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Caribbean Poetry - ENGL 733, Dr. Monifa Love

Towards an Understanding of Anglophone Caribbean Poetry

Benefits of Teaching Caribbean Poetry

With such a vast arena of texts and choices to teach students, certain texts and authors become “old standbys” because of their popularity in the canon and their familiarity. Often Caribbean poets and poems are overlooked as an option because of fears about language, use, or understanding when teaching to the students. This is unfortunate because of the vast range of topics, discussions, and experiences that Caribbean poetry can provide to a classroom, and the unique intersection of the oratory and the written that Caribbean poetry offers that could potentially engage an otherwise reluctant population of readers. Whether you are a teacher seeking to teach something new as a unit, or attempting to incorporate supplemental texts to existing experiences in the classroom, Caribbean poetry can be the perfect addition to any curriculum. Below are a few ways that Caribbean poetry can supplement an existing curriculum:

  • Include poetry on feelings of slavery and colonialism while teaching William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”
  • Include Caribbean poetry as an extension of a unit on argument and ways that people use different mediums to build an argument
  • Include Una Marson’s “To Wed or Not to Wed,” or poems with similar topics, while studying Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, or while studying William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and exploring ways his famous speech have been parodied for commentary on social issues
  • Include Caribbean poetry to discuss common literary themes or motifs including freedom and independence, staying strong in the face of adversity , celebrations of home , or good versus evil

Incorporating Language

One concern that a teacher may have when introducing Caribbean poetry is the language. Often students will shut down when presented with language that they are unfamiliar with or that is written in a way that seems difficult to follow. However, this should not be a barrier, but rather an opportunity. Much the same way that teachers introduce and scaffold the experience of teaching Shakespeare, Beowulf, Chaucer, Eliot, Dickens, Shelley, Bronte, Yeats, Huxley, Orwell, Steinbeck, Tennyson, Swift, Wordsworth, Poe, Pope, Melville, and countless other authors, so too can they scaffold the experience of language for helping students to engage with Caribbean poetry. Moreover, because of the unique auditory component inherent within Caribbean poetry, the introduction of language has many different routes that students can engage with to understand that while the words may be difficult to interpret at first, that they can find ways of building parallels between their own language and the language of the text that will help them to interpret the language and increase understanding. The biggest parallel that students can build upon is popular music that they recognize, listen to, and sing along to that uses the same language. For example, provide the, age appropriate, written lyrics to Rihanna’s “Work,” Sean Paul’s “Temperature,” Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” Tanto Metro & Devonte’s “Everyone Falls in Love,” or Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” without any context and see if the students can recognize the songs without any music. Then, play the song and see how many of them sing along. Finally, have a discussion about what lyrics the students recognize, interpret, or understand and how hearing the lyrics helps them to make sense of the language. It also may be helpful to discuss the construction of language (e.g., “Me nuh cyar if him hurt,” “Quick 'pon yuh hansa, know how fe talk,” etc.) and common spellings of words (e.g. cyar, fi/fe, dem, etc.). This can also be an opportunity to discuss samples of Caribbean songs that end up in mainstream music, e.g. Super Beagle’s “Dust a Sound Boy” which appears in Kanye West’s “Mercy” or Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” which appears in many mainstream songs including Kanye West’s “Famous,” Jay-Z’s “Bam,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones;” for more on Bam Bam see the page "Signifying Through Song" on this Website (see below). Introducing the language in this way provides a familiarity and comfortability early in the unit or lesson that will help to engage the students.

Postcolonial Theory

Postcolonial theory has such a distinct mark on Caribbean poetry because of the history of the islands. In the aftermath of colonization, Caribbean authors must determine how they want to tell their stories, in what language or form, when they want to begin the history of their stories, before, after, or during colonization, and what the goal of these stories should be, to liberate or to narrate. Laurence Breiner describes this dilemma using Derek Walcott’s thoughts on the subject saying, “the West Indian poet has the unique opportunity to be a new Adam, giving things their names in a strategic amnesia in order to evade the burden of history and the confines of old mythologies” (20). When approaching the teaching of Caribbean poetry, literature, and history, this is a necessary concept to understand because of the various ways in which authors and poets have chosen to address decolonization. Thus, while examining works from this area, it is important to understand what the author is addressing, what feelings are tied to certain images, e.g. sugar, and how the author is choosing to express liberation, narration, or another goal of their choosing. Determining the point of view that the author is beginning from allows for a richer interpretation of the work and therefore a deeper understanding of the historical connections embedded in the story, poem, or song. The following dates, as well as the resulting images that may become recurring themes or motifs in the poems, may helpful when explicating poems using postcolonial theory:

This timeline has been adapted from the Website World Atlas and the Webpage "Caribbean Settlements: Time Lines" from the Website (see links below).

1480 - Portugal opens West Africa to slaving

1492 - Columbus first voyage to the West Indies

1494 - Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain & Portugal divides the entire world

1498 - Columbus’ 3rd voyage to Trinidad, Orinoco River & Colombia.

1500s - The Spanish Empire claimed the entire Caribbean and most of Latin America; Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, and Trinidad were settled.

1508 - First sugar mill in the West Indies

1511 - First Catholic Bishops in the Americas: 2 in Hispaniola and 1 in Puerto Rico

1524 - The Council of the Indies was created by the Spanish as a governing body over Caribbean and Latin American territories

1555 - French settle in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

1576 - 40,000 African slaves in South America introduced by the Portuguese & Spanish

1600s - British, French and Dutch forces seized Caribbean territories from failing Spanish Empire. Illegal "piracy" and legal "privateering" began throughout the Caribbean

1612 - British colonized Bermuda

1623 - British colonized St. Kitts

1627-1635 - British colonized Barbados, Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, Anguilla, Tortola and Windward Islands

1635 - French contested colonization of St. Kitts. French colonized Guadeloupe and Martinique

1650-1680 - Dutch colonized Saba, St. Eustatius, Saint Martin, Curacao, Bonaire, Aruba, Tobago, St. Croix, Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, Anguilla, and the U.S. Virgin Islands

1650-1730 - The Golden Age of Piracy began in the Caribbean

1655 - English capture Jamaica from Spain

1663 - Charles II of England charters the Royal Africa Company, slave trade

1697 - Spain ceded Haiti to France. France controlled Tortuga

1700-1750s - Caribbean colonies prospered in sugar, tobacco, and rice farming; Trade between colonies and nations prevalent

1702 - Queen Anne's War in the colonies & West Indies

1740 - British siege of Cartagena, & seize West Indian ports.

1741 - British attack Santiago Cuba -- (King George's War)

1763 - Treaty of Paris resolves the first worldwide war, Florida is British, French lose Canada, India and St. Domingo, retain Haiti, Guadeloupe

1779 - French seize St. Vincent & the Grenadines from Britain

1791 - A slave rebellion against French forces, dubbed the Haitian Revolution, established Haiti as the world's oldest free, black republic. It was also the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere

1802 - French send troops to suppress Haitian Independence under Toussaint. L'Ouvature on the island of Hispaniola (St. Domingue)

1804 - Large force of Mulattoes and freed slaves defeat French in Haiti; Haiti declares its independence

1821 - Haitian forces conquered the rest of Hispanola

1822 - Haitians take control of all Hispaniola, to free colony from Spain

1825 - France recognized Haiti as a free nation

1834 - Slavery was abolished in the British Empire and in all of their Caribbean colonies

1844 - Dominican Republic declared its independence from Haiti

1863 - Dutch empire abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies

1895 - War breaks out in Cuba to fight for independence from Spain; US interferes in the British-Venezuelan boundary dispute (Guyana)

1898 - Battleship Maine explodes in Havana, US declares war on Spain; Treaty of Paris, ends the Spanish War in US favor: Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam ceded to US and Cuba becomes a US protectorate

1906 - Cuba placed under U.S. occupation

1915-1934 - U.S. occupied Haiti

1916-1924 - U.S. occupied Dominican Republic

1917 - Danes sold U.S. Virgin Islands to the U.S. for $25 million

1958-1962 - The Federation of the West Indies was created - included many Caribbean colonies

1962 - Dissolution of the Federation of the West Indies inspired Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago to declare independence

1962 - U-2 spy plane discovered evidence of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. Cuban Missile Crisis ensued. Russians eventually dismantled Cuban missile bases

1966 - Barbados declared their independence from Britain

1973 - The Bahamas declared independence from Britain

1974 - Grenada declared independence from Britain

2004 - Excessive rain caused flooding in Haiti - claimed 3300 lives

2008 - Fidel Castro resigned as President of Cuba. Raul Castro became new president

2008 - Hurricanes killed 800 people in Haiti during a strong hurricane season

2010 - A magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, an estimated 316,000 people died. Over 1,000,000 people made homeless

2010 - Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, leaked hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Threatened Caribbean marine life and beaches

2011 - Rumors continued to suggest that Fidel Castro stepped down as head of the Cuban Communist Party

The Auditory Experience

One key element of Caribbean poetry is the auditory experience. Much of the experience of reading the poetry is understanding how it sounds and how that sound is translated to the paper. One activity that can be very helpful for understanding this intersection is to take a poem that may be difficult to read on paper but becomes easier when heard. For example, an excerpt from Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Reggae fi Dada” paired with his recitation of the poem (his poem “Inglan iz a bich” is also great for this activity but consider your school and students before using this poem because of the language), or Louise Bennett’s “Dutty Tuff.” Having the students read along to the words being recited helps them to understand how the language is produced on the paper but also helps them to associate spellings that may be unfamiliar to them with words that they already know because of the similarities in language.

Linton Kwesi Johnson - Reggae Fi Dada

Dutty Tuff by Ms. Lou

Another benefit of introducing the auditory into a study of Caribbean poetry is recognizing all of the elements that go into a performance of a poem. Students will likely be familiar with songs by Bob Marley but may have never seen the words to these songs on paper or recognize the themes being addressed that the music works to support. For example, Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” is a popular song because of its refrain of “One good thing about music / when it hits, you feel no pain” (65). While this is the perfect inspirational quote, there is so much more to this song that can be discussed with students including the history of Jamaica and Trenchtown, the concept of poems and music for liberation against harsh realities, and the possibility of being able to rise against all obstacles because of the strength inside of you and the outlets that you choose. In terms of the auditory, listening to the track while reading the words reveals that the song has a call and response where Marley says the opening lines and is met with a chorus of people saying “you feel know pain” which may be indicative of the communal feeling that music has where there may be struggles but everyone can come together to not feel pain and have a good time as a community. The lines “Trenchtown Rock” are also presented as a communal harmony which suggests that “Rock” may be less about the type of music (similar to “Jailhouse Rock”) but rather a call to action to Trenchtown to continue to rock together, no matter the circumstances especially for children and others in the community who may be tempted to give up. These nuances are lost when the words are merely presented on paper so providing audio and leading a discussion about the ways that these elements work together will help students to not only understand the works, but also have an opportunity to practice their own analyses of poems and music.

Bob Marley - Trench Town Rock

While songs by Bob Marley can be used as a hook to catch students attention, there are so many other opportunities to explore this connection. For example, Lillian Allen has a number of songs/poems that are available on video and audio that can be useful for exploring how words and  sound work together. One good example of this is her performance of “Limbo Dancer” where she presents the poem while providing her own sounds and music without a band or backing track. This is an example of a poem that would be missing much of its rhythm and interpretation if simply placed on paper and asked to analyze. Students may be able to pick up on the commentary about slavery, tourism, and persevering. Some may even be familiar with the Limbo dance as a cultural and spiritual experience beyond the typical game. However, her presentation of the poem in the video demonstrates the necessity of bringing the experience to life through rhythm, pacing, inflection, and musicality. Beyond Lillian Allen, Mutabaruka, Peter Tosh, Louise Bennett, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Lord Kitchener, Louis Simpson, James Berry, Derek Walcott, John Agard, and Grace Nichols, to name a few, all have opportunities to listen to the poets recite their own poetry on YouTube.

Limbo Dancer by Lillian Allen

Poetry Interpretation & Explication

Some questions that you may want to pose to your students while reading poetry include:

  • What initial reactions and feelings do you have to the poem? On second read, what do you think you missed on the first read that is more apparent now?
  • What topic(s) is the poet addressing?
  • Is this a poem of narration, liberation, both, or neither?
  • What rhythms or sounds are apparent in the poetry?
  • What imagery is the poet using?
  • What figurative language techniques is the poet using (alliteration, end rhyme, iambs, etc.)?
  • What, if any, similarities to other styles of poetry (British, American, Latin, African, etc.) are apparent?
  • What, if any, biographical information about the poet can be used to help understand the poem? What historical information?
  • What themes or motifs is the poet using?
  • How does the poem connect to other poems by the same author or poems written during the same time?

Jason Martinez’s “Dis Time No Stan’ Like Befo’ Time” and Marcus Garvey’s “Keep Cool” are two poems that work well together because of their topics and structure. Both poems rely on a repetition of presenting two lines with the repetitive line between and then three lines after before repeating the repetitive line again. For Martinez’s poem, the repetitive line is “True, true,” while Garvey’s repetitive line is “Keep cool, keep cool!” Within these repetitive stanzas, there is also a similar rhyme scheme that demonstrates similarities within the works. Martinez uses an ABABCCCB rhyme scheme, while Garvey uses an AAAABBBA rhyme scheme. While these are not the same, since the second and fourth line of both repetitive stanzas are repeated, the stanzas in Garvey’s poem still read as if they are written with the same structure and musicality of Martinez’s poem. Furthermore, both poems have stanzas where this pattern is not followed. Garvey’s poem has stanzas that read as distinct verses with slightly changing choruses since they also maintain his structure of seven syllables per line, with rhyming couplets, but are placed between lines that follow the repetitive structure. In Martinez’s poem, the final stanza loses this pattern but reads like a musical bridge where the mood shifts to optimism, and the pacing seems to slow as there are now rhyming couplets without repetition. However, Martinez maintains eight syllable lines throughout indicating a constant rhythm that would follow, further promoting the musicality of the poem.

In terms of a poetry of independence, both poems appear liberatory in their approaches to comparable topics. Garvey’s poem is more overt in its representation of freedom and liberation as a poem of encouragement to be optimistic in the face of pessimism and sabotage. Since stanzas two and four are responses to the actions in stanzas one and three, it provides an opportunity to find a sense of freedom from the thoughts of others. The refrain of “Keep cool, keep cool!” reads as a mantra to free oneself from surrounding negativity. It especially asserts independence since within that mantra is the understanding that the person is responsible for achieving that freedom amidst so many other circumstances of the contrary. Martinez’s poem presents a similar pessimism by pointing out the difficulties and troubles in the world. Nevertheless, the final stanza presents an opportunity to free oneself from the troubles addressed in the poem. The repetitive line of “True, true” coupled with this final stanza also suggest that the difficulties described in each stanza are facts of life and reasonable concerns but should not prevent one from still wanting to face the world and take necessary precautions to prepare oneself for this fight by being properly rested and fed since it is far more difficult to face these troubles without some self-care and concern. Both poems suggest liberation in that they address that there may be difficulties in their world but there are ways to overcome them without being consumed and therefore freed from the heavy burden that accompanies tough times.

References/ Resources

Breiner, Laurence A. “Postcolonial Caribbean Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp. 19-30.

“Caribbean History Timeline.” WorldAtlas, WorldAtlas, 19 Sept. 2016,

Lewis, Gordon K. “Caribbean Settlements: Time Lines.” Siry's Ecology Homepage,