An excursion into early West Indian poetry

Arabesque

It is very peaceful here
With the white clouds drifting
And the palm trees lifting
Graceful arms to fan the air.

 How lovely is the green when seen
With the blue between as the branches lean.
How lovely is the rose that grows
By the stream which flows where the soft wind blows,

 It is very peaceful here
With the tall grass shaking
And the pond flies making
Silver wing-play everywhere.

 You came and all the sky was flushed,
The day and my heart grew full as you came.
The roses shed their dew and blushed,
As the winds of a new awaking rushed
Through their petals and breathed your name.

 I touched the stars,
Reached to magic in a night
All beautiful. . .
Caught new music and the world was still. . .
Known blue wonders . . .
Floating mauve and gentle silver.

 On a deep deep cloud
I touched the stars
And magic now forever in my sky.

 When I hear music
When I see you sleep
There is great beauty in both
I love music and I love you.
There is music in you
And you are there in beautiful music always.   […]

                                                                 Helen Taitt

                                                      From San Gloria

 San Gloria’s wood-carved mountain frieze
In the blue bay is mirrowed now
As when thy white sail wooed the breeze

 Yet through the wood the peony flees
And frets with gold the night-dark bough
Down the long avenue of trees.

 Still flowering gyneps tempt the breeze
The yellow guava ripens now
Rich-hearted ipomea please

 Dost thou remember things like these
Where thy great soul inhabits now?  […]

                                                Tom Redcam

The early series of Kyk-Over-Al, reprinted in convenient volumes by the Caribbean Press Guyana Classics, invite an excursion to early West Indian poetry in the modern era. That subject can never be exhausted by one journey and in fact, each visit finds new things of importance and interest, or it provides an opportunity to test conclusions previously drawn, or prove convictions previously assumed.

“Arabesque” by Helen Taitt appears in Volume 1 of the reprinted series edited by David Dabydeen, (Kyk-Over-Al 4 – 5), while Tom Redcam’s “San Gloria” is from Volume 2 (Kyk-Over-Al 8 – 10). The first represents 1947, and the second 1949 – 1950, even though the poetry of Redcam (1870 – 1933) is from a slightly earlier moment in history. AJ Seymour referred to it in his continuing reflections in West Indian literature.

An analysis of the Taitt poem may observe two things not to be taken for granted – the language, the verse structure and the rhyme. The title “Arabesque” recalls the short story by British/Irish writer James Joyce. It touches in the exotic appeal and the romantic excitement of a world of romance, grandeur and magic conjured up by the Arabesque. But while in the Joyce story there is shallowness and disappointment resulting from a serious let-down in expectations, the Taitt poem rings true to something of beauty, value and a sublime transportation where the romance is fulfilled in real value, not just a glittering, exotic, superficial exterior.

All of this means that Taitt was quite mature as a poet, given the time in which she was writing and the fact that she was never celebrated even as a minor Guyanese poet. She reigns imperially as the greatest classical dancer produced by Guyana to date. The rhyme is over-evident, if not over-indulgent, but the poem is saved from being described as “rhymie-rhymie” because it works in the rhythm and flow of the poem, and mixes the internal rhyme with a rhyme scheme and verse structure that are easy to read.

This is worth dwelling on because Taitt was emerging out of the long period of imitation in West Indian verse and a period when poetry in British Guiana was gaining maturity and independence from the colonial restrictions. It is interesting that Taitt, a minor (part-time) poet had such an independent voice. She was sufficiently confident to craft her own poetic structure and speak in a voice mostly unaffected by the notion of what is (was) considered “poetic”. (In contrast, see works by RW Chinapen and Peter Ruhomon, for example).

The poem seems rooted in landscape through which the poet eventually gets to the romantic “you” to whom one discovers the poem is addressed. Landscape poetry was the order of those times. The imitative poem was steeped in landscape because of the influence of English Romantic and Victorian verse. It took time for Caribbean poets to wean themselves out of this and they began to use landscape in more creative ways. Taitt used it here as a beautiful, musical reference point with which to compare her love interest. At the same time there is a tendency to free verse.

The sample of poetry by Redcam provides a kind of contrast to give an idea of what Caribbean poets like Taitt were growing out of and away from. Redcam was quite prominent and exalted in Jamaican poetry before independence. He belongs to colonial Jamaican literature. His real name was Thomas Henry McDermot. He cleverly constructed the pseudonym “Tom Redcam” by turning the spelling of his name “Macdermot” backwards to create Tom Redcam.

He was declared Poet Laureate of Jamaica and was quite honoured in the colony. There is still a road in Kingston named after him. Tom Redcam Avenue has the honour of being the location of the National Library of Jamaica. It is further distinguished by also being the location of the very important and historic Little Theatre. This is the virtual headquarters of Jamaican theatre while the street leads directly into Kingston’s most concentrated theatre district (in New Kingston) – the ‘Broadway’ and ‘West End’ of Jamaica.

Redcam’s “San Gloria” recalls history and is perhaps addressed to Christopher Columbus. Note the reference to the ships, the landscape and the archaic language – the standard notion of “poetic language” of the time. Ironically, Redcam was white, yet one of his white Jamaican contemporaries was distinctly innovative in his creation of social realism in Jamaican fiction (as early as 1913). At the same time too, a young (black) Jamaican policeman named Claude McKay had already written two books of poems in Jamaican Creole (Patois) – Constab Ballads and Songs of Jamaica in 1911 and 1912.

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