Dennis Craig: An exhibition of flowers
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton
March 14, 2004
Dennis Roy Craig
I have never learnt the names of flowers.
From beginning, my world has been a place
Of pot-holed streets where thick, sluggish gutters race
In slow time, away from garbage heaps and sewers
Past blanched old houses around which cowers
Stagnant earth. There, scarce green thing grew to chase
The dull-grey squalor of sick dust; no trace
Of plant save few sparse weeds; just these, no flowers.
One day, they cleared a space and made a park
There in the city's slums; and suddenly
Came stark glory like lighting in the dark,
While perfume and bright petals thundered slowly.
I learnt no names, but hue, shape and scent mark
My mind, even now, with symbols holy.
In 1996 the University of Guyana Library mounted an exhibition at the Hotel Tower in Georgetown of the several academic publications of Dennis Roy Craig (1929-2004) at the time when he was completing his service as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guyana. These included his works in linguistics, language and education, some of which earned him a personal Professorship at UWI, Mona, where he spent most of his working life, built his career, and was Dean of the Faculty of Education.
The exhibition was on display again in the University Library last week following the announcement of his death at his home in Kingston, Jamaica. He had gone back there after a further period of some 10 years of work in Guyana, where he was born. Before that, he was a 1961-63 Jamaican Commonwealth Scholar to the UK, which helped to launch his university career at UWI. Much later, after his Vice-Chancellorship at UG, he established a consultancy and a Journal of Education with his wife Dr Zellynne Jennings.
University Librarian Yvonne Lancaster, who was responsible for compiling the collection of exhibits, gave it the title 'Flowers.' This was significant for two reasons. The first is metaphorical: the display celebrated a flowering of academic research, writing and publication, the petals that decorated a dedicated life. Flowers have traditionally been regarded as the finest part of the plant that bears them; the most spectacular display of its product. And so are the written works of Dennis Craig, exhibited as they were in a flamboyant arrangement showing off the visual hard copies of what is the flowering of a scholarly and creative mind.
The second reason arises from the fact that Prof Craig was not only known for his work as an academic, an administrator, an editor, a consultant and a publisher, he had also made a name for himself in literature through his work as a poet.
His writings are also things of beauty, and Flowers is the name of his most famous poem. It was, as well, a most appropriate title and theme for the library's exhibition.
Flowers was written many years ago and has become the most outstanding of Craig's poems. It has held its own among the finest pieces of verse in the Caribbean and, deservingly, has been very highly valued. Proof of this high regard may be found in the fact that this poem is one of the most anthologized in the region. It has been published several times as a single poem and is to be found in a number of the most prominent anthologies of West Indian poetry.
Flowers is a sonnet, well balanced, neatly structured and demonstrating the careful, disciplined craft of which Craig is capable and which the sonnet form demands. It is written in the style of the Petrarchan type of sonnet, often used to express some kind of devotion.
The poet writes, using language in its expressive function, to communicate his feelings or his thoughts on a subject; these are very often sentiments of admiration for that subject. In this case it is an appreciation of a new environment, which he praises. It is about change, and the poet is awed by the beauty that emanates from the new surroundings and the memorable impact it has had on his life.
Craig makes effective use of a number of devices that all work well within the form of the Petrarchan sonnet. Note his total conformity to the rhyme structure and the very regular rhythm. The first stanza of eight lines (octave) go into very vivid imagery to express the stark absence of any beauty in an environment that is not only unattractive but unhealthy. Note that the "old houses" are "blanched" and the "dust" is "sick." Flowers then become the symbol of beauty and their absence from his surroundings in the octave emphasizes his point that something vital was missing.
There is a contrast in the second stanza of six lines (sestet) brought about by the building of a park and the growing of flowers. What is amazing about this poem is the irony within the poet's techniques. He bases his statement on the fact that he "never learnt the names of flowers." At first it is because he never had them around him. However, later in his life, flowers abound, but he still "learnt no names." In this case it is because names become unimportant and superficial. What is of greater import are the indelible impact and the influence their presence had on the poet. Even more impressive is the total absence of the word 'flowers' in the sestet. No name, but the imagery makes that second stanza dominated by the presence of flowers.
This virtual hallmark poem demonstrates the level of excellence that Craig could achieve. His first published book of poems, Near the Seashore: Collected Poems 1996 (1999, Education and Development Services Inc) includes some pieces that show he does not always achieve it. But it establishes that while his renown as a poet is dominated by his best-known poem, he was capable of several others. This book won him further fame when it was declared winner of The Guyana Prize for the Best First Book of Poetry in 1998. The collection was then still a manuscript, and Craig thought that if a distinguished panel of critics gave it that kind of recommendation, he might as well publish it, and he did in 1999.
The following is the very impressive citation released by that distinguished panel who were the Guyana Prize Judges in 1998. It was headed by Stewart Brown and included Mark McWatt, Jane Bryce, David Dabydeen and Ameena Gafoor"
"Dennis Craig's collection Near The Seashore... was a real discovery. Those of us who read the literary journals of the region had come across occasional poems by Dennis Craig over a couple of decades or more but not known that those were just the outcrops of a substantial poetic territory. What emerges from this collection is a mature poetic voice making sense of personal - and sometimes more public - issues in lines and images that are both measured and wonderfully evocative. There is a simplicity and directness about the language of Craig's poetry which is refreshing; no overblown descriptions or loud assertions, rather a quiet engagement with places and people and ideas. To write simply, as anyone who has tried to do it will know, is the hardest task of all... This is the work of a real poet."