Connect with us


Two mainstream Caribbean poets



Caribbean Literature is a distinct body of narratives from the Caribbean islands, written by people who have descended from slaves and slave traditions. Caribbean literature, like African-American literature, is a literature that reflects on the former slaves or their descendants as they seek to find a place in a territory where they first arrived as slaves from Africa. Caribbean and African-American literature are important to serious readers of African literature, especially those who seek a broad understanding of the condition of black people in Africa and those outside Africa. The Caribbean islands were first called the East Indies by Christopher Columbus, erroneously thinking that by sailing westwards, he had arrived in the famed Spice Islands in the Far East. In due course, these islands were rightfully renamed the West Indies. As historian Eric Williams outlines in his seminal works, the Caribbean, like the mainland USA, were part of a territory where slaves from Africa were shipped and made to slave on plantations for generations. Because of the hot and wet conditions and very rich soils, banana and sugar plantations were opened up. This is why the islands are often called the plantation islands. The Caribbean islands are also called “the archipelago,” a geographical term referring to a portion of the sea studded by islands. The more popular of these islands are Trinidad, Martinique, Tobago, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas. They are in the vast blue Atlantic Ocean, only miles away from the USA coast and South American countries like Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Hondurus and others. The Caribbean region is also called the melting pot because people of many origins have co-existed there for centuries. They have intermarried and this has threatened the existence of clear-cut identities. There are Caribbeans who are the indigenous people of the whole American continent sometimes called the Red Indians. They were the first to be enslaved. We have the African descendants in the Caribbean. They made the bulk of slave labour and still remain the majority in the Caribbean. Then we have some Europeans descending from the notorious slave masters, the settlers and colonial plantation owners. There are Indians and Chinese who came from the Far East as indentured labour, especially at the demise of slavery. The Caribbean territory has gone through numerous experiences including slavery, settlerism, colonialism, and neo colonialism. In this territory, a proper sense of nationhood is weak. Each island tends to be too small to stand alone. They speak different languages like English, French, Spanish and others. They look to Europe or America for leadership. Sometimes they look to Africa for identity and cultural inspiration. No wonder the major themes in Caribbean literature tend to be slavery, belonging, maroon, alienation, moving to Africa or to America or to Europe. The Caribbean territory has produced poets of note, amongst them Aime Cesaire, Claude Mackay and George Campbell. The most prominent Caribbean writers have become classical and amongst them are the two poets Edward Brathwaite and Dereck Walcott. Their poetry is a window into Caribbean society and its complex nature. Edward Brathwaite was born in Barbados in 1930. He was well travelled, in the process, developing a deep passion for the Caribbean and Africa. He is outstanding for openly demonstrating through his poetry and thought that Africa is the home of the black Caribbean. He even adopted a middle name, Kamau, which is Kenyan. Brathwaite is also outstanding for realising that while Africa is the original home, the Caribbean must realise that the islands are their Africa and the smallness of the islands should not be a problem. In his poetry, he generally seeks to develop deep roots in the islands which he finds as spiritually satisfying as Africa. He is therefore concerned with group culture and history and not individual perspectives. In his poem called “Islands,” Brathwaite suggests that if one is in a hurry, one could think that the Caribbean islands are insignificant remnants of slavery and a place of doom. However, if one were serious, the islands are actually jewels of hope that is aided by the shimmering corals of the beaches on the vast Atlantic. The islands and the people capture the vast slave territory. There is need for the Caribbean to act and think positively so that the rigours of slavery could be put behind. The persona is not escaping but engaging positively with history, the land, rocks and the sea around him: “…but my people know that the hot day will be over soon that the star that dies the flamboyant car cass that rots in the road in the gutter will rise rise rise in the butter flies of a new and another morning…” The poem called “Pebbles” is probably the most compact and idiomatic of all the poems of Brathwaite. It talks about Barbados being a pebble, seemingly useless and small but very resilient and enduring. Barbados is also as unconquerable as the back of a duck that is famed in folklore to be the duck’s most important part. In the poem called “Prelude” which is a result of Brathwaite’s travel to Ghana and how he felt overwhelmed by his own blackness. The persona gives credit to the greatness of black people through the great empires of old Africa. The persona performs the ritual of libation which involves talking to ancestors through sacrifice of the blood of a fowl. It dramatises the African belief in imploring the ancestors for rain, good harvest and good fortunes: “Nana frimpong take the blood of the fowl drink take the eto, mashed plantain, that my women have cooked eat and be happy drink may you rest for the year has come around again…” Brathwaite believes that for the black Caribbean, the question of identity has been answered in that they have readymade traditions in Africa and are not a lost people. The poet believes that Africa is mother to the islands and is part of the folklore that says if a slave dies, he goes back across the water to Africa where his place is already prepared by the fireside. ‘The cabin,’ is a poem that takes you back to the dilapidated slave cabin in the former slave quarters where Tom, the archetypal slave lived. There is acceptance that slavery is over. Brathwaite suggests the idea that the former slaves must hug their history and use it as a vehicle for solace in moving ahead as a people. Unlike Naipaul and Walcott, Brathwaite thinks that the Caribbean have a historical identity and must not be confused: In his poetry the central issue is the collectivity of the Caribbean people. On the other hand, Derek Walcott was born on the tiny French and English speaking Caribbean island of St Lucia in 1930. He is of mixed African, English and Dutch blood. His poetry is characterised by lavish metaphor, luxurious sound and rhythm. There are also influences from Homer, Dante, Dylan Thomas, Auden and others. There is also the sophistication of language and density of meaning. The Walcott persona tends to be aware of himself as an individual. Walcott’s poetry is usually meditative and is imagined from the point of view of a loner taking a strawl. For Walcott poetry the sea, the beach and the sky are paramount. His poetry has the heavy presence of sea-side imagery. In a 1976 article called “The muse of history” that got republished in 1998 as “what the twilight says,” Walcott gives what is considered as his answer to the Caribbean question. He writes: “I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I try to forgive you both I am into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expatiates and explains…” Walcott believes that the Caribbean should just let go in order to start on a fresh page. He declared hostility to the culture of African Caribbean literature of dwelling on suffering. He accused Brathwaite of being absorbed in self pity, rage and masochistic recollections. He blasts the Caribbean poets in general for nurturing “the scars of rusted chains” and for revering “the festering roses from their fathers’ menacles.” For Walcott, the Caribbean poet is liberated from history and becomes poet par excellence. Walcott calls for a celebration of the Adamic potential of the Caribbean region which he calls “the new world.” In his poetry, especially in the piece called “Crusoe’s islands” and “Crusoe’s journal,” Adam is used as a figure of the poet, naming his world as Adam named paradise. He portrays the islands as Eden: “Upon this rock the bearded hermit built His Eden: Goats, corn-crop, fort, parasol, garden, Bible for Sabbath, all the joys But one Which sent him howling for a human voice. Exiled by a flaming sun…” Walcott is also fascinated by thoughts of the first men to visit the islands. These are explorers like Walter Raleigh, Christopher Columbus and James Cook and also rebellious slaves like Toussaint and Henry Christophe who liberated their islands. Finally there is the image of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ from a 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe. Crusoe is an archetype, the man marooned on a desert island after a shipwreck. Crusoe is a castaway who must learn to know the island upon which chance and history have thrown him upon. It is Crusoe’s loneliness, his exclusion which forces discovery upon him. This is well explored in the poem called, “Crusoe’s journal”, where Crusoe the hermit makes new tools, teaches Christianity to Friday the savage cannibal. A new culture and technology have been fashioned out. There should not be exile on such new territory: “For the hermitic skill… we learn to shape from them where nothing was the language of race, And since the intellect demands its mask that sun cracked, bearded face provides us with a wish to dramatise ourselves at nature’s cost… God’s loneliness moves in His smallest creatures…” In the poem called “Crusoe’s New island,” the Caribbean needs not escape the loneliness. It is through a new language, not physical departure, as in Naipaul’s ‘Miguel Street,’ that the Caribbean should use to reach out to humanity. The poet in that poem derives his inspiration, like all historic hermits, from his loneliness which he calls the paradiscal calm. He is both a craftsman and a castaway. In some of these poems, the Walcott persona reflects directly on the issue of the identity of the Caribbean people. In the poem called “The schooner Flight,” Shabime, a Walcott persona says he is just a simple nigger who loves the sea, who received colonial education, who has Dutch, nigger and English blood and that makes him either a nobody or a whole nation. He suffers from cultural schizophrenia: “I’m just a red nigger who loves the sea, I had a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, And either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” In the poem called “Verandah,” Walcott comes closest to his thoughts about his mixed identity. His persona thinks loudly about his mixed heritage. He thinks that he sees his great traveller and colonialist English ancestors float to him ghost like on the verandah. He entertains them by remembering their exploits. He does not regret the white man’s rape of poor black women and that people like him (Walcott) could have wallowed in slavery. Walcott is liberal and non-committal where Brathwaite is anxious to find roots that go deep. Both of them represent two different classical ways of how the Caribbean feels about their place in the world. Memory Chirere

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Copyright © 2022. The Post Newspaper. All Rights Reserved