September 10, 2008

Soon Come: A Primer on Jamaican Poetics and Religions

Soon ComeBesides having a highly readable style, Hugh Hodges' Soon Come (University of Virginia Press) provides a useful context for understanding Jamaican religions such as Myal, Kumina, Revivalism, and Rastafari and their connection with the work of poets such as Mervyn Morris, Dennis Scott, Pam Mordecai, Anthony McNeill, Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior, and other post-Independence writers*. By his examination of these two important facets of Jamaican life, Hodges has created a true work of criticism by completing the feedback loop and revealing the premises upon which many Jamaican poets base their work.

Hodges begins his analysis with the earliest settlements in Jamaica and the impact of the slave trade on the Jamaican worldview. From the growth of Myal with its emphasis on communal rites and the work of the Baptists with their emphasis on freedom and personal experience, what emerged was an ethos that combined the personal and the communal into a potent mix that continues to shape the Jamaican character.

What intrigued me was the connection that Hodges was able to establish among Myal, Revivalism, and Rastafari, the role of the individual and the community, and the concept of "I and I": "The functions of prophet, healer, and redeemer are shared by "I and I." In the Rastafarian worldview there can be no uplift of "I" without the uplift of "I and I" (135). Although I still believe that InI was part of the mystic revelation of Rastafari, the historical linkage of Myal, Revivalism, and Rastafari cannot be overlooked.

It is, however, his analysis of the salient features of the Jamaican worldview that drew my attention: "The belief in the mystical power of the spoken word; the related belief in the eudaemonic power of music; the belief that divine rewards and punishments will be meted out in this life, and the conviction that all things are religious" (133).

For me, this was like staring into a mirror and recognizing myself for the first time.

As artists we only know that we are intuitively driven to write a poem this way or to tell a story that way. We work with images and dramatic situations that are suggested by our imaginations to create our fictions, and because we are concentrating so much on our craft (words, images, plot, imagery and rhythm), we are quite often blind to the full meanings of our work. The images and characters that flit into our imagination are usually formed during our formative years when we unquestioningly accepted these influences.

But the whole point of being an artist is to question these images. Our methodology, however, has a fatal flaw: we are using the same methods (image, character, and symbol) to decipher our experiences. and to create a text. Soon Come fills the gap between our art and our meanings and provides the critical vocabulary and the distance to chart new directions for artistic growth.

Hodges has given me a criterion, not only to understand my own work, but also that of my contemporaries, and for anyone wishing to learn more about the connection between Jamaican religious thought and Jamaican poetry, I highly recommend Soon Come.


*Full disclosure: Soon Come gives a favorable mention to some of my poems.


FSJL said...

In Rastafari and other African-Caribbean Worldviews Barry Chevannes et al, established pretty conclusively that Myal underlies all Afro-Jamaican religious expression, including both revival and Rastafari.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fragano, what interests me is the x-tension of Chevannes: "The belief in the mystical power of the spoken word...etc" and the lucid x-pression of Hodges' writing.

FSJL said...

It sounds like an interesting work, that's for sure.

clarabella said...

Geoffrey, thanks for the reminder about Hugh Hodges' book. I went and bought myself a copy and I look forward to reading it.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Pam, as you can tell, I really like this book because it shows the influence of Jamaican religions, especially of Rastafari--even if we are not Rastafari (JahWorld)--on our poems.