The International Voices
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 were felt in the poetry both of the “settler” countries—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa—and that of the colonized areas—great parts of Africa, India, and the West Indies. The distinction between “settler” and “colonized” is simple: The settlers came to stay, taking over the land from those they considered primitives—the Aborigines in Australia, the First Nations in Canada, the Maoris in New Zealand, and the blacks in South Africa—and these peoples were variously ignored, enslaved, or exterminated. During the last few decades, the descendants of the dispossessed indigenous peoples have added their poetic voices to those of the settlers, who had through the years created their own exclusionary literature. The colonizers, on the other hand, went forth from England to rule and to exploit, not to settle; of course some did settle, but once the empire dissolved, their descendants left, unlike those in the settler countries. During the heyday of colonialism, the British set up schools for select groups of the natives they colonized; although those they educated in such places as Kenya, Nigeria, or India were intended to help rule their fellows, some became writers instead, thus giving Commonwealth poetry a third voice.
The writers in all three voices had available the centuries-old British literary tradition from which to draw forms, standards, and inspiration. Always, though, this fully developed text—a part of the colonial baggage—set up a creative tension that both benefited and hindered the poets.
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...
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