Anne Collett on Caribbean Poetry

Not Nightingale nor Skylark but Yard Fowl: Olive Senior's Language of Common Woman

Anne Collett


In the poem, 'The Wren' John Clare asks,

Why is the cuckoo's melody preferred
And nightingale's rich song so fondly praised
In poet's rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature's minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One's heart to ecstasy and mirth as well?

Olive Senior might well have asked the same, particularly given her Jamaican heritage. Educated in the English language and literature of Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Romantic Poets, she might look to emulate that tradition, but seeking nightingales and skylarks find none but those that reside in a literature that nowhere equates with her 'community of resonance' - the Jamaican Yard. So certainly her bird poetry is closer to that of John Clare than John Keats, but how close? What difference does the history of colonisation, but more, the difference of gender and 'race' make? How does this difference present itself? In this paper I want to think about how an understanding of the Anglophone Caribbean's difficult relationship to Romanticism might enable us to better understand the development of an Anglophone Caribbean poetics – what the impact gender, 'race' and colonialism might have on the translation of Romantic aesthetics. Of particular interest is Senior's third volume of poetry, Over the Roofs of the World (2005), and the poem sequence, 'Yard Fowl'. In this volume, Senior overtly acknowledges her indebtedness to, whilst asserting her difference from, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens and Pablo Neruda; but the influence of Romanticism with which she engages yet also resists is less clear. This paper suggests that an interesting re-reading of Romanticism might be accomplished by thinking about the impact of gender, 'race' and colonialism and the deployment of a language of common black woman on poetic rendering as revealed in 'Yard Fowl'. A reading of 'Yard Fowl' through the lens of a transposed Romanticism, perhaps even mimicry, reveals how a language of common black woman resists the sublime, and yet also participates in it, in order to articulate and to undermine, or at the very least, to leaven with humour, male egocentricity and the assumption of world-shaking power.

Bio: Anne Collett is an Associate Professor in the English Literatures & Creative Writing Program at the University of Wollongong. She edited Kunapipi, a postcolonial journal of writing & culture, for 12 years and has published extensively on postcolonial writing, with particular focus on women's writing, poetry and poetics. Anne is completing a book on the colonial gendered modernity of Judith Wright and Canadian artist, Emily Carr, and has begun a book-length study on Caribbean poetics - Marronage Imaginary.

Audio: Listen to Anne's paper (right click and "save link as" to download).

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