The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse: landscape of love

James Ferguson finds consolations in The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse

Photograph courtesy Oxford University Press

As a long-time resident of Oxford (UK, that is—there are hundreds of others all over the world) and an alumnus of the old university, I’m always surprised by the power of the city and institution’s brand name. Almost everywhere you go, people recognise the name and maybe even think you’re cleverer than you actually are just because you happen to live there. The same applies even more strongly in publishing, where the Oxford University Press enjoys undoubted cachet. Who could fail to be impressed by the authority that “The Oxford Book of” gives to anything? The Oxford Book of Toilet Humour would quite probably attract serious reviews, as might The Oxford Book of Junk E-Mail.

So the appearance in 2005 of The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse gave a sort of official approval and recognition of the region’s poetic prowess. It confirmed that in the eyes of the academic and literary establishment, the Caribbean had come of age as a place where world-class poetry was produced. It also showed that poetry was a region-wide phenomenon, not restricted to the English-speaking islands, but also involving work originally written in French, Spanish and Dutch. And it revealed a collection of poems as varied and individual as the Caribbean’s component parts.

Anthologies, it has to be said, can make for disappointing reading; your favourite piece is never there, and indifferent poems often rub shoulders with real gems. This collection certainly contains a few entries that probably shouldn’t be there (some of the more contemporary material especially), but its great strengths easily outweigh its comparatively minor weaknesses.

First of these strengths is the way that the anthology reflects many of the most significant social and cultural developments of the modern Caribbean. Taken chronologically, it starts about halfway through the twentieth century, when the still-colonial territories of the region were often taking their literary inspiration from the bright lights of London or Paris. Thus the poetry of Saint-John Perse, a pale-skinned scion of a Guadeloupe plantation-owning dynasty (who won the Nobel Prize in 1960) reads like a slightly tropical version of the great French Symbolist, Stéphane Mallarmé, while early verse by Barbadian Frank Collymore and Dominica’s Phyllis Shand Allfrey has the rather stiff formal tone of received English models.

Yet even in the 1940s and 1950s, as the Caribbean was undergoing massive social change in the run-up to independence, one senses the emergence of a distinctive voice. Some poets like the great Cuban Nicolás Guillén were exploring African roots within their countries’ popular culture, a theme taken up in a poem of yearning and mixed identity by the little-known Haitian Léon Laleau:

Do you feel my pain,
This anguish like none other
From taming with the words of France
This heart that came to me from Senegal?

The conflict of opposing identities is one that runs through the anthology, sharpened by that other great Caribbean phenomenon: migration. In the 1960s, as independence dawned and the Black Power movement attracted adherents across the region, the rejection of European values became more pronounced and the lure of an imagined Africa more irresistible. It was suddenly in vogue to trash the old metropolitan models and to celebrate the vital creative forces engendered by the mixing of cultures—African, European, Asian.

The growing self-confi-dence of Caribbean poetry was most clearly manifested in the way that its basic substance—language—changed. As poets took to reflecting a specifically Caribbean aesthetic, so they tended to drop the standard linguistic forms of the colonial powers and instead adopted the language that they and those around them might speak. Out went the received English of the BBC and Oxbridge and in came the cadences and vernacular of the English spoken in the region.

This seismic shift in the sort of language that could be called poetry took different forms over half a century or more. There was the playful inventiveness of Louise, aka Miss Lou, Bennett, who won legions of fans in Jamaica and beyond with her affectionate renditions of Jamaican patois. There was also a more strident and militant affirmation of popular language in the poetry of the Caribbean’s “angry young men”, who came into prominence from the 1960s onwards and who laid the ground for the influential dub poets of the 1970s and 1980s.

The particular inflections and nuances of the region’s speech also found their way into the work of the Caribbean’s great modern poets, such as Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott (the second poet of the region to win the Nobel Prize). In their most significant poetry, they ennobled popular language, giving it a lyrical status comparable to what the critic F.R. Leavis termed the great tradition of English literature. If the espousal of patois and popular dialogue could be used humorously or to make a political point, it could also, in the hands of true poets, be used to express the most delicate and profound emotions.

This anthology, sensitively selected by poets Stewart Brown and Mark McWatt, contains work by Walcott, Brathwaite and a number of others who might reasonably be considered as internationally recognised and celebrated: Cuba’s Guillén and Nancy Morejón, Martinique’s Aimé Césaire, Jamaica’s Claude McKay. But what is just as interesting is the sheer range—geographical, linguistic and human—in the collection. There is poetry from Suriname and Aruba as well as Montserrat and St Vincent. The strong poetic traditions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, little known in the English-speaking world, are well represented. There are poems which originated in French, Spanish, Dutch and a range of Creoles. Some of the work is light-hearted, witty, burlesque; other poems are angry, pulsing with the awareness of past injustices and historic wrongs. Then there are quiet moments of reflection, recollections of people and particular moments, the recapturing of a particular feeling or sensation.

Particularly striking is the wealth of poetry written by women, from the ground-breaking Jamaican Una Marson to a new generation born in the 1970s and since. And the presence of many Indo-Caribbean poets, especially from Guyana and Trinidad, is another refreshing surprise.

It is as difficult to generalise about an anthology of Caribbean poetry as it is about the region itself, for as we know, this archipelago of islands and mainland territories is immensely varied and never predictable. And this is the case, too, with this collection, which displays a vast range of voices, moods and techniques. But if one recurring theme seems to run through the works, it is probably a deep, almost visceral love for the landscapes of the Caribbean, a fierce and nostalgic longing for the place which many regard as home. “Love for an island is the sternest passion,” wrote Phyllis Shand Allfrey, who undoubtedly loved her Dominica, and this sense of attachment, of yearning, is nowhere more powerfully expressed than in Kamau Brathwaite’s tribute to his native Barbados and to the magic of the sea:

But today I recapture the islands’
bright beaches: blue mist from the ocean
rolling into the fishermen’s houses.
By these shores I was born: sound of the sea
came in at my window, life heaved and breathed in me then
with the strength of that turbulent soil.