A little known poet with an important place in the history of Jamaican writing

Una Marson

Una Marson (1905-65) was a Jamaican poet who occupies an important place in the developing years of Jamaican writing, and indeed in West Indian literature without the critical attention to give it justification.  For the range of activities and developments of which she was a part and to which she has contributed she is an under-represented and relatively little known poet.

Marson was a poet, playwright, feminist, political activist, advocate for racial pride and equality, journalist, editor and radio producer. After leaving Hampton High, a girls boarding school in rural Jamaica, she first worked as a stenographer.  She then moved on to her most active years in writing, cultural and political activism between 1928 and 1949 before moving into a ‘dark’ period until 1965.  Generally it seems not a great deal is known about her personal life, and especially after 1949 when reports are conflicting.  But she seemed extremely active travelling back and forth between Jamaica and many other countries including England, USA and Israel.

According to Denise de Caires-Narain, Una Marson did not receive critical attention largely because of gender and politics.  She was a little known poet to begin with, but during her most active years the nature of her poems coupled with her work as a black feminist and activist did not quite meet establishment approval.  de Caires-Narain, a feminist critic herself, is one of two major critics to have paid attention to Marson’s biography and poetry.

Una Marson
Una Marson

The other is Delia Jarrett-McCauley who is regarded as Marson’s biographer and provides much information on her life.  Jarrett-McCauley also pays attention to her drama, commenting at length on the20101003artsonsunday play Pochomania, which itself received acclaim from the criticism focused on this dramatist’s work.  The play is in keeping with Marson’s interests as it dramatises the effect of a Jamaican spiritualist revivalist religion which belongs to the folk traditions, on the life of a middle class woman.  The play was written in 1938 and is therefore one of the earliest plays to have seriously presented a folk traditional ritual on stage.  While there were minor comic portrayals in some earlier plays, only CLR James’ Black Jacobins (1936) paid serious attention to the folk at that time.  Furthermore, Pochomania treats a middle class woman becoming immersed in the ritual, attending to issues of both class and gender in a manner that was uncommon in the 1930s.

More than once Marson started and published a magazine, so she developed experience as an editor, and it was arising from this that she made her greatest contribution to the rise of West Indian literature.  According to her biography, while in London, she worked with the BBC.  She came into contact with outstanding British novelist George Orwell who was a BBC producer for the Indian audience and he enlisted her to work with him in 1942.  Marson had started at the BBC airing messages from soldiers engaged in World War II, but with her Orwell Indian experience she both attracted more attention and transformed her programme into something more literary.  It resulted in her starting Caribbean Voices, the programme for which Henry Swanzy who took it over from Marson when she left to return to Jamaica, is highly credited.  Other writers, including VS Naipaul and Andrew Salkey have been associated with it.  But it was Kamau Brathwaite who highlighted Marson’s role in founding the programme.  Caribbean Voices (1943-58) is famous for its role in the development and virtual coming into being of West Indian literature in the UK during the 1950s.  A long list of the leading Caribbean writers were first featured and introduced on that BBC programme.  It is interesting that while much critical work has been published on Caribbean Voices, Marson’s role in it is not well known.

Another area of significance is her poetry.  Particularly after going to London in 1932 she produced poems on feminist issues, and racial prejudice.  One of the most acclaimed on race is the poem ‘Nigger,’ which very pointedly dramatises race hate and abuse hurled at the ethnic minority.  But it is not an angry poem, it expresses a deep-rooted disappointment in the nature of mankind.  Although written in 1933 it was not published until 1940.  Of more significance is the way she integrated her feminist concerns with the racial question in such poems as ‘Kinky Hair Blues.’  Many poems were produced promoting confidence in black women for whom blackness should not be an inferiority or should not relegate them down the order of beauty.  She attacks the “norm” in a society that believes in this inferiority.

However, the most important factor in this area of Marson’s poetry is her excursions into creole verse.  This is of major significance.  It was only the second prominent attempt by West Indian poets to produce poems in the creole language in a serious way.  The first was Claude MacKay who produced Constab Ballads and Songs of Jamaica in 1911 and 1912.  It is said that Marson had close interactions with Louise Bennett around that time (1930s to 1940s) when Bennett was a fledgling and began performing and publishing creole poems in The Gleaner newspaper.  But Bennett was to emerge as the foremost creole poet years later.  The major fault in McKay was also the major fault in Marson – in their use of Jamaican ‘Patois’ they never mastered the rhythm and syntax of the language in their verse.  Bennett was the first to perfect this, bringing together the oral and the scribal qualities and poetic techniques. But one of the important points about Marson’s place in Jamaican poetry is her production of poetry in Creole.  To that one may add her feminist concerns.

The poem ‘Where Death Was Kind’ does not fall into any of those categories of poems with which Una Maude Marson made her most notable mark.  It belongs, instead, to those for which some have criticised her, saying the style is somewhat imitative, echoing English verse of a previous age.

Indeed it is conventional, not modernist, but it succeeds in its presentation of a voice, in its statement and emotional dramatisation.  Most startling is the presentation of death as a lover in a rather vivid sensual way.  That can be added to the favourable image and attitude, but the dramatization works.

The personification of Death is complete and accomplished with some skill, dramatising in its unusual way the poem’s theme of death as a merciful release from the suffering inflicted by severe illness.  The persona sets a believable almost realistic scene with changes of emotions from guarded jealousy to shock, anger, surprise, relief and approval that are entirely convincing.  It might not be the more interesting Marson as progressive radical advocate, but it is the work of a poet capable of controlled careful craft.






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