Within Caribbean literary circles, Kamau Brathwaite (née Lawson Edward Brathwaite, Bridgetown, Barbados, 1930) stands among the most important, influential, prolific and respected names in the region, alongside, for instance, Walcott and Naipaul, the two Nobel laureates in the region, as well as Lamming, or Glissant – all members of the same remarkable generation of writers, who, quite suddenly, put Caribbean literature “on the map”. Excluding Glissant, whose Martinican heritage naturally put him on a different – if parallel – course, all these writers were largely enabled through two discrete, though equally important, initiatives to disseminate and encourage the production of literature in the (English-speaking) Caribbean: one of them was the BBC’s radio broadcast Caribbean Voices; the other was Frank Collymore’s audacious magazine, BIM, launched in Barbados in 1942. It was in the latter that Brathwaite (at the time still Edward) found a suitable outlet to voice his first poetic exploits. While Brathwaite himself has acknowledged that there is little of his mature style in his early BIM pieces, he has also asserted that had it not been for the support of Frank Collymore he would have dried up before he had even started.
In 1950 Brathwaite traveled to Cambridge, UK, where he completed his undergraduate degree in History. He stayed in England until he was sent to Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast) on an educational assignment by the Civil Service in 1955. There, he witnessed the creation of the nascent country (officially declared in 1957), experienced first hand the traditions and culture of a people towards whom he felt infinitely more closely related than towards the British, and first became aware of the deeply-rooted connection between Africa and the Caribbean – a connection that, in his view, is far more practical, more alive, than the merely historical relation of standing on opposite ends of the same criminal passage.
By the time Brathwaite returned to the Caribbean, in 1962, he was a changed man with an ambitious project. His analytic mind, along with his flourishing academic career (he was engaged by the University of the West Indies (St. Lucia) in ’62 and moved to the Mona Campus (Jamaica) the following year), allowed him to give formal shape to his interpretation of the Caribbean experience as a lifestyle closely akin to West African tradition and values. At the same time, however, the recognition of the African influence in the most quotidian details of life in the Caribbean also led to the discovery, by contrast, perhaps, of the more than palpable European presence in the customs of the region. In my view, these are the premises upon which Brathwaite’s lifelong quest rests.
Like most Caribbean literature of the past half-century, or so, Brathwaite’s poetry deals with exile and the question of identity. It is the latter which becomes the central issue of his concern, and the cunning, challenging conclusions he reaches are what make his poetry both unique and indispensable. From his first poetry trilogy, The Arrivants (1973) (incorporating Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968) and Islands (1969)) to his latest collection of poems Born to Slow Horses (2005), Brathwaite consistently embarks on the exploration of familiar subjects from an idiosyncratic perspective to develop new concepts that can appropriately map the nature of Caribbean culture – of Caribbean-ness. In this sense, Brathwaite’s efforts share a common purpose with Glissant’s formulation of the notion of “creolité”, a word he uses to denote the set of characteristics that shape Caribbean societies where African and European traditions permeate a reality that is unlike either of the two. Brathwaite’s poetry alone gives us enough indications to believe that, loosely speaking, he would endorse such statement, and even in a gesture as symbolical as the adoption of an African name and the permanence of his Western surname, we could read a conciliatory attitude of the kind eked above.
Nevertheless, I would venture to assert that a dialectic interpretation of Brathwaite’s notion of Caribbeanness, whereby Caribbean culture might be understood as a hodge-podge of “original” traditions which combine to create a third, somewhat contaminated, culture would be completely off the mark. Brathwaite’s literature is highly experimental, and, as with all such kind of writing, the result is often less important than the process necessary to get there. In this respect, Brathwaite in concerned in all his oeuvre with questions that he views as fundamental to a shared Caribbean experience. Among those issues count the idea of a “nation language,” a language quite distinct from English, which follows different rules of enunciation (rules that are inflected, one would suppose, by African languages, rather than by English) and that forms the basic foundation of the different versions (dialects) spoken throughout the English-speaking (although this name is incompatible with Brathwaite’s argument) Caribbean. Examples of Brathwaite collapsing, integrating or phonetically spelling words abound in all his poetry, but what becomes striking is that this is not the exclusive form he chooses to give his work. Consequently, one is forced to believe that the distinction he makes between English and “nation language” when choosing how to write his poems bears a conceptual relevance that goes beyond the aesthetic, that entails more than just a tribute to the layman’s form of expression.
Because Brathwaite claims through his poetry that orality – speech – is king. Also this is a notion that emerges time and time again in his work – not only in his different poems, but in his continuous reproductions – iterations – of his older poems, each time slightly modified to convey different meanings, or perhaps to best convey their original meanings – if such thing exists. For instance, in 1992 Brathwaite published a selection of poems, mostly from his first two trilogies, The Arrivants (1972) and Other Exiles (1975), except at this stage he had discovered the advantages of working on a computer. This led to the development of his “Syncorax video style” texts, which is another way of describing the usage of various font styles and sizes throughout the book. The changes occur both within a poem and from poem to poem and the spectacular graphic effect lends itself to being discarded as an aesthetic caprice, or an ode to the wonders of technology. Upon second scrutiny, however, it becomes evident that the graphic innovations are, in fact, included to highlight, to reproduce, the natural emphasis and modulation that pertain to Caribbean speech.
A quick flick through Middle Passages leaves you with the impression that Kamau Brathwaite discovered in the early nineties the art of early European modernists, the Futurist treatises of Marinetti or the Vorticist manifestos of Wyndham Lewis. But soon it becomes obvious that Brathwaite attempts to elevate the status of intonation, from an accident dependent on the person who speaks, to an essential quality that belongs to a “nation language” that no longer is viewed as inferior (“pigeon”) to English. It turns out that the “Syncorax video style” simultaneously exposes the deficiencies of traditional Western typescript to fully express Caribbean speech, and the essential differences between English and such “nation language.”
Finally, Brathwaite’s poetry is deeply concerned with the development of rhythm in his verses. In this sense he shares a fascination for blues with the influential American poet, Amiri Baraka. But blues is just one of the influences that shape his work, with African and Caribbean sounds clearly dominant in his cadences. And yet, while musicality is sometimes almost forced into the reader through pauses and repetitions that do not bear to be read in any other way, sometimes the same pauses and repetitions create a stuttering sensation that burdens the reader with anxiety until the moment when the content is finally released. There are numberless examples of both instances, but just to illustrate I submit the final three verses of the poem “Bread”, included in the collection Words Need Love Too (House of Nehesi Publishers, Sint Maarten, 2000):
Despite the fact that there is no punctuation in these verses, and a very subtle version of the “nation language” is used in the construction of “dead”, the musicality of the whole is such that it would be difficult not to read this with an even, neutral tone. Compare these lines from the poem “Stone”, included in Middle Passages (Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1992):
The poem is highly emotional, and the sentiment transpires through (I am tempted to say even “despite”) the pauses; however, I would be interested to know how many people got a clear picture of the situation after one silent reading of the stanza. Not many, would be my guess.
I will not venture to provide an appraisal of the reasons why Brathwaite might be inclined to make the reading of some (sections of some of) his poems so difficult. Nevertheless, in the light of what I have discussed so far I will suggest that part of his motivation might be related to the notion of the (Caribbean) poem as an oral form of expression, which ought to be spoken, not written. If, for Brathwaite, “nation language” is a defining and common characteristic of Caribbean people, and the intonation of such language is part of its essence, then it would be natural for him to expect his readers to read out loud – to perform – the poems he writes. Nevertheless, the experience of a reader who is first confronted with the pauses and repetitions that build the cadence of Brathwaite’s poems must, perforce, include a sequence of readings and re-readings until the right rhythm is found. Consequently, in the rehearsal of the performance of Brathwaite’s poems, the reader is forced to go through the same lines several times, thus enacting the stammering, the inability to read out loud what he is meant to speak, that shapes the form of the actual poems. Pause and repetition become, then, active elements in the communication – in the stressing – of the final message.
Brathwaite is all but an easy poet to read. After all, he is an intellectual mind of the highest caliber who has been celebrated repeatedly in the region for his achievements both in terms of his poetry and his non-fictional work. That he has not achieved the praise or reputation of other members of his generation in the Western world is nothing short of an indictment on the criteria of the academies. This, remains so quite independently of the final valuation of his critical ideas. Whether there really is one “nation language” underlying the speech of the myriad peoples of the Caribbean, and whether the performance of this language really is an essential characteristic that binds in concrete terms cultures that at times seem so distant from each other are questions that can only be answered (if at all) once the sizeable material put forward by Brathwaite is carefully studied. By the end of it, you might not agree – but, I guarantee you, you will respect the mind that came up with the idea.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MARRTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY JULY 10, 2010.