Making Poems

• June 2015

Speech given at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s literary awards ceremony, 22 July 2014, at Knutsford Court Hotel, Kingston

Some of you are here to receive awards, some to honor those receiving awards, some because you were invited or were curious, and some to find out why your entry has not been mentioned. I been there, sort of.

In the 1960s I was a regular entrant, and some of my submissions failed to catch the eyes of the judges. Like you, I behaved myself, but I made sure to have a look at what the judges chose. And sometimes I was puzzled, to tell the truth.

Then later, much later, in the mid-1990s, I agreed to help with judging poetry for the JCDC literary awards. Independent of the others, each judge made a short list of entries to receive awards or honorable mention. Then we met, and argued about poems to be added to the composite short list or to be removed from it. From time to time, one or the other of us would be surprised by merit in a piece we had overlooked, or embarrassed by deficiencies in an item we had chosen. Then, finally, there was detailed discussion toward consensus on the level of each award. The process reminded us every year that taste is subjective and that we can learn from the exchange of responses.

Yet it’s a fact—we might say, redundantly, an objective fact—that, as year after year the judges’ reports indicate, many of the people who enter have little understanding of the genre they have chosen to tackle. There are plays submitted that show no understanding of the physical limitations of theater. There are short stories or novels that show little understanding of character, plot, or the purposeful denial of conventional expectations. There are essays that show an inadequate grasp of argument, evidence, and grammar.

As a former poetry judge, and as someone often asked to comment on poem drafts, I want to say a few words of encouragement and advice. My advice is more general than technical, and much of it can apply to every category in the literary competition.

The most fundamental point to make is that if you think you have something important to say, that’s good. If you are committed to tackling social or political problems, or to arguing your religious or political convictions, fair enough. But there is more than that to consider. If you are trying to be a writer, you have signed on to a struggle with form. The poet, the writer, is a maker. The serious writer cares about the shape of what she or he has made. You should be trying to improve what you have drafted. Which may involve removal of a word or passage here or there, expansion of a passage here or there, rewriting of a passage here or there.

Good writing is meaningful, is significant; and it also gives pleasure. Aesthetic pleasure. Pleasure in the beauty of it, the efficiency of it. Pleasure in the recognition of efficient shaping.

The shaping may sometimes follow conventional patterns, as in Philip Sherlock’s “Jamaican Fisherman”: it is a sonnet, but Sherlock modifies the pattern. The rhyme scheme and the flow of pentameters are interrupted near the end. There is a line that reads, “Towards his wretched hut . . .” (that’s, like, half a line!). The disruption invites us to focus on “his wretched hut,” especially since “wretched” is communicating emphatically the attitude of the viewer. Primarily, the poem is about the attitude of the viewer and his vision of African ancestry, of continuity between a splendid black body and the glories of African history.

A recurrent concern among Jamaican poets is with what Rex Nettleford (borrowing, I believe, from Tony Laing) used to call “smadditisation,” establishing that the Jamaican person—each of us—should be respected. Me a smaddy too. In her recent collection, Oracabessa, Lorna Goodison makes the point on behalf of the first Jamaicans, the Tainos. “Reporting Back to Queen Isabella” tells of Don Cristobal, who returned to Spain with treasures from the New World and described Xamaica as “the fairest isle that eyes ever beheld.” To picture its mountains, plains, and valleys, he balled up a sheet of parchment and let it fall. That there were people here when the Spaniards arrived is registered as an afterthought, reflected in the rhythmic structure: “Overabundance of wood, over one hundred / rivers, food, and fat pastures for Spanish horses, men, / and cattle; [pause] and yes, your majesty, there were some people.” The indictment has been carefully shaped.1

Olive Senior has a poem protesting the thoughtless degradation of our environment. “Rejected Text for a Tourist Brochure” has an epigraph from a poem by M. G. Smith: “I saw my land in the morning / and O but she was fair.” (Mapletoft Poulle wrote music to it, listed among the JCDC patriotic songs.)

“Rejected Text for a Tourist Brochure”

“I saw my land in the morning
and O but she was fair”
—M. G. Smith, “Jamaica” (1938)

1
Come see my land

Come see my land
before the particles of busy fires ascend;
before the rivers descend underground;
before coffee plantations
grind the mountains into dust, before
the coral dies, before the beaches
disappear

Come see my land
Come see my land
And know
That she was fair.

2
Up here, the mountains are still clear.
After three weeks, I heard a solitaire.
Down there, the mountains are clear-cut
marl pits. Truckers steal sand from beaches,
from riverbeds, to build another ganja palace,
another shopping centre, another hotel
(My shares in cement are soaring). The rivers, angry,
are sliding underground, leaving pure rockstone
and hungry belly.

3
No Problem, Mon. Come.
Will be one hell of a beach party.
No rain. No cover. No need to bring
your bathing suit, your umbrella.
Come walk with me in the latest stylee:
rockstone and dry gully. Come for the Final
Closing Down Sale. Take for a song
the Last Black Coral, the Last Green Turtle,
the Last Blue Swallow-tail (preserved behind glass).
Come walk the last mile to see the Last Manatee,
the Last Coney, the Last Alligator, the Last Iguana
Smile.

Oh, them gone already? No Problem, Mon.
Come. Look the film here.
Reggae soundtrack and all. Come see
my land. Come see my land and know, A-oh,
that she was fair.2

Poems work not just by what they say but by how they say it. There is a weight of irony in “Come see / my land,” especially at the end of the poem, immediately after “Come. Look the film here.” The voice Olive Senior has written at the end of the poem does not share the optimism in the M. G. Smith poem. Through that cynical voice, peddling the film—“Reggae soundtrack and all”—Olive Senior registers the failure to recognize what has been lost. The “was” at the end of the poem—“A-oh, / that she was fair”—means something different from the “was” that M. G. Smith wrote.

A brief example from Miss Lou. It’s a piece she used to perform. It’s recorded on Yes M’Dear: Miss Lou Live, and I’ve quoted it in Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture.3 It’s an important statement in which Miss Lou, who researched and taught us mainly about continuities out of Africa, is acknowledging our cultural hybridity, is acknowledging various strands in Jamaican heritage:

When the Asian culture and the European culture
buck up on African culture in the Caribbean people,
we stir them up and blend them to we flavour,
we shake them up and move them to we beat,
we wheel them and we tu’n tem
and we rock them and we sound them
and we temper them,
and lawks! the rhythm sweet.

The passage works well, I think, mainly because of the expressive force at the end: “we rock them and we sound them / and we temper them” runs longer than the earlier rhythms have led us to expect, but the extension suggests an irresistible involvement in the process, commended in the final line. If we remove “and we temper them,” the passage sounds pretty good but lacking in the excitement Miss Lou has managed to create. She was a canny conscious artist, as her work repeatedly demonstrates.

So was Mikey Smith, the dub poet, who died in 1983. He described how some of his poems were developed:

[S]ometimes a rhythm come to me first. You know, is a rhythm, and me seh, “Dah rhythm-ya feel nice, you know, feel nice.” And then me try remember the rhythm . . . and then I build under that, build up under that. Build under that and catch me breaks and the bridges. Just like how a musician a work out.4

And Honor Ford Smith, who was one of Mikey’s tutors at the School of Drama, has spoken about the care with which Mikey prepared:

[H]e would work hours and hours, sometimes the whole day, with his tape recorder which would have the backing tracks for the music, trying out different variations of rhythm. He was very very conscious of the variety that he could get in his voice. And you hear it in the voice, and you hear his consciousness of pace, when you listen to his recording, and when you hear him perform you would hear that he had worked for hours on the pacing of his poetry, you know. So it wasn’t just something that he improvised when he got on stage.5

His poems are well-articulated rhythmic structures—as in, for example, the poem “Me Cyaan Believe It”—and they are rich in allusions: to proverbs, nursery rhymes, children’s games, the Bible, Rasta talk, reggae and to flashpoints in Jamaican and international news.

Most poems mean more than they directly state. Poetry usually generates a buzz of implication, often by its use of figurative language and allusion; something is being represented as something else (metaphor), or something is like something else (simile), or something is referring—making an allusion—to something else, often with no clue that says it is:

Orange Street fire
deh pon me head
an me cyaan believe it
me seh me cyaan believe it6

“Orange Street fire”? The reader who doesn’t know about it is missing something important.

Here’s another example of allusion: it’s in a very short poem by Dennis Scott.

“Game”

Simon says feel
Simon says cry
Simon says sing
Simon says laugh
Die7

I would say that that’s an important poem—not just because it is short! But if you don’t know the game “Simon Says” you won’t make sense of it. (When a command begins “Simon says . . .” players are supposed to follow the command; when a command is given without beginning “Simon says . . .” players are supposed to ignore the command.)

In “Game,” Simon’s commands are to show you are alive: feel, cry, sing, laugh. The final command, which does not begin “Simon says,” is “Die.” By the rules of the game, the player is required not to die. The poem, however desperately, is thumbing its nose at death.

On this cheerful note, let’s look at another short poem. This one is by Edward Baugh. It may look and sound like a simple story, but the implications are huge, and fundamental:

“Telling the Time”

At 3 a.m. the old woman gets out of bed,
puts on her Sunday clothes, and proceeds
to walk about the house. Alarmed,
we cry, “Grandma, where you going?
Day don’t light yet!” She replies, “The man
coming to take the house.” The house is hers;
the mortgage is discharged. But she
knows something we have to learn:
there’s always a man coming to repossess,
and he picks his time.8

“There’s always a man coming to repossess, / and he picks his time.” Good poems tend to do more with language than its ordinary, everyday use. Everybody has something they want to say. The poet is also very much concerned with the means of saying it.

* * *

Now what can I say to help? If what I’ve said is new to you, and you want to follow up on it, there are many books on writing poetry. Two that I recommend are Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, and Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop.

In addition, read poems whenever you can. You need to keep in touch. A good way to begin is with anthologies: browse in anthologies, and when you find a poem that speaks to you, try to get hold of other poems by that author.

Two Caribbean anthologies I recommend (and there are many others) are The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, edited by Paula Burnett (each poet is placed as belonging primarily to the oral tradition or the literary tradition; the section on the oral tradition includes, among others, calypsonians, reggae lyricists, and dub poets), and From Our Yard: Jamaican Poetry since Independence, edited by Pamela Mordecai (an Institute of Jamaica publication; it may not be available outside of libraries; it ought to be reprinted).

* * *

When you have written a number of poems, you might find it useful to join a workshop, if there is one available. In a bad workshop, people keep saying nice things about your work. That’s not much help. In a good workshop, participants tend to give their honest responses, and these are sometimes painful to the author of the work critiqued.

Don’t be crushed by criticism. No matter who is giving it, some of it will be mistaken, but not to worry. Listen thoughtfully and see whether there is any of it you can use to make your work better. You need to achieve a balance between ignoring criticism and letting it get you down.

In my experience, misunderstanding is often illuminating: when you think your work has been misunderstood, it may be a good idea to examine the work closely to see why this has happened. Then you may know what, if anything, to do.

No matter who you are, some people would be happier if you were somebody else. The more you monitor responses the sooner you will notice that some of them contradict each other. In the end—while always giving thoughtful attention to how your work is received—you have to settle for being your own person, whoever that may be. I end with a poem of mine:

“Advisory”

They praise you for commitment,
your positive approach
to the whole heap o’ problems
people broach.

Have fun being chatted-up,
but don’t buy in-
to any sweet-mouth programme.
Do your own thing.

Remind them you’re committed
to the line
that saying what you feel
is fine,

positive or negative
or in-between.
Don’t let anybody
lock you in.9

 

Mervyn Morris is currently poet laureate of Jamaica. He taught at the University of the West Indies for more than thirty years, retiring in 2002 as professor of creative writing and West Indian literature. His books of poetry include The Pond; Shadowboxing; Examination Centre; On Holy Week; and I Been There, Sort Of: New and Selected Poems. He has also written criticism and biography: “Is English We Speaking” and Other Essays; Making West Indian Literature; and, most recently, Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture.

 


1 Lorna Goodison, Oracabessa (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2013), 5.

Olive Senior, Over the Roofs of the World (Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2005), 53–54.

Mervyn Morris, Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2014), 28.

4 Michael Smith, It a Come (London: Race Today, 1986), 9–10.

Ibid., 10.

6 Ibid., 15.

7 Dennis Scott, After Image (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2008), 90.

8 Edward Baugh, Black Sand: New and Selected Poems (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2013), 33.

9 Mervyn Morris, I Been There, Sort Of: New and Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2006), 26.

 

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