The Caribbean’s literary scene has evolved out of a deeply nurtured oral tradition. Kwame Dawes, an award-winning poet and co-founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival, explains how the roots of Jamaican verse have flourished, battling their way through church and colonialism to reggae and rebellion.
I was raised and educated into the field of West Indian literature, which was predicated on the theory that the English-Speaking Caribbean was part of a cultural continuum that connected the artists of the region with each other because of a shared relationship to independence. Yet, it has become increasingly necessary to think about the literary cultures of the different Caribbean islands, because to ignore the specificity of each one, from Trinidad to Barbados to St Lucia, is to overlook the art that has emerged. The poetry of Jamaica is vernacular for me, an oral phenomenon. When I arrived on the island at the age of nine, I discovered that the process of learning poetry remained rooted in orality, that is, speaking it aloud. It’s still where the heat is today, thanks largely to a peculiar gift of history — reggae music — that makes it possible to speak of the island’s poetry as a distinctive thing.
In primary school, modern Jamaican poems were mainly performed in the steady mantra of recitation. These, together with songs, tales and dances associated with folk culture, were reinforced by the television and the official cultural policies of the government. On the radio, though, reggae music was asserting itself. Redefining and complicating the notion of culture were songs by Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus, Toots and the Maytals and more – all ubiquitous waves of unavoidable poetic power.
This music was countercultural and unregulated in the most exciting way possible. By the early 1970s, the transistor radio was a portable, easily secreted weapon of great subversion that could be consumed unmitigated by the “establishment”. The “poems” that were exploding on the airwaves were being written by young people finding a voice at times of great social upheaval and transformation. They engaged the full range of cultural meaning, from a re-examination of history and an application of folk forms and stories, to the deeply defiant commitment to the Jamaican language, in a manner that challenged ideas of race, colour, identity and place.
It was discussions around these subjects that led to the spoken-word phenomenon, dub poetry. This was coined by an emerging group of poets in Jamaica and her diaspora in the UK and Canada, that had become deeply affected by reggae music and sought to marry this with their poetic expression. Hugely influential in the 1970s and early 1980s, dub poetry shaped the broader poetic expression and what we think of as Jamaican poetry today.
At the same time, more conventional poets living on the island, such as Slade Hopkinson, Mervyn Morris, Anthony McNeill, Lorna Goodison and the Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite, were starting to publish work that was either influenced by or in dialogue with reggae music and the broader Rastafarian culture. These were all poets of different styles and yet all demonstrated the convergence between traditional British/American prosody – the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry – reggae and popular culture and Jamaican folk tradition. At the heart of these poets lies the question of language and its critical role in originality. In many ways, they found authenticity and invention in their quest for Jamaican-ness – Kamau Brathwaite, for example, described it as “something torn and new”.
Today’s generation of poets of Jamaican origin, such as the US-based Ishion Hutchinson, Kei Miller and Staceyann Chin; the Jamaica-based Tanya Shirley and Ann-Margaret Lim; and the UK-based Jason-Allen Paisant, cannot be considered without thinking of how they engage the Jamaican language and orality in their poetry. I am, as a poet, also a product of this dynamic force of cultures coming together to form a truly Jamaican sensibility. Like so many of my contemporaries, I entered Jamaican-ness in quite a different way, but have been shaped by history to become part of a unique literary culture that has currency on the world stage.
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