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. The cure of the wound, moreover, is strangely homeopathic: the plant that cures Philoctete's festering sore is shaped like the anchor that caused it and stinks like the festering wound itself A bush-bath with this herb lifts the "wound of his race" from Philoctete, so that he emerges as a new Adam, but Ma Kilman can find the herb only by breaking through her own amnesia, after many failed attempts, to recover ancestral memory of its whereabouts. So in Walcott's refashioning, the trope of the wound functions neither as historical stigmata, conferring martyred status on its bearer, nor as an unsightly scab easily shed by embracing creolized identity. For Ramazani, "Walcott's Omeros champions a postcolonial poetics of affliction that unravels the distinction between `victim's literature' and its supposed opposite."
Were this fusion of cultural and formal approaches all that Ramazani offered, his book would already have done the valuable service of showing how to read postcolonial poetry without either abstracting it from its historical entanglements or compacting it to mere "discourse." But there is a second, equally important strand to his argument: that poetry, as the literary genre most disposed toward metaphor, is uniquely suited to register a central motif in postcolonial experience. Metaphor, says Ramazani, provides an especially apt figure for the postcolonial writer's sense of constant mediation between disparate cultural contexts:
Found scrawled on the wall of a university bathroom, "Transference, Displacement, Alienation Borrowing, Movement between Realms, Change of Location" would probably seem to echo lectures on postcoloniality, not metaphor. But this conclusion would be overhasty, since the study of metaphor and of the postcolonial are both concerned with what has been called "the location of culture," or, perhaps even more crucially, its dislocation.
Even when postcolonial writers seek a return to origins, the urgency of the quest bespeaks a desire for disentanglement from colonial dislocations of culture and language. And, as critics such as James Clifford, Paul Gilroy, and Kwame Anthony Appiah have shown us, what we find in postcolonial societies is neither a triumphal resurrection of the status quo ante nor meek assimilation into the ways of the former colonizer, but a new synthesis improvised out of the forced convergence of disparate cultures-in which the traces of unresolved conflict may still be legible.
Ramazani makes his fullest case for poetic metaphor as inherently suited to the work of postcolonial cultural mediation in his account of A. K. Ramanujan. In addition to his work as poet, Ramanujan did extensive translation into English from Indian sources, especially Tamil oral literature. In his own poems, "Ramanujan is alive, like Walcott, to the splendid intercultural and intertemporal possibilities of metaphor," but "nevertheless shines a harsher light throughout his poetry on what metaphor leaps across-gaps in time and place, differences of culture and history." So Ramanujan, in "Some Indian Uses of History on a Rainy Day," concludes the sequence with the portrait of a "Professor of Sanskrit," unable to speak German, trying to get his bearings in Nazi Berlin, who finds delusive comfort in his 11 grotesque misinterpretation" of the swastika on a stranger's arm. The leap of metaphor can land in hermeneutic quicksand, and Ramanujan's awareness of its dangers allows him to use it for critique as well as synthesis.
In his chapter on Louise Bennett, Ramazani questions assertions by critics such as Javed Majeed that "irony is `politically ineffectual' " and "can have little place in the fashioning of post-colonial national identities." Like metaphor, irony can represent the "doubleness of vision, or layering of perspectives," that "characterizes the postcolonial condition, due to the forced convergence of colonial and 'native' cultures." Bennett's quatrain poems are characteristically ironic, but their irony derives from folk traditions, particularly the Jamaican "folk hero Anancy" the mythical spider-trickster celebrated for his cunning and devious speech. So too does their use of Jamaican Creole, and indeed, as Ramazani speculates, "Anancy is arguably a regional emblem of dialect- of the wiliness and opacity of Caribbean English." Bennett, despite running the ironist's risk of "the incomprehension and even anger of some members of her audience," was a popular radio entertainer whose poems reached a broad audience; only recently has she been thought of, except in Jamaica, as a serious poet. Ramazani shows that although her ironies often indict the pretensions of the English colonizers, they also, as in her poems on Jamaican independence, can provide "ironic insight into the follies of the nation's self-representation and self-aggrandizement."
Ramazani closes with a consideration of the Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. This diptych has a wide audience in Africa and has been praised by Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike in their Toward the Decolonization of African Literature for "using authentic African imagery and Acoli dramatic rhetorical devices." G. A. Heron, in an introduction to the Heinemann edition of these poems, similarly claims that Okot, though writing in English, avoids "borrowing foreign elements that distort his message." But Ramazani challenges this authenticist reading by arguing that Okot's study of anthropology at Oxford influences the style of these poems, especially the longer and more admired Song of Lawino. Although Okot was appalled that his teachers referred to African peoples as "savages" and argued, in African Religions in Western Scholarship, that anthropologists had misinterpreted African religions because of their monotheistic assumptions, Ramazani finds that "the latter sections of [Song of Lawino], mostly added or amplified in the wake of Okot's ethnographic research, not surprisingly resemble anthropological discourse more than the earlier sections." Okot uses the objective tone of anthropological description to defamiliarize Western practices, practicing a "reverse ethnography" to make white practices look as bizarre and "savage" as African practices seen through Western eyes. And Lawino, whose song is addressed to her suddenly-Westernizing husband, functions as "an anthropologist to the estranged Ocol" in order to "reintroduce her husband to Acoli customs, as Okot would his readers, both Acoli and foreign." Read in this way, Okot becomes an ironist capable of turning Western methods of cultural analysis on Western cultural practices themselves. Okot's use of Western discourse for traditional Acoli practices again shows us that a "hybrid" poetics can recognize cultural conflict, rather than suppressing it in a bland celebration of the multicultural.
As any book that clears new ground should do, Ramazani's leaves us with further questions. How typical will his five poets-one from Ireland, two from the Caribbean, one from India, and one from Africa-turn out to be, across the vast range of postcolonial poetry in English? How much family resemblance will hold up among poets emerging from widely differing local histories, and also widely differing experiences of colonialism? (Was "colonialism" the same thing, for instance, in the Caribbean-where the indigenous inhabitants were all but wiped out less than a century after European contact, and sugar plantations consumed the lives of imported African slaves within a few years-as in India, where there was no chattel slavery, and where indigenous languages and traditions were not virtually annihilated?) And, if the hallmark of postcolonial poetry is a doubleness or layering of perspectives, are not poets from the former colonizing nations moving toward a "postcolonial" attitude themselves? As James Clifford wrote in The Predicament of Culture (Harvard Press, 1988), "[i]ntervening in an interconnected world, one is always, to varying degrees, 'inauthentic'; caught between cultures, implicated in others." The murderous resurgence of ethnic and religious chauvinisms in recent years is, among other things, a desperate attempt to deny this situation. Could the "postcolonial" perspective be a meeting place where former colonizers and the formerly colonized acknowledge their mutual entanglements?…
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Publication information: Article title: Postcolonial Studies and the Genre of Poetry. Contributors: Breslin, Paul - Author. Journal title: The Virginia Quarterly Review. Volume: 79. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2003. Page number: 386+. © University of Virginia Winter 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.