(Poetry Criticism)

Lorna Goodison 1947-

(Born Lorna Gaye Goodison) Jamaican poet, short-story writer, and illustrator.

Many critics consider Goodison one of the finest contemporary anglophone Caribbean writers. Her poems often focus on such women's issues as sexuality, equality, love, and motherhood. In her poems she also writes about racial issues and the plight of the downtrodden. Goodison blends different dialects, or codes (Standard Jamaican English, Jamaican Creole, and Dread Talk), from her native Jamaica, using them interchangeably, sometimes all three in one line of poetry. Scholars have noted that this use of dialects gives her poetry depth and many layers of meaning.

Biographical Information

Goodison was born in 1947 in Kingston, Jamaica, on August 1—the Jamaican Emancipation Day, on which the abolition of slavery is celebrated. The eighth of nine children in a lower-middle-class family, Goodison grew up on a noisy street in a home with a concrete yard. This environment stimulated Goodison's love for the Jamaican rural countryside. She graduated from St. Hugh's High School and, after a year of working in the countryside in the Jamaican Library Services bookmobile, she attended the Jamaica School of Art, where she showed promise in writing and in painting. She then traveled to New York City to attend the Art Students' League. She returned to Jamaica a year later and held various jobs, such as promotional consultant, creative writing teacher, artist, art teacher, and cultural administrator. She married Jamaican radio personality Don Topping in 1972, but divorced in 1978. In 1980, she gave birth to her son, Miles Goodison Fearon, named after Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpeter. In this same year, she also published her first collection of poems, Tamarind Season. In 1991, she began to accept visiting teaching appointments at universities and colleges in the United States and in Canada, including University of Michigan, Radcliffe College, and University of Toronto. Her poetry collection I Am Becoming My Mother (1986) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Americas Region, from England's Commonwealth Institute in 1986. Goodison was awarded a Commonwealth Universities fellowship in Canada from 1990-91 and the Musgrave Medal and Centenary Medal from the Institute of Jamaica.

Major Works

Goodison's poetry resists categorization, but many of her poems focus on women. She writes about the different roles a woman can play: mother, daughter, lover, warrior, object of desire, object of abuse, and object of worship. Goodison shows admiration for her mother in one of her most famous poems, “For My Mother May I Inherit Half Her Strength,” included in Tamarind Season, and she celebrates her own motherhood in “Songs for My Son” and “Dream—August 1979,” both in Selected Poems (1992). She embraces women's sexuality in “On Becoming a Mermaid” in Tamarind Season and in “The Mulatta and the Minotaur” in I Am Becoming My Mother. She writes in awe of the beauty and power a woman can have in “Star Suite,” in Heartease (1988).

Many of Goodison’s poems are about the Jamaican experience. “Ocho Rios II,” in Tamarind Season, views life in Jamaica through the eyes of a Rasta man and his dealings with a tourist. Tamarind Season also includes “Bridge Views,” a poem about the violence and poverty with which Jamaicans are confronted. In “In City Gardens Grow No Roses as We Know Them,” the central poem in To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (1995), Goodison writes about the small, dilapidated gardens that Jamaican city dwellers grow and enjoy as a haven from the city streets.

Goodison also pays tribute to various heroes through her poems. Among those she pays homage to are novelist Jean Rhys in “Lullaby for Jean Rhys,” from Tamarind Season, Vincent Van Gogh in “Letter to Vincent Van Gogh,” from Turn Thanks (1999), and—from I Am Becoming My Mother—Winnie Mandela in “Bedspread,” and Rosa Parks in “For Rosa Parks.”

A empathetic vein runs throughout all of Goodison's poems. When she writes of women, she writes with an understanding of their situation, whatever that situation might be. She notes the struggles of the poor Jamaican in a world that has many luxuries. Goodison praises such people as Winnie Mandela and Rosa Parks not just for being strong, but for overcoming hardship in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Her verse captures the daily battle for dignity of the downtrodden in society.

Critical Reception

Goodison's poetry is highly regarded by critics as well as by her peers. Andrew Salkey, Cyril Dabydeen, and Edward Baugh, all acclaimed poets in their own right, praise her poems both for their lyricism and content, and offer strong testaments to Goodison's abilities as a poet. Reviewers agree that her blending of the three Jamaican dialects gives her poetry dimensions and depth of meaning, and lend a song-like quality. She is praised for being able to write true feminist poetry without separating men from women. Although at times she exposes the injustices that women experience at the hands of men, Goodison also writes highly acclaimed love poems. Her work is considered versatile, and is written to be enjoyed by men and women, Jamaicans and tourists, the rich and the poor alike.