Edward Baugh: “Hey, you might be a poet”

Jamaican poet and scholar Edward Baugh on his literary double life — as told to Lisa Allen-Agostini

Edward Baugh. Photograph by Varun Baker

I was born and grew up in a town in north-east Jamaica, Port Antonio, which is a seaport town, where bananas were first shipped from this part of the world for export to the north. My father worked in the banana business, and so my whole beginnings have to do with the banana industry and trade in Port Antonio. In the first seven years of my life, I was about a hundred yards from the wharf where the bananas were shipped from.

I got accepted into the [University College of the West Indies, later UWI] faculty of arts. In those days there were two kinds of degrees. What was called an English or history honours degree was a different set of courses from the general degree. You were special. You had to start reading for a general degree in three subjects, and depending on your performance at the end of the first year, and if you expressed a desire to, say, go into English honours, you were either selected or not selected.

But before the end of my first term I got back an essay from one of my lecturers — it was an essay on Christopher Marlowe and his plays, and at the bottom of it, I got an A, and she said, “Would you like to do English honours?” And that was it. That decided my life. I went into literature, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

I had written one or two poems at school, but I never considered myself a writer of poetry. My first poem that I remember writing was when I was about fourteen, which won some prize in a competition in a festival in Port Antonio, but I wasn’t really a regular writer, and didn’t consider myself a writer. It was almost at the end, when I was about graduating, that I wrote one or two poems which made me think, “Hey, you might be a poet.”

At the end of the first degree, I was awarded a scholarship to do an MA in English here. If I had done it, I would have been the first student graduate ever of UWI to do an MA in English. I was like a guinea pig. But before the end of one year I got a scholarship to Queen’s University in Ontario. I continued the research I had started to do here. But that work was not on West Indian literature. In those days, the idea of studying West Indian literature in university was not on. That was 1958.

I had got turned on to Derek Walcott when I was here as a student, not because we were studying Walcott — Walcott was the farthest thing from the syllabus — but I had discovered Walcott, we even invited him once or twice to speak to our little literary group. But Walcott had not even yet published what you might call an international commercial book of poetry. So I thought of it, but that was out.

I was guided into late nineteenth-century English literature, the period of Oscar Wilde and the young W.B. Yeats, and I ended up doing my MA thesis on Francis Thompson, a Roman Catholic who was a poet. I taught for a year on Vancouver Island, then I came back to Jamaica, taught for two years in high school, then I got a scholarship to do my PhD at the University of Manchester. My PhD thesis continued work on the same period, but on a different writer, Arthur Symons, who was at the centre of the period, but not one of the great writers.

At the end of that, I got my job with the University [of the West Indies], but not at Mona, at Cave Hill in Barbados. Inevitably, I got into West Indian literature. I developed a curious kind of double life, where in the university I was teaching for most of my life, partly by choice, mainly nineteenth-century British literature, the Romantics and the Victorians, but my critical research and writing was in West Indian literature. So I was known abroad as a scholar of West Indian literature, but known in the university among students as teaching English literature and poetry. It was a kind of interesting dichotomy or mix.

Somebody recently was teaching my poetry here on this [Mona] campus, and asked me to come and speak to the students about the poems. One of the questions one student asked me was what determines when I write a poem in Standard English and when I use Jamaican.

I don’t decide beforehand that I’m going to write this poem in [either] — it’s the subject that kind of pushes me. And then it doesn’t push me immediately. Sometimes I get an idea for a poem or a feeling for a poem, but the thing that I find that I’m feeling for always — and this determines the language — is a voice.

There’s a poem in the book [It Was the Singing, published in 2000] called “The Carpenter’s Complaint”, which is based on an incident in my life, when my father died. In those days in Port Antonio there wasn’t any funeral parlour, so you got a man to build the coffin. And the question was — I was the eldest child and my mother wasn’t into these things — who should I get to make my father’s coffin?

There was a man in the town renowned as a carpenter and successful businessman. I asked him. But there was a man who used to drink in the rumshop with my father who was a carpenter, who had actually built the house we lived in, and I didn’t ask that man. I knew the man was upset, and it bothered me, bothered me. After a time I felt kind of conscience-stricken, and wanted to work this out of myself in some writing. I thought of a short story, and I couldn’t, and I thought of a poem, and I couldn’t.

Some years later it suddenly occurred to me how this thing could be written. It shouldn’t be in my voice. I should put myself in the voice of the man who was aggrieved. I should have him on a stool in the bar where he used to drink with my father, and I should have him expressing his feelings to another man there who didn’t know anything about this. This man would have to speak in Jamaican, he wasn’t going to speak in Standard English. In fact, my father never spoke in Standard English, except when he was drunk, when he spoke in a biblical King James Version Standard English.

One of the things I’ve always said about Jamaican poets — and Caribbean poets, but it’s heightened with Jamaicans — is one of the blessings we have is this range of language between Standard English across to whatever level of patois or creole you want to use. And some of the best poets move in a sort of sliding scale in between. Lorna Goodison is superb at this. Most of us, when we write in the patois, we are speaking in the voice of somebody who is decidedly not ourselves. One of the glories of her poetry is that she will move in all this way, but you still feel it’s her speaking.

One can talk about the intersection of the poetry, the creative work, and the criticism, from various points of view. One can talk about to what extent my work as a critic was helped by the fact that I wrote poetry. And I think it was.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that if I have any ability in teaching poetry, that ability owes something to the fact that I also wrote poetry. By which I don’t mean to suggest that one cannot be an excellent teacher of poetry without being a poet. But in my own case it must have helped, and something must have rubbed off on the students.

For most of my life, people knew me simply as a critic. I was writing poems, getting the odd poem published here and there, but here and abroad, except for a few people who were into poetry, people knew me as a critic.

I always used to say, half in jest, but only half, that the thing I would most have liked to be in the world is a poet. So the fact that sometimes now people refer to me as poet first is a kind of great thrill to me.