where the writers are
50 years of Jamaican Poetry?

“Now a days everyone is a self proclaimed poet and writer, but many who readily embrace this title have spent little time either studying or practicing this craft.” This I said from the stage of a conference in New York on which I was a panel member. My statement bristled the room, and immediately two people got up, and one said before storming out, that my comment was insulting and discrediting him. 


I stood my ground, and even though he had prefaced his statement by saying he was self-published, my comment, without being familiar with his work, was not in any way pointing fingers at him, but instead I was voicing my frustration with individuals who claim to be poets without practicing the craft, without reading other poets or even realizing that there is a history, a tradition of poetry. There has to be standards. Yes, one can be inspired to write a poem on the bus or subway before an open mike and read it to an audience and receive applause, but more than likely that skeleton of an idea, will need to be revised to become a poem.


At the end of the panel a few people approached me privately and thanked me for making that comment, and for standing my ground even though a few stormed out and several others objected. I reiterated that I believed strongly what I said, although it was not my intention to stymied any budding writers or even suggest that certain individuals should not write or publish. I am merely asking for poets and writers to be treated with respect, and that it be acknowledged that writing is a serious profession, requiring similar study and practice as an engineer.


Perhaps I am exposing my own deficiency, but I have been writing and have been being published for the last twenty-five years, and I can say only about five poems have come to me whole in my entire career, and even those were tweaked; every other poem and story, went through several drafts. I constantly have to hone my craft, stretch words so they balloon out like gum on  a girl’s tongue. And when my lines slip like a sock that’s too short and slides down into one’s shoe I have to keep pulling it up above my ankle.


I do not think I am an elitist, but maybe I am --that’s my blinder—but it seems to me everything of value has to have standards, a criterion.  Every poem one writes is just not good.  I still write some awful poems, ideas that are important to me, and perhaps too polemic for the poetic form, too didactic but good for arousing at a political rally, too emotionally raw for the transformation I would like to result.


Poetry is art, poetry is life, a body bent backward, in a u-shape, poetry is the compilation of someone’s idea that often feed both the spirit and the head. As I was reflecting on April, designated as National Poetry Month commencing in 1996 as a result of the efforts of The Academy of American Poets, and inspired by the success of Black History Month in February, and Women's History Month in March, I wondered what would be considered Jamaican’s national poetry, especially in light of our 50th independence celebration.


I thought I would ask someone who has helped to develop many Jamaican poets. Mervyn Morris, poet, scholar, literary critic and professor emeritus of UVI,  takes on the term fully:


Jamaican Poetry is what you get when you hold in your mind all the Jamaican poets you think have written or performed well.  The Jamaicanness is expressed in sensory specifics and some recurrent concerns (time, place, community, justice, truth,  ‘the quarrel with history’, ‘the search for identity’ etc).  But the Jamaicanness is primarily, I think, in the particular flavor of the language used – sometimes ‘Standard English’, sometimes something that looks like ‘Standard English’ but incorporates ‘Jamaicanisms’ or Jamaican Creole inflexions, sometimes Jamaican Creole/patois/dialect, sometimes Jamaican slang.  To me it seems important to acknowledge the language range of poetry by Jamaicans, and indeed in the work of individual Jamaican poets.”


Morris’ reflection provides a large canvass from which to begin to chart a national poetics, that does not exclude, but is open to the multi possibilities and ranges of voices that represent Jamaicans and thus their poetry. Of course it helps if poetry is being taught in the schools, not just the memorization and analysis of poetry, but  a sound program, perhaps model after other programs in the USA and elsewhere that bring poets and writers into the classroom to work with students on writing.


But if Jamaica was to embrace National Poetry Month as a Jamaican thing, how might that look? Just imagine if  a project, similar to the one undertaken in 1998 by The American Academy of Poetry jointly with the American Poetry & Literacy Project were to distribute 100,000 free books of poetry from Negril to Morant Bay, from Alligator Pond to Clark’s Town? Imagine if Prime Minster Portia Simpson Miller was to host a gala poetry event, inaugurate a Poet Laureate and invite both local as well as national poets to read? How might that shift or alter the general perception of poetry? And which of our poets would be on stamp?  In 2001, the Academy invited people to "vote" for poets they most wanted to have a postage stamp. More than 10,000 people cast ballots, with Langston Hughes receiving the most votes and as a result The United States Postal Service, issued a Langston Hughes stamp in January 2002.


And there is nuff more that can and should be done to promote poetry in Jamaica.  Imagine if every mini bus has a poem printed on its side by different poets.  How about  a wall of poetry at the National Stadium ? What  about a street of poetry near the Institute of Jamaica? I believe, and of course I am bias, a street of poems is the highest honor and I am proud to be included in Addison St. Poetry Walk in Berkeley, California, that also has an accompanying anthology.


This was  a project undertaken by former US Poet Laureate and Professor at the University of California at Berkeley,  Bob Hass, who researched, selected and edited over 120 poems that span the history of Berkeley. And in October 2003 over 120 cast-iron poetry panels were installed including my poem, “Fennel,” from my collection, Leaf of Life, 2000, along with poems by Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Thorton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Jack London, Gary Snyder, Alice Walker, Sappho, classical Chinese poet Li Po, and the Ohlone Indians, who lived on the grounds where Berkley now stands.


As Jamaica steps into womanhood and is looking ahead, this seems like the appropriate time to reflect on what is Jamaica’s national poetry. Should we have a Poet Laureate? Who should grace the first stamp? What about an entire day dedicated to poetry? All local radio and TV stations would only feature readings and discussion of poetry and poets.  Critics as well as the general public would be invited to discuss their favorite poems and speak to the issue of how Jamaican poets have contributed to the world stage. Imagine an entire day of dramatization of poems, poems put to music, poetry and more poetry. And what kinds of other public poetry programs do we want to implement to  promote and foster poetry in the society?


I think it is high time that a group is convened, maybe organized by Poetry Society of Jamaica among others, to explore how to advance poetry that already has a long and proud tradition in Jamaica. Poets will continue to be disenfranchised and marginalized until they come together and establish standards, which should include compensation for service. While it goes without saying that musicians and caterers will be paid, poets  are often asked to perform for free.  This attitude of not assigning monetary value to a poet’s worth will continue until poets unite as a group.


In many other arenas, Jamaica has set the standard, and I am confident that Jamaican poets , both locally and internationally, can establish guidelines to promote their art, ensuring that it garners the support and high artistic standards that it deserves.  Mervyn Morris says,Poetry survives,” and this is an affirming note on which to leave this issue for all to ponder.