Una Marson is primarily known for her work during World War II for the BBC Empire Service, which designed a program to be broadcast to the West Indies in an effort to boost the patriotic sentiment among West Indians, who as recently as the late ’30s, had staged a series of radical protests, strikes and revolts that, ultimately, turned into resentment towards the empire and a deeply nationalistic feeling within each of the islands.
Marson’s program, Calling the West Indies, essentially worked as a communication bridge between the audiences in the Caribbean and the troops in England, whose written messages would be read out in the show. Until 1945, that was, when Marson, together with Henry Swanzy, an Irish producer who would radically change the literary landscape of the Caribbean, turned Calling the West Indies into Caribbean Voices.
The rest, as they say, is history: under the guidance of Swanzy, Caribbean Voices discovered, encouraged and promoted an extraordinary generation of West Indian literati who, to this day, dominate the literary scene in the region. Among them were V. S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, George Lamming, Andrew Salkey, Jan Carew, and I could go on, but this piece is not about them: it is about their predecessor – a rare sample of Jamaican intellect, activism and courage that achieved a reasonable amount of recognition (that is the rare part) within the eminently racist environment of London during the Interwar period.
Born in 1905 in the remote countryside of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, Marson was a middle-class daughter of a Baptist parson who moved to the big city (Kingston) to look for work. She acted as assistant editor of the Jamaica Critic from 1926-28 and then produced her own magazine, Cosmopolitan, from 1928-31. From 1932 to 1945 she spent most of her time in London, with a two-year spell from 1936-38 when the social injustices in London, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and her work, in direct contact with HIM Haile Selassie, plunged her in a profound depression that sent her straight back to Jamaica.
Marson was an outspoken activist both in Jamaica and in England, a supporter of Pan-Africanism, a leading member of the Women’s International League, she was the first black woman invited to attend the League of Nations, worked with the British Commonwealth League, was part of the poetry League in Jamaica and helped with the establishment of a Jamaican arm to Save the Children (Jamsave). And yet, her poetry is highly sensitive, often excessively traditionalist and almost always marked by a profound respect for the canon (the British canon, of course), which makes it seem less avant-garde, less audacious than her critical mind might merit.
Perhaps for this very reason she has been a largely forgotten as a literary figure in her own right, and is generally recognized merely for her role in the early development of the BBC’s Caribbean Voices. Until now, that is, because the British publishing house Peepal Tree Press, ever the white knight of Caribbean literature, has just published a new compilation of Una Marson’s poetry through their Caribbean Modern Classics series.
The edition, in the hands of Alison Donnell, comprises works from all four of Marson’s poetry collections, Tropic Reveries (1930), Heights and Depths (1931), The Moth and the Star (1937) and Towards the Stars (1945) as well as previously unpublished material and contributions to the 1933 and 1935 editions of The Keys, the journal of The League of Coloured People. Additionally, it is prefaced by a thorough and erudite introduction by the editor, which gives a detailed account of the writer’s work within the context of her life and times, as well as providing useful information regarding the critical reception of her poetry. The volume is nicely appointed and, bar the obnoxious exception, it is carefully edited. Most importantly, however, it purposely sets out to provide a faithful idea of Marson’s writing, leaving aside the received perception of her work being old-fashioned, sentimentalist or even archaic and confronting the reader with a manageable collection (200-odd pages) of vastly diverse texts, both in terms of tone and subject.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle for the reader to get into this selection is the fact that it is organized chronologically, a pattern that I would generally favor. But not on this occasion, for the simple reason that Marson’s first two collections of poems are far less mature, less accomplished, than The Moth and the Star. Consequently, the opening sections of the book become an effort.
The great majority of poems from Tropic Reveries and Heights and Depths are mainly useful in the context of Marson’s later production: they display an unquestionable devotion towards the lover, often using the trope of the slave and the master or the king (“Renunciation”, p. 44; “Resignation, p. 75); they explore a Wordsworthian setting, leaning on the image of the poet “sitting by the wayside” (The Singing Pilgrim”, p. 58) or laying “in idle mind” (“The Meeting of the Clouds”, p.71); and they seek to fall squarely within the lyrical tradition by using established forms (sonnets, for instance) and purposely unnatural, archaic language.
These two collections of poems were produced by Marson when she was still in Jamaica, before her first emigration, and are powerful evidence to the frame of mind – the intellectual benchmark, as it were – instilled in middle-class Caribbean children by an educational system that was blatantly focused on the administrative center of the Empire (i.e., London) and not on the peripheries where such education was imparted. However, in terms of the pure joy of reading, the Selected Poems becomes much more interesting once we reach the third section of the book, where Marson’s voice gains tremendously.
It is only from The Moth and the Star onwards that Marson-the-activist finds a proper outlet through her own poetry, and this makes her work immensely richer. While “Another Mould,” (from Heights and Depths) makes a gesture in the direction of social activism, demanding, almost 20 years before Andrés Eloy Blanco’s “Angelitos Negros,” to “give me my brown skin cherub” (p. 77), it is only with poems such as “He Called Us Brethren” that the outrage, the full extent of the indignation caused by racial discrimination, actually becomes palpable on the paper.
Similarly, “Cinema Eyes” explores the role of mass media in the creation of social criteria which are later unchallenged, and further elaborates on the original notion, rudimentarily expressed in “Another Mould,” of black identity being forged on a different ideal to that of, say, white British identity. Furthermore, Marson becomes sufficiently comfortable with the dialect of her island – perhaps, even, with her own dialect – to introduce it in The Moth and the Star on various occasions, most notably in the “blues” series – a group of four highly musical poems built around various topics, where the archaic forms of her early poetry are replaced by the naturalism of the spoken word.Nevertheless, the reason why Marson’s poetry becomes increasingly more interesting with time is not necessarily because she makes the transition from broad issues, such as love and nature, to specific matters where commitment is required, such as racial politics. On the contrary, I would argue that the most fascinating progression evident in the Selected Poems corresponds precisely to the poet’s appreciation of love: whereas in Tropic Reveries and in Heights and Depths Marson creates a sense of inevitability through the total devotion she professes towards her inconstant lover, the proposition becomes much more ambiguous in The Moth and the Star, to the point where it seems apparent that her love is willfully unrequited, “For love reciprocated dies away” (“Reasoning” p. 120). Thus, the poet’s need is not to be loved “Lest naught be left / In life worth my desire” (“My Need” p. 118).
The subtlety of Marson’s shift, together with a running thread of deep belief, of honest faith that, through God’s will, everything will be fine in the end, makes the reading of her Selected Poems more than worth the while. And, indeed, in order to perceive this shift it is necessary to look at her earlier poetic stance, to retrace the journey of her life alongside her and to take the good with the bad. If you do, however, I assure you in the end the balance will be well on your favor!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD NEWSPAPER ON JULY 23, 2011.