Brathwaite, Edward 1930–
Brathwaite is a Barbadian poet, playwright, editor, historian, and critic. His novels are united by a thematic concern with the West Indian black's quest for an identity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
[Rights of Passage reminds] one of the difficulty of all long poems: how to control pace, mood and matter consistently enough to hold the reader's attention….
[Brathwaite's] theme is that of the West Indian, modern and ancestral, in slavery, emigrating, suffering, resilient but melancholy. It is potentially a striking and exciting theme, but Mr. Brathwaite's technique and verbal control do not match his ambition. One can imagine that it might—given the right voice, the right production, and the right mood—make a powerful radio performance, at least in part: but it makes very flat reading on the page. (p. 125)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 16, 1967.
[Brathwaite's] poems are about typical West Indian experiences of life in [the West Indies, England, America, and Ghana], and they are written in a free slangy language similar to that of blues songs. Attitudes change, children mock their father's Uncle Tom deference, negroes live up to the white conception of them, 'black skin red eyes broad back big you know what'. The total effect is impressive. The poems [in Rights of Passage] have a sense of the present, a feeling for the past, above all an awareness of a world changing, sometimes chaotically. This—I mean no disrespect to Mr. Brathwaite—is Commonwealth poetry. (p. 479)
Julian Symons, in New Statesman (© 1967 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 7, 1967.
[Rights of Passage] is the first part of a poem titled "Masks."… "Masks" would appear to be an epic-length work of the sort established by Whitman in "Song of Myself," and continued by Pound and Williams in "The Cantos" and "Paterson" respectively. But perhaps "established" isn't the right word, for the form remains vague and personal, even if the general direction of such poems seems to be the discovery of self and national identity by means of catalogues derived from a physical and intellectual environment. (pp. 31-2)
If in such poems as this there is no narrative involving several characters besides the author, then there must be style. This is present in Whitman, Pound, and Williams, but we do not seem to find it in Mr. Brathwaite. What we have instead is sociology and journal entries in a generalized, contemporary, sometimes jazzy free verse, and that is not enough. (p. 32)
Lewis Turco, in Saturday Review (© 1967 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 14, 1967.
[In Masks Edward Brathwaite] has been able to invent a hybrid prosody which, combining jazz/folk rhythms with English-speaking meters, captures the authenticity of primitive African rituals in a way that the translations of the Trask anthology are rarely able to do. The author is totally immersed both in the expressive resources of the English tongue and in the firsthand spiritual dynamics of primitive living—a rare combination of proficiencies with lucky dividends for contemporary readers. Brathwaite's success in this long verse-quartet is advanced by his skill in assimilating without strain numerous proper nouns and idioms of the Ghanian vernacular into the poem's fluid English base…. Masks demonstrates that the primitive impulse must be filtered through the linguistic tactility of a single totally operative artistic intelligence, a consciousness fully in touch with our moment, if it is to become experiencable to us as readers. (pp. 56-7)
Laurence Lieberman, in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1969.
To convey a sense of the quality of Edward Brathwaite's poetry is difficult. Let me suggest a distinction between poetry that is moving and poetry that is stirring…. H. D.'s poems are the former kind; Brathwaite's are the latter. I don't mean like a Sousa march either, though I've no objection to Sousa. It is a question of vigor and a certain fibrous resiliency. Brathwaite, who is the foremost poet of the English-speaking Caribbean and at least in some sense a revolutionary, is never shrill, is always keen to the pathos of his people's plight, yet the basic exuberance of his feeling cannot be doubted. In part it is revolutionary optimism, in part a closeness to his sources in folk culture. Brathwaite has said that the chief literary influence on his work has been the poetry of T. S. Eliot, but if this is so it has been an influence almost entirely limited to matters of organization and structure, and perhaps to Eliot's manner of rhyming, though this could have come from anywhere. In texture, in verbal technique, in almost everything, nothing could be further from Eliot's poetry than Brathwaite's. Brathwaite has made his reputation on three long poems, Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968), and Islands (1969). Now they have been published in one volume, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, and it is a book everyone should read. Brathwaite uses many voices, ranging from standard English to dialects of several kinds, and in...
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