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!

Obama Done Know Wa A Gwaan

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-CHAKA SPELLING

JAMAICA-US-DIPLOMACY-OBAMA-TOWN HALLSo Obama go a youth forum an im greet di massive inna fi wi language. An im big up UWI. An im aks, “Wa a gwaan, Jamaica”? An it sweet nuff a wi. Yeah, man! Obama talk up di ting.   But unu see seh im never talk dat deh talk wen im go a Jamaica House an wen im go meet di govament head dem. Im know wa a gwaan. Fi wi heart language no good enough fi dem deh high-up meeting.

Then chruu mi difend fi wi language, people a run joke wid mi, a aks mi if a mi did teach Obama fi talk Jamaican. Mi? Poor mi, poor gyal! Mi never get fi meet Obama, much less fi a gi im extra lesson. An mi never young enough fi go a di youth forum. By di way, mi wuda love fi know a who pick some a dem deh ‘youth’. Wen mi a watch di forum pon TV, mi see some hard-back, old, old smaddy a try pass fi youth. Mi seh to miself, “Dem must have big links fi get bogus age-paper”! Anyhow, a Jamaica dis. A bandooloo run tings.

Still for all, mi no know how dem deh unconscionable old smaddy no shame fi a tek weh young people seat. Fi dem shame-tree dead, dead, dead. An mi know seh di down-grow ‘youth’ dem a go seh a nutten but bad-mind an grudgeful mek mi a bad-talk dem, chruu mi never have no contact. Mi have conscience. Mi go outa road go watch motorcade pass wen Obama lef UWI fi go a Heroes Circle. Wat a piece a excitement! Fi wi outrider dem inna dem boasy uniform; an di whole heap a secret service guardy dem; an di two Beast dem!

‘WAZ OP WI DAT’?

mothers-tongue_0One a di ting Obama well know a dis: wen yu talk tu people inna fi dem heart language, yu get nuff forward. Mi fren, Prof. Hubert Devonish, send mi dis ya email: “In the whole Obama Jamaica language hoopla, the thing never mentioned is that he is himself a native or near native speaker of Hawaiian Creole (HC)! Check this video in which his ‘deviation’ into HC bears some interesting comparisons with his ‘Wa a gwaan, Jamieka?’ bit.”

Prof. Devonish a one linguist an im a di head a di Jamaica Language Unit a UWI. So im know weh im a talk bout.   Pon di video, President Obama dida gi one speech inna 2012. Im dida talk inna Washington, DC to di Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.   Same time Obama seh im born a Hawai’i, some a di Hawai’an people dem bawl out, “Chee huu”! Im stop braps. An im start laugh. Cau im know weh dem a seh. Dem well glad fi know seh im an dem come from di same place. Dem talk di same language. So hear Obama im, “These Hawaiians here! Waz op wi dat”?

Then music a one next language weh reach people, all wen dem no ketch di lyrics. Look how reggae music gone all over di world! An mi glad fi see seh Obama did go a Bob Marley Museum. Mi ongle sorry seh wen im did go a Heroes Circle im never dis go down a Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey. An mi know seh some people a seh dem no want Merica pardon Garvey becau im never do nutten wrong. Mi no gree wid dem. Merika fi stop tell lie pon Garvey seh im a jinnal an gi wi national hero di honour an rispek im deserve. Dat’s wa up wi dat.

PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN

OBAMA_6So Obama go a yuut fuorom an im griit di masiv ina fi wi langgwij. An im big op UWI. An im aks, “Wa a gwaan, Jamieka”? An it swiit nof a wi. Ye, man! Obama taak op di ting.   Bot unu si se im neva taak dat de taak wen im go a Jamaica House an wen im go miit di govament ed dem. Im nuo wa a gwaan. Fi wi aat langgwij no gud inof fi dem de ai-op miitn.

Den chruu mi difen fi wi langgwij, piipl a ron juok wid mi, a aks mi if a mi did tiich Obama fi taak Jamiekan. Mi? Puor mi, puor gyal! Mi neva get fi miit Obama, moch les fi a gi im ekstra lesn. An mi neva yong inof fi go a di yuut fuorom. Bai di wie, mi wuda lov fi nuo a uu pik som a dem de ‘yuut’. Wen mi a wach di fuorom pan TV, mi si som aad-bak, uol, uol smadi a chrai paas fi yuut. Mi se tu miself, “Dem mos av big lingks fi get buogos iej-piepa”! Eniou, a Jamieka dis. A banduulu ron tingz.

Stil far aal, mi no nuo ou dem de ankanshanebl uol smadi no shiem fi a tek we yong piipl siit. Fi dem shiem-chrii ded, ded, ded. An mi nuo se di dong-gruo ‘yuut’ dem a go se a notn bot bad-main an grojful mek mi a bad-taak dem, chruu mi neva av no kantak. Mi av kanshens. Mi go outa ruod go wach muotakied a paas wen Obama lef UWI fi go a Heroes Circle. Wat a piis a eksaitment! Fi wi outraida dem ina dem buosi yuunifaam; an di uol iip a siikrit sorvis gyaadi dem; an di tuu Biis dem!

‘WAZ OP WI DAT’?

Wan a di ting Obama wel nuo a dis: wen yu taak tu piipl ina fi dem aat langgwij, yu get nof faawad. Mi fren, Prof. Hubert Devonish, sen mi dis ya iimiel: “In the whole Obama Jamaica language hoopla, the thing never mentioned is that he is himself a native or near native speaker of Hawaiian Creole (HC)! Check this video in which his ‘deviation’ into HC bears some interesting comparisons with his ‘Wa a gwaan, Jamieka?’ bit”.

Prof. Devonish a wan linggwis an im a di ed a di Jamieka Langgwij Yuunit a UWI. So im nuo we im a taak bout.   Pan di vidiyo, President Obama dida gi wan spiich ina 2012. Im dida taak ina Washington, DC tu di Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.   Siem taim Obama se im baan a Hawai’i, som a di Hawai’an piipl dem baal out, “Chee huu”! Im stap braps. An im staat laaf. Kaa im nuo we dem a se. Dem wel glad fi nuo se im an dem kom fram di siem plies. Dem taak di siem langwij. So ier Obama im, “These Hawaiians here! Waz op wi dat”?

Den myuuzik a wan neks langgwij we riich piipl, aal wen dem no kech di liriks. Luk ou rege myuuzik gaan aal uova di worl! An mi glad fi si se Obama did go a Bob Marley Museum. Mi ongl sari se wen im did go a Heroes Circle im neva dis go dong a Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey. An mi nuo se som piipl a se dem no waahn Merika paadn Garvey bikaa im neva du notn rang. Mi no grii wid dem. Merika fi tap tel lai pan Garvey se im a jinal an gi wi nashinal iiro di ana an rispek im disorv. Dat’s wa op wi dat.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION:  OBAMA KNOWS WHAT’S UP

Barack Obama,So Obama went to the youth forum and greeted the massive in our language. And he said, “Big up, UWI”! And he asked, “What’s up, Jamaica”? And lots of us were tickled. Yeah, man! Obama got the language right. But you must have noticed that he didn’t use that language when he went to Jamaica House nor when he went to meet the heads of government. He knows what’s up. Our heart language isn’t good enough for those official meetings.

Then because I defend our language, some people had a little fun at my expense, asking if it was me who taught Obama to talk Jamaican. Me? Hardly likely! I didn’t get to meet Obama, much less to give him a tutorial. And I wasn’t young enough to go to the youth forum. By the way, I would love to know who selected some of those ‘youth’. When I watched the forum on TV, I saw  some rather tough-looking old people trying to pass themselves off as youth. I said to myself, “They must be very well connected to get fake birth certificates”! Anyhow, this is Jamaica. Trickery is the name of the game.

All the same, I don’t know how those unconscionable old people didn’t feel any shame at taking the place of young people. Their conscience is dead, dead, dead. And I know that these over-age ‘youth’ are going to say I’m criticising them out of malice.  It’s just because I didn’t have any contacts.  I have a conscience. I went on the road to watch the motorcade pass when Obama left UWI to go to Heroes Circle. What an excitement! Our outriders in their stylish uniforms; and all of the secret service security guards; and the two Beasts!

‘WAZ OP WI DAT’?

images-1One of the things Obama knows all too well is this: when you talk to people in their heart language, you get lots of positive vibes. My friend, Prof Hubert Devonish, sent me this email: “In the whole Obama Jamaica language hoopla, the thing never mentioned is that he is himself a native or near native speaker of Hawaiian Creole (HC)! Check this video in which his ‘deviation’ into HC bears some interesting comparisons with his ‘Wa a gwaan, Jamieka?’ bit.”

Prof Devonish is a  linguist and he’s the head of the Jamaican Language Unit at UWI. So he knows what he’s talking about. The video shows President Obama giving a speech in 2012 in Washington, DC to the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. As soon as Obama said he was born in Hawai’i, some of the Hawai’ians shouted out, “Chee huu”! He stopped in his tracks.  And he started to laugh. Because he knew what they were saying. They were excited because they were all from the same place. They spoke the same language. And here’s how Obama responded, “These Hawai’ians here! Waz op wi dat”?

Then music is another language that touches people, even when they don’t catch the lyrics. Just think about how reggae music has gone all over the world! And I’m glad Obama visited the Bob Marley Museum. I’m just sorry that when he went to Heroes Circle he didn’t go down to Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey. And I know that some people are saying they don’t want the US to pardon Garvey because he committed no crime. I don’t agree with them. The US needs to stop perpetuating the lie that Garvey was a con artist and give our national hero the honour and respect he deserve. That’s what’s  up with that.

Phillips Sweetens “Bitter Medicine”

imagesIn a hopeful Budget speech that insistently focused on facts, Finance Minister Dr. Peter Phillips demolished the false claims of both Opposition Leader Andrew Holness and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) spokesman on finance, Audley Shaw, about the state of the Jamaican economy. Ironically quoting both Shaw and former Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, Phillips underscored the urgent need to place the national interest above political opportunism.

On the contentious matter of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Phillips emphasised the failure of the JLP to “undertake the necessary structural reforms in order to achieve a sustainable balance of payments”.  Instead of administering the “bitter medicine” that Holness had prescribed in 2011, the former JLP government simply “took the money and ran,” according to Phillips. Now, the JLP insists that the passing of IMF tests is “contrived”.

asl-alphabetIn a witty aside, Phillips asserted, in reference to Audley Shaw, “him want the horse but not the bridle”. I wished there had been more of that kind of vivid language in Phillips’ rather technical speech. I kept on wondering just how many listeners really understood the ins and outs of Phillips’ arguments. I got lost at times. It struck me that the deaf were much better served than the majority of Jamaicans. They had access to sign language. For most of us, the minister’s technical words fell on deaf ears.

I believe that for important national matters like the Budget debates, translators should be employed to turn technical English into accessible Jamaican Creole. All our talk of democracy is pointless if we continue to exclude the majority of Jamaicans from public discourse. As one woman said to me, “From dem start wid dem ‘per cent’, mi stop listen. Because mi no know weh dem a seh”.

korting_TUINederlandWhat is so sad is that “per cent” is such an easy concept to translate: “out of every 100”.   But those of us who know English don’t think it’s essential to include in our national debates those Jamaicans who don’t know the language. We claim that they understand when they don’t. And it doesn’t seem to matter to us that so many Jamaicans stop listening when we start to talk to ourselves.

I am convinced that many more Jamaicans would buy into the government’s Budget if they fully understood our options. We would come to accept the fact that the price of hope is sacrifice.   Eucalyptus oil is, indeed, bitter medicine. But it really is therapeutic. That’s the message Peter Phillips needs to communicate in a language that everybody can understand. Including Mr. Shaw and Mr. Holness!

Bob Marley’s Literary Legacy

Bob Marley is one of the finest poets Jamaica has produced. His skilful use of language – both English and Jamaican – compellingly affirms his highly charged literary sensibility. Biblical allusion, proverb, riddle and Rastafari symbolism are all potent elements of his creative writing. His words require the careful critical attention we usually give to poets who don’t know how to sing.

In “One Drop”, Bob Marley vividly defines reggae as a “drumbeat … playing a rhythm/resisting against the system.” And the central concern of his songs is, most certainly, beating down the oppressive social system. Babylon, the whore, the fallen woman of St John’s Revelation, must be chanted down in fiery poetry.

The Rastaman’s chant against Babylon echoes the fall of biblical Jericho. The power of the spoken word is brilliantly manifested in the distinctive language of Rastafari. With upful lyrics, Rastafari condemn downpressors of all stripes. And they teach a revolutionary philosophy that puts truths and rights at the very centre of the new curriculum.

In “Crazy Baldhead”, from the Rastaman Vibration album, the theme of revolution resounds. The social institutions of Babylon are seen as dysfunctional – the educational, religious and penal systems. “Brain-wash education” must be rejected and the con-man/crazy baldhead sent running out of town:

Build your penitentiary

We build your schools

Brain-wash education to make us the

fools.

Hateraged you reward for our love

Telling us of your God above.

We gonna chase those crazy

Chase those crazy bunkheads

Chase those crazy baldheads

Out of town.

Here comes the con-man

Coming with his con-plan

We won’t take no bribe

We got to stay alive.

ROBBERS AND SELLERS

Marley’s lyrical “Redemption Song”, from the Uprising album, is a classic example of the songwriter’s literary skill. The opening lines telescope time, compressing a whole history of exploitation and suffering into minutes:

Old pirates, yes

They rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

Marley’s use of the word ‘pirates’ confirms the fact that many heroes of the British empire were nothing but common criminals. Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake were key actors in the slave trade, earning great wealth from the business of human torture. But Marley also reminds us that Africans were implicated in the mercenary enterprise of transatlantic slavery.

The ambiguous placement of Marley’s neutral ‘they’ inextricably links both the robbers and sellers. There is no real difference between the ‘they’ who rob and the ‘they’ who sell. True, if there were no buyers, there would be no sellers. But the instinct to exploit seems to be our common inhumanity.

iaap2In “Redemption Song”, Marley also acknowledges the divine hand that enabled victims of enslavement to rise from the bottomless pit of horror that was the Middle Passage:

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation

Triumphantly.

This triumph requires of us a song, as the Melodians so plaintively chanted in Rivers of Babylon. Putting to music Psalm137, verse 1, they, like Bob Marley, knew that song is therapy:

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom?

Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs.

HEAD-DECAY-SHUN

Redemption SongsBob Marley appears to be contrasting songs of freedom with redemption songs. There’s a popular hymnal, Redemption Songs, that was first published in London in 1929 or thereabouts. It has become part of the religious culture of Jamaica, regularly showing up at wakes. The title page describes the book in this way: “A choice collection of 1,000 hymns and choruses for evangelistic meetings, solo, singers, choirs and the home.”

Redemption Songs seems to have come to Jamaica with evangelicals from the United States. It was my friend, Erna Brodber, a historical sociologist and novelist, who persuaded me that Marley is actually rejecting “redemption songs”. They are part of the Euro-American religious legacy. And that’s all he was once forced to have.

But there’s another meaning of redemption that I think we should also take into account. Redemption is the act of buying oneself out of slavery. The religious and commercial meanings of ‘redemption’ converge in Marley’s song. Redemption songs are also songs of freedom. There is divine grace – the hand of the Almighty. But there is also the practical justice of freeing one’s self from both physical and mental slavery.

Marley’s Redemption Song is both a rejection of evangelical Christian orthodoxy and an affirmation of a new redemptive vision. So, Marley pays tribute to Marcus Garvey, who prophetically declared, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”

But Garvey does not stop there. He gives a profound warning: “Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.”Garvey is advocating a new kind of education. Not ‘head-decay-shun’, as Rastafari mockingly describe colonial schooling. If that’s all we ever have, we will continue to be enslaved by old notions of redemption. Like Bob Marley, we must create our own new songs of freedom.