October 9, 2009

Limits! What Limits?

In the midst of the free verse and dub poetry movement in Jamaica, I wrote a sonnet. And not just one sonnet. About twenty. And in Jamaican "nation language."Only ten survived my final editorial cut and I sprinkled them liberally throughout my first collection of poems, Florida Bound, which opens with “Dancehall”:


Man, mek me tell yu dat was a fete!
Riddim was wile, an de dawta dem a grine,
de idren dem a smoke de sweetes lamb's bret
straight from St. Ann, de bes colly we cud fine.
Security did tight, yu cudn even see a rachet,
fa de local top ranking stan up broad by de gate
till one fool-fool rumhead decide fe chuck a yute,
bwai, me neva see one man eat so much bullet.
We kotch de bwai pon a speaka, an call him girlfren’,
she search him till she fine de gole ring inna him ves’
an shub him dung a dutty, figet him like de res’.
Now das when de dance look like it was gwane en,
den we put on sum oldies, an leggo de bass,
fa yu cyaan cum a dance widdout a gun inna yu wais'.

Now despite what some of my friends had thought, I didn’t write the sonnets to prove my almost legendary stubbornness, but because I’d always marveled at the suppleness of line that Derek Walcott displayed in his first collection of poems, In a Green Night, when he wrote the sonnet sequence, “Tales of the Islands.” Walcott was the master and I was his student. So, I transformed the first line from “Chapter VI” “'Poopa, da' was a fête!” into “Man, mek me tell yu, dat was a fete!” However, unlike “Chapter VI,” which examines the hypocrisy of the “Oxbridge” educated versus the Creole class and the ironies of colonial life vis-a vis religious practices, “Dancehall” observes some of the disturbing trends of violence and disrespect of women in what was then an emerging phenomenon in Jamaican music.

Some of my contemporaries viewed these sonnets almost as an act of treason. For in a time when every European art form and value was suspect, the sonnet was seen at the epitome of “whiteness.” And in a time when “freedom” was the buzzword, I was often asked at my readings, “How could you write something in a form that was so white and limiting?”

I thought the opposite. I also knew that there are some things that unless you experience them for yourself (which is why I’ve become so mellow with my children), you’ll never know what you’re talking about. What I learned in writing sonnets—this limiting form—has become almost an aphorism: there is freedom in form.

For although the sonnet is comprised of fourteen lines with an octave and a sestet and uses varying rhyme schemes (Petrarchan, Occitan, and English), the limits that these impose, create a habit of precise thinking in language. The practice of poetry grows from this habit of thinking, which is a combination of the precise image, symbol, and word (alliteration, assonance, connotation, denotation, and metre) to express emotions and ideas.

But that was not the only issue. What about rhyme? Wasn’t rhyme also limiting freedom of expression? That didn’t scare me either. Bob Marley, the freest man in Jamaica who smoked weed and grew his dreadlocks, was using rhyme in some of the finest narrative poems from that period: “I Shot the Sherriff” and “No Woman, Nuh Cry.” As with everything else, it’s not the tool that matters, but how the tool is used. And Bob was showing that he could fuse the social, economic and the erotic—the “Reggae Aesthetic”—within the limits of four lines to speak about freedom and that Jah lives in the communion of bread. The words from "No Woman" still linger with me:

Then we would cook cornmeal porridge
Of which I’ll share with you,
My feet is my own carriage
So I’ve got to push on through.

If Bob could do use rhyme, so could I. I had his permission. The so-called limits of the sonnets led to a greater freedom. The issue is never the form, but the novelty that the poet brings to the form. Walcott showed that the sonnet could be used in a Caribbean setting to explore social and racial concerns; Marley demonstrated that rhyme could be combined with the revolutionary message of Rastafari, social justice and love, and Florida Bound confirmed that patwa or “nation language” could be incorporated into the vocabulary of the sonnet—the province of English verse.

Since writing “Dancehall,” I’ve experimented with a few other “limiting” forms including the ghazal, sestina, villanelle, and with a long poem using rhyming couplets, some of which will be included in my next collection of poems, Dub Wise. Helen Keller once said, “Obstacles and limits exist only in the mind.” It all depends on how we view them. And as the other well known philosophers of the human condition, En Vogue, also sang, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”


This is part of a group write project @ Middle Zone Musings: What I Learned From...Limits"

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Robert Hruzek said...

Once again, Geoffrey, I'm astonished at the things I can learn from a poet! Especially since my own poetry is, well, somewhat lacking, if you get my meanin'. *sigh*

But I love the thought that it's the limiting form that gives an enormous freedom to create! That's a great metaphor for life in general, wouldn't you say?

Again, a big ol' tip o' the topper to ya, Geoffrey!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Robert.
The practice of poetry is what's important...just writing it.. noticing our lives...


Monique Attinger said...

I write poetry too, and I do find that the discipline of a style of poem - like a sonnet or some of the other great ones you mention - are a great way to learn to transcend the words. When the form is just "there" and the essence of the poem still shines through, then the form has taken you beyond what you might have achieved with just free form verse...

Rhyming should not be "obvious".

I suppose it's a lot like marriage: a good marriage sets you free. So does a good form in poetry - if you can live within its boundaries.

Great post, Geoffrey! ;-)

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Monique,

Welcome & thank you!

Yes, like a good marriage, form sets you free....