Arise, think, speak and live!
JAMAICAN POETRY: Arise, think, speak and live!
A National Imagination
By Kwame Dawes
As long as there have been people on this island, there have been songs, poems, incantations, curses, blessings, prayers, abuses, witticisms, word and sound play and all the core elements that constitute what we call poetry. We know that the Taino people managed to pass onto future generations the rituals of words, thoughts and feelings in other islands. The link to that past in Jamaica is marked by the tragedy of genocide, exile, and wilful and imposed amnesia, but our poets and artists have long found a way to invoke the spirit of those early Jamaicans through an exploration of the poetics of the landscape and the narratives of history. Those who did come--the Europeans, the enslaved, the indentured labourers and the willing migrants--all brought with them their own traditions of words, and so for as long as our historical record allows, there are many examples of Jamaicans writing poetry, or visitors writing poetry about the island. But in much the same way that our political history has been defined by a gradual and painful movement from the absence of cultural and political independence to a nationalism that has allowed us to speak of a Jamaican nation and identity, the same can be said for how we have come to understand poetry in this country. For years, our poetry may have had the distinction of subject matter that was centrally about reflecting this landscape for those not familiar with it, but in a form that was either shaped by the literary traditions of Europe, or often unacknowledged songs and poems from our rich orature that derived from the culture and creative power of our African past. While there are examples of poets who had started thinking of Jamaica as a valid source of poetic expression, we have not retained that memory very effectively in our literary history. The reasons are simple: The formation of a literary history as we have come to know it, was inextricably tied to our desire to break away from colonial control and oppression, and so any effort to celebrate the poets of those years of enslavement and colonial power would amount to a betrayal of the broader agenda of independence. No doubt, we will soon begin to do the necessary work of studying how our poets (even those who were our coloniser's) started to imagine the island and the nation in their poetry during the early years of Europe's presence. But for our purposes here, it is safe to say that our ideas of what constitutes a Jamaican poetic tradition begins in earnest at the turn of the last century--a time when Jamaican national identity was becoming a critical part of the imagination of those who felt disenfranchised and oppressed by colonialism. For every preacher who spoke in celebration of the African in the Jamaican, there existed songs and poems that engaged such ideas. It makes sense that when Marcus Garvey began to imagine a new nation of black people, he felt compelled to create a poetry that spoke to such a theme. By the time Claude McKay published, Constable Ballads in Jamaica in the very first years of the nineteenth century, it was clear in actions and words of men like Robert Love, a Bahamian who moved to Jamaica in 1889, that there was developing, among Jamaica artists, a growing sense of national identity that was distinctive from their British identity. McKay remains our first truly distinctive Jamaican poet of the twentieth century, and by any reckoning, he might well be called our first major poet. There were others around him, some quite forgettable, and others who were in their subject matter and style, indistinguishable from the Victorians and Georgians of Britain. But in the same way that there were sprouting up precocious theatre societies, literary societies, and literary clubs, there were poets talking in groups from the various high schools to the teachers colleges and social organisations about a legitimate Jamaican art. These conversations, coupled with the inevitable departure of many Jamaicans first to Europe and various parts of the Americas, and then to African nations either to fight in the first World War or to be educated or to become missionary educators; and followed by their return to the Jamaica of the twenties and thirties during a period of tumultuous social and political upheaval, would lead to what we now regard as the rennaissance of Jamaican poetry.
The Early Moderns
Jamaican poetry and been advanced by people who wrote poetry but who, for years and perhaps never in their life time, could claim to have careers as poets. Many of them never published a full volume of poetry, and most of them were sustained by the opportunities afforded them for publication in the Daily Gleaner, various magazines and periodicals and later, in broadcast venues with the advent of radio. They advanced poetry in Jamaica, however, because they were engaged in the larger discussions, perhaps in the youth, and even in their later years, about what constitutes good culture, good art, and good poetry. Many of the young men and women of the thirties and forties who were being affected by the political and artistic upheavals taking place around the world, found themselves arguing with old colonials about what the new poetry should do. They argued in literary societies, libraries and in high school and college halls. Many began to write about their art even as they sought to exemplify their desire for a new and relevant art I the work they produced. This period, we can say safely, proved to be the most dynamic one for the formation of a Jamaican poetry tradition. Names like H.D. Carberry, Evan Jones, Roger Mais, Vic Reid, and Neville Dawes come to mind as poets whose work we continue to read and think about as at the core of our literary tradition. Perhaps the most dominant of these poets would be George Campbell, one of our first poets after Claude McKay, who could be said to have had a full blown and persistent career as a poet, and a genuine pioneering in the business of trying to find a poetics for the Jamaican culture. Louise Bennett whose achievements in theatre and folklore are indisputable, was also doing some of the most influential work in shaping what would become normal in Jamaican music, poetry, and literature--the use of dialect/ patois. Finally, Una Marson, though living in the UK, was writing a modest (in size) body of poetry that was filled with all the excitement of a modernist sensibility that was fully rooted in the experience of the place where she was raised. That said, it is no exaggeration to say that when one
looks back at the poetry of the 1930s to the 1950s, while some of the work seems quite dated and archaic, a cluster of poets, all fully influenced by various arts movements including the Modernist movement, the Negritude Movement, and the Harlem Renaissance, remain vital and impressive. Neville Dawes, George Campbell, Una Marson, Andrew Salkey and John Figueroa all reward reading today. One can only imaging what many of these poets may have produced had the publishing opportunities for them been better than they were at that time.
The West Indian Project--Post Independence
The early post independence period of Jamaica would see the emergence of a cluster of male poets who one could safely regard as a part of a fully realized lyric modernism that sought to test the possibilities of a Jamaican poetry. At a time when the explosion of West Indian Literature was taking place primarily in fiction, these poets found ways to produce poetry that formed a solid and consistent foundation for the poets that would follow in the next decades. Tellingly, these poets, along with poets like Anfdew Salkey and Neville Dawes, would become as well known for their own poetry as for their encouragement and mentoring of so many of the Jamaican poets that would emerge in the years to come. Few Jamaican poets could say that they did not feel gratitude for the support, mentoring and editorial efforts of poets Mervyn Morris, Edward Baugh and Dennis Scott at some point in their careers. And so many of the contemporary poets speak highly of the guidance and support that wayne Brown gave them over the years. I say this to point to the critical work of poets as mentors in the shaping of a Jamaican poetry tradition. Mervyn Morris, as Jamaica's first Poet Laureate in half a century, continues to play this critical role, and writers still seek out the encouraging and critical eye of Edward Baugh. These three poets along with Trinidadian poet, Wayne Brown and Jamaican poet Anthony McNeill were friends who shared work with each other and who formed a cadre of writers primary committed to being poets. Mervyn Morris published steadily in the seventies and has continued to publish books of poetry, whereas Edward Baugh's first full collection appeared in the early 1990s. Anthony McNeill was published in the 1970s and went onto to publish fairly modestly before his death, however, recently, a remarkable body of unpublished work by him has been found and is undergoing editing for publication. On the strength of the volume and startling brilliance of this work, it is fair to say that when this work is published, we will find in McNeill one of Jamaica's most innovative and defining poets.
The Voice of the People--Reggae and Social Movements
Led by the purposefulness, inventiveness, relevance and creative dynamism of popular Jamaican music in the 1960s and 1970s, it was inevitable that a new kind of poetry would emerge. It is clear that those poets who were writing into being the spirit of independence were gaining much from the emergence of this new cultural force called reggae and its spiritual centre, Rastafarianism, but there were poets who saw in reggae a space for a poetry of performance inextricably connected and immersed in the music. Dub poetry has become a fully formed genre of poetry that has, in itself, helped to expand the aesthetic possibilities of poetry written by Jamaicans. Dub poetry has produced at least two poems that I regard as some of the best poems written by a Caribbean poet, namely Jean "Binta" Breeze's "The Mad Woman" and Linton Kwesi Johnson's "Five Nights of Bleeding". Some of the better known poets of this period included Oku Onuora, Mikey Smith (whose brutal murder ended what was promising to be one of the more ground-breaking careers of a Jamaican poet), Mutabaruka, and Bongo Jerry. Dub poetry, of course, continues to thrive in Jamaica and abroad even when those who are engaged in that poet do not readily identify themselves as dub poets
Migration has long been an elemental part of the development of Jamaican artists, and while many have lamented the departure of Jamaicans to other
parts of the world to pursue lives as writers, it should be noted that Jamaica is not unique in this regard. People migrate for various reasons, and while some may have a great deal to do with the lack of opportunities for publishing and training in Jamaica for writers, some reasons have also to do with general economical and educational opportunities that travel has provided. Over the years, it is is clear that Jamaican poets have either lived abroad for much of their lives or have actually settled in other countries to write. In many instances, they have done so while still embarked on the great enterprise of writing a Jamaican poetry even as they have expanded their subject range to include the worlds in which they life. Poets like James Berry, who began writing while in London, would continue to make his career as a poet in the UK. His work remains important to Jamaican writing. The same may be said for Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose influence has been even more far-reaching for Jamaican writers. In Canada, Lillian Allen and Afua Cooper along with spoken word poets like Michael St. George among many others, have found ways to locate in that country an immigrant poetics rooted in Jamaican sensibilities. In the US, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Louis Simpson seemed less interested in the "Jamaican project", if you will, but was fully engaged in the poetics of modern America. But this should make him no less interesting to readers of Jamaican poetry. Of the poets based abroad today, few could be said to have as strong a reputation as Claudia Rankine who is recognized today as one of the leading poets working in the US. Her "Jamaican" perspective permeates all of early work and she considers Jamaica a part of her sensibility. The same could also be said for the DC-based poet Mark McMorris who grew up in Jamaica and who has built up a sophisticated body of poetry that should be seen as a proud part of the Jamaican poetry tradition.
The fact is that Jamaican poetry has to be defined not by some prescriptive notion of what it should be, but by a more ecumenical appreciation of what it actually constitutes based on what the poets have written. Simpson, like
Berry, belonged to a time in recent history when communication between "home" and away was challenging to say the least. When people left, they could fairly claim the status of exiled writers. This is a status that is harder for a Jamaica writer to claim today. Most Jamaican writers living abroad have access to Jamaican daily life and most return to the island routinely. The international impact of reggae music and the sporting prowess of Jamaican athletes, has made the idea of Jamaicanness accessible to a wider world, and in many ways, this has granted the writers permission to embrace this identity as meaningful.
When, in the late seventies, Lorna Goodison published her first volume of poems, Tamarind Season, which was published by the Institute of Jamaica, she was ushering in several critical things to Jamaican poetry that cannot never be undervalued. First of all, these were the first published poems of a poet who would continue to produce of formidable body of poetry in volume after volume, that would establish her as among the top three or four poets of the Caribbean, along with Martin Carter, Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott. Lorna Goodison, by the end of the century, would be the first woman to solidly enter that small group, and in so doing she would be at the forefront of a tremendous explosion of women poets in Jamaica that would, between 1980 and 2000, transform Jamaican poetry in remarkable ways. Some of the poets who would emerge would publish modestly but with significant impact on Jamaican poetry.
Rachel Manley, Christine Craig and Gloria Escoffery would publish books of poetry that expanded the "landscape" of poetry to include rich elements of the personal, the domestic, and the political as seen from the distinctive perspective of the woman. Others would begin to publish in the eighties and would continue to build a body of work that demands careful study. These poets would include the internationally renowned poets like Pamela Mordecai, Velma Pollard and Olive Senior whose Gardening in the Tropics is arguable one of the most important collections of poetry published by a Jamaican in the last thirty years. The work of these poets would further influence poets like Opal Adisa Palmer, Donna Aza Weir Soley and Jacqueline Bishop, all poets who have lived and written outside of Jamaica for most of their career, but who have remained doggedly committed to the Jamaican ethos in their work. It should be telling that since the arrival of Lorna Goodison, any survey of Jamaican poetry since continues to show a dominance of women poets who are opening new and exciting spaces in the poetry.
A few nights ago, at a family meal, I asked a question: If you had a chance to make a film or write a book that you have never read or seen what would it be about? They were stumped, they said. I asked them to think carefully about this. The begged off, citing the fact that they were musicians and not creators of stories. I suggested to them that one of the great benefits of being a writer from a country still starting to chart the experience of its society and history, was that there were so many stories to tell that simply had not been told. At the heart of the contemporary writing of poetry in Jamaica is this richness of possibility in subject matter and form. While there has been a rich history of poetry in Jamaica, it is not hubris for our poets to feel as if they are still writing a new poetry, a poetry that can tell so many untold stories and that can capture the complex and varied stories of Jamaica. The emergence of the publishing house, Peepal Tree Press, in the UK, has effectively ensured that there is a platform for these poets, an opportunity for their work to be published in ways that simply were not available for many of their predecessors. It is possible, also, for these poets to consider themselves career poets. It may well be enough to offer a list of the poets I am referring to as the contemporary voices of Jamaican poetry and it is a powerful and exciting cluster of poets. The beauty is that you can actually find their work and read it. And in so doing, you are allowed into the imagination of poets of varied backgrounds obsessions and preoccupations. Some of these poets live in Jamaica and others live outside of Jamaica. These poets are constrained by little in terms of what to write about, and how to write it. There are many poetry events in Jamaica today, many of them following the model of the American poetry slams and spoken word events. Indeed, much of the interest in poetry today in Jamaica grows out of this movement made popular through television. However, these spoken word events found fertile ground in Jamaica where for several decades dub poetry had flourished, and where, for even longer, the vital poetry of dancehall and deejay music, along with the lyric grace of roots reggae music, offered a rich occasion for poetic expression that emerged from the grassroots of Jamaican society. Tellingly, it is this powerful lyric possibility developed by te great reggae and dancehall artists of the last fifty years that has served as a model and a source of possibility for the contemporary Jamaican poet. Yet, while the stages and the microphones have never stopped sounding the words of poets, a great development of the last few decades has been the publication of Jamaican poets internationally. With two or more books of poetry to their credit, poets like, Shara McCallum, Ann Margaret Lin, Tanya Shirley, Kei Miller, Delores Gauntlet, Earl McKenzie, Ralph Thompson, and Millicent Graham, are embarked on legitimate careers as poets. It should be noted, of course, that some of these poets began their publishing careers at more advanced ages, but they are as much a part of the exciting contemporary scene as the younger generation of poets. Any casual survey of the work of the poets listed above should make it clear that we speaking of poets that have shown evidence becoming major Caribbean poets in the next few decades. Similar things are being claimed for yet another dynamic group of poets that is gaining an impressive reputation at home and abroad having published their first collections of poems to great acclaim. Such poets include two truly remarkably gifted poets, Safiya Sinclair, and Ishion Hutchison. So many of Jamaica's contemporary poets have been shortlisted for or won major international prizes and have become important poets in their own right wherever they are.
As the Associate Poetry Editor at Peepal Tree, I recognize everyday that surveys like this become obsolete quite quickly. It is exciting to see that new ports are emerging each day who call themselves Jamaicans. Some are embarked on creative writing programs in the US and the UK and others are plugging away at their poetry from Jamaica or wherever they are living. They know they are a part of a rich tradition, and they also know that there is no shortage of subject and form to challenge them as Jamaican writers. This year, renowned Jamaican novelist, Colin Channer, will publish his first collection of poetry, Providential, that demonstrates this point. The power of this book speaks to the exciting possibilities that exist for Jamaican poetry.
Despite this promise, Jamaican poetry faces many challenges. While the Peepal Tree's existence has been a remarkable gift to Jamaican poetry, there exist very little opportunity for publishing in Jamaica. Most of the poets listed here were either published by Peepal Tree Press or have been published by publishers in the US or the UK. At the same time, Jamaica has not yet developed a creative writing program at the tertiary level that will train poets in prosody that is rooted in the Caribbean. Most of our poets with graduate degrees in writing have received such degrees abroad. Since the founding of the Calabash International Literary Festival in 2001, there has been an explosion of literary festivals in Jamaica and through out the Caribbean that have afforded poets and writers opportunities to share their work. This is a good thing. Good, also, has been the reestablishment of the Poet Laureate position in Jamaica, and Mervyn Morris energy and vision which is helping to bring attention to the richness of the poetry tradition in Jamaica, and to also push us to think of ways to make it possible for our talented to have a viable career as poets.