From its earliest beginnings in the eighteenth century, Caribbean, or West Indian, poetry has been an elusive but dynamic art. Though sometimes static, it has always been an evolving art form. According to one scholar, Lloyd W. Brown, the first 180 years of West Indian poetry were uneven at best; however, Brown was appraising only the formal aspect of Caribbean poetry, a poetic tradition that was imposed on the peoples of the West Indies first by a slavocracy and later by an imperialist regime. There has always been an oral tradition in the Caribbean, and although this tradition has been suppressed, it could never be destroyed. It has existed in children’s ring games, in calypso, and in the combined arts of carnival, Junkanoo, and other folk and religious celebrations. Then, too, the unwritten tradition of the Amerindians has enriched the art of Caribbean poetry. Ironically, after years of suppression, the folk and oral traditions, combined with other aspects of Afro-Caribbean cultural experiences, are theorized, by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, as the wellspring of “nation language.”
Slavery in the Caribbean was extremely harsh, and people of African descent had very little opportunity to develop the art of composing poetry. Therefore, the first poems to be published by an Afro-Caribbean came as a result of an experiment centered in the noble savage concept. Francis Williams of Jamaica, a free black, was the first to publish a poem. John, the second duke of Montagu (and at one time Jamaica’s governor), believed that if blacks were given the same educational opportunities as Caucasians they would be able to compete successfully with Caucasians. Williams, under the patronage of the duke, was educated in England. On his return to Jamaica, the duke was unable to establish his protégé in Jamaican society, so Williams opened a school in Spanish Town.
In 1759, Williams wrote “An Ode to George Haldane, Governor of the Island of Jamaica” to celebrate the arrival of the governor at his new office. Written in Latin, the poem, the only extant work of Williams, attests to the poet’s abilities, but it also suggests the subservient position in which Williams found himself: Established by a mighty hand (God the creator gave the same soul to all his creatures without exception), virtue itself, like wisdom, is devoid of color. There is no color in an honorable mind, nor in art.
Williams then bids his black muse not to hesitate but to “mount to the abode of [the new governor] the Caesar of the setting sun,” and bid him welcome.
The other acknowledged poet of the eighteenth century is James Grainger, a Scottish physician who made his home in Jamaica. His extended poem The Sugar-Cane (1766) is often described as a pastoral epic that discusses the vicissitudes of life on the island. The poem is based on Western European forms that underscore European stereotypes, as in this description of the slaves:
Annon they [slaves] form; nor inexpertA thousand tuneful intricacies weave,Shaking their sable limbs; and oft a kisssteal from their partners; who, with neck reclin’dand semblant scorn resent the ravish’d bliss.
Grainger depicts a Romantic pastoral but also indicates that, should the slaves drink alcohol or hear the drum they will immediately revert to their savage ways, and “bacchanalian frenzy” will ensue. Despite the idealistic picture presented in The Sugar-Cane, the poem has come to typify the long-lived tradition of the Caribbean pastoral.
Williams and Grainger represent the poetry of the eighteenth century; the poets who typify the tradition during the nineteenth century are the Hart sisters of Antigua and Egbert Martin of Guyana. Elizabeth Hart Thwaites and Anne Hart Gilbert were two women of African descent who have not received much exposure. Their parents, Anne Clerkley Hart and Barry Conyers Hart, were free African Caribbeans. The father, a plantation owner, was also a poet who published his poems in the local newspaper. Although slavery prevailed in Antigua, both sisters married white men and devoted their lives to educating other African Caribbeans. The sisters were known for writing religious poems and hymns. Anne Hart Gilbert affirms that, although race prejudice was pervasive, her light complexion exempted her and her family from racial prejudices. In “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. Cook,” Elizabeth Hart Thwaites praises the missionary for his work among all races:
With rapture [he] heard the diff’rent tribes converse,In Canaan’s tongue redeeming love rehearse,And Afric’s sable sons in stammering accents tellOf Jesu’s love, immense, unspeakable.
Like the Hart sisters, Egbert Martin had his roots in the Caribbean Basin and was considered the most prominent poet of his day. The son of a Guyanese tailor, Martin wrote poetry that followed the traditional modes of European models. He did, at times, paint realistic word-pictures of Guyanese landscapes, and in some of his better poems he makes his readers aware of the poverty of his people. Perhaps he is not as patriotic as his “National Anthem” suggests, but in it, he calls for Britain to close its “Far-reaching wings” over all its “Colonial throng.” Written for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887, the poem won an award for his patriotic efforts.
Caribbean poetry came into its own during the twentieth century. The nineteenth century poets were cautious. They protested against the oppressive rule of the colonials, but they saw themselves as British. The poets of the early part of the twentieth century were militant. They were nationalistic. The poets who best represent this period are Jamaica’s Claude McKay, Jamaica’s Louise Bennett, Guyana’s Arthur J. Seymour, St. Lucia’s Derek Walcott, and Barbados’s Edward Kamau Brathwaite.
One of the strongest voices to come out of the Caribbean during the early twentieth century is that of Claude McKay, born in 1889 in Sunny Ville, Jamaica. Before leaving his home, he published two volumes of dialect poetry Constab Ballads (1912) and Songs of Jamaica (1912). Shortly after publishing these volumes, McKay migrated to the United States, where he became the voice of oppressed blacks not only in the Caribbean but also throughout the world. He insisted that he was “never going to carry the torch for British colonialism or American imperialism.” Using the sonnet as his major mode of expression, McKay describes America as a vicious tiger that “sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth/ stealing my breath of life.” The poet warns America that he “sees her might and granite wonders.Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.” The poet insists that if America kills him, “she” will be killing herself because it is he who makes America strong. In “If We Must Die,” McKay’s persona encourages the oppressed not to die “like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,” but to die nobly facing the enemy: “Pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back!” Although McKay was probably not thinking of the British as oppressed (the British for Mckay were always the colonizers, the oppressors), during World War II, when the Germans were blitzing London, British prime minister Winston Churchill quoted McKay’s poem in the House of Commons to rally the nation, and British soldiers carried copies of the poem in their pockets.
Although McKay never returned to Jamaica to live, he did write about the beauty of the island. In “Flame Heart,” he admits that he has forgotten much about Jamaica, but what he has never forgotten is “the poinsettia’s red, blood red in warm December.” His romantic nostalgia is also evidenced in “The Tropics in New York”: In passing a store that displayed tropical fruits in a window the persona admits: “And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,/ I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.” McKay, then, represents the new thrust in...
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The poetry of the post-independence period in the Caribbean is more exuberant than the poetry of the colonial era. Brathwaite affirms that Caribbean poets have found a new mode of expression that he calls “nation language.” This New World language might sound like English, “but in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English.” Three poets who demonstrate this new language are Grace Nichols, Fred D’Aguiar, and Bongo Jerry.
Grace Nichols (born in Guyana in 1950), whose roots are in Guyana, insists that her poetry comes out of “a heightened imagistic use of language that does things to the heart and head.” She is at ease with both languages, standard English as well as creole or nation language, because for her, the two languages are “constantly intercepting.” The blending of these languages is evident in the poem “I Is a Long-Memoried Woman.” Here the persona states:
From dih poutof mih mouthfrom dihtreacherouscalm of mih smileyou can tellI is a long-memoried woman.
Fred D’Aguiar (born in 1960 in London and sent to Guyana as a child) fuses folk tradition with standard...
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Baugh, Edward. Derek Walcott. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. A definitive guide to Walcott’s works, demonstrating how his ideas and his techniques have changed over the course of his career. Bibliography and index.
Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. A History of the Voice: The Development of National Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. London: New Beacon Press, 1984. The text explores Brathwaite’s theory of the development of a Caribbean language that is centered in an African rather than a British tradition.
Brown, Stewart, and Mark McWatt, eds. The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. New...
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