Commonwealth Poetry Analysis

The International Voices (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

As the British Empire spread to all corners of the world, so did the English language and literature. The empire faded after World War II, but what had become the international tongue and medium for creative writing survived and even prospered. English and its literature had long been enriched by speech and writing from Africa, the West Indies, Canada, India, Australia, and New Zealand. The dismantling of the Commonwealth neither subordinated nor silenced the distinctive voices that had arisen and that continue to arise. Traditionally, this body of fiction, drama, and poetry has been referred to as “Commonwealth literature” to distinguish it from English and American literatures. It is often still called Commonwealth literature for want of a better name, but as the old British Commonwealth recedes into history, so does a once-significant but now largely meaningless political term. These days, names such as “postcolonial literature,” “world literature written in English,” or “international literature in English” are more common. Some critics envision a time when all literature in English, including that of England and the United States, will blend into a single body, a time when no literary works will receive preference because of their national origins and all literature will be judged entirely on merit.

The circumstances in which poetry grew out of the one-time Commonwealth affected all aspects of the poetry’s development. Such effects...

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Commonwealth Poetry Settler poets (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

How were the settlers in Australia, South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand to express in poetry the peculiarities of a new land and the life there? Could English poetry alone serve as a model? The emu had replaced the skylark; the flamboyant blossoms of the frangipani had dimmed the daffodil and primrose. Colonial outposts like Cape Town or Sydney bore little resemblance to London. Makeshift towns or isolated homesteads on the bleak veld of South Africa or in the vast outback of Australia contrasted starkly with the villages, meadows, copses, and moors of England. As the settlers communicated less with their former home, even their language changed: New words came into usage to describe unfamiliar things, accepted grammar fell by the wayside, and indigenous expressions crept in. Neither could the heterogeneous and structured English society survive intact among those in the isolated pockets of the Empire; no matter how hard the settlers tried to preserve their traditions, they faced lives in altered societies where rules and conduct adjusted to circumstance.

Despite their circumstances, the poetic impulse loomed strong among the early settlers. Perhaps the writing of poetry served as a comfort, as a way to overcome loneliness and isolation, a way to grasp the radical changes the settlers experienced. For example, even though Australia’s convict pioneers were not literate for the most part, they were the colony’s first poets. Soon after their arrival in 1788, they altered familiar English and Irish ballads to express the despair and misery that marked their lives. Like the literate free settlers who followed them to Australia and like those who went to Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand, they drew from the established text, imitating it and adding a new dimension. In 1819, an Australian judge named Barron Field (1786-1846) published two poems in a booklet, First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819), in which he claimed to be the colony’s first poet: “I first adventure; follow me who list/ And be Australia’s second harmonist.” Traditional in form, these two poems—“The Kangaroo” and “Botany Bay Flowers”—are typical of much early settler poetry. While Field finds the unfamiliar flora and fauna intriguing, he neither captures it wholly in his imitation of English verse nor refrains from recording his amusement over such oddities.

On the other hand, an anonymous Canadian settler expresses greater appreciation for his new land in “The Lairds of Esquesing,” which appeared in 1826. This poem celebrates “Canada’s wild woody shore” and “The Oak and the Hemlock and Pine” as the means of a better life for those who “are still coming o’er;/ In hopes of a good situation.” However, pride and delight in the potential exploitation of natural resources, not in their beauty, lies at the center of the poem. These examples—like the early poetry from New Zealand and South Africa—express not a national identity but rather a colonial mentality. Such was the case with the abundant verse that continued to be written well into the twentieth century. Some was brazenly nationalistic in its celebration of the heroic pioneers, those hardy individuals who conquered the land; although the pioneers have long been admired for destroying the forests or eroding the veld and killing the indigenous peoples, later generations have questioned whether these acts deserve epic status. Some records of pioneer exploits, usually too mundane for true heroic stature, have found posterity as folk verse, such as the work of Australia’s Banjo Paterson (1864-1941). Much of the poetry was far removed in spirit from the place where it originated, a pale imitation of distant literary fashions. For example, while there was no dearth of localized nature poetry, too often the poets saw the New World, the antipodes, or Africa through a Romantic sensibility they inherited from earlier English...

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Commonwealth Poetry Three New Zealanders (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

New Zealand, too, has produced a wide array of poets, the best-known being James K. Baxter (1926-1972). An old-fashioned poet by some standards, Baxter gained his popularity and lasting fame through a rare ability to meld language and location, for his was truly a national voice that spoke apart from the established British text. The far more sophisticated work of another New Zealander, Allen Curnow (1911-2001), is also highly regarded, for both its rich language and its handling of the metaphysical aspects of the remote country; for instance, in “House and Land,” he speaks of the “great gloom” that “Stands in a land of settlers/ With never a soul at home.” A New Zealand poet who has received attention overseas is Bill Manhire (born 1946). His poetry is simple and direct yet sophisticated and dense in its suggestiveness. It takes varied forms, covers a wide variety of subjects, and draws its material both from his native country and from places abroad.

Commonwealth Poetry Indigenous poets in settler countries (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Silent, or silenced, for the two hundred or so years since whites invaded their lands, the indigenous people of the settler countries—Australia, South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand—have added their voices to Commonwealth poetry. They are the victims of a secondary colonialism, for they have long been subjected and in the past often murdered by the settlers who saw them as one more pest on the landscape. Also secondary to the indigenes is the English language and literature, which was forced onto them for survival on the fringes of the white world. Beset by a borrowed written text and an oral literature that has eroded during two centuries of assimilation, the indigenous writers face peculiar problems as they set out to create a tradition that is not a thirdhand version of the British text. They need to determine whether they should write in the conqueror’s language or their own languages, which sometimes have been corrupted or lost. They must decide whether to use standard English or the creolized language that many indigenes speak as a result of poor education and segregation. Other challenges include how to incorporate the remnants of their oral traditions and how to reach the largest audience.

The question of audience often seems the most important, for much of the poetry protests the second-class citizenship to which the indigenes have been relegated. At first, the main audience for such writing was white liberals, so English became the...

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Commonwealth Poetry South African poets (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The South African poet and novelist Dennis Brutus (1924-2009) was another early and widely acclaimed writer of protest poetry. In particular, his poems from prison, Letters to Martha (1968), describe vividly the abuse he and other political prisoners suffered. In “This Sun on this Rubble,” he writes: “Under jackboots our bones and spirits crunch/ forced into sweat-tear-sodden slush/ —now glow-lipped by this sudden touch.” Other black South African poets include Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali (born 1940), who published Sounds of a Cowhide Drum in 1971, and Mongane Wally Serote (born 1944), who, in “Ofay-Watcher Looks Back,” observes that “jails are becoming necessary homes for people.” Although it is...

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Commonwealth Poetry Maori poets (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

New Zealand poets Rosemary Kohu (born 1947), Robert DeRoo (born 1950), and Hone Tuwhare (1922-2008) express in their work what it is like to be a Maori among the Pakehas—the Maori word for the Anglo-Saxon settlers. In “Taken,” for example, Kohu recalls how as a child she was placed in the Bethlehem Native School, which methodically stripped away her heritage so she might become a “Pakeha-thinking Maori.” Between stanzas of the poem appears the refrain “’To get on in this world you must be Pakeha.’” In “Aotearoa/New Zealand/Godzone?,” DeRoo speaks to the land, calling it “Aotearoa,” its name before the colonial “New Zealand” and the affectionate “Godzone” were affixed. He sees history as...

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Commonwealth Poetry Canadian indigenous poetry (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The work of the early Canadian activist-poet Duke Redbird (born 1939) condemns white society for its insensitive treatment of the indigenous peoples. “I Am the Redman,” one of his best-known poems, became a rallying cry in the 1970’s for the long-silent First Nations. Another native poet, Rita Joe (1932-2007), articulates her people’s plight in a more conciliatory fashion—reminiscent of Oodgeroo in some ways—saying, for example, in one of her untitled poems published in Poems of Rita Joe (1978), “Pray/ meet me halfway—/ I am today’s Indian.” Other poets in this group include Chief Dan George (1899-1981), Daniel David Moses (born 1952), and George Kenny (born 1951).

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Commonwealth Poetry Combining traditions (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

It would be misleading, though, to leave the impression that indigenous poetry constitutes nothing more than protest. As the years have passed, some rights have been gained and certainly consciousness has been raised, and many indigenous poets have moved toward familiar topics of poetry: love, home, nature, and spiritual quest. They have also combined with English-language forms their oral heritage, which has been retrieved through great effort. These writers are thus in the process of establishing a poetic tradition that echoes the borrowed literature and at the same time imbues it with their own ancient text.

One of the writers who has combined the two texts most impressively is the Australian poet Mudrooroo Narogin...

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Commonwealth Poetry Colonial and postcolonial poets (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The most important poet of the colonial and postcolonial poets of India, Africa, and the West Indies, Derek Walcott (born 1930), is of African descent but was born and grew up in the West Indies when his remote Caribbean island still formed part of the British Empire. In “A Far Cry from Africa,” he speaks of “the English tongue I love,” but then asks a question common to many postcolonial poets who are not Anglo-Saxon but whose heritage and language is largely English: “Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” While the West Indies have produced a number of poets, Walcott overshadows the others and to a great degree represents international poetry in English at its very best. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature...

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Commonwealth Poetry An African approach (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

To a great extent, contemporary African poets have been more faithful than their sometimes all-too-literary Indian counterparts at integrating the African languages and heritage into English poetry. Many African poets write first in an African language and then render their work into English, often retaining many of the African words. Some write in pidgin to reproduce the flavor that English has acquired in Africa. Others attempt to evoke, through verbal effects, traditional drum or flute poetry, or the chanted verses that are a part of tribal ceremonies. A single poem may refer to Christian mythology alongside allusions to African religion, or may contain lines from Ezra Pound or echo the rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins while...

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Commonwealth Poetry Bibliography (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bery, Ashok. Cultural Translation and Postcolonial Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Included are critical essays on Judith Wright, Les A. Murray, Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney, A. K. Ramanujan, and Derek Walcott.

Coplan, David B. In the Time of Cannibals: The Word Music of South Africa’s Basotho Migrants. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. History and critical analysis of Sotho music and poetry. Bibliography and index.

Keown, Michelle. Pacific Islands Writing: The Postcolonial Literatures of Aotearoa/New Zealand and Oceania. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. The first...

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