The Poem That Will Not Go Away

By LLOYD KING

I have no science background but I find that there are scientists who manage to convey to the ignorant but educated reader a reasonable sense of the remarkable developments in scientific research, particularly in regard to evolution and cosmology, of particular interest because they impinge, to put it mildly, on our view of religious belief. Oddly the same cannot be said for literary discourse. The Walcott Conference has come and gone and it was extremely successful in its academic way as a forum where insiders spoke to insiders and Mr Walcott was duly celebrated but I am not sure that outsiders were drawn in, that anyone rushed off to purchase a copy of Walcott’s latest book of poems. This partly has to do with academia which has largely lost what I will call the Orwell talent, that capacity to communicate to the simply educated. It does not bring promotion in the academy. But, in respect of Trinidad and I suppose Tobago, there has been another development. There has been a profound shift in perspective. We now bow down not to the artist but to the artiste, the local entertainer. It is our form of nationalism. We rush not only to see our performers but to hear them speak of their creativity, as against, say attending a lecture by the eminent economist, Joseph Stiglitz, an American whose whole career has been dedicated to defending the interests of the Third World. How can one complain!
My own observation of a number of university Pro-Vice Chancellors is that they were as turned off poetry as any man in the street. The problem is large, if you believe, that is, that poetry is important as against asserting that writers who win international prizes are important. To be anecdotal for a moment I remember one day maybe 40 years ago when a specialist medical doctor came to the department of French to seek out a colleague in order to clear up a point about Moliere which was bothering him. A distinguished surgeon has told me that his pleasure is to read French novels in French. Needless to say they go back to the much deplored colonial days.
What was the prevailing ideology of that era which persuaded the educated to take an interest in what is called the Arts?  It went/goes by the name of  liberal humanism which was  associated with writers such as Mathew Arnold and espoused a civilizational ideal, urging the embrace of the best that was thought and written, ideally if not practically in the world. In practice, it was assumed that the best of what was thought had been written and that you started with the ancient Greeks and the Jewish Bible as conscripted by Europeans. If you were widely educated you might know of the analects of Confucius or the Sanskrit Vedas, unlikely possibilities in the Caribbean. The Bible, it should be said, was regarded rather as a literary achievement than as the very fount of truth because already under the pressure of evolutionary theory and developing views of the cosmos, at least agnosticism was in, if not atheism. It was the point of a presenter at the Walcott Conference pinpointing him as, at least in his early incarnation, a liberal humanist. And it is easy to point to the way in which he associates the West Indian imagery to Greece and Dante and the great traditions of Western painting, and of course the magnificence of poetry in English. Something else needs to be stressed in a context of West Indian realities. What was involved was a commitment to the written word and this brought up the issue of voice, a voice that was true to experience. I underline this because it has been at the heart of negative criticisms of Mr Walcott’s poetic production, if not of his plays. I shall return to this matter below.
What I want to focus on briefly is the sense in which liberal humanism was an ideology. First of all it obscured the self judgment  that European intellectuals had pronounced on their civilization since the end of the First World War. After the barbaric horrors of that war, the word abroad was that the West was in decline. It was why Andre Breton and the Surrealists were so keen on African primitivism. African carvings had had an incredible impact on Picasso. This view of Europe  certainly reached Latin America and accounts for the popularity of Jazz in Europe. The British did not feel themselves included or chose not to see that the days of the end of the Empire were drawing nigh.
By the Second World War with the German concentration camps functioning, poets and particularly German language poets were questioning the capacity of language to render experience. In England you have TS Eliot’s Mr Prufrock’s exclamation: it is impossible to say just what I mean. West Indians were sheltered from the horrors of the War; those who took part showed no sign that they understood the bowels of the nightmare in which they had sojourned. Our faith in language was not and has not been shaken. Liberal humanism would not and did not allow it. Liberal humanism also- and this was part of the role of the British Council- was a shield against anti-colonial ideas, specifically Marxism. Even in the midst of a colonial situation, it taught the virtues of liberal democracy and the Rule of Law. At best it admitted Fabianism. Unlike what had taken place in Latin American countries, where French style Marxism had reached early, you had, like CLR James, to go to the mother country to be exposed. Moreover, you had to travel to meet a genuine African. It would take years before one discovered that Trinidad and Tobago is full of Africans speaking Trinidadian creole. 
It is in such a cultural environment in the past that the young Walcott wrote the poem that will never go away, A Far Cry From Africa, with its all too resonant lines : how to choose between This Africa and the English tongue I love?   The Africa being referred to was of course the Kenyan Africa of Mau Mau barbarism, their form of anti-colonial struggle. I was at the Mona Campus when In a Green Night came out and I can’t remember anyone drawing back at those lines.

The English lecturers in English were delighted. They said: Here at last is a poet who is expressing complexity of feelings. Complexity of feelings, being torn between two moral positions was a sign of the highest sophistication in a poet. It was part of what liberal humanism was about. However if you look at it the line is really pseudo complex. The volume of poems makes clear implicitly that the English language was part of who the speaker of the poem was. There was no choice. The real anguish was about Africa, this Africa of barbarism, a barbarism that obtains to the present day, and so often seems to lurk just below the surface. It was a feeling shared by many educated  West Indians, to a huge extent by Latin Americans who had their own barbarisms to contemplate and to the North Atlantic world which  felt that their own more sophisticated barbarisms were suitably counterbalanced by the fact that they had created modern civilization. Whatever its discontents.
VS Naipaul’s contribution to the Africa theme need not be gone into. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then with Walcott developing an unparalleled body of work whose relation to the diasporic African reaction will perhaps only be explored with the proper clarity when that diaspora’s nationalist orientation has been transcended. Have we gotten much beyond liberal humanism and do we (we here meaning my former colleagues in that area called the Humanities) not act on its assumptions without bringing them out in the open?  I pose this question because it is my sense that the African alternative or contestation has simply been accommodated into the status quo without any fundamental revaluation of its underlying assumptions.  The creativity of that admirable entertainer Black Stalin is now on a continuum with Walcott or WB Yeats. Is it? I happen not to think so, but to me what is important is that it has not seemed worth discussing, which is surely what universities are about.
What does the word creativity mean in the West Indies? Can a book of West Indian proverbs grip our minds like one of Plato’s dialogues? Not that one should exclude the other.  Where are we because the confusion has filtered down?
 Not too long ago, a columnist in a newspaper asserted with nationalist pride that he would rather hear the Shadow than an opera by  Donizetti . So, what I suppose would be called high culture is anathema to him. But does he object to a steelband playing a tune taken from Beethoven? Would he be put out by a performance of The Phantom of the Opera or Cats or Porgy and Bess?  We are into a phase of nationalist stupidity. Then there is the question of voice. I was rather pleased to come across a talk by the British mulatta novelist Zadie Smith. In this essay she identifies  Mr Obama as a man of many voices, but also as someone who chose a voice that is not specifically an African-American voice, but is not a betrayal. She was sensitive to the issue because she also chose an English voice at University which she feels was not a betrayal. She calls it interestingly a Pygmalion complex  as explored in Bernard Shaw’s play, My Fair Lady. I wonder who would dare to put on that play in a Trinidadian setting and accept the challenge of controlling audience reaction. 
No wonder that poem will not go away. It provokes our thought.

Leave a Reply