As far back as 1972 Edward Baugh observed that 'West Indian poetry seems to have come into its own' (Baugh, 1972, p. 1) after the publication of several volumes of poetry by Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, but when Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 it could be said that West Indian poetry had reached the height of its achievement. And while it is true that the poetry of the Anglophone Caribbean reveals shifts in approach and variations in style, much as the islands themselves have differences and nuances, still one can discern a similarity and a general pattern which is largely the result of a shared kinship, a shared history and a common heritage of slavery, indentureship and colonialism. One thing is sure and that is that there are recurrent themes and concerns which run throughout the poetry and among these are a concern with Roots, History and the past, national identity, racial prejudice and its effects, a sense and love of place, loss and separation, Love and Death, protest.
From the beginning, the act of writing in the West Indies is marked by a peculiar tension generated by the recognition that it is a product of a colonial society. The West Indian people are not indigenous to the region: they constitute the remnants of what was a slave society and the language they speak is that of their conquerors, since their original tongues have long ceased to have currency. So that the very act of writing forces one to acknowledge that one is using the tongue of the conquerors, and that constitutes a kind of betrayal. Again, it is Walcott who expressed this anguish in an early poem, 'A Far Cry From Africa':
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
For the West Indian writer, then, it has always been an issue of language: how to express the colonial experience, how to 'write back' to the conquerors, how to try to come to terms with something 'torn and new', all the while using language which is a part of that colonial heritage. Even Brathwaite, who sees his task as that of retracing African continuities in the New World, has had to write his several trilogies of poems in that conqueror's language.
Brathwaite, in talking about the literature of the region in his keynote address to the 1971 ACLALS conference in Kingston, used the paradigm of the Great House and the plantation to represent, as it were, the split and the uneasy relations between what he has termed 'The Great Tradition' and 'the little tradition' of the folk. Inherent in this paradigm is a dualism that acknowledges the gap between Europe and Africa, the Old World and the New World, the metropolitan centre and the peripheral folk and - above all - the scribal tradition versus the oral. It is a useful paradigm to explore the development of the poetry, but we must keep in mind that this schema does not fully account for the complexity of the situation in the Caribbean. It does not, for example, account for the contribution of the large Indian population in both Trinidad and Guyana.
While some critics have elaborated on this so-called split between the scribal and the oral traditions, it is important to note that in West Indian poetry elements of both coexist and that the too-easy categorization of poets as being in one camp or the other can be misleading. The language continuum in the West Indies covers a wide terrain and we can see elements of creole, of the spoken word, in almost all of the poets currently writing. Even if a line looks like a Standard English line, when it is read we can hear the unmistakable sound of the creole. This is true of Walcott, Brathwaite, Dennis Scott or Lorna Goodison, and we should be cautious of assigning poets to one category or another, based solely on this distinction.
But it is equally misleading to go to the other extreme and claim that the only authentic poetry is that which is couched in the language of the folk because it will communicate directly to the masses. This would be to dismiss the achievement of the scribal tradition and ignore the fact that both aspects make up the totality of the West Indies.
Historically, West Indian poetry has oscillated between the two traditions set out by Brathwaite. The earliest poetry was imitative, written by expatriates who attempted to reproduce as exactly as possible the poetry published in the metropole. It is not surprising that they found the colonies 'barren in incidents for poetical display' (Midnight Musings in Demerara, 1832, quoted by Wycliffe Bennett in an unpublished anthology) and so looked at the landscape with alien and, at times, hostile eyes. This eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry is only of historical interest and mostly forgettable. We get no insight into the region or the condition of the mass of the people because the writers were seeing through northern eyes, although by the end of the century there were signs that some accommodation was being made. The poets started to look at the landscape which confronted them rather than at alien and distant ones, and took the important step of trying to accept that landscape on its own terms.
In the early twentieth century this expression of love for the landscape would grow and become the vehicle for the first sustained outburst of national feeling in the islands. But the upbringing and education of these writers placed them firmly in the traditions of the central metropolitan culture. In Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana, the pattern was the same. Groups of like-minded, educated people who believed in the study and pursuit of literature set up poetry clubs to encourage each other to write poetry.
Many of them were unashamedly colonial and only concerned with trying to catch 'the fleeting beauties of our land and enshrine them forever in beautiful words and rhythm'. The earliest of these 'clubs' was the Jamaica Poetry League founded in 1923 from an earlier (1908) branch of the Empire Poetry League. David Mitchell's introduction to the first anthology of Jamaican poetry published by the League, Voices From Summerland (1929), demonstrates clearly where the loyalties of the League lay and how it institutionalized the writing of poetry. In so doing, it failed to encourage the development of an authentic West Indian voice and excluded those who did not satisfy its preconditions. He writes: 'Once more our restless sea-borne race has explored the wine-dark ocean and founded new homes for the children over not one but many seas. And of its ever-loyal cherishing of our English poetic traditions this volume is proof.' The result, according to Arthur Calder-Marshall in a Caribbean Voices broadcast on 1 February 1948, was that they were unable to find 'the words, the idiom, the rhythms to say what they as individuals, as West Indians, wanted to say'. However much we choose to dismiss the activities and work of the League as inconsequential and see it as having no direct influence on the development of later West Indian poetry, we must not forget that it kept alive the notion that the pursuit of literature was a civilized and civilizing activity and therefore something to be valued.
Unfortunately, with their preconceived notions of what constituted poetry, the members of the League were not innovative or revolutionary in what they wrote and provided little support for the earliest attempts to use the language of the people in verse. Indeed, Claude McKay's two earliest books of verse, Songs of Jamaica (c. 1911) and Constab Ballads (1912), which dealt with the folk and in which he experimented with creole on the printed page, were largely ignored and when he emigrated in 1912 to the USA, McKay left behind no obvious literary heir. Interestingly, when Louise Bennett appeared on the scene in the 1940s she was not so much inheriting a tradition as starting one herself. Bennett has said she was not a member of the League, nor was ever invited to join because what she was doing — rendering in comic verse the events, scenes and characters from the folk culture of Jamaica, using the language of the folk — was not regarded as 'poetry'.
So early practitioners like Tom Redcam (T. H. MacDermot, b. 1870), the first Poet Laureate of Jamaica, would write lines that showed clear affinities with late Victorian verse:
Now the Lignum Vitae blows;
Fair-browed April enters here,
In her hand a crimson rose,
In her eye youth's crystal tear.
('Now The Lignum Vitae Blows')
and J. E. Clare McFarlane (b. 1896) produced a 'a strictly colonial poetry' (Baugh, 1972, p. 5). Even though the League had members with real talent like W. Adolphe Roberts (b. 1886) and Vivian Virtue (b. 1911), they both wrote poetry that was private, hermetic and remote from the concerns of the society.
This pattern of conservative writing could be seen throughout the islands and included the work of A. J. Seymour (b. 1914) of Guyana and Frank Collymore (b. 1893) of Barbados. While their talents and abilities were varied, members of this generation were all writing in the Great Tradition, and their notion of what constituted the proper stuff of poetry, and the language of poetry, was shaped by that tradition. Even though Seymour from very early tried to incorporate into his poetry the majestic landscape of South American Guyana as well as the history, myths and legends of the Amerindians, he was not interested only in aboriginal history. In his 'Name Poem', for instance, he tried to incorporate all the strands of the past, Dutch, English, French and Indian, and in this search for spirits of place, he pushes back far beyond Columbus. Even so, he remained very much a link figure poised between the old traditions of writing and the changing demands of the new, a man who was sensitive to the currents of his time but who could not adapt his way of writing to suit those demands.
The 1930s and 1940s were the decades that were crucial in determining far-reaching changes in the political philosophy of the region and consequently the orientation of its creative work in the literary and plastic arts. There was sweeping social change advocated for the islands and everywhere there was agitation for self-government, as the political parties began to emerge and trade unions fought for the right to exist. In this ferment of political agitation and labour riots, there emerged several literary and artistic groups whose agendas were radically different from those of the early poetry groups and which were to have far-reaching consequences for the writing in the region. Not only did they advocate an assertive nationalist approach to everything, they were to provide the only outlets for emergent West Indian writing. As such, they were in a position to shape the kind of writing that they were willing to publish and which fitted in with their philosophy. This is not surprising, for the political movements were centred on a questioning of old perceptions and ways of seeing and on a growing assertion of self-worth and search for some kind of self-definition. Literature was an obvious way by which one could seek to define oneself and one's society. Many of these literary groups saw as part of their programme the establishment of 'little Magazines' which would have a significant impact on the direction in which West Indian poetry was to go.
In Trinidad, the Beacon Group — founded by Albert Gomes, Alfred Mendes and C. L. R. James — issued a periodical, The Beacon (1931—9), which was propagandist in nature and which contained prose, verse and polemical pieces as well as discussions of politics. The magazine endorsed the cause of West Indianism, sponsoring and promoting writing that was specifically West Indian. The group also published the first collection of Trinidadian creative writing, From Trinidad: Fiction & Verse (1937) edited by Gomes. Though the main focus was on prose fiction, poetry was not neglected and the literature was being nudged in the direction of social awareness and political change. In July 1931, one of Gomes's untitled poems stridently asserted:
You have to fight the white man's fury But you mustn't want to be a white black man The real black man wants to be a great Black Man and not a great White Man
In June 1933 he editorialized: 'The conscious apeing of another man's culture seems merely a sign of the immaturity of our spirit . . . we look forward to the day when it will be no more'. So the Beacon group explicitly agitated for the development of a uniquely West Indian culture and perspective.
December 1942 saw the appearance of Bim in Barbados, edited by Frank Collymore. At first it was strictly a Barbadian magazine, but it quickly became West Indian in scope and Collymore, according to Brathwaite 'the greatest of West Indian literary godfathers', through Bim would provide over the years a steady outlet for all West Indian writing. More than that, Collymore himself was a poet and though he wrote more in the conventions of the Great Tradition, it is clear from his work that his sensibility was a West Indian one in the sense that he did not see England as his home nor the English as his people. In 'Triptych' he writes of the slaves as ancestors:
I see them, ancestors of ours;
Children of the tribe, ignorant of their doom, innocent
As cattle, bartered for, captured, beaten, penned,
Cattle of the slave-ship, less than cattle;
Sold in the market place, yoked to servitude
In Guyana, Kyk-over-al was first published in December 1945 and like the other magazines, started with a nationalist slant. Its editor, Norman Cameron, claimed that 'all other forms of local art and literature should strive' to deal with 'various aspects of local life, and indeed voicing the sentiments and aspirations of the people'. The group would publish the first anthology of Guyanese Poetry, 1831—1931. It is from Guyana, too, that we get the work of Martin Carter, who was to be the first to sound a strong note of resistance and protest to the colonial government's treatment of local people in his Poems of Resistance.
In Jamaica it was the Focus group — a number of artists, writers and poets led by Edna Manley, wife of Norman Manley, founder and leader of the People's National Party — that would push Jamaican poetry towards expressing concerns about the land scape and people in the first two numbers of the Focus magazine published in 1943 and 1948. This was the most consciously literary of the magazines and claimed to provide a complete introduction to the writers of Jamaica, but the magazine was severely restricted and published work only by its members who were all involved in Jamaican politics. Indeed, the title of a Manley carving, 'Negro Aroused', could be seen as a rallying point for the movement. George Campbell was one of the most talented writers in the group and his poem of the same name demonstrates clearly how passionate the feelings of the group were:
Bubbles under this skin; the heart shouts Freedom! I lift my face to heaven, awakened, shouting louder, louder With triumph, with a new found strength -Freedom! We cry only freedom - we were dead when Sleeping - now we live! Live! We are aroused. ('Negro Aroused', 1945)
The celebration of Africa, the recognition of connections with that continent and a strong sense of pride can also be seen in Philip Sherlock's 'Jamaican Fisherman' (1953), where the lowly fisherman is elevated to the stature of royalty:
Across the sand I saw a black man stride To fetch his fishing gear and broken things, And silently that splendid body cried Its proud descent from ancient chiefs and kings.
M. G. Smith in his 'Jamaica' achieved a kind of incantatory power and a revolutionary ardour:
Let the thunder shake
The old Gods awake
Past and Future break.
I saw my land in the morning
And O but she was fair
The hills flamed upwards scorning
Throughout the region it is the folk and the folk qualities which are held up for admiration, whether of female beauty as in H. A. Vaughan's 'Revelation':
Then turn again, and smile, and be The perfect answer to those fools Who always prate of Greece and Rome or E. M. Roach of Tobago celebrating the strength of his mother in 'To My Mother':
I found you strong and tough as guava scrub,
Hoeing the growing, reaping the ripe corn;
Kneading and thumping the thick dough for bread . . .
My poems labour from your blood
As all my mind burns on our peasant stock
We have seen that at the beginning of the twentieth century writers were beginning to recognize the differences in their landscape and slowly coming to terms with it, mostly through a passionate declaration of love for its beauty and splendour. The movement continues down into the middle of the century, but there is an increasing maturity of vision which causes poets not simply to celebrate and invoke the beauty of the landscape, but rather to be increasingly concerned with a sober and realistic appraisal of what the society and the land mean to them. They are no longer just declaring themselves ecstatic at the beauty that surrounds them; they are seeing the poverty and the harsh existence demanded by life in the islands and still accepting it as theirs.
In 'We' Owen Campbell recognizes that the lure of big cities can be a chimera:
So we have decided
Not to construct hope on continents,
Or leave lost hearts to rove
In the quick air on oceans of dream.
We have decided
To build here, on our slender soil.
By the end of the decade, though, much of that optimism was replaced by a growing cynicism, and the poetry is marked by a questioning about the whole business of culture and identity. This is best demonstrated by A. N. Forde's 'Across A Fisherman's Net':
We clap hands wistfully
At the rhythm of the steel band
Adjusting our collars into acquiescence
Of the myth that a new culture pants to the surface.
On rusty pots and pans
That bicker in the bleakness of the night
We blab of a new brotherhood
Forgetting the spite of shade
West Indian poets progressed from attempting to provide their readers with a sense of history and place to probing analyses about the nature of their society. The poetry previous to this, written in the central metropolitan tradition, was more concerned with the surface beauty of things. It was largely a declarative poetry, while the later poetry is concerned with the complexities and ambiguities that lie at the heart of the West Indian experience. The poets do not feel bound by any poetic conventions inherited from a previous tradition, nor do they simply adopt a group stance. In 'I am the Archipelago' Roach paints a bleak vision:
I drown in the ground swell of poverty No love will quell. I am the shanty town, Banana, sugar-cane and cotton man; Economies are soldered with my sweat Here, everywhere.
Roach sees the shanty town and the poverty, not just the lush exotic growth in the West Indies. His poem suggests just how accommodating the poetry has become because it is no longer limited to a single vision of experience. Instead, it has widened in scope to include a multiplicity of visions: the banana and the sugar cane have become double symbols of sweat and toil, not just lush tropical plants.
No account of West Indian poetry can overlook the contribution to writing made by the BBC Radio programme Caribbean Voices, which was a kind of living literary periodical, broadcast once a week for thirty minutes, starting in March 1945 and continuing until September 1958. Caribbean Voices was important because it helped shape the direction in which the literature of the region was to develop, both by its selection of pieces and also by the critical commentaries. Its first editor, Henry Swanzy, stressed in a broadcast on 21 August 1949 that 'literature is above all a regional thing, rooted in the soil of everyday life'. And this belief guided his selections. It meant, therefore, that if poets wanted to have their poetry selected and broadcast on the programme, they would have to change how they wrote and what they wrote about. We can see then how these 'magazines' were instrumental in charting the direction of change. On a practical level, too, the programme provided recognition for writers and it also paid, however minimally, for work read on the programme.
So what happens in the 1940s and 1950s is a swinging of the pendulum from the Great Tradition that represented the metropolitan, colonizing power to a position of support for what is local, including the language. As yet, though, the changing themes and concerns of the poetry reflect this change in consciousness far more quickly than any corresponding change in the language. What is being written is still very conservative in form and diction and West Indian poetry lagged behind its prose fiction counterparts in drawing on the resources of the creole language of the people. Mendes and C. L. R. James in Trinidad and H. G. deLisser in Jamaica were all using creole registers in their novels and dealing with the realities of urban and rural folk existence long before the change could be discerned in the poetry.
The landscape of the 1960s is dominated by the work of two giant figures: Derek Walcott (St Lucia) and Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados). In a stunning display of talent and virtuosity, between them they have taken the poetry to new heights. Their work shows the multiple strands of influence that have gone into the making of the West Indies and demonstrates the fusion of the tradition of the Great House and the oral tradition at its best. Walcott has always been seen as the traditionalist, writing verse that reveals an immense knowledge of English and European traditions. At no time, however, has he lost his strong sense of place or of his involvement with the history, language and culture of the region. He expresses this clearly in 'At Last':
And now, let it come to fruit, Let me be sure it has flowered To break from the bitterest root And the earth that soured The flower bursts out of my heart, The cleft in the rock, at last Flowers, the heart-breaking past Unforgiven and unforgiving, The net of my veins I have cast Here flashes with living Silver, at last.
Brathwaite, in an unprecedented and totally original trilogy of poems, Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands, wrote what has been termed 'the great poem of the Black Man' (Baugh, 1972, p. 17) and traced in poetry the journeys of the peoples of the Black Diaspora from Africa to the New World and back to ancestral roots. His approach was far-reaching and eclectic and he used a pastiche of styles that ranged from a brilliant evocation of Barbadian and Jamaican creole to rhythms derived from popular dance music and jazz. His poetry encompasses, more than any other, the range of language patterns of the Black Diaspora. His work is crucial too in its emphasis on the centrality of the black experience in the Caribbean and his celebration of the primacy of the folk cultures in the region.
Somewhat overshadowed by the achievement of Brathwaite and Walcott, but important in the development of West Indian poetry, is the work of four Jamaicans: Edward Baugh, Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris and Anthony McNeill. They form part of a group of young, bright graduates emerging primarily from the University of the West Indies — as was Walcott — whose work reveals a new intellectual toughness, a thorough grounding in traditional English Literature studies, but allied with a strong sense of place and identity and a scathing sense of irony. This is a further development because it means for the first time that we have a number of writers who are schooled in their craft and who are not just dabbling as amateurs. There is a new professionalism and a clear sense of direction charted. The choices they make reflect the fusion of both traditions and it is not something that they stumbled on by accident, but a conscious and deliberate choice.
One of the earliest and most important creole voices in the West Indies is that of Jamaican Louise Bennett, who wrote and performed her work in creole. Some have seen it as a drawback that her work is largely comic, but Bennett's great importance lay in her ability to demonstrate that the folk had a life and vitality and an authenticity that were the proper and fit subjects of poetry. More than that, she captured the earthiness, the spontaneity and the wisdom of her people, and despite her comic mode she was able to provide her readers and listeners with insights into the human condition and into the particular condition of the working class in this society. As such, Bennett starts a powerful and attractive tradition of her own that would spread far beyond Jamaica. It is her work that first exploits the primacy of the oral tradition in the West Indies and her influence can be seen in the work of Paul Keens-Douglas as well as in that of Linton Kwesi Johnson.
If it is true that the oral element in poetry communicates with an immediacy that is appealing to any audience, then it is even more so if the audience is a West Indian one. This is so for a variety of reasons. The first might well be that in a largely illiterate society, orality is of prime importance because all information, all entertainment has to be transmitted orally. It may also be true, as Laurence Breiner (1998) claims in his An Introduction to West Indian Poetry, that the practice of poetry is rooted in West Indian societies because of their oral traditions and their organization into relatively small communities. In most cases, the speakers know and are known to their audience. They are accustomed to 'rhetorical improvisation' and 'verbal wit' and to the tradition of preaching and the reading aloud of the King James Version of the Bible in the islands.
Moreover, in an oral setting, audience and performer have a special kind of relationship which does not have to be mediated through print and does not depend on its validation from a metropolitan source as prose fiction seems to, because the whole machinery of publication was controlled by the metropole. What West Indian poetry is doing then is to reach back to its original oral roots and this feeds into and manifests itself in the scribal tradition. So for Louise Bennett no script is necessary because of the primacy of the spoken word. This is clear from the fact that her material was not published in print form until her book Jamaica Labrish appeared in 1966, though she had been performing for years.
We must not forget either the special contribution of calypso as an art form in the West Indies. Long before reggae appeared on the scene, as far back as the eighteenth century, the oral poetry of the folk was manifesting itself in the calypso with its verbal wit, playful irony, sexual humour and ridicule that we associate with the best satire. It is this orality which produces in its turn a spate of West Indian poetry that came to be known as 'dub' poetry or performance poetry. Taking its cue from Bennett a whole generation of young writers like Michael Smith, Oku Onuora and Jean Binta Breeze recognized that creole need not be limited to the comic mode, but that it can be employed legitimately to render a range of emotions and feelings which, it had been argued, it could not do and that it can sit comfortably side by side with Standard English, as in Jean Binta Breeze's 'simple tings' (1988):
De simple tings of life, mi dear De simple tings of life
She rocked the rhythms in her chair Brushed a hand across her hair Miles of travel in her stare
Set free from the restrictions of print, the impulse is so powerful that it breaks out of the bounds of the conservative tradition and poetry becomes not just the province of the select few, but is taken over as a vehicle of protest and social commentary, used to engage with the realities of life in the ghettos and with the plight of the marginalized and the underprivileged. Dub poetry was intimately bound up with the emergence of reggae in Jamaica and expanded its boundaries to include the plight of ghetto youths. All of a sudden, the poor and the dispossessed were finding their voice in poetic utterances that encompassed and expressed what it was like to live in their world. This is Michael Smith:
Lawd, mi see some black bud
Livin inna one buildin
But no rent no pay
So dem cyaan stay
Lawd, de oppress an de dispossess
Cyaan get no res
The most significant force of the appropriation of poetry by the folk was, of course, the dynamic figure of Bob Marley, who would become an icon for the dispossessed and whose lyrics would express the pain and anger of the poor and oppressed as well as the religious fervour of the Rastafarians and the assertion of the African continuities in the region. It was a message that spilled over from the region to envelop the world. But Marley did not just express the pain of dispossession and loss, he also held out a positive message of hope and redemption and a triumphant sense that with the help of Jah we would more than survive. Any consideration of West Indian poetry therefore has to take into account the work of DJs and performance poets. Poetry has now become in a real sense the possession of the mass of the people, so that Brathwaite was right when he said that 'nation language' would reach the masses.
But while that may be true, it fails to recognize that there are also real drawbacks to that type of poetry, since musical accompaniment is an important component. Because dub poetry is meant to be performed, it is always subject to the exigencies of a live performance and the response of an audience that might prove less than attentive. This is so because since the intoning of the poetry is accompanied by an instrumental backing, or 'dub', this poetry frequently suffers from a volume imbalance that is difficult to regulate. This is not a poetry of subtle effects or quiet meditation. It is a poetry of protest and loud rhetoric. It is poetry meant to be shouted to an audience already charged up with emotion. While there is the immediacy there is little chance of the poetry having more than a momentary flash, little chance of it being introspective or tranquil or of leading to insight and inward speculation. But this reggae-oriented poetry has had the most significant international impact because it has travelled with reggae around the world and has acquired scores of imitators.
One other significant aspect of the poetry in the latter part of the twentieth century is that the West Indians, originally unwilling and non-voluntary migrant peoples, have now in turn become colonizers themselves in a real sense. In the 1950s a wave of West Indian immigrants made their way to England. From that diaspora has come a whole new generation of British blacks who try to keep alive their sense of their origin. Children born in England of West Indian parents try to imitate as closely as possible the creole of their grandparents or parents and try to sustain a sense of a living West Indian culture in Britain. The result is a whole set of black British writers who claim rights to the creole of the West Indies, but are using it, as well as every other linguistic means at their disposal, to address the situation of the New World black in Britain. We need only look at the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson to see how he utilizes both the traditions to which he is heir. He has no desire to live in the West Indies and his concerns are those of the blacks living in Britain, but he still draws on his West Indian background.
And it is not only in Britain that this phenomenon has taken place: West Indians have also set up enclaves in Miami, Atlanta and Toronto, so that we are seeing poetry written by the descendants of those immigrants coming out of North America. The notion of what constitutes West Indian poetry has to be considerably enlarged to encompass this phenomenon.
If the earlier centuries of poetry were dominated by men, the last two decades of the twentieth century can rightfully be said to belong to women. In the early years, the poetry clubs were indeed supported by women, but the poetry they wrote was largely sweetly sentimental verse. Only the Jamaican Una Marson in Heights & Depths (1931) and The Moth & The Star (1937) published anything that was of any interest. Silenced by history and tradition, large numbers of West Indian women are now finding their voice and there is a flood of poetry from all the islands, as well as North America and Britain, as witnessed by the appearance of Jamaica Woman (1980), Creation Fire: A CAFRA Anthology of Caribbean Women's Poetry (1990) and Washerwoman Hangs Her Poems in the Sun: Poems by Women of Trinidad & Tobago (1990). And there is no one single pattern. From all the islands there is this outpouring of poetry that asserts the strong matriarchal presence in the Caribbean, but also poetry that explores the peculiar concerns of the West Indian woman and her anguish and protest at being 'doubly othered' over these years.
The most important of these is probably the Jamaican Lorna Goodison, whose poetry is suffused with her sense of the island and its people but whose sympathies also extend to the poor and suffering wherever she finds them. There are times when she is in what could be termed a mystic, prophetic mode, as evidenced in her poems in Heartease (1988).
In what looked like a black-out last week a meteorite burst from the breast of the sky smoking like a censer, it spelled out in incandescent calligraphy a message for all who had deep eyes.
If you did not see it I'll tell you what it said:
Cultivate the search-mi-heart and acres of sincerity grass and turn your face towards Heartease ('Heartease II')
There is no one particular focus in the work of these women writers: their poetry addresses the problems of everyday life, with being wife and mother and daughter. It deals, too, with the difficulties of relationships with men, and with children.
There's a woman outside singing of the wrongs that she endures how a man has made her captive, fettered, childed, kept, indoors.
One day she cries I'm young, I'm lovely
I'm on fire like girls must be but the man of my desire quenched it in a freezing sea.
(Jane King, 'Sad Mother Ballad', 1988)
But while there is a more interior, quiet tone, this new poetry can also be assertive, as in Jean Binta Breeze's 'soun de abeng fi nanny' (1988):
an de chant jus a rise, jus a rise to de skies wid de fervour of freedom dat bus up chain dat strap de ceaseless itching of de sugar cane
We sey wi nah tun back we a bus a new track dutty tough but is enuff fi a bite fi wi fight
West Indian poetry has come to an astonishing maturity in a short time. When we consider its range, its complexity and the obstacles it had to overcome, we must agree with Edouard Glissant that the twenty-first century belongs to creole cultures because it is that fusion of old and new that generates such strength and the will to triumph.
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