Caribbean poetry, often referred to as West Indian poetry, covers poetry that hails from those island regions and may take the form of either oral or written traditions and history that have been variously passed down through time. The history of the peoples being variously affected by brutal slavery and imperialism has in part shaped the evolution of the poetic form. However, the traditional rhymes of children’s games and the like preserved much of the authentic ethnic traditions of the people. The melding of different cultures from African descent, molded by the harshness of slavery and the oppression of western rule finally found a voice, once the people were free to express themselves and find their true identity.
The Emergence of a Voice
Poetry from this region prior to the twentieth century would reflect a restraint born out of the unnatural circumstances of the time. The oppression of the British had bred a cautiousness that was now superseded by an energy and desire to see a restoration of true identity. This militant stance was expressed most successfully by the likes of Claude Mckay and Louise Bennett both from Jamaica as well as Arthur J Seymour from Guyana, Derek Walcott from St. Lucia and Edward Kamau Braithwaite from Barbados. Mckay published two volumes of poetry in the Jamaican dialect before moving to the U.S where he successfully continued to champion the rights of black people both in the Caribbean and around the world. Winston Churchill famously quoted one of Mckay’s poems whilst giving a speech to the house of commons during World War ll. The impassioned speech served to rally the troops as it was given to soldiers to carry but was likely not the use Mckay had envisioned when he wrote this as a backlash against the kind of imperialism that Britain itself represented. Following the end of colonial rule, a newly independent people could be expressive in a new and vibrant way. This period is marked by the emergence of what Braithwaite refers to as nation language which whilst still English adopts the rhythms and sounds of the native culture. Poets such as Grace Nichols born in Guyana in 1950 found a way to express themselves both in standard English but also with a mix of this new nation language or creole. Her poem I Is a Long-Memoried Woman seamlessly blends the two languages and creates a new and exuberant mode of communication at once recognizable and relatable to those of this descent.
In modern terms the emergence of a more authentic voice for the people of The West Indies has given rise to the Caribbean Poetry Movement which continues to support a pure form of expression that is more relevant and meaningful for the people. Additionally, many other areas benefitted from an emerging awareness of the culture and the framework was set for such things as calypso and reggae music as well as other areas of the arts including theater and dance. The tragedy of a past can often develop into a fiercely productive and expressive future as we see in the case of the Caribbean and its many literary feats.