Una Marson’s Selected Poems: The Recurrent Surprise

Looking back over the past year, one of the most sensible decisions in the publishing industry, certainly within a Caribbean context, has been the edition of the Selected Poems of Una Marson – and I am not referring to the economic benefits of such enterprise, though it is my understanding that the book has been reasonably successful. Part of Peepal Tree Press’ Caribbean Modern Classics series and edited by Alison Donnell, the collection goes a long way to represent the multiple stages of the creative career as well as to portray the ample range of the personal interests of one of the most influential Caribbean intellectuals of the XX century. Most importantly, however, it has successfully placed Marson back in the center of the critical discourse, after a long – far too long – period of neglect.

Primarily known, these days, for her involvement with the British Broadcasting Corporation and the pivotal role she played in the development of what would later come to be known as Caribbean Voices, a radio program that helped to launch the careers of a great number of the most accomplished writers from the region, from Jan Carew to Vidia Naipaul, Marson’s achievements in other aspects of her life, from her social activism to her involvement in politics, has often been overlooked. In this sense, Donnell’s selection of poems is a first step towards the rediscovery of the artistic work and worth of a figure that merits to be both studied and celebrated.

Tastefully appointed and carefully edited, the Selected Poems comes prefaced by a helpful, thorough and judicious introduction by Donnell herself. In it, she argues that part of the reason why Marson has been largely sidelined by the critical establishment is “not only because her work is very diverse, seemingly contradictory, but because many of her writings are still dismissed as unyielding and unrewarding, even un-Caribbean.”[1] Commendably honest in her selection of Marson’s work, Donnell’s choice includes numerous examples of the sort of pieces that at one time or another might have been considered diverse, unyielding or un-Caribbean.

Indeed, the 80-odd poems that comprise the volume are relatively evenly taken from Marson’s early collections, Tropic Reveries (1930) and Heights and Depths (1931), published in Jamaica prior to her first stint in the UK, as well as from The Moth and the Star (1937), printed after her first return from Europe, Towards the Stars (1945), published by the University of London Press, and unpublished later pieces. Hence the reader is allowed to sail through the various stages of development of Marson’s craft, creating a rather vivid image of the artist’s virtues as well as her shortcomings.

In this sense, the pages devoted to her first two collections are unmistakably less accomplished than those reserved for her most ambitious work, The Moth and the Star. Which is not to say that the poems from her early stage are “unyielding and unrewarding.” Quite the opposite: Marson’s poems from the early thirties are characterized by a prevailing tone which is far less antagonistic –far less subversive– than might be expected from a woman whose identity (black, West Indian, woman) put her at the center of the struggle for all kinds of rights. In this respect, Marson’s most traditional facet borrows heavily from the Romantic tradition in a number of aspects, from the countryside settings of “The Singing Pilgrim” who sits by the wayside, to the use of archaic language and established forms, such as the sonnet.

Slightly more troubling than these Romantic undertones is the representation Marson formulates of devotional love in many of her early poems. From “Renunciation” in Tropic Reveries to “Resignation” in Heights and Depths, Marson repeatedly construes the affiliation of love in such restrictive manner as to bind the persons in question – the lover and the loved one – in a relation that mirrors that of master and slave. Thus, the narrative voice in a number of these poems adopts a submissive and dependant posture, relinquishing all power, and, indeed, all prospect of fulfillment, to the condition of their love being actively requited.

Daniel Whittall puts forward a somewhat tenuous, but plausible argument in a review published by the Caribbean Review of Books that by loading traditional (European) poetic forms dealing with the subject of love with the master-slave dichotomy in the context of the history of the Atlantic world, the poems “present a complex commentary on the attitude of the modern woman towards love and dependence.”[2] An additional interpretation might point towards the fact that often the poems that allude to the master-slave relation in matters of love are enunciated in first and second person structures, whereby it becomes unjustified to equate the narrative voice with a female character. In this sense, Marson might be pointing at the fact that, when it comes to love, lovers are always slaves to the objects of their love, be they male or female.

The most convincing reading, however, might be that in her earlier collections Marson was actually exploring the formal and structural possibilities of her art, trying to come to grips with tradition, and looking to find her place in it. This would explain, for instance, her efforts to reinterpret some of the great classics of English literature, such as Kipling or Shakespeare, through richly humorous versions, such as “If” and “To Wed or Not to Wed.”  This would also fall squarely within the educational context in which Marson was raised, therefore offering a first-hand account of the values instilled in Caribbean children by a system that was far more concerned with the center of the Empire than with the peripheries where its education was being imparted.

It is this fact which makes the evolution of Marson’s love poetry perhaps the most fascinating aspect of her work. As would be expected, by the time Una Marson published The Moth and the Star she was already confident and experienced enough to find in poetry a suitable outlet to express accurately and in detail the intellectual concerns that troubled her mind. Thus, the collection becomes highly politicized, with issues of inequality, racism and poverty standing out in pieces such as “To Joe and Ben” or “Heartbreak Cottages”. Similarly, the “blues” series – a group of highly musical poems built around various topics – seeks to exalt the use of the vernacular Creole of her native Jamaica. Furthermore, a sophisticated declaration of black identity through the recognition of social prejudices articulated by the dominant classes which, consequently, fail to appeal to minorities (“Cinema Eyes”), together with the assertion – the discovery, even – that a different, and perhaps more valid, set of values is needed to appreciate those cast on “Another Mould,” make the reading of the selections from The Moth and the Star an enthralling exercise.

To me, however, the most remarkable progression in Marson’s poetry becomes evident in “My Need” and “Reasoning,” where she returns to the trope of unfulfilled love and purposely flips it on its head by expressing her desire for love to remain unreciprocated. In the context of the previous lines and of the Selected Poems, this twist is both subtle and radical, seemingly spontaneous and yet undoubtedly deliberate. In other words, even when inscribed within the well-established expectations of what Marson’s work is, should be and fails to reach, her poetry still manages, at various points, to jump out of the pages and slap the reader with considerable elements of surprise and pleasure. And that is no small accomplishment – as a matter of fact is an accomplishment that should never again be neglected.

[1] Marson, Una, Selected Poems, ed. by Alison Donnell (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2011), p. 12.
[2] Whittall, Daniel, “Freshly Remembered,” The Caribbean Review of Books (No. 28, November, 2011). Available at: http://caribbeanreviewofbooks.com/crb-archive/28-november-2011/freshly-remembered/(02/05/2012).   
PUBLISHED BY THE CARIBBEAN WRITER, VOL. 26. ST. JOHN’S, USVI, 2012.
A PREVIOUS VERSION OF THIS PIECE APPEARED IN THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON JULY 23, 2011.

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