Apologies to the ‘Penis Poet’

Ralph Thompson

It would be most unfortunate if, at this late stage of his distinguished career, Mr. Ralph Thompson were to be reduced to the ignoble stature of ‘penis poet’.  I could barely forgive myself for any role I might be perceived to have played in bringing such dishonour on the head of a fine poet.

All the same, I’m rather surprised to see that Ralph is carefully distancing himself from the delightfully pungent humour of the earthy poem he performed last month on the open mic at the Calabash International Literary Festival. In a somewhat petulant letter to the editor, published in the Gleaner on Monday, June 18, 2012,  Ralph grimly insisted that I had failed to grasp the depth, if not the length, of his penile poem.

The provocative headline of the letter was “The Full Monty On My ‘Penis’ Poem”. I suspect that Ralph didn’t have a thing to do with that strip-teasing headline; it’s far too suggestive. A mischievous editor appears to have been having a little fun at the poet’s expense.  And the wicked allusion to ‘the full Monty’ also implies that I didn’t quite have a handle on the poet’s meaty meaning.

The letter itself elaborates the point:  “In two of her recent columns, Carolyn Cooper, in commenting on a poem I read at Calabash, has used my name as a springboard for some of her general opinions about sexuality. This has been done in good fun, I am sure, but has inadvertently served to trivialise an otherwise serious poem.

In the interest of civility and protection of my reputation, I would be grateful if you would publish the poem in its entirety so that readers can judge for themselves the theological and poetic integrity of the work”.

Infectious laughter

William Blake illustration of the Book of Job

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!  ‘Mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, sari’! I’ve exposed the poet’s impeccable reputation to the risk of infectious laughter by drawing undue attention to the opening line: “At 84, I have outlived my penis”.  The poet intended to discharge theology, not sexology.  Like the Old Testament Book of Job, the poem raises a deep question: why do the righteous suffer?

Or, more precisely in this instance, why does the righteous man suffer from sexual impotence? The answer is that one must just learn how to make a deal with God and accept his will, however unpleasant the circumstances. Memory of the itch and scratch of sexual ecstasy will persist. Writing poetry becomes an act of divine sublimation.

At core, Ralph Thompson’s poem is about the perversely pleasurable tension between sexual desire and sexual frustration.     For ease of reference, here’s the ‘non-penis’ poem in its entirety:

It’s a deal

“Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.”

– Browning

At 84, I have outlived my penis

and now by His grace there is a peace of sorts.

But how to cope with memory, its walls scrawled

with graffiti of recall, where itch

still lingers dreaming ecstasies of scratch.

But I have learned from Job to bargain with the Lord –

a deal that He, post mortem, will contra

the excruciations of my journey

against the penances assigned to sin,

the divine books balanced.

Before Alzheimer’s dirty sleeve erases all,

quick, write a poem.

A cheap trick?

 Having dutifully made ‘a peace of sorts’ with Ralph, I still have lingering questions about the thrust of that potent opening line.  By focusing on the penis, I seem to have cut short the full extent of the poet’s weighty philosophical meditation. The ‘poetic integrity of the work’ has, apparently, been adulterated.

Ralph would have us believe that the alleged death of the penis wasn’t just a cheap trick to hook the reader/audience.  It was actually meant to signify the mysterious way in which God moves to perform his wonders.  Unfortunately, resuscitating a dead penis does not seem to be high on the list of divine priorities.

Calabash audience 2012

Fair is fair. I could much more easily accept Ralph’s ponderous theological argument with great civility if the opening line of the poem had been “At 84, I have outlived my knees”.  Of course, that decidedly unsexy line would have drawn no irreverent laughter.  Instead, the mature audience at Calabash would have nodded sympathetically. And the poet would have seemed rather lame.

Knee failure is a familiar ailment for many of us who are not quite 84. And well-oiled knees are a pleasure akin to sex that only those who are suffering from arthritis would understand.  Not to mention the delicate fact that certain sexual positions are off-limits to the weak-kneed.

Knee versus penis:  no contest.  I just don’t understand why Ralph can’t concede that a poet who could deliver such a penetrating line with a straight face is a cut above the rest.  This is not an impotent man whose identity is defined by half a foot, more or less, of dangling flesh.

Hans Sebald Beham illustration

In any case, sex is a theological issue.  It’s not a trivial matter.  Some theologians argue that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was sex.  That’s why Adam and Eve realised that they were naked only after eating it.  Not each other, of course.

I think Ralph got a little weak-kneed after reading my columns and decided that he had to take a stand against slackness, however feeble. But he’s done himself an injustice.  In his haste to demonstrate “the theological and poetic integrity of the work”, he has deflated the humour that buoyed up a rather depressing subject.

Ralph frames his own poem with a famous quotation from Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra”, a very long and very mournful reflection on ageing. Browning wrote the poem at the age of fifty-two, three years after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had Jamaican roots. I much prefer Ralph’s version.  The dead penis made his poem spring to life:  the real deal.

‘Corruption of Language is No Cultural Heritage’

Morris Cargill

That headline was classic Morris Cargill.  In his Sunday Gleaner column published on October 29, 1989, Cargill mockingly made his case for banning ‘Patois’:  “The slackness and anarchy of Patois reflects itself [sic] in the slackness and anarchy of our society in general.  We are as we speak and we speak as we are”.

That ‘sic’ is not a bad dog I’m setting on Cargill’s duppy.  It’s a sign of a grammatical slip that could be mistaken for a typing error.  ‘Sic’ is Latin, meaning ‘thus, so’.    In this context, it means, ‘a so Cargill write it’.  The subject of the sentence is plural – ‘slackness and anarchy’ – so the form of the verb should also be plural – ‘reflect’.  And, of course, ‘itself’ should then be ‘themselves’.  The passive voice would have been even better: “The slackness and anarchy of Patois are reflected in  . . .”

I don’t usually draw attention to grammatical errors in public, except in the classroom.  I don’t set out to embarrass speakers who are not competent in English; not even duppies. I don’t idolize English. It’s just a useful tool of communication like every other language across the globe.   But since Morris Cargill used to make such a big point about English ‘correctness,’ I think it’s quite appropriate in this instance to show him up.

Bilingual Education

In that contemptuous column, Cargill attempted to ridicule the lucid arguments made by Dr. Mertel Thompson in support of bilingual education for Jamaican students.  For more than two decades, Dr. Thompson taught English at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  She certainly understood the complexities of language teaching and learning in Jamaica.

Last week, Dr. Thompson was laid to rest.  At her funeral service, her son, Douglas, reminded the congregation of Cargill’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of the value of his mother’s academic work.  And he humorously predicted that Mertel would be giving Morris language lessons in heaven.

On Earth, Cargill paid no attention to the rigorous scholarship of all the linguists who have given clear evidence that Jamaican is, indeed, a language. For example, the Trinidadian linguist Mervyn Alleyne explains in his book Roots of Jamaican Culture how the new language developed:

    “[B]ecause Africans speaking different languages and coming from different parts of West Africa needed to communicate both among themselves and (less so) with Europeans (in this case English people, themselves speaking different dialects and coming from different parts of the United Kingdom), their language changed.  First the vocabulary is discarded, then the morphology, then the syntax, and finally the phonology; within phonology the old intonation pattern apparently lasts longest.”

Pure Jamaican

Louise Bennett

In less technical language, Louise Bennett’s Aunty Roachy gives a much more subversive account of the process.  She doesn’t use those big Latin/Greek words:  ‘vocabulary’ (words); ‘morphology’ (structure); ‘syntax’ (word order) or ‘phonology’ (sound).  It’s pure Jamaican:  “Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican dialect is corruption of de English Language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi Language to, a oh!

“For Jamaica dialect did start when we English forefahders did start mus-an-boun we African ancestors fi stop talk fi-dem African language altogedder an learn fi talk so-so English, because we English forefahders couldn understan what we African ancestors-dem wasa seh to dem one anodder!

“But we African ancestors-dem pop we English forefahders-dem!  Yes!  Pop dem an disguise up de English Language fi projec fi-dem African language in such a way dat we English forefahders-dem still couldn understan what we African ancestors-dem wasa talk bout when dem wasa talk to dem one anodder!”

Unlike Aunty Roachy and Dr. Thompson, Morris Cargill had no respect for the Jamaican language.  He dismissed those of us who, as he put it,  “would like to see Patois retained as part of our cultural heritage, and believe that it can occupy that honourable place alongside the teaching of standard English”.

‘A lousy heritage’

   Cargill made his own position absolutely clear:  “I, on the other hand, take the view that if it is what is called ‘our cultural heritage,’ it is a lousy heritage redolent of slavery and that if we keep on saying it is a great thing, it merely encourages its continued use until it will finally swamp what remains of standard English in Jamaica.  Of necessity, most people have inherited patois but I see no reason to make a virtue of necessity”.

Frederic Cassidy

Making a virtue of necessity, I knew that it was imperative to respond to Cargill; and in Jamaican.  Too often we defend the Jamaican language in English.  I also decided to use the writing system designed for the language by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy.  My response to Morris Cargill’s column was published in the Sunday Gleaner on November 5, 1989.  This is how I launched my counter-attack:

Wat a nais bakra man Misa Cargill iz, iing!  Luk ou im so sari fi puor ignarant blak piipl!  No waant no huol hiip a bakwod piipl dis a waak-waak bout Jamieka a iikwal op demself, a gwaan laik se dem a taak langgwij jos laik im, a fuul op demself.  Nuo man!  Misa Cargill waant di huol a wi fi nuo wi plies.  Im waant wi fi nuo se wi kom iin laik pus an daag:  wi kyan baak an bait an mek naiz an shuo se wi beks, an kin wi tiit.  Bot langgwij?  Kolcha?  Wa niem so?  Wi no nuo dem de hai wod, maasa.  Dem briid a wod ongl paas out a bakra mout.

These days, the Gleaner would never publish on the editorial page a column written entirely in Jamaican.  Believe me, I have tried. We have flag independence. Yet we continue to suffer from mental slavery.  Claiming the power of the language we have created on this Jamrock would be a big step on the long journey to full freedom.