Derek Walcott’s loose tongue

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In 1970, Derek Walcott wrote a philosophical introduction to a collection of his plays. The title of the essay, What The Twilight Says: An Overture, is intriguing. There, Walcott recalls his youthful days in St Lucia learning the craft of writing in the 1940s.

“I sighed up a continent of envy when I studied English literature, yet, when I tried to talk as I wrote, my voice sounded affected or too raw. The tongue became burdened, like an ass trying to shift its load. I was taught to trim my tongue as a particular tool which could as easily have been ordered from England as an awl or a chisel … .”

Theatrically, Walcott puts on the mask of a young man struggling to find his tongue – both voice and language. But the accomplished poet is no longer tongue-tied. The mature Walcott demonstrates his complete mastery of the language of English literature, both sound and substance. The ironic tension between what is recalled – the raw tongue – and how it is called to mind – the images tripping off the tongue – that is the pleasure of Walcott’s craft.

‘FAR ABOVE ITS SUBJECTS’

In What The Twilight Says, Walcott gives a frank account of his lifelong quest to fashion a literary language that sounded like his natural speaking voice. He confesses his alienation from the very subjects of his poetry, his own St Lucian people: ” . . . The voice of the inner language was reflective and mannered, as far above its subjects as that sun which would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt.”

tight_knotsThat’s quite a tight knot of images. Hear how I unravel it: the “inner language” of Walcott’s poetry is like an absentee landlord distantly imposing authority on its subjects. In the very act of “reflective and mannered” writing about his people – his subjects – the poet assumes the imperious pose of coloniser.

But Walcott is also forced to subject himself to the demands of the language of empire. Language is the medium of ideology. It summons the ghosts of the past. As an agent of literary domination of his own people, the poet himself becomes implicated in the imperial enterprise.

ASININE FICTIONS

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The setting sun of empire does not automatically allow the Caribbean intellectual to find his tongue. The poet as colonial subject often becomes the victim of self-doubt. Can he speak for himself? Is he ready to play the lead role in the drama of his own life? Or must he continue to inhabit the asinine fictions of congenital inferiority?

By contrast, the vast majority of Caribbean people have no such anxieties. They simply refuse to trim their tongue. Walcott’s St Lucian subjects and their confident cousins across the region are, quite often, well aware of the distance between the patriarchal language of empire and their nurturing mother tongues.

As our own Jamaican poet and public intellectual Mutabaruka so wickedly observes, “The language we talk we can’t write; and the language we write we can’t talk.” Mutabaruka speaks to the compounded failure of the educational system in Jamaica to a) teach literacy in the mother tongue, Jamaican; and b) ensure that all students can, in fact, competently speak the official language of literacy, English.

A SEDUCTIVE MISTRESS

Spellbound by the English literary tradition, the youthful Walcott is, at first, unable to loosen his tongue. Eventually, he stops playing the ass. He finds another language to express the full range of his artistic sensibility. Walcott writes about this discovery in the third person:

“On the verandah, with his back to the street, he began marathon poems on Greek heroes which ran out of breath, lute songs, heroic tragedies, but these rhythms, the Salvation Army parodies, the Devil’s Christmas songs, and the rhythms of the street itself were entering the pulse-beat of the wrist.”

The theatre of the street is a seductive mistress who lures the poet from his more respectable muse. Or, at the very least, forces the muse at home to dance to a different beat. Pure slackness! And that potent image of rhythms in the wrist confirms the value of literacy as a medium for transmitting and transforming oral knowledge.

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The imported tools of empire made the young Walcott envious, alienating him from his own culture. He would later claim both English and his own St Lucian Creole as intimate languages to voice his distinctive Caribbean identity. Derek Walcott has written 24 volumes of poetry, 25 plays and several other books. He has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for literature. His tongue and wrist became very loose indeed.

Derek Walcott is the most celebrated creative writer to have studied in the Department of Literatures in English (formerly, just English) at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Generations of poets, playwrights and novelists were cultivated in that department. It’s a roll call of distinction.

Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Slade Hopkinson, Jean D’Costa, Velma Pollard, Dennis Scott, Rachael Manley, Wayne Brown, Rawle Gibbons, Kendel Hippolyte, Robert Lee, Merle Collins, Kwame Dawes, Curdella Forbes, David Heron, Marlon James, Tanya Shirley, Ishion Hutchinson, Kei Miller, Joanne Hillhouse, Ann-Margaret Lim and so many more! The poet/dramatist is dead. Long live poetry, drama, fiction and all the arts!

Big Tingz A Gwaan Fi Mis Lou

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.

CHAKA-CKAKA SPELIN Miss Lou dead an gone. But wi naa figet weh shi do fi big up fi wi Jamaica culture. A she mek plenty a wi know seh wi no ha fi shame bout fi wi heart language. It a no no bad talking. A one good-good sinting. Wen wi long-time people dem did come from Africa, dem never get no chance fi walk wid dem bag an pan. Dem come wid dem two long hand. Tie up. A thief dem thief de man bring dem ya so. Dem never plan fi come. miss_lou_cover_final_2

Still for all, dem bring nuff culture inna dem head cup. It did full up. Dem bring dem talent an dem skill. Dem a farmer, artist, doctor, lawyer, teacher, soldier, banker, cook, stylist – all kind a different-different profession. An dem bring dem whole heap a language from all bout. Wen di English people dem force on fi dem one dehgeh-dehgeh language pon di African people dem, dem dis twist it up, an bruck it up, an mix it up wid fi dem owna language dem. An dem mek up one new language. Jamaican.

Tuesday gone, di first book weh write bout Miss Lou launch up a University of the West Indies, Mona. A Prof Mervyn Morris write it. An a Ian Randle Publishers bring it out. It name Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. Prof Morris tell wi bout di whole a Miss Lou life.

Den im talk bout how shi did act inna pantomine an shi write some a dem. An shi did collect up Anansi story. An shi do Ring Ding programme pon TV. An shi write nuff poem. An Prof Morris tell wi bout Miss Lou an fi her Aunty Roachy weh did deh pon radio. Di last-last ting Prof Morris tell wi bout a di dead lef. Wa Mis Lou call di ‘whole a heap a culture an tradition an birthright’ weh left fi wi.

RESPECT DUE!

An a Prof Eddie Baugh launch di book. Im show wi seh a long time now Prof Morris did a study Miss Lou. In a 1963, im did preach one sermon, ‘On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously’. Yu see dat deh comma. It serious. It mean fi seh a no joke Prof Morris a joke.

Im know seh wen certain people hear bout ‘reading’ Miss Lou, dem a go waan laugh. Dem no know seh Miss Lou write down her poem dem, fi instance. Dem tink she shi dis get up an chat. Nutten no go so. Wi ha fi understand seh Miss Lou sit down an tink bout wa shi a go get up an seh. Respect due!

Dis ya Thursday, Prof Morris an Prof Baugh a go deh pon NewsTalk 93FM a talk bout di book. A di programme “Big Tingz a Gwaan”, weh mi an di yute Tyane Robinson do. It broadcast 4:30 in a di afternoon. An it come on back pon Saturday 3:30. So unu fi try ketch it. Wi talk in a so-so Jamaican. http://www.newstalk93fm.com/programmes/big-tingz-ah-gwaan/

Den mi deh a Liguanea Plaza last year an one man pass mi an seh, “Miss Lou daughter”! It sweet mi so till. One a di ting mi find out in a Prof Morris book a dis: Miss Lou womb did tek out chruu it did a gi her problem. So shi couldn’t have no pikni. Well, mi know seh Miss Lou got nuff culture pikni an gran-pikni an great-gran-pikni. Give thanks!

PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN Mis Lou ded an gaan. Bot wi naa figet we shi du fi big op fi wi Jamieka kolcha. A shi mek plenti a wi nuo se wi no afi shiem bout fi wi aat langwij. It a no no bad taakin. A wahn gud-gud sinting. Wen wi lang-taim piipl dem did kom fram Afrika, dem neva get no chaans fi waak wid dem bag an pan. Dem kom wid dem tuu lang an. Tai op. A tiif dem tiif de man bring dem ya so. Dem neva plan fi kom.

imagesStil far aal, dem bring nof kolcha ina dem ed kop. It did ful op. Dem bring dem talent an dem skil. Dem a faama, aatis, dakta, laaya, tiicha,suoja, bangka, kuk, stailis – aal kain a difran-difran profeshan. An dem bring dem uol iip a langwij fram aal bout. Wen di Inglish piipl dem fuos aan fi dem wan dege, dege langwij pan di Afrikan piipl dem, dem dis twis it op, an brok it op, an miks it op wid fi dem uona langwij dem. An dem mek op wahn nyuu langwij. Jamiekan.

Chuuzde gaan, di fosbuk we rait bout Mis Lou laanch op a University of the West Indies, Mona. A Prof Mervyn Morris rait it. An a Ian Randle Publishers bring it out. It niem Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. An Prof Morris tel wi bout di uol a Mis Lou laif.

Den im taak bout ou shi did a kina pantomain an shi rait som a dem. An shi did kalek op anansi tuori. An shi du Ring Ding pruogram pan TV. An shi rait nof puoem. An Prof Morris tel wi bout Mis Lou an fi aar Aunty Roachy we did de pan riedyo. Di laas-laas ting Prof Morris tel wi bout a di ded lef. Wa Mis Lou kaal di ‘whole a heap a culture an tradition an birthright’ we lef fi wi.

RISPEK JUU!

An a Prof Eddie Baugh laanch di buk. Im shuo wi se a lang taim nou Prof Morris did a stodi Mis Lou. In a 1963, im did priich wahn sorman, ‘On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously’. Yu si dat de kama. It siiryos. It miin fi se a no juok Prof Morris a juok. Im nuo se wen sortn piipl ier bout ‘reading’ Mis Lou, dem a go waahn laaf. Dem no nuo se Mis Lou rait dong aar puoem dem, fi instans. Dem tingk se shi dis git op an chat. Notn no go so. Wi a fi andastan se Mis Lou sidong an tingk bout wa shi a go get op an se. Rispek juu!

Prof Morris

Prof Morris

Dis ya Torzde, Prof Morris an Prof Baugh a go de pan NewsTalk 93FM a taak bout di buk. A di pruogram “Big Tingz a Gwaan”, we mi an di yuut Tyane Robinson du. It braadkyaas 4:30 in a di aaftanuun. An it kom aan bak pan Satide 3:30. So unu fi chrai kech it. Wi taak in a suoso Jamiekan.

Den mi de a Liguanea Plaza laas ier an wahn man paas mi an se, “Mis Lou daata!” It swiit mi so til. Wan a di ting mi fain out in a Prof Morris buk a dis: Mis Lou uum did tek out chruu it did a giar problem. So shi kudn av no pikni. Wel, mi nuo se Mis Lou gat nof kolcha pikni an gran-pikni an griet-gran-pikni. Giv tangks!

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

Miss Lou is dead and gone. But we won’t forget what she did to celebrate our Jamaican culture. She is the one who made a lot of us understand that we don’t have to be ashamed of our heart language. It’s not talking bad.  It’s a very good thing. When our ancestors came from Africa, they didn’t get the chance to bring all their belongings. They came empty-handed. And their hands were tied.  They were abducted and brought here. They hadn’t planned to come.

All the same, they brought lots of culture in their heads. Full to the brim. They brought their talents and skills. They were farmers, artists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, soldiers, bankers, cooks, stylists – all kinds of different professions. And they brought a whole variety of languages from the continent. When the English people imposed their single language on the Africans, they twisted it, an mangled it up, an mixed it up with their own languages. And they created a new language. Jamaican. Unknown-2

Last Tuesday, the first book to be written about Miss Lou was launched at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Prof Mervyn Morris is the author. And it was published by Ian Randle Publishers. The title is  Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. Prof Morris tells us all about Miss Lou’s life.

Then he focuses on her career.   She acted in pantomimes and she even wrote some of them. And she collected Anansi stories. And she hosted the Ring Ding programme on TV. And she wrote lots of poems. And Prof Morris tells us about Miss Lou and her Aunty Roachy who were on radio. The very last thing Prof Morris talks about is legacy. What Miss Lou herself described as all of that culture and tradition – the  birthright –  that’s left for us.

RESPECT DUE!

And it was Prof Eddie Baugh who launched the book. He said Prof Morris has been studying Miss Lou’s work for a very long time. In 1963, he preached a sermon, ‘On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously’. That comma is very significant. It means that Prof Morris really isn’t joking.

He knows that when certain people hear him say ‘reading’ Miss Lou, they’re going to want to laugh. They don’t know that Miss Lou wrote her poems, for instance. They think she just got up and chatted off the top of her head. That’s not so at all. We have to understand that Miss Lou sat down and thought about what she was going to get up and say. Respect due!

This Thursday, Prof Morris and Prof Baugh are going to be on NewsTalk 93FM  talking about the book. It’s the programme “Big Tingz a Gwaan”, which the young man, Tyane Robinson, and I  do. It comes on at 4:30 in the afternoon. And it’s aired again on Saturdays at 3:30. So you should try to try to catch it. We speak pure Jamaican.  (How yu like that bilingual pun!)

Then I was at the Liguanea Plaza last year and a man passed me and said, “Miss Lou daughter”! I was so amused! One of the things I found out in Prof Morris’ book is that Miss Lou had had a hysterectomy because she’d been having lots of problems. So she couldn’t have children. Well, I know that Miss Lou has lots and lots of  culture children and grand-children and great-grand-children. Give thanks!

Looking For Mr Wrong

rockfort5Over the last four months, I’ve been going to the Rockfort mineral bath almost every week. I decided this was excellent therapy for my unconfirmed chik-V. I’d been advised not to lift weights because of the stress on the joints. So exercising in the mineral water was my way of compensating for missing the gym.

The $300 entry fee for senior citizens is a bargain. It gives you 45 minutes in the pool. When I asked about the time limit, I was told that the Ministry of Health had recommended the restriction because of the potency of the minerals. I have absolutely no confidence in the facts and figures coming out of that ministry. So I usually take some ‘brawta’ minutes. I have to drag myself out of the pool.

The mineral bath is an underused resource. It’s next door to the cement factory, so I know that’s an issue. The risk of industrial pollution puts people off. Sometimes, I’m the only person in the pool. But I think the benefits of the mineral water outweigh the risk of inhaling cement dust. And since it’s the Caribbean Cement Company that’s maintaining the bath, one does have to take the sour with the sweet.

One of the lifeguards encouraged me to write about the healing power of the mineral water so more patrons would come. I selfishly felt conflicted. I really wouldn’t want to be in the pool at its full capacity of 50 persons. One week, as I drove into the parking lot, I heard the screams of children on a school outing enjoying themselves. I didn’t even make it to 20 minutes that day. I just couldn’t take the noise.

There are private baths, but these have not been open for quite a while. I gather that they are to be refurbished soon. The last time I used the private baths, several years ago, I was disappointed to see how rundown they had become. So I’m not surprised they’ve been closed.

EATING KASSAV

I certainly missed my soothing mineral bath while I was away. I had gone to King’s College, University of London, to have a public conversation with the Martinican zouk singer Jocelyne Beroard of the band Kassav. We spoke about Caribbean popular music and dance. And we expressed our love for the Creole languages that have been created in the region.

Kassav is the French Creole word for cassava. The band chose that name to signify nutritious local food which, like music, nurtures body and spirit. And they sing in Creole to affirm the value of the language. It’s a political issue – reclaiming the power of our shared African heritage.

Billed as a ‘Moving Conversation’, the event was part of the ‘Modern Moves’ research project directed by Prof Ananya Kabir of the Department of English. This energetic project tracks the movement of African rhythms across the cultures of the diaspora.

http://www.modernmoves.org.uk/moving-conversations/

The very first morning I came home, I made a move to the mineral bath. I needed to thaw out from the London cold and the Paris tragedy. I was waiting at the intersection of Windward Road and Michael Manley Boulevard to merge with traffic on the highway when a youngish male driver hit my car in the rear.

We both got out of our cars and our conversation went something like this. He asked me, “So what we going to do?” And I said, “How you mean? We going to exchange information.” I suggested that he pull in behind me out of the traffic. He said there wasn’t enough room so he would park ahead of me. Well, you know what happened. Mr Wrong took off at such a speed I’m surprised he didn’t crash.

All I could do was laugh. It was completely ridiculous. And I did understand why Mr Wrong made a dash for it. He took one look at my relatively new car and decided he was not going to take any responsibility for fixing it. He probably didn’t even have a driver’s licence, much more insurance. It made no sense to run him down. Looking for Mr Wrong would be a complete waste of time.

DAREDEVIL SPORT

There are so many of these incidents every single day. Hit-and-run driving is a common offence. We really have to do something extraordinary to bring order to the chaos on the roads. Taxi men are a special case. I have seen a taxi man in the right-turn lane move to the left, across two lanes of traffic, and turn left just as the light is changing! Driving is clearly a daredevil sport.

LiteracySignI’m convinced that a high percentage of drivers are not literate and so they haven’t read the road code. And even those who are literate do not seem to understand the language of the code. And if they do understand, they are certainly not obeying the rules. I think the minister of transport and works needs to commission the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona to produce an oral version of the road code translated into the heart language of the Jamaican people.

Until we get drivers to ‘feel’ the meaning of the road code, we are not going to get compliance with the rules. But, I suppose, some of us would rather die on the road than acknowledge the power of the Jamaican language to influence behaviour. That’s a high price to pay for downright ignorance.