World Literature in English

Anglophone Caribbean Poetry:

The Empire Writes Back
Politicizing the popular: (1) Dub 
  1. Mikey Smith
  2. Mutabaruka
  3. L. K. Johnson
The popular: 
(2) Calypso and 
Mighty Sparrow
  • The English and the Caribbean Literatures:
The relationship of English literature to the works of those writers from (ex)colonial societies is now mainly characterized by a counter-discursive (writing back) approach (Cf. The New Empire Within Britain --by Salman Rushdie; The Mighty Sparrow's "Dan is the Man").

Poetry, prior to [the 40's], was really English poetry, the work of ruling class of englishmen and travellers recording their impressions of the 'sugar isles' and the exhilaration of British imperial sway in an idealized 'tropical paradise.' (Cf. Benson.)

  • Major Developments:
    • Rise of anti-colonial consciousness in 1930's-1940's and the need for "Caribbean voices."
    • 1980's--remarkable increase of women poets, the emergence of dub poetry, the increasing prominence of the East Indian voice.

      • Important Poets: Derek Walcott, who wins the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature., Eward Kamau Brathwaite, Lorna Goodson, Wayne Brown, Dennis Scott, David Dabydeen, Cyril Dabyden, Claire Harris, Dionne Brand, etc.

  • Politicizing the Popular: Dub Poetry and the Calypso

  • This is part of a shift in cultural focus from the canonical writers of Empire to those representatives of a popular indigenous tradition.
  • Dub poetry--an extension of reggae culture
    • Dub, an indigenous usage in this context, is a form of performance poetry having its roots in popular Jamaican culture, and more particularly in reggae and Rastafarianism.  The movement has served to bring poetry, or at least some poetry, back to the people, although the performance-entertainment aspect sometimes mask shallow content and creativity.
    Famous examples:
    • Mikey Smith (1954-83), "He was stoned to death in Jamaica in a political incident.  Smith was a remarkable performer who believed in thorough preparation.  He worked like a musician.  He said of himself: 'Me is a man who have built-in rhythms in my head, an me can hear dem.'  He would practise for hours with a tape recorder, testing various renditions."

    • for "Black and White"
      1. What are the various meanings of the words "black" and "white"?   How can concept and the march be black?  How about the song which is "all black?"    Why are solutions "not all black"?
      2. Read the poem and feel its power.


    • Mutabaruka (1952- ) Brought up as a Roman Catholic, he became Rastafarian as a young adult.  . . . Now widely acknowledged as an outstanding oral poet, Mutabaruka regularly performs in Jamaica and has captivated diverse audiences abroad.   . . . In Mutabaruka's work, as in that of other 'dub poets," there is a considerable elements of protest against poverty, inequality, racism, class oppression, political deceit, and the baleful infunece of powerful nation."

    • for "dis poem"
      1. What does "dis poem" speak very powerfully for and against?
      2. While being so powerful, why does the speaker say that "dis poem need to be changed"; "is speakin have spoken"; "shall continue even when poets have stopped writin"?  What concept of the author is implied here?  In other words, who is (are) writing this poem?
      3.  After this suggestion of continuing existence of the poem, why does the speaker then say "dis poem is still not written"?
      4. Who is the "u [you]" this poem addresses?

    • Mutabaruka Web Site

    • Linton Kwesi Johnson
  • Calypso: (see Caribbean culture page for definition)
    • 'Calypso originated in West African griots and developed alongside other traditional Caribbean songs to incorporate "elements of digging songs changed by people at work; belair and calinda songs when they play; shango and shouter baptist revival songs when they worship; and insurrectionary songs such as were sung by slaves in revolt" (Errol Hill 1971: 23).  The calypso has remained a cultural form which speaks of and to an often illiterate workin-class audience, as Hill points out: "The one great leveller was  the calypsonian.  He sang with courage and wit, debunking and defending the small" (24). . . . (Donnell 125)
    'However, . . . [this Calypsonian representation of working-class consciousness is not unproblematic. e.g. sexism. ]
    The calypsonian--a public figure who through performance conjured up a male ego in the face of dire and disempowering social circumstances.   . . . hostility to women of the calypso during this period [1930-40] . . .  (Donnell 125)

    Calypso singer: The Mighty Sparrow

      The Mighty Sparrow's "Dan is the Man" (1963)
      for "Dan is the Man in the Van"
      1. Don't be intimidated by the so many references in this poem: they are mostly from some popular English nursery rimes.  Do you know any one of them?  Do they "mean" anything?  (e.g. "Humpty Dumpty".)  What do you think nursery rimes
      2. What can the title mean?

        "Dan is the Man" --

        questions the worth of a standard(izing) education to a Caribbean citizen.
        The poem can be read as a "'sustained comic attack' (Thieme 1994) on Capt. J. O. Cutteridge's West Indian Readers (1926 to 1929), a six-volume textbook widely used in the Caribbean for three decades.  . . . it stages the 'infantalizing of the colonial subject' through the education system and points to the irony of the calypsonian's adept articulation of his escape from the fate of becoming 'a block headed mule'.  As John Thieme has argued, in its 'parodic approach' and the use of mimicry and irony this calypso is located firmly within a carnival discourse which is both playful and powerfully subversive.

        Thieme goes as far as to suggest that calypso itself constructs an 'alternative discursive universe' in which hierarchies are overturned and 'comic inventiveness, the ex-centric and the individualistic' are all validated.

        "Dan is the Man" is also in part a 'plea for orality' (Thieme 1994).  Not only is it crucial to account for the performance element in any assessment of the calypso form, but calypsos also intervene significantly in cultural debates regarding the privileged status of written texts and the nature of literature itself. (Donnell 126)


    Reference Books & Relevant Links:
    Benson, Eugene, & W. Conolly, eds.  Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English.  2 Vols.  New York:
         Routledge, 1994.
    Donnell, Alison, et al. eds.  The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature.  NY: Routledge, 1996.

    Derek Walcott (St. Lucia)