Lorna Goodison Criticism - Essay

Edward Baugh (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Goodison on the Road to Heartease,” in Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, October, 1986, pp. 13-22.

[In the following essay, Baugh praises Goodison's poetry and discusses ways in which she has matured as a poet.]

Lorna Goodison has spoken recently about a sequence of poems on which she has been working, a sequence which may in effect constitute one long poem under the title Heartease. It appears that a recurring and unifying metaphor in the sequence will be that of a journey towards a place called Heartease. As she explains, and as we should expect, Heartease signifies “an internal and a spiritual freedom:”

Heartease sort of tries to speak to a place inside you, because that is very true too, that there is this place inside you that if you're lucky to find it then exterior hardships become much easier.1

The choice of Heartease as geographical metaphor brings a communal and folk dimension to this idea of private, inner peace. To a Jamaican reader, Heartease would easily seem like the name of an actual place, even if such a place did not exist, on the analogy of places on the island with names such as Tranquility and Content. It turns out that there are at least three places in Jamaica called Heartease, all being fairly remote rural hamlets, situated in relatively hilly country. One of them, in the May Day Mountains, is at the heart of the island so to speak. In this geographical context, the name connotes rural folkways, the simple strength of peasant values, the rigours and deprivations as well as the blessings and the peacefulness of hill-country life. It connotes, too, the idea of walking, of repeated journeys on foot over steep, rugged terrain, and of rest and solace at the end of the climb uphill. For the poet's purposes (and she has not visited any of these places named Heartease) it does not matter whether or not actual experience of these places brings such connotations to mind. Nor does it matter for the purposes of this paper.

The idea of the journey on foot as fact and symbol of life is a deep, archetypal reality in Jamaican folk consciousness. It is significant, therefore, that Goodison traces, in hindsight, the beginning of her interest in the Heartease sequence to a poem called “The Road of the Dread”, which had appeared in her first collection, Tamarind Season (1980), and which is composed around the mataphor of endless walking—to find work, to seek help, to find peace:

I think I may have started writing “Heartease” poems from as far back as “The Road of the Dread”, which appeared in Tamarind Season, now that I look at it. It's again, wanting to talk about things for people. …2

But before completing Heartease, Goodison has published a second collection of poems (all but one written since the completion of Tamarind Season) entitled I am Becoming My Mother (London: New Beacon, 1986). The aim of this paper, as its title should suggest, is to trace, however sketchily, Goodison's poetic development between Tamarind Season and Heartease (and the juxtaposition of the two titles is itself suggestive of a kind of progression) by reference to the volume in-between. The poet herself has said:

One of the things I'm very […] concerned about is that the work should develop. It should develop as I develop as a person, as I develop emotionally and spiritually and in every way …3

The “wanting to talk about things for people” marks one important area of Goodison's development. Of course, any poet worthy of the name talks about things for people. Even the most personal of poets will achieve this to the extent that the reader is able to see his own experience and feelings reflected in those of the poet. In such instances the poet speaks for people in proportion as he speaks arrestingly of and for himself. Goodison has not been lacking in this kind of achievement. Alternatively, the poet may speak about things for people, for society, by observing them detachedly, yet sympathetically, and analysing their condition or his reaction to it. Another way is that of identification, where the poet is able to speak from inside the condition of the people, whether because he happens to be truly one of them, or because his capacity for imaginative empathy enables him to merge his personal voice with the communal voice, as happened in “The Road of the Dread”. An increasing number of Goodison's recent poems, ones which are likely to rank as major pieces, speak with this voice, in which the poet's personal experience and emotion are assimilated and transfigured by the communal condition while, at the same time, that communal condition is made all the more immediate by the charge of personal experience with which it is infused.

Through this voice, Goodison's work becomes political in a broad basic sense. Here a comment by her on the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whom she admires greatly, is instructive:

I think she spoke about human feelings, because she lived in Russia [at] the time of Stalin, and she was badly treated by them, by him in particular—he really had a thing about her—and she suffered untold, terrible things—she had an awful life … but [there was] this courage to win through in her life, and the fact that she saw herself as a person who could speak for everybody, for people, for ordinary people, for people suffering …4

That sense of the “courage to win through”, realised in poetry in which the communal and the personal are always shading into one another, is illustrated by a comparison of the already famous “Nanny” with the somewhat later “My Last Poem”. The interaction of personal and communal levels is only partially realised if each poem is considered in isolation. The realisation is complete only if we hear the individual poem in the context of the other poems.

In “Nanny” the poet speaks in the person of a public figure, the Maroon warrior-heroine. She is imagined as having suppressed personal desires and ambitions in order to be dedicated to the liberation of her people, and the poem is a recounting of her ritual preparation for her role. But at the end, when Nanny suddenly uses the second-person pronoun and addresses her people, one cannot help feeling that one is also hearing the poet addressing her audience and her people, an impression that is reinforced when one hears Goodison read the poem: “When your sorrow obscures the skies/other women like me will rise” (p. 45).

By contrast with “Nanny”, “My Last Poem” is ostensibly private and intimate, a painful baring of the soul (as painful for readers as for poet) in a time of extremity, a time when even the creative gift is taken from the poet. One senses an autobiographical intensity, a deep personal hurt. But, through the poet's technique, the personal takes on a wider significance, and the subject becomes communal victim and guide. In the following passage, the motif of the difficult journey on foot is one of the factors which suggest the communal dimension:

I gave my son
to a kind woman to keep
and walked down through the valley
on my scarred feet,
across the river
and into the guilty town
in search of bread
but they had closed the bakery down …

(p. 7)

The “scarred feet” and “the bread” help to move the literal-autobiographical to a symbolic-mythic level. The town is “guilty” of having brought about the conditions which have caused the speaker's suffering, a suffering which is likely to be the lot of others as well. In closing the bakery, “they” will have added to the distress of the community as a whole. By the end of the poem, the speaker, stubbornly believing in love in spite of all betrayals, is a model for the will to win through. She takes her place beside Nanny as one of the never-ending line of women who “will rise” when the people's “sorrow obscures the skies”....

(The entire section is 3390 words.)

Edward Baugh (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lorna Goodison in the Context of Feminist Criticism,” in Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Baugh discusses feminist interpretations of Goodison's poetry, giving special consideration to her treatment of race and sexuality.]

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his,

—Oscar Wilde

Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

—Toni Morrison, Beloved


(The entire section is 4658 words.)

Velma Pollard (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mothertongue Voices in the Writing of Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison,” in Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, The Women's Press, 1991, pp. 246-53.

[In the following excerpt, Pollard examines how the use of a blend of various dialects, or codes, spoken in Jamaica, affects the flow and meaning of Goodison's poetry.]

Although poetry and good prose share many features, there are several differences, not the least of which is the terseness of the poetic form. An examination of mothertongue in poetry, in this case Lorna Goodison's poetry, is qualitatively different from the exercise just performed on Senior's prose....

(The entire section is 2218 words.)

Susan Lasher (review date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 18, February, 1992, pp. 452-57.

[In the following excerpt, Lasher notes that although the song-like lyricism of Goodison's poetry is lovely, it sometimes detracts from the narrative aspect of her poetry.]

In an Age of Walcott, Lorna Goodison's poetry of the last decade, long unavailable in the United States, shows that the voices of the Caribbean are many: It is likely that “the sum of the names we know now / is not equal to / the smallest glory that is you” (as Goodison describes the variety of names for God).

With a subtle feminist irony, Goodison calls her native...

(The entire section is 1471 words.)

Andrew Salkey (review date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, Autumn, 1993, pp. 876-77.

[In the following review, Salkey notes that—although there are a few lines he did not like—on the whole, Goodison's Selected Poems is an exceptional collection of poetry.]

The evocative power of Lorna Goodison's poetry derives its urgency and appeal from the heart-and-mind concerns she has for language, history, racial identity, and gender (and these are not as separate and consecutive as I have listed them, but rather as alternating and interwoven as they usually occur in the hurly-burly of human existence).

In the exceptionally...

(The entire section is 565 words.)

Adele S. Newson (review date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 3, Summer, 1996, p. 750.

[In the following review, Newson favorably reviews Goodison's To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, praising her treatment of Jamaican themes and imagery.]

The forty-one poems contained in Lorna Goodison's most recent collection of poetry leap off the page with the vitality of the region she describes. By turns the poems are nostalgic, irreverent, somber, contemplative, and festive. In sum, the work is as inviting as the cover illustration depicting a Jamaican couple and landscape, creating the broad strokes of a people's existence.


(The entire section is 587 words.)

Velma Pollard (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Language and Identity: The Use of Different Codes in Jamaican Poetry,” in Winds of Change: The Transforming of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, Peter Lang Publishing, 1998, pp. 31-36.

[In the following excerpt, Pollard analyses the use of various Jamaican dialects to convey meaning in Goodison's “Ocho Rios II.”]

The struggle to find a voice that is truly representative of the speech communities out of which they write has been a very real one for Caribbean creative writers ever since the primacy of the European languages they inherited came to be debated. Commenting more than a decade ago on writing in the Anglophone Caribbean, Gerald Moore,...

(The entire section is 2684 words.)

Cyril Dabydeen (review date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Turn Thanks, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No.1, Winter, 2000, p. 224.

[In the following review, Dabydeen praises Goodison's lyricism in Turn Thanks.]

Now in her mid-career, Lorna Goodison, born in 1947 in Jamaica, in a key section of her new book Turn Thanks called “The Mango of Poetry,” describes a sensuous attitude to poetry in a poem by the same name: “I would not peel it all back / to reveal its golden entirety, / but I would soften it by rolling / it slowly between my palms.” Further, she considers that this “would be a definition / of what poetry is,” all in her accustomed reflectiveness and meditative quality...

(The entire section is 611 words.)