The Caribbean voice in print
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creignton
March 28, 2004
In 1989 three of the leading authorities on West Indian literature compiled and edited one of the important anthologies of the poetry of the region. It is a volume titled Voiceprint, edited by Stewart Brown, Mervyn Morris and Gordon Rohlehr, and published by Longman. There were, of course, many significant collections of West Indian poetry before this, but this one remains special because of its specific focus on the very important contribution and influence from the oral tradition in the poetry of the Caribbean region. Its title was coined from the intention to produce a record of selections of verse that in many ways represent the Caribbean voice in print.
The editors are well-known for their work in these areas. Stewart Brown has risen to the very top as an authority on West Indian literature in Britain, but occupies no less a position among critics within the region because of the thorough research he continues to do in the Caribbean. He is a poet whose published books reflect the three regions that may claim him: West Africa, the Caribbean and his native England. He has even written the kind of poetry that Voiceprint records; his work is included in a book of Reggae Poetry edited by Kwame Dawes.
Jamaica's Mervyn Morris is among the best known West Indian poets and critics. He is not only one of the editors, but some of his own work is included in Voiceprint because of the particular oral and performance quality to be found in a number of his poems. Yet, although he has produced very famous poems in the oral and performance tradition and is an excellent performer of his own work, his reputation has not depended on this type. Instead, he is known as versatile and accomplished in a range of poetry. The same may be said of his high reputation as a foremost critic whose pioneering study of Louise Bennett in 1967 hastened the acceptance of Creole poetry in mainstream West Indian literature.
Gordon Rohlehr, a Guyanese who settled in Trinidad, is a highly celebrated researcher and critic, particularly valued for his work on West Indian literature emerging from the oral traditions, including a thorough study of the calypso in Trinidad. He writes a substantial introduction to Voiceprint titled The Shape of That Hurt which not only articulates the guiding principles and the context of the anthology, but stands on its own as a major statement in West Indian literary criticism. The depth and thoroughness of this piece is characteristic of Rohlehr who also occupies a place among the best authorities on the region's literature.
Long before Voiceprint was compiled, these editors had recognized that Caribbean literature and attitudes to Caribbean poetry were changing radically, largely because of the strong and growing influence of the oral traditions. This was reflected quite clearly in at least four earlier publications. Since 1938 Louise Bennett has been composing and performing her poems in the Jamaican Creole language (called 'patois' by Jamaicans, but very differenfrom the St Lucian French Creole variety). At last, in 1966, a substantial collection of her work appeared in a ground-breaking book called Jamaica Labris, edited and annotated by Rex Nettleford and published by Sangster's Bookstore. Then came Morris's essay, On Reading Louise Bennett Seriously. These helped to push the frontiers of West Indian literary criticism forward because of the role they played in encouraging acceptance of, not only Bennett, but poetry in Creole and non-standard English, by mainstream literature.
What was previously seen only as entertaining performance and humour, was now being admitted into the hallowed halls of literary works.
Two important anthologies followed. The appearance of Savacou 3/4 in 1971 not only further extended the frontiers, but quite revolutionized the landscape. This double issue of Savacou continued the first substantial collection of new works that would not previously have been graced with the refined name of 'poetry.' It showed that Caribbean poetry had, indeed, changed and put pressure on the audience to change prevailing conservative attitudes. There, in that volume, many readers saw the emerging 'dub poetry' in print for the first time. There were compositions influenced by, and making use of reggae rhythms and forms of non-standard English. Rohlehr was quick to assess this development critically and elucidate an important change in the region's literature.
The new critical attitudes had been fairly established by 1986 when Paula Burnett edited the Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse. She included very interesting historical pieces, such as songs and poems composed by slaves, folk songs and work selected from oral poetry. There are also poems written in Creole from the nineteenth century, as Burnett tried to present the full range of work that could possibly be classified as Caribbean poetry.
Voiceprint's intention, however, was not to do that. It more deliberately focuses all categories of work that represent many aspects of the oral factor in West Indian poetry. The volume acknowledges that Caribbean poetry now encompasses a wide range of work that would not have been previously included, but that now has to be considered in any study of the region's poetic output. Many of these go by other names, and are never seen as poems, but are oral texts of one type or another. While there is no claim that they are all poems, the clear understanding is that they belong to the corpus of oral literature and they do make use of various verse forms.
Voiceprint is therefore an anthology of items representing the Caribbean voice in print. They include written versions of material that is usually only orally transmitted or performed. The first set may be described as items from the oral traditions which have been transcribed. There are samples of the texts of such speech/performance as 'robber talk' from the old Trinidad Carnival and samples of other forms of 'speechifying.' Also within the oral tradition is the calypso, which is itself a verse form composed to be performed orally but making use of many poetic techniques. Reggae songs are similarly treated and then there are traditional folk songs.
A second test includes performance poems of many types, but including the very important form of 'dub poetry' and the lesser known 'rapso' rhythms. Many other kinds of poetry may have a highly dramatic content that lend them performance quality, and some deliberately pattern themselves on some traditional form such as robber talk or speechifying. A number of very famous poems adopt the calypso form, foremost among them being Derek Walcott's The Spoiler's Return.
Several other poems are there simply because they have forms, techniques or other elements which lend them some particular sound quality or factor of 'orality.' They have a sound value. For many, it comes from their use of language, in most cases Creole or a mix of points from the continuum. There are many famous dramatic monologues such as Eddie Baugh's The Carpenter's Complaint or Walcott's The Schooner Flight. In some cases the strength of dramatization is in the use of a 'voice' as in Morris's Malefactor-Right and Malefactor-Left from On Holy Week.
Voiceprint, therefore, takes cognizance of pieces that might have been composed for other media like recordings or ritual. It sets the tone for other collections such as Kwame Dawes's Wheel An Come Again - a collection of 'reggae poetry,' which includes a smaller sub-set of what Voiceprint covers: viz dub poems and others influenced by that musical tradition and its rhythms. All this helps to establish that although it was not the first collection that recognized the existence or emergence of the written voice in Caribbean poetry, it made what was new and different fairly normal. It is an important landmark because in the context of its publication in 1989 it broke new ground.
(Voiceprint, eds. Stewart Brown, Mervyn Morris, Gordon Rohlehr, London : Longman, 1989)