Postcolonial Studies and the Genre of Poetry

By Breslin, Paul | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Postcolonial Studies and the Genre of Poetry

Breslin, Paul, The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English. By Jahan Ramazani. University Chicago Press, 2001. $17.50 paper.

In the introduction to The Hybrid Muse, Jahan Ramazani points out the "relative neglect" of poetry in criticism of postcolonial literatures. This neglect, he observes, arises from an awkward fit between the qualities of poetry as a genre and the usual concerns of postcolonial theory and critical practice:

On the one hand, postcolonial criticism is largely grounded in mimetic presuppositions about literature. But since poetry mediates experience through a language of exceptional figural and formal density, it is a less transparent medium by which to recuperate the history, politics, and sociology of postcolonial societies.... On the other hand, postcolonial theory has been preoccupied with continually interrogating itself, rehearsing questions about its complicity in European discourses, the (non)representability of "other" cultures, and the definition of its primary terms.... While theoretical inquiry is not necessarily inimical to poetry (informing, indeed, my analysis), the genre also demands specifically literary modes of response and recognition-of figurative devices, generic codes, stanzaic patterns, prosodic twists, and allusive turns.

By joining the concerns of postcolonial studies with a close reader's attention to poetic form and metaphorical resonance, Ramazani proposes to read the productions of his "hybrid muse" with a hybrid criticism. In his pages, the cultural implications of poems emerge by formal analysis of their means of representation, and once passed through that "density" of mediation, they seem richer in historical awareness, less politically reductive, than they might appear at first glance.

Ramazani, conceding at the outset that "the scope of `postcoloniality' is vast," tests its boundaries in a discussion of W. B. Yeats, long established within the 20th-century canon, and, as a scion of the Protestant Ascendancy, ambiguously positioned between colonized and colonizer. There's also the question of whether Yeats lived into Ireland's "postcolonial" period or not: "Yeats is completely out of luck if the postcolonial era dawned when the Republic of Ireland was officially founded in 1949 or-for that matter-when the partition might one day be dissolved between the six counties of the North and the lower twenty-six." If we take "overtly anticolonial expression" as the key to "postcolonial" status, we can quote Yeats on both sides of the question, as Ramazani scrupulously demonstrates.

Though unfailingly courteous-and open-to the insights of other critics, The Hybrid Muse implicitly defines itself against two contrary reductive tendencies in postcolonial criticism: on the one hand, the allegory of "decolonizing the mind," in which the writer exorcises internalized colonial ideology, and perhaps even the colonially-- imposed language, to return to an indigenous status quo ante, and on the other, uncritical celebrations of "hybridity" or "creolization" as syntheses of colonial and indigenous traditions by means of which the historical conflict between the two disappears into a polyphonic cultural whole. Ramazani focuses his discussion of each poet on features that resist such reductions.

In his chapter on Walcott's Omeros, he notes that the wound has long been a trope for the harm inflicted by colonial domination, especially where it took the form of chattel slavery, and that Walcott, before writing Omeros, had often criticized postcolonial writing that dwells too insistently on the injustices of the past. He is not the poet one would have expected to take up the metaphor of the wound. But in taking it up, Walcott transforms it, adding new complexities to its significance. In Omeros, the white Englishman Dennis Plunkett is no less wounded than Philoctete, descendant of slaves, though his wound is invisible. As the poem expands its geographical reach, the wound appears also in characters such as the North American white woman Catherine Weldon. …

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