — not a mysterious species that spontaneously generated itself in random parts of the world. Postcolonial poetry, as the term itself suggests, is largely unintelligible without some sense of its historical origins. The vast scope of postcolonial poetry in English is directly related to the size of the empire that initially wrapped much of the globe in its language and, more recently, to the expanding technological and economic might of the United States. The British Empire — the largest, most powerful, best organized of its peers — colonized enormous chunks of the non-Western world, expropriating land, raw materials and labour from its overseas territories. By the beginning of the First World War, more than three quarters of the earth's surface was under direct European dominion, with most of this colonization having occurred during the preceding hundred years. The deep and lasting effects of this colonial expansion still reverberate around the world today, long after the postwar political breakup of most of the British and other European empires. The First World and not just the Third would be unrecognizable without its colonial history. Underscoring Europe's dependence on Third World labour for economic advancement, Frantz Fanon (1963, p. 102) remarks starkly: 'Europe is literally the creation of the Third World'.

Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth still stands as the single most vivid reminder of the historical violence of modern European colonialism. According to Fanon this violence is military (the force by which the settler takes land from the native), cultural ('the violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed') and existential ('a systematic negation of the other person') (ibid., pp. 43, 250). Fanon famously describes the colonial world as 'a Manichaean world', 'a world cut in two', with the native continually debased and dehumanized (ibid., pp. 41, 38). Systematic, efficient and all-encompassing, modern colonialism forces 'the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: "In reality, who am I?"' (ibid., p. 250). Modern colonial history was not identical, of course, in different European empires, and even British imperialism took on vastly different forms in different regions of the Third World. Crudely put, its most consequential ingredient in the Caribbean was the massive enslavement and deracination of Africans; in Africa its history was shorter than in the Caribbean and its implementation more brutally dualistic than in India; and its historical evolution was more incremental in India, its political structure less rigidly Manichaean. These broad differences are reflected in the less overtly political tenor of much Anglophone Indian writing, the binary structure of much postcolonial African literature, and the agonized quest for an ancestral home in many Caribbean texts.

But none of these propensities is exclusive to a single region. The retrospective quest in Caribbean literature, for example, has its equivalent in other postcolonial literatures. Fanon's analysis suggests why historical recovery should be such an urgent and pervasive imperative of postcolonial poetry: 'By a kind of perverted logic, [colonialism] turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today': namely, 'native intellectuals . . . decided to back further and to delve deeper down; and, let us make no mistake, it was with the greatest delight that they discovered that there was nothing to be ashamed of in the past, but rather dignity, glory, and solemnity' (ibid., p. 210). Searching through oral inheritances, written histories and personal memories, postcolonial poets seek to give voice to a past that colonialism has degraded, garbled, even gagged. The Nigerian Christopher Okigbo builds poems around the precolonial Igbo river goddess Idoto, as does Soyinka around the Yoruba god Ogun; Okot p'Bitek animates the pages of Song of Lawino with the preliterate wisdom and traditions of the Acholi. In the Caribbean, the lesser availability of the ancestral past often spurs a still more intensive quest for its recovery. Bennett emphasizes the African provenance of Jamaican words like 'nana' (Twi for grandparent) and 'gungoo' (Kongo for pea), and even Walcott, though suspicious of the longing for ancestral return, makes it a centrepiece of Omeros: the sunstruck hero Achille believes he travels back to his forebears in Africa, and Ma Kilman listens intently for natural signs of African gods that may have survived the Middle Passage. One way of approaching the question 'Who am I?', these poets suggest, is to ask 'Who were we?'

The recuperative quest in postcolonial poetry is nevertheless qualified by a countervailing scepticism. Even the most 'nativist' poets, such as Bennett and Okot, acknowledge that this past has been transformed irrevocably by colonialism and modernity. Here again Fanon provides insight, when he warns against efforts to fetishize and embalm the precolonial past: artists who 'turn their backs on foreign culture, deny it, and set out to look for a true national culture, . . . forget that the forms of thought and what it feeds on, together with modern techniques of information, language, and dress have dialectically reorganized the people's intelligences and that the constant principles which acted as safeguards during the colonial period are now undergoing extremely radical changes' (Fanon, 1963, p. 225). In postcolonial poetry this scepticism is often intertwined with the recuperative dynamic it checks. Upon Achille's imaginative arrival in Africa, Walcott's hero — like the poet himself — cannot help but see his ancestral land through the prism of Hollywood rivers, hippopotami and warriors in 'African movies / he had yelped at in childhood' (Walcott, 1990, p. 133). In the West Indian epic The Arrivants, when Edward Kamau Brath-waite likewise 'come[s] / back a stranger / after three hundred years' to the mother continent, he feels he has a 'hacked / face, hollowed eyes, / undrumming heart' (Brath-waite, 1973, pp. 124, 132): he learns that centuries of creolized life in the New World have made it impossible to merge with his African heritage. Brathwaite's and Walcott's scepticism should not be confused with the postmodernist renunciation of all nostalgias, since it is inextricable from the continuing postcolonial drive to rediscover the past.

Postcolonial poets often figure the desire to recuperate the precolonial past as the troubled search for an ancestral home, irreparably damaged by colonialism, as in 'The Weaver Bird' by the Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor:

The weaver bird built in our house

And laid its eggs on our only tree

We look for new homes every day,

For new altars we strive to re-build

The old shrines defiled by the weaver's excrement.

With the departure of the colonizers, this defilement has in many cases continued, now unleashed by the native regimes that replaced the visiting weaver bird. Like the district commissioners and security forces of an earlier era, African dictators, thugs and thieves have ravaged the native home in many sub-Saharan states. Having 'longed for returning', the Gambian Lenrie Peter writes of bitter disillusionment in his poem 'Home Coming':

There at the edge of town

Just by the burial ground Stands the house without a shadow Lived in by new skeletons.

To return home is in many cases to re-enter mere ruins haunted by the murdered and massacred dead. Often the African poet has returned after a period of solitary confinement or exile. Handcuffed, the Malawian Jack Mapanje watches his mother furiously challenge the police, 'How dare you scatter this peaceful house?' ('Your Tears Still Burn at My Handcuffs', 1991). Imprisoned for three and a half years without charge or trial, Mapanje is released too late to learn from his now-dead mother 'the rites / Of homing in'. Fearing for their lives, African poets have often had to leave home: another Malawian, Frank Chipasula, has lived abroad during the long dictatorship of Hastings Banda, Okot spent the years of Idi Amin's brutal rule in exile, and Soyinka secretly left Nigeria when General Sani Abacha's regime confiscated his passport. Other poets have stayed at home and died. Christopher Okigbo was killed in his mid-thirties while fighting on the Biafran side in the Nigerian civil war — the first of many civil wars to tear apart post-independence Africa. His prophetic 'Come Thunder' compounds frightful details with terrifying abstractions:

The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon. The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power; And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air, A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters — An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone.

The political homelessness lamented with mounting despair in African poetry has, for obvious reasons, no equivalent in Anglophone Indian or Caribbean poetry, yet poets from these parts of the world have also accused postcolonial regimes of defacing the native dwelling. Appalled by the damage inflicted by the tourist industry on the landscape of St Lucia, Walcott, for example, places in the volcanic hell of Omeros 'the traitors // who, in elected office, saw the land as views / for hotels'.

Seeking to reclaim the native home despoiled by both European colonialism and the internalized colonialism of more recent governments, postcolonial poets nevertheless worry that their quest for the precolonial home paradoxically shunts it beyond their grasp. In 'Postcard from Kashmir' Agha Shahid Ali suggests that memory and artifice transform the very past he pursues:

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox; my home a neat four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

This is home. And this the closest I'll ever be to home. When I return, the colours won't be so brilliant, the Jhelum's waters so clean, so ultramarine. My love so overexposed.

The postcolonial poem, like a postcard, risks miniaturizing, idealizing and ultimately displacing the remembered native landscape. The Kashmiri Ali dramatizes the postcolonial and diasporic condition that Homi Bhabha, adapting Freud's das Unheimliche, terms 'unhomeliness — that is the condition of extra-territorial and cross-cultural initiations' (Bhabha, 1994, p. 9). When Okot p'Bitek returned to Africa to collect 'folk' songs of the Acoli and Lango, his Oxford training in anthropology had irrevocably transformed his relation to his native home.

Whether going abroad or staying home, postcolonial poets have been unhoused by modernity and colonialism, by war and politics, by education and travel, even perhaps by their own artifice, and are thus unable to rest securely in what Bhabha calls the idea of culture 'as a homogenizing, unifying force, authenticated by the originary Past' (ibid., p. 37). An expatriate speaker affirms 'home' in 'Wherever I Hang' by the Guyanese writer Grace Nichols, but only as a self-conscious fiction of belonging wherever she finds herself. Playing on Walcott's famous tortured lines about being 'divided to the vein' in 'A Far Cry from Africa', possibly answering Brathwaite's agonized question, 'Where then is the nigger's / home?' in The Arrivants, she writes:

To tell you de truth I don't know really where I belaang

Yes, divided to de ocean Divided to de bone Wherever I hang me knickers — that's my home.

The Britishness of 'knickers' doesn't deter the poet from transvaluing it as an ironic marker of 'home', any more than the imperial origins of her language hinder her from recolonizing it. Housed only in houselessness, unified only in such ironic self-division, the postcolonial poet knows that cultural identity, as Stuart Hall puts it, 'is not a fixed essence. ... It is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute Return. Of course, it is not a mere phantasm either. It is something — not a mere trick of the imagination' (Hall, 1990, p. 226). At once sceptical and recuperative, ironic and nostalgic, postcolonial poets recathect the precolonial past as a powerful locus for identity, yet self-consciously probe the multiplicity and constructedness of the home they dislocate in the moment of reinhabiting it.

The richly conflictual relation between postcolonial poets and the English language is another important source of their 'unhomeliness'. Martin Heidegger famously describes language as the home of being, but what if we experience the language we live in as primary home to another? What if that home has been imposed on us by missionaries and governments that consider us racially and culturally inferior? What if we remain attached to another home even as we try to live in and help to refashion the new one? The result is what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have labelled a 'minor literature' — the literature of minorities, immigrants and others who live in, write in, and are 'forced to serve' a 'deterritorialized' European 'language that is not their own' (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986, p. 19). In this literature, 'everything takes on a collective value', in contrast to the 'individual concerns' of 'major literatures' (ibid., p. 17). Reflecting on the mixed European provenance of her name and her poetic language, Eunice de Souza, a poet of Goa, India, comments ruefully on the postcolonial condition of linguistic estrangement in 'De Souza Prabhu':

No matter that my name is Greek my surname Portuguese my language alien

There are ways of belonging.

I belong with the lame ducks.

Sometimes seen as an 'alien' and unassimilable intrusion, the English language is experienced, at its worst, as a tool of oppression: 'My tongue in English chains', laments the Indian poet R. Parthasarathy (Mehrotra, 1992, p. 5). More often the imposed language is seen as both a liability and a treasure — a 'radiant affliction' in Walcott's splendid oxymoron (Walcott, 1990, p. 323). In 'Missing Person' by the Bombay poet Adil Jussawalla, the colonial letter 'A' is said to be — in contrast to the native alphabet that has been displaced — 'here to stay. / On it St Pancras station, / the Indian and African railways'. As a schoolboy, the South Asian child sees the letter 'A' — inextricable from British colonial expansion in India and Africa — as potentially dangerous ('aimed at your throat') and potentially beautiful ('a butterfly's wing'). Travelling to the seat of empire, Jussawalla's speaker is made to feel, like many former colonial subjects, as if he is stealing and corrupting someone else's language: ' "You're polluting our sounds. You're so rude. // Get back to your language," they say'. Having been forced into an 'unhomely' language and then trying to assimilate it as their own, postcolonial poets ironically risk being seen — by both Western and indigenous detractors — as occupying a language to which they have no rightful claim.

One postcolonial response to this dilemma is to abandon English and return to a native language, a strategy that the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o famously urged for 'decolonizing the mind'. But many postcolonial writers reject the assumption — traceable in some forms to European Romanticism — that the English language has an inherent relationship to only one kind of national or ethnic experience. Instead, like Caliban in the famous postcolonial allegory, they appropriate Prospero's language and remake it to serve their own ends. Brathwaite comments that 'it was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master, and it was in his (mis-)use of it that he perhaps most effectively rebelled' (Brathwaite, 1971, p. 237). In 'Listen Mr Oxford don', the Guyanese poet John Agard speaks of 'mugging de Queen's English' and 'inciting rhyme to riot'. He playfully represents his use of West Indian creole as political rebellion by poetic means. However defiant he may be, the speaker recognizes that his relation to standard English is complex:

I slashing suffix in self-defence I bashing future wit present tense and if necessary

I making de Queen's English accessory to my offence

As it turns out, the Queen's English is not only the object of the poet's revolt but also, potentially, an instrument and ally. Sometimes critics reduce postcolonial literatures to a comic-book simplicity, in which the colonized wage a heroic textual war on the colonizers. But the resistance is seldom unambivalent. In 'A Far Cry from Africa', Walcott can refer to 'this English tongue I love' even as he recalls having 'cursed / The drunken officer of British rule', much as the Irish poet Yeats conceded, 'everything I love has come to me through English; my hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate' (Yeats, 1961, p. 519). Because their relation to the English language is mediated by a vexed political history, by other languages, and by nonStandard forms, postcolonial poets transform literary English — both angrily and affectionately — in an astonishing variety of ways.

Anglophone poets write in response to different linguistic contexts in different parts of the Third World. In postcolonial Africa, they grow up speaking not only English but one or more indigenous languages. In India, a minority of the population (perhaps 3 per cent) speaks English fluently, and English-language poetry is only a small subset of the many bodies of poetry in different Indian languages. By contrast to India and Africa, almost everyone in the West Indies is from elsewhere ancestrally, so that an Ngugi would find it hard to return to a 'native' language, in the wake of the colonial destruction of most Arawaks, Caribs and other indigenous populations. In the Anglophone West Indies many poets can avail themselves of an English creole formed centuries ago out of the confluence of English with African and European languages and now heard every day on the street. In the wake of attempts by Claude McKay and others, Louise Bennett was the first poet to master West Indian English as a language for poetry, and many West Indian 'dub' or performance poets, such as Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson, have followed her example. To the charge that Jamaican English is a 'corruption of the English language', she makes this spirited response: 'if dat be de case, den dem shoulda call English language corruption of Norman French an Latin and all dem tarra [other] language what dem seh [say] dat English is derived from' (Bennett, 1993, p. 1). Sharing this suspicion of linguistic hierarchy, many West Indian poets splice together their Standard English with local creoles — even a poet as different from Bennett as Walcott, whose 'code-switching' Omeros and 'Sainte Lucie', for example, leap from Standard English to English and French creoles. In a related strategy, an African poet like Okot p'Bitek leaves untranslated and unglossed many Acholi words for native plants, animals and religious beliefs, forcing the English-language reader to puzzle them out by context. By their macaronic language, postcolonial poets thus challenge the Standard as the exclusive norm for poetry.

Even when they write in neither an overt English creole nor a native language, postcolonial poets can still subtly creolize Standard English. Schooled in the colonizer's landscape, they pepper Standard English with local place names like Jejuri or Ibadan and intently name flora like the mango and Red Champak tree, fauna like the Paradise Flycatcher and colobus-monkey. Sometimes all the words are the same as those of a Standard English dictionary, but the postcolonial poet may still successfully indigenize English and English poetic forms. Agha Shahid Ali comments on his attempt at the 'biryanization . . . of English', specifically his desire to bring 'the music of Urdu' into English-language poetry (Mehrotra, 1992, p. 4). Before Brathwaite adapted the rhythms of Carnival, the propulsive force of this and many other Afro-Caribbean traditions had not been felt in English poetry: 'And / Ban / Ban / Cal- / iban / like to play / pan / at the Car- / nival' (Brathwaite, 1973, p. 192). Straddling languages, Okot p'Bitek inserts literally rendered Acholi idioms and tropes into English (e.g. the earlier cited metaphor, a tongue is 'hot like the penis of the bee'). The astonishingly elastic syntax of Soyinka's poetry, particularly in his earliest volumes, yorubizes English-language poetry. The difficulty of the poem 'Dawn' instances the effect of this hybridization of two syntactic systems:

Breaking earth upon A spring-haired elbow, lone A palm beyond head-grains, spikes A guard of prim fronds, piercing High hairs of the wind

What is the subject? Is the word 'spikes' a noun in apposition to the palm or is it a verb? Delaying the introduction of finite verb and subject for another four and five lines ('steals / The lone intruder' or sun), Soyinka is forcing English syntax to stretch well beyond its normal breaking point. In this and other ways, postcolonial writers open up the possibilities of contemporary poetry by yoking English to their local syntax, vocabulary, rhythms and idioms.

Postcolonial poetry is thus hybrid not only in language but also in form. We might think of Lorna Goodison's poem 'On Becoming a Mermaid' as a dramatization of this process: fish and flesh combine to become what she wonderfully calls — in a line appropriately rife with compounds — 'a green-tinged fish / fleshed woman / thing'. Because of its stylization, poetry formally embeds a long memory of its diverse cultural inheritances. Brathwaite concludes The Arrivants with the hope that Afro-Caribbean peoples, weaving together the disparate sounds and myths deposited in their history, will make, much as he has in his polyphonic poem, with their rhythms something torn and new

But this new composite form, made of a union of disparate fragments of postcolonial inheritance, is seldom a matter of seamless intercultural fusion. Perhaps 'hybridity' suggests too neat and complete a union of disparate parts. As what he calls a 'mulatto of style', Walcott encodes in his Greco-African characters and intercontinental genres his 'schizophrenic' experience (Walcott, 1970, pp. 9, 4), as either 'nobody' or 'a nation' (Walcott, 1986, p. 346). At the level of the image, Ramanujan suggests the dizzying gap that separates, even while visual similarities connect, the Indian and the Western parts of his life:

The traffic light turns orange on 57 th and Dorchester, and you stumble, you fall into a vision of forest fires, enter a frothing Himalayan river, rapid, silent.

On the 14th floor, Lake Michigan crawls and crawls in the window. ('Chicago Zen')

In a hallucinatory switch, orange traffic lights flare into forest fires, and a memory of a Himalayan river — leaping across hemispheres — drops into Lake Michigan. The postcolonial poem often mediates between Western and non-Western forms of perception, experience and language to reveal not only their integration but ultimately the chasm that divides them.

Perhaps the clearest example of formal interculturation in postcolonial poetry is the hybridization of Western literary models and non-Western oral traditions. Because Caribbean poets grow up hearing vibrant English creoles on the street and in the yard, they draw more heavily on oral traditions than do most Indian poets, whose English tends to be more literary, recalling an ancient written inheritance in indigenous languages. A poet like Kofi Awoonor Anglicizes the Ewe dirge tradition in a poem like the earlier quoted 'The Weaver Bird'. For him, as for many African poets, the most powerful indigenous models are typically oral poems in native languages, so that we can trace images, rhetorical strategies and whole lines from his 'Songs of Sorrow' to traditional Ewe songs. When Okot p'Bitek assumes the agitated voice of a village woman who excoriates her Westernized husband as a slave to 'white men's ways', he hybridizes Acholi songs of abuse with Western dramatic monologue (p'Bitek, 1966, p. 49). Boldly satirizing Jamaican racism, emigration and even independence, Louise Bennett welds together and thus transfigures both the English ballad and the witty creole strategies of Anancy tales (trickster stories), 'labrish' (gossip) and 'broad talk' (performative oratory).

To do justice to the formal hybridity of postcolonial poetry, we need to track closely the dazzling interplay between indigenous and the Western forms. The postcolonial poem sometimes melds, at other times sets these resources against each other. It may ironize one, both or neither of its intertexts. In the most successful examples, the result of this intercultural dynamic is transformative — a poem that would have been unimaginable within the confines of one or another culture. As many of us seek to understand our relation to an increasingly intercultural and interlocking globe, postcolonial poets have a great deal to teach us about the aesthetics, language and experience of the contemporary world.


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  • fiori ali
    Why is postcolonial poetry less visible than fiction and drama?
    4 years ago

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