Stewart Brown (ed.), Caribbean Poetry Now. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984. 120 pages. $2.95.
Literary anthologies, by their very nature,
lead controversial existences. The editor of an anthology, and a poetry
anthology in particular, must walk a fine line between conviction and
diplomacy. In the "Introduction" to Caribbean Poetry
Now editor Stewart Brown states that he has "tried to catch the
spirit of contemporary Caribbean poetry in English, its particular energy
and, at the same time, to represent the range of language, style and concern
that characterizes the poetry as a whole." More specifically, the anthology
is designed to help students prepare for the CXC English B Examination,
the standardized literature examination set by the Caribbean Examinations
Council for final year high school students.
As its title and mandate suggest, the anthology leans heavily towards poetry of the seventies and eighties. Indeed, of 80 poems by 45 writers, over one quarter were written in the 1 980s. The entire collection is divided into eight thematic sections and concludes with a section on notes and questions to guide student reading. In spite of the considerations given to student readers, however, this is an anthology for all readers.
Each thematic section is preceded by an appropriate and evocative illustration by Jennifer Northway, who also designed the cover. The themes run the gamut from "Roots" to "Gods, Ghosts and Spirits." Each contains ten poems which seem to have been at least partially chosen not only for the many variations on the central theme, but also for their variety of expression.
The individual poems, which are the most commanding aspect of this anthology, are enhanced by the physical qualities of the book itself. The striking layout of the slightly oversize pages and the highly readable type set each poem off and allow it to leap out at the reader. In his forward, University of the West Indies professor and poet Mervyn Morris observes that the poems "talk to each other." In addition, each one almost frees itself of the confines of the page to demand the reader's close scrutiny. The format forces the reader to consider each poem individually while at the same time, the proximity of theme-related poems allows consideration in a wider context.
Stewart Brown is Jamaican and the collection leans heavily towards Jamaican poets, although there is representation from throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. Caribbean Poetry Now anthologizes many authors who have not been collected before and includes several, such as Mikey Smith, who are better known in an oral context than a written one. Though most of the poets will be familiar to readers of Caribbean literature, the "classic" authors, such as Martin Carter, Derek Walcott, Edward Brathwaite and others, are well-balanced by relative newcomers, such as Lorna Goodison, James Berry and Oku Onuora.
In 1971 a similar school anthology published by Kenneth Ramchand and Cecil Gray appeared. West Indian Poetry. An Anthology for Schools included several of the poets (and poems) that appear in Caribbean Poetry Now. In comparing the two anthologies, both excellent representations of their decades, one appreciates the great distance that Caribbean poets have travelled in a relatively short space of time. A freedom and variety in language and form, as well as a broadening of thematic concerns, characterize the new/now Caribbean poetry.
A few minor complaints must be noted. Perhaps dates should have been included with each poem, along with a note as to whether it was taken from a collection. Persons wishing to read more of a particular poet might appreciate some direction, and listing this information in the "Acknowledgements" is not enough. Also, some of the definitions in the "Notes" section seem arbitrary. Is it necessary, for example, to define "roti" or "tenement?" Does a reference to Cain and Abel need to be explained? Some of the definitions, however, are very helpful, such as the Hindu terms in "Barriat." Finally, a complete list of authors, rather than the partial one given in "Suggestions for Further Reading," together with some biographical information, would have been a useful addition to the volume.
These are only fringe issues, however, and of small importance when compared to the excellence of this anthology as a whole. In Caribbean Poetry Now, Stewart Brown has not only give us an important collection of current writing, but has also given us an all-inclusive picture of the contemporary Caribbean through poetry.
Copyright © Stewart Brown