Celebrating National Poetry Month: The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry
Written by: Jahan Ramazani
The recent death of Derek Walcott, the most famous postcolonial poet, has been an enormous loss to poetry lovers around the world. The elegiac ending to his long poem Omeros came to mind: “I sang of quiet Achille, Afolabe’s son,” he says of his epic hero, an Afro-Caribbean fisherman “who never ascended in an elevator, / who had no passport, since the horizon needs none.” For many of us, Walcott was our first introduction to the vast and vibrant poetry beyond America and the British Isles. He was eager for his poetry to be read and remembered internationally. Once when I sat down for lunch with him, I watched as he touched and turned each of the forty pages I’d given his work in a Norton anthology. The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry examines his subtle use of West Indian creole, his concept of a grounded, non-abstractive modernism, and his publication strategies as revealed by his early books, radio recordings, and magazine appearances.
But as marvelous a writer as Walcott is, his work is but a piece of the vast global mosaic of postcolonial poetry.
But as marvelous a writer as Walcott is, his work is but a piece of the vast global mosaic of postcolonial poetry. The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry illuminates the work of an array of poets writing in English in the former colonies of the British Empire. If Walcott’s work has piqued your interest in venturing beyond Anglo-American poetry, might you explore other Caribbean poets? A few days after Walcott died, Lorna Goodison was named the Poet Laureate of Jamaica, and this month will see the publication of her Collected Poems. The Companion discusses Walcott and Goodison, Louise Bennett and Kamau Brathwaite, and Caribbean-born diasporic poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson and M. NourbeSe Philip, among many others.
Still, the Caribbean is but one of eight regions analyzed in the first half of the Companion. If your interest began with Walcott and the Caribbean, you may soon find yourself reading a chapter on postcolonial poetry of Africa, South Asia, Oceania, Australia and Aoetearoa/New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, and black and Asian Britain. When I began writing about and teaching postcolonial poetry decades ago, I found many good books about postcolonial fiction, but I searched in vain for a book of essays about poetry in the decolonizing anglophone world.
What I learned over time is that Walcott and other postcolonial poets share vital connections across the decolonizing world. The second half of the Companion focuses on issues that span multiple regions. These comparative chapters take on topics essential to understanding postcolonial poetry, including modernism, form, experimentalism, performance, protest, the city, the natural environment, gender and sexuality, publishing, and globalization. You’ll find in the Companion new angles of approach to the splendidly heterogeneous yet interconnected work of hundreds of postcolonial poets. As you read widely among them and consider their linkages, you will help expand an emerging global awareness about poetry. To adapt lines from Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” there as many poets “as the stars at night / on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken / like falling fruit.”
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