Rodney poems Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton

Stabroek News
June 12, 2005

Related Links: Articles on Guyana and the Arts
Letters Menu Archival Menu

My Rodney Poem

By Mervyn Morris

(for Eddie Baugh; & in memory of Walter, 1942-1980)


He lived

a simple life

He was a man

who cared

when anybody hurt

not just the wretched

of the earth

He dared

to be involved

in nurturing



Frustrated by

the host of evils

he seemed to me a good

man reaching for the moon

He died

too soon

Tomorrow, June 13, 2005 will mark 25 years since the assassination of Walter Rodney. This will be commemorated on both sides of the Atlantic and across the world. In Guyana, the anniversary events moved into full gear with panel discussions and a range of other activities on both the Turkeyen and the Berbice Campuses of the University of Guyana. Even before that, Winston McGowan, the Professor who occupies the Walter Rodney Chair at the University (and who happened to be Rodney's QC classmate) delivered public lectures in Linden. Today there will be other panel discussions in Georgetown and tomorrow the multi-faceted Groundings presentations will be formally opened and will continue through the week.

That will not be all. There are conferences at universities in the UK and North America, and on August 11 and 12, University of Guyana and UWI will hold a joint conference at UG with the theme 'Walter Rodney 25 Years Later: Facing the Challenges of History, Poverty, Underdevelop-ment and Globalization.' Throughout all these various and wide-spread events, episodes of Rodney's life, scholarship, political activities and assassination in Georgetown on "Black Friday" (Friday, June 13, 1980), will be rehearsed. Several poems will be read, quoted and maybe even written, since poetry has been a major vehicle of expression from the time of the murder.

This much was in evidence at the University Groundings last Friday, chaired by Dean of Humanities Tota Mangar. The UG Library has put together an extremely instructive book exhibition featuring the work of Rodney, which was on display there. It includes books, papers, pamphlets foregrounding Rodney's published and unpublished works as well as some of what has been written and published about him, including one of the most important, Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought by Professor Rupert Lewis, as well as the children's novel Joey Tyson by Andrew Salkey and a collection of poems, Walter Rodney - Poetic Tributes published by Bogle L'Ouverture Publications.

This anthology, with an introduction by Andrew Salkey and a foreword by David Dabydeen was no doubt one of Bogle L'Ouverture and Erica Huntley's contributions to the literature by and about Rodney, and it is testimony to the part played by poetry in all of it. Clearly, much poetry and literature were inspired by the life, the commitment, the politics and the reasons for the political assassination at the nadir of infamy of Forbes Burnham's PNC reign. The anthology contains several verses written specifically for and as a result of them. Salkey's novel, Joey Tyson, also published by Bogle L'Ouverture in 1974, is a fictionalised reconstruction of what actually happened in the politics of Jamaica in October 1968 when the Hugh Shearer JLP Government expelled Rodney.

Professor Rupert Lewis' book on Rodney's Political and Intellectual Thought has a chapter on the relations between cultural politics, Rastafari and the 'Rude Boy Era' in Kingston Jamaica with a hint at their influence on literature. Indeed, the affairs of 1968 which effectively catapulted Rodney's political 'career' and influence, started off a very important wave of cultural activity that affected the form of Caribbean literature. I have elaborated on this in a previous Arts on Sunday feature and elsewhere, but the focus here is on the poems.

The anthology was published in 1985 with a distinguishing mark. The entire document is hand-written, with pen-and-ink calligraphy by Firdous Aly. The poems are all tributes to Rodney and the collection is little different from others of this type, in that there is a mixture of recognized and amateur poets, professionals and those who are really not poets at all, real poems and mere emotional outpourings. This, of course, is to be expected considering the nature and purpose of the publication. Contributors include some seriously famous names including Martin Carter, David Dabydeen, John Agard, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jan Carew, Edward Kamau Braithwaite and Stewart Brown.

It is easy to separate them, even though the pieces do not always represent the best work by the established writers. Dabydeen's "Wally and the (King-Sized) Apes, "for example, is obviously the work of a youthful, developing poet, while Johnson's contribution is, perhaps, the most famous piece in the book, the acclaimed "Reggae Fi Radni" in dub poetry, and Stewart Brown's "Black Lightning" - a reunion demonstrates the way the better writers transcend a limited focus on the historical event.

But among the best Rodney poems so far written are the verses of two of the Caribbean's finest craftsmen, Eddie Baugh and Mervyn Morris. Baugh, like Brown, approaches the subject rather obliquely in an apparently light-hearted poem in which serious ironies operate. "The Poet Bemused may be read as "the poet de-mused", since it is about a poet who has lost his muse/woman. It presents two points of view, but giving a picture of a poet largely lacking in real substance. In mocking irony Baugh makes reference to the outpouring of poems about Rodney to the point where it was felt no serious poet would fail to write one. Baugh coined the term "Rodney poem" taken up by many afterwards.

But Baugh needs to be read very carefully here, because while he makes fun of clichés, rhetoric and political postures, he takes genuinely felt poems about substantial issues, including Rodney, seriously.

The Poet Bemused

Yesterday I put on

my antic disposition

but it wasn't any use

it didn't at all amuse

her ladyship, I fear

she's making plans to leave me

so I shall return

to the mode taciturn

the man of few words

proverbially un-speaking.

They'll whisper, "He's deep, that one"

but only her gone

ladyship carries the secret:

"He really had nothing to say

under the silence, least of all

about important topics

like poverty and politics

why, as you'll note

he never even wrote

a rodney poem. Can you

blame me for leaving

the creep?"

In like vein, Morris takes up the line thrown out by his colleague Baugh, and pitches in with his "Rodney poem" as if to follow a fashionable trend. But he turns out an excellent piece with a genuine concern for a man in whom he recognizes genuine concern. Morris makes a clear distinction between art and politicking, and in his tribute to Rodney, describes a man who demonstrated the difference between care and political posturing. The result is one of the best Rodney poems of them all: "My Rodney Poem," dedicated to Baugh and in memory of Walter.