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Caribbean Poetry - ENGL 733, Dr. Monifa Love

Towards an Understanding of Anglophone Caribbean Poetry

My Mom's Caribbean, and I Write Poetry. Am I a Caribbean Poet?

What makes it a poem? What does it mean to be a poet?  Arguably two of the most asked questions amongst literary scholars. Switching the focus of these questions to the attention of literature of the Caribbean and the possible answers are endless. Caribbean poetry is dynamic in a way that can be argued Western poetry could never match. Caribbean poetry  covers a wide variety of topics ranging from the effects of tourism on the many islands, to the belief of the supernatural, to the powerful symbolism that sugarcane means to the island. Caribbean poetry masterfully tackles the marriage between language and form and illustrates how the two can be weaponized to give voice to a community often considered voiceless. Their literature pokes holes at the idea of “post colonialism” and shows readers the value of understanding the correlation between the aesthetics of the island and the aesthetics and content of the poem itself, the use of Warriors of the Imaginary, and the spiritual and literary importance of spirituality and magical realism in Caribbean literature. For all of its elements, Caribbean poetry is far too dynamic for there to be any one way to decide whether a text qualifies as “Caribbean poetry” or not. Its qualities are intrinsic.

That being said, trying to decipher what makes a poet a “Caribbean poet” is just, if not more impossible to pinpoint. Even within the community, you can find debates between younger and older Caribbean poets about who is qualified and who is not. It’s easy to say that simply being a poet and Caribbean is enough, but Caribbean poetry holds so many distinct signifiers, in regards to content, aesthetics, and frequently utilized themes, that it is clear there is some unifying factors to it. Its ludicrous for one to try and create an outline for what it means to be a Caribbean poet and even more asinine for someone like myself—whose roots don’t trace back to the Caribbean— to be the one to do it. However, while it may seem impossible to identify what exactly makes literature, literature of the Caribbean, this guide should serve as a good starting point to understanding Caribbean poetry as a Caribbean poet would want it to be understood.

Some Caribbean Poets to Start You Off

Born in 1950’s Jamaica as Allan Hope, Mutabaruka started writing poetry in his teenage years. His content is known to be revolutionary, constantly stinging his audience with powerful facts in rhythmic tones. In the 1960s, the Black Power movement was sweeping the diaspora and Mutabaruka found himself swept away, too. He left school young and became the apprentice to an electrician which later led him to a full time job at the Jamaican Telephone Company. At this time he was already immersed in the world of Caribbean Poetry and in 1971 he left his job to pursue writing full time.

His early work was first presented in the magazine, Swing, a monthly that gave fullest coverage to the pop music scene. Introducing Outcry (March, 1973) John A. L. Golding Jr. wrote: "In July 1971, Swing Magazine published for the first time a poem by Allan Mutabaruka...Our readers were ecstatic. Since then, and almost in consecutive issues, we have derived much pleasure in further publication of this brother's works... They tell a story common to most black people born in the ghetto... And when Muta writes, it's loud and clear". His 1983 release "Check It" was released on Chicago blues label Alligator Records. In 2008, Mutabaruka was featured as part of the Jamaica episode of the television program Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Mutabaruka gave a lecture at Stanford University on May 18, 2000. The lecture was addressed to the Caribbean Students Association and dealt with the difference between education and indoctrination.

Mutabaruka continues to perform and write poems on every issue known to man. 

Photo and bio used in "Mutabaruka" (Biography),  Photo credit, Richard Laird. 

Valerie Bloom is a Jamaican native who came to England in the late 1970’s. She attended the University of Kent at Canterbury were she studied English with African and Caribbean Studies. She is one of the many Caribbeans poets who interchange between between English and Jamaican Patois in her writing. She has been a featured writer in myriads of anthologies; she has also produced her own collections of poetry.  Touch mi! Tell mi! (1983); and Duppy Jamboree and other Jamaican Poems (1991); Hot Like Fire (2002), a collection of poems in English and Jamaican patois; and more recently, Whoop an'Shout! (2003) are just a few of her most popular works.

Bloom is a recipient of an Honorary Master’s Degree from the University of Kent. In 2008 she published The Tribe and A Soh Life Goh and was awarded an MBE for services to poetry. Her latest collection, Jaws, Claws and Things with Wings, with the illustrator Matt Robertson, was published in 2013. 

Photo  and bio used in “Valerie Bloom” (Biography), British Council: Literature,

Dionne Brand is a renowned poet, novelist, and essayist. Her writing is notable for the beauty of its language, and for its intense engagement with issues of social justice, including particularly issues of gender and race. She was educated at the University of Toronto, where she earned a BA in English and Philosophy and an MA in the Philosophy of Education.

Dionne Brand became prominent first as an award-winning poet, winning the Governor General's Literary Award for her volume Land to Light On, and nominated for the volumes No Language Is Neutral and Inventory respectively. She has won the Pat Lowther Award for poetry and her volume thirsty was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. But she has also achieved great distinction and acclaim in fiction, non-fiction, and film. Her fiction includes the novel In Another Place, Not Here, a New York Times notable book in 1998, and At the Full and Change of the Moon, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book of the Year in 1999. (The Village Voice also included Dionne Brand in its 1999 "Writers on the Verge" literary supplement.) Her latest critically acclaimed and Toronto Book Award winning novel, What We All Long For, is the story of four young people in Toronto; like thirsty, a recent book of poems, the novel offers an indelible portrait of this great multicultural city. Her non-fiction includes Bread Out Of Stone, and A Map to the Door of No Return, which is a meditation on Blackness in the diaspora. 

Photo and bio used in Quille & Quire, August 16th, 2017.

What Does Caribbean Poetry Sound Like?

Mutabaruka - Revolutionary Words

Mutabaruka - Free Up de Lan, White Man

War Down a Monkland (as performed by Jason Wilson)

Another example of Caribbean poetry being used to commemorate history is the poem about the Morant Bay Uprising of 1865, War Down a Monkland. This piece talks less about the planning of the uprising, but rather the aftermath of it. Shortly after those few hundred brave souls began inciting their riots for change, the British governor of the time, Edward John Eyre, enacted martial law on the people of Jamaica; this was a time of heavy military surveillance that resulted in roughly 500 people killed, and twice as many houses burned down (Howard 85). Yet and still, this uprising was a turning point in Jamaican history. Those initial martyrs paved the road for those who would come after them. Their acts not only led to the arrest and trial of Eyre, but set a tone that the fine people of Jamaica would not go down without a fight. Although it’s hard to find an authentic performance of this piece, the performances that are in circulation have one thing in common regarding how the words are vocalized. In the hook “war, war, war oh!” the word “war” is drawn out to the point in which it actually sounds like a cry, an implication that although there was bravery and liberation, there was also pain and fear. This piece is an important retelling and memorial of history that also serves as a reminder of the price and path to freedom.

Linton Kwesi Johnson - Fite Dem back

Jump Right Into Studying Caribbean Poetry

When it is time for a scholar such as yourself to begin studying the intricacies of language in Caribbean poetry, you will find you have to take a surprisingly auditory vantage point. In order for one to fully understand the details of the poetry, they would have to physically hear the language being used. As you’ll continue to learn throughout the various pages of this guide, language is almost weaponized throughout the Caribbean, especially in regards to rebellion and resistance, and a huge part of that comes from the intermingling of numerous different languages—English, French, languages and their subsequent dialects from various African countries, etc— in order to create something that is native to the islands and foreign to the colonizers and would be colonizers.

When studying Caribbean poetry, you will find it’s not uncommon to find many writers who go in and out of standard English and Jamaican Creole within the same poem. When examining such a poem, it will be important to know the rhythm of both languages to accurately see how the two merge to create the poem’s distinct rhythm. There’s also great significance in first knowing the history of the Caribbean before venturing to study or analyze the literature.

While it can be argued that historical context is needed when investigating any piece of literature, there is a pronounced importance on the need for it when it comes to literature of the Caribbean. Aisha Spencer stresses the gravity of having “even a basic understanding of the history and culture of the territories” of the Caribbean before teaching (Spencer 26). This is an ideology that can strike some Westerners as odd because in the study of American literature, there is a whole school of critical theory—almost exclusively used to analyze poems- that encourages scholars to avoid historical context in its entirety when exploring a poems qualities: formalism. Caribbean poetry seems to have a uniquely distinct quality about it, that refuses to allow itself to be studied through a Western lens. Much like every aspect of Caribbean literature, this quality is steeped in the Caribbean’s history of resistance to European forces.

Give It a Try!


Caribbean poetry has a highly auditory quality to it, even as it lives on the page.  When a scholar scours the internet though, it can prove to be quite difficult to find authentic readings of Caribbean poetry. However, there is no shortage of white voices offering up their take on how Caribbean poetry/music should sound.

Using what you know in regards to the power of language and the auditory experience regarding Caribbean poetry, write a one page response outlining what you think the pros and cons of having Caribbean poetry memorialized by white voices could prove to be for the genre.


Read this article regarding how Caribbean writers feel about attempting to mesh Caribbean language into British form. Write in regards to how many Caribbean writers feel about analyzing Caribbean Literature under traditional western methods of literary analysis. Do you believe there are any Western schools of theory that can accurately be applied to the study of Caribbean poetry?

References/ Resources

Howard, David. Kingston: A Cultural and Literary History. Signal, 2005.

Ledoux, Ellen Malenas. Social Reform in Gothic Writing: Fantastic Forms of Change, 1764-1834. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.