FINALLY, when we look at an area such as the Anglo-Caribbean, we see, surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly, since this is a region which seems to insist that its culture is an inheritance, rather than based on creative invention), little contemporary observation, information, or integration with today’s social environment in a barrage of books by recent Caribbean poets at home or abroad. It is to some older poets we must still turn for poems of social and cultural interaction, past or present. Poets like A.J. Seymour, Martin Carter, Ian MacDonald, Michael Gilkes, Wayne Brown, Olive Senior, Mervyn Morris, Edward Kamau Braithwaithe, and, of course, Derek Walcott.
From the start of his career, Derek Walcott, with two collections, ‘In a Green Night’ and ‘The Castaway’, set a first-class writing standard in observant, perceptive, informational, and experiential poetry that can only be admitted or retreated from by upcoming Caribbean poets.
Walcott proved his authenticity not by the promotional comments of others, but by his own prolific quality writing, so far, 14 collections of poetry, excluding collected and selected editions, plus a number of plays and a collection of essays.
And though after ‘The Castaway’ his poetic lines lost some of their precision or sharpness, since ‘Another life’, his discovery of the secret of contemporary poetry’s success, the prose-poetry narrative drive has resulted in full maturity and a most satisfying read in his latest volume, ‘White Egrets’, which is like a descriptive novella.
Kamau Braithwaithe, on the other hand, after his stunningly original debut trilogy of poems, ‘Rites of Passage’, ‘Masks’, and ‘Islands’ (later another collection, ‘Sun Poem’), has not been as prolific because such Anglo-Creole or colloquial Caribbean poetry often continually reflects deeply ingrained racial hurt and reactionary awareness of colonial history, and tends to repeat platitudes of depleted ethnic identity, since such a concept of ‘self’, without the world as rejuvenation and on-going exploration and evolution, keeps circling itself in creative stalemate.
Braithwaithe’s orally emphatic and exuberant Afro-rhythmic verse’s originality exists in curt sound patterns, comparable to Afro drum beats, inclusive or chants and an occasional flute. But it is as if such a poetics is sufficient to guarantee the authentic ongoing survival of an Afro-Caribbean identity. It is as if to expand this poetic base towards a progressive new poetics equivalent, for example, to the progression of black American modern jazz with piano, keyboards, tenor, alto, and soprano saxes, various percussion instruments, bass, electric guitar, etc, which we hear in recordings of some of the best Black-American jazz artists, such as John Handy, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Stanley Turrentine, or Ron Carter, would be to make such poetry anti-ethnic.
Because of such a paradigmatic reluctance, or inability to improvise progressively in verse, Caribbean poetry published so far remains one of the most stylistically weak and structurally narrow in the Anglo world today.
Yet, some new poets in the region, while being aware of the importance of ethnic continuity in their work, still manage to transcend the merry-go-round of a Creole or colloquial plaintive.
David Dabydeen of Guyana achieved this with his second poetry collection, ‘Coolie Odyssey’, despite its brevity, probably his best creative work to date, published by Hansib Publications (a Guyanese-owned England-based House since the 1970s ) in 1988/2006.
Dabydeen bridges the treacherous and sensitive gap that exists between Creolese and detailed observation of the world in Standard English. His wit, imagination, humane consideration and frankness, along with an attitude that is not afraid to get his poetic hands dirty in the social gutter (no doubt an immunity inherited from a tough uninhibited background of indentured cane-cutters), while also pursuing the pleasures of refined erudition, stamped ‘Coolie Odyssey’ with originality.
The poems in ‘Coolie Odyssey’ are not a glorification of petrified ethnicity, but a detached brilliant example of modernist culture in which ethnicity is contained, since the poet is not so blinded by ancestral loyalties as to deny the progressive changes of universal education on the ‘self’.
He places an un-denied ethnicity within the broader vision of a self-critical modernist stance, as in these lines from the outstanding title poem: ‘Coolie Odyssey’ :
‘The ancestors curl and dry to scrolls of parchment / They lie like texts / Waiting to be written by the children / For whom they hacked, and ploughed, and saved / To send to faraway schools.’
In another poem, ‘London Taxi Driver’, he describes an encounter with a fellow Guyanese immigrant from his Guyanese region:
‘From Tooting, where I picked him up, to Waterloo / he honked, swerved, swore / paused at the twin-tubbed buttocks of High Street wives / jerked forward again / unwound the window as we sped along / hawked and spat.’ No offered ethnic solidarity with crudity there.
An outgrown adherence to rigid traditional forms of poetry and prose and their hackneyed familiar topics, have advanced poetics and poetry into exciting and original creative territory where creative literature no longer remains in its traditional boxes with historical generic labels, or definitions, but continues in a now liberated direction, termed in French ‘ecriture’, or ‘writing’; just writing… But exceptional.