May 11, 2006

Happy Birthday, Kamau Brathwaite

Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry freed Caribbean literature from the stodginess and conservatism that sometimes dooms our lives and letters. Mark you, I am not against conservatism. There are many things worth preserving within our culture. But because we have not yet developed the collective self-esteem to say within our fields of literature, “This is good and here are the reasons why we think that way,” we rely on moribund codes of aesthetics which have nothing to do with the actualities that surround us.

Kamau offered us a different way, and Gordon Rohlehr was right in dubbing him a “pathfinder.” Brathwaite reminded us that Africa existed (sometimes in our backyards) and that African life and myths belonged in our poetry. This is still a very dangerous thing to say because many of us do not want to allow Africa into our consciousness because Africa still represents degradation, unemployment, and misery. Brathwaite’s poetry helped us to love and preserve those ever living and vital parts of African culture within ourselves and the culture—parts that we neglect often to the detriment of our psychic wholeness. And he began with the word.

In many ways, Brathwaite’s oeuvre may be defined as aural symphony. It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating that Kamau is like a jazz composer who sees each syllable as a sound register and he will twist, contract and extend the sound across several volumes of poetry. To truly read Brathwaite, you need to have an aural memory that begins with his earliest work such as Other Exiles and extend it to his latest collection, Born to Slow Horses. Brathwaite sometimes picks up a neglected sound in The Arrivants and brings the sound to fruition in Shar.

But this assessment is only half of the story. The incredible scholarship that goes along with his sound archive is impressive. For buried in each sound is a memory that encompasses the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Sometimes all at once. Brathwaite with his brilliant mind could have retreated to the stodginess that we see in the worst of TS Eliot (whom he names as an influence), but chose the liberating path of innovation. There are writers who seize upon an influence or a certain code of aesthetics and they write the same poem or the same novel that their “teacher” wrote and they continue to write dead words, encourage their students to read and write dead words, write great tomes of criticism in praise of dead words, and kill the careers of anyone who does not aspire to write dead words. We have many writers, editors, and critics like this in the Caribbean. And they kill in the name of Europe.

Luckily, I found Kamau’s poetry and it showed me that there was another way and that I didn’t have to write like TS Eliot to be a poet. It was also personally rewarding to have been one of his students at the University of Miami’s CWSI with Marion Bethel, Sasenarine Persaud, and Jean Goulbourne. He lived up to his poetry as a teacher by praising our creativity and encouraging us to listen to our own voices. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t force us into poetic straight-jackets or hair shirts. He delighted in the many ways that our creativity (that was sometimes diametrically opposed in tone and technique to his) expressed itself because he had also considered those approaches, but chose his own mode which has now transformed itself into the Sycorax style. His daring and inventiveness is even more revolutionary when one thinks of the two places that he has chosen to take his stands, Jamaica and Barbados, perhaps two on the most conservative islands in the English-speaking Caribbean.

So I guess, we should add courage. Give thanks, Kamau.

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