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Saturday 20 April 2019
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The power of a poem

Culture Matters

There once was a man from Port of Spain

Who always preferred to complain

He went seeking Savannah grass

But was smothered by Sahara dust

He sneezed violently and exclaimed “what de a**!”

AS ENGLISH teachers everywhere cringe at my limerick attempt, hopefully they will forgive my little contribution to World Poetry Day, which was observed on Thursday.

The relative silence around the commemoration is perhaps symbolic of our times. That is to say, it is easy to question whether the world really needs poetry with the suffering in Zimbabwe, oceans heaving beneath human waste and our nation about to face its largest humanitarian crisis in modern times. Of course, the artist would say now is exactly the time to seek out the beauty that still exists.

Maya Angelou in her free verse poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings speaks directly to these contradictions of human existence: “...But a bird that stalks/ down his narrow cage/ can seldom see through/ his bars of rage/ his wings are clipped and/ his feet are tied/ so he opens his throat to sing...”

Pundit Ravi Ji achieves this juxtaposition of emotions in Beyond Kalaapaani, his poem/song about the indentured Indian experience here in TT: “... Haa, Sahib take we from the ancient country/ Beyond Kalaapaani only half the story/ But a secret voice was singing that they need you/ So, ah sending you/ ...Be stronger than the pain/ Build up the land again/ Giving is yuh Dharmaa/ Building is yuh Karmaa/ Go, ah sending you ...”

Global independence and civil rights movements saw the Caribbean moving away from imperial portrayals of ourselves. As we re-examined our socio-cultural space, we moved beyond Shakespeare and other classic poets such as Yeats or TS Eliot. We widened our understanding of poetry, of telling our stories through various forms of poetic verse.

Calypso became an important avenue for self-determination, as bards increasingly challenged social norms and celebrated their nation languages. The Mighty Sparrow, for example, poured scorn on irrelevant colonial education with his Dan is the Man in the Van: “...Tell me if dis eh chupidness: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall!/ Humpty Dumpy did fall! Goosey, Goosey Gander? Where shall I wander?/ ...Dey beat me like ah dog to learn dat in school/ If me head was bright ah woulda be a dam fool!”

Artists like Paul Keens-Douglas deliberately addressed the importance of speaking in our own language, like Sparrow, laughing at those who chose to hold on to alien notions of identity: “Well, I tell him ah was ah poet/ an’ how ah does use de vernacular/ Well you would ah swear dat I cuss dis man/ or insult he granmudder/ Dat man start talkin’ language/ like he wukkin’ BBC,/ or he head de English Department at we university.”

Our own brand of poetry continued to evolve through pioneers such as Ras Shorty with soca, Brother Resistance and rapso, or Drupatee through chutney. Younger ones like Roger Bonaire-Agard documented our local experience through powerful spoken word: “... To buy two sno-cones from George whose rickety cart parked outside the school each day/ To have the cones stacked with extra syrup and condensed milk/ To gather around the cart/ because George always had sensible sh** to say...”

But for me, the poems that resonate are the ones that recall the pain and hope of revolution. As early as the 1950s, Guyana’s Martin Carter set the standard with Death of a Comrade: “Death must not find us thinking that we die/ too soon, too soon our banner draped for you/ I would prefer the banner in the wind/ Not bound so tightly in a scarlet fold/ not sodden, sodden/ with your people’s tears/ but flashing on the pole we bear aloft/ ...Death will not find us thinking that we die.”

I think of the relevance of Eintou Springer’s lament for Maurice Bishop who staged his people’s revolution 40 years ago this month in Grenada: “I have no more tears/ ...My soul has bled for/ Walter Rodney...for Beverly Jones/ ...now for Maurice/ for Jackie/ My generation bleeds/ giving blood in hope of giving life...I have no more tears/ Still/I have cause to weep.”

And of Lasana Kwesi’s Poem of Rebellion: “I would like to write words/ ...which would scorch the pages/ of all written unjust laws/ ...words which can create/ new institutions instead of verses.../ I would have words exploding/ from my pen in the form/ of bombs blasting/ the status quo.”

As we contemplate our nation’s future, I feel we should close on the wings of Maya’s caged bird. He sings “with a fearful trill/ of things unknown/ but longed for still/ and his tune is heard/ on the distant hill/ for the caged bird/ sings of freedom.”

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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