Academic journal article English Studies in Canada


Academic journal article English Studies in Canada


Article excerpt

Who may dare improve upon Raymond Williams's dexterous mapping, in Keywords (1976), of the socio-political morphings, through centuries, of the term literature and its connotations? Not me, certainly, though I feel compelled by Williams's example(s) to attempt a provisional update/ addendum.

Williams's reading of literature observes that the term began to be applied in the 1770s, in Germany, to denote the oeuvres of nations and their author-citizens (185). Past-modernism and deconstructive critiques evacuate concepts of "nation" and "citizenship" and "author(ity)." In addition, electronics-based, corporate capitalism, or "globalization," ensures that countries and nation-states (excepting the militarist United States and Russia, Islamist Iran, revolutionary Cuba, and proto-superpower China) cannot exercise any genuine sovereignty beyond the police coercion (suppression) of their worker-citizens. (Capital "flows" beyond borders, but labour "pools" within them.) For these reasons, along with the monitored migration of skilled workers, entrepreneurs, professionals, and Intellectuals from ex-colonies to imperial metropoles, it is chic now to speak of "deterrioralized literatures" and "exilic writers:' Tire concept of a "national literature," say, of Canada, or France, or Brazil, or Iraq (for that matter), must now be treated warily. However, countries continue, somehow, to exist (as anyone who pays taxes must concede), and degrees of "national" (multi)cultures, local practices, laws, languages, and governance structures (including armies) also persist. Moreover, while every "national literature" (perhaps none more so than that of Canada) boasts numerous writers born offshore, these writers also assume (depending on length of residency) aspects of the "host" or "adoptive" culture. For example, Austin Clarke is a Barbadian-Bajan-writer by birth, but he is also now a "Canadian" one, as any comparison of his work with those of intro-Caribbean authors will reveal. In sum, the idea of a national literature is less stable now than it seemed to be in 1976, but it can hardly be accounted a fiction.

Another major shift in our conception of literature has been its expansion to the arts of orature-or "oral literature." Coined in 1983 by three Nigerian critics-Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa femme, and Ihechuckwu Madubuike-orature denotes the form of literature most amenable to implementation by socio-politically marginalized, racial and religious minorities, and post-colonial peoples, many of whom may never "get into print," but almost all of whom readily "comeinvoice:' Thus, "Dub" poets, Spoken Word poets, Hip-Hop rhymesters, Calypsonians, singer-songwriters (including the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature nominee Bob Dylan), "storytellers" (hear Lousie-Miss Lou-Bennett of Jamaica), folklore presenters, orators (Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Fidel Castro, etc.), and even stand-up comics, may now be considered creators of literature, especially once their recorded, performance texts are published. Other oral-derived forms that can become literature include slave narratives, sermons, recipes, talk show transcripts, trial testimony (see Poetry Under Oath: From the Testimony of William Jefferson Clinton & Monica S. Lewinsky [1998]), and the argot of "cool" communities. Ironically, the eruption of orature within the precincts and canons of literature returns the latter term to its pre-Romantic sensibility. Williams points out that the vocal-rhetorical side of literature was once expressed by poetry, defined in 1866 as being applicable to either "speaking or wryting Poetically" (186-7, my italics). Williams also states, "Poetry had been the high skills of writing and speaking in the special context of high imagination..:' (187). What a terrific debt we owe to the African-American cording artists, Sugarhill Gang, and their 1979 hit, Rapper's Delight, for initiating a global revival of interest in witty, pungent, acerbic, political, and truth-telling rhyme.

Because mature eases the entree of the formerly unheard-of into literature, we have witnessed, in the past three decades, a great, heartening expansion of its (potential) genres. Partly or fully audio forms-songs, radio plays, and screenplays-may now, particularly if printed, be classed as literature (see Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction [19941). Furthermore, though a graphic form, the comic book, if manifesting an "artistic" combination of plot, text, and drawings/paintings, becomes a "graphic novel" and is scanned and taught as literature (see Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers [20041). Our pedagogy now presumes that instruction in literature includes screening films and spinning audio recordings, or assigning comic books or anthologies of actual graffiti as mandatory "reading." Moreover, the influence of cultural studies means that any "material"-newspapers, magazines, letters, posters, comic strips, films, songs, histories, pop-star bios, catalogues, advertising, and, for that matter, literary criticism itself, may be suitable for the analysis that literature invites.

Web logs or "blogs" constitute another vital and half-graphic addition to the category of literature, as do other forms of electronic communication, such as text messaging via cellphones and, of course, e-mail (although these latter forms are subject to the frequently rapid deterioration of quality and sense that is visited upon slang-and journalism). Electronic "writing" seems best for "instant" opinion-sharing as opposed to the composition of essays of searching, intellectual probity, or, for that matter, of simple "fact." The Internet is a fiesta of ephemera and paranoia, of chatter and blather, but also, here and there, of intricate, sculpted eloquence and enduring beauty.

That literature now encloses audio-visual and electronic "texts" is, I wager, established. We have witnessed the triumph of Marshall McLuhan's ideas regarding mass communication and pop culture over those of Northrop Frye regarding archetypes and myths. Most importantly, the access of suppressed communities to new means of expression, thus sidelining print-based hierarchies, has multiculturalized (if not democratized) literature. Not only may literature be broadcast (as opposed to "read"), so is it open now to unprecedented degrees of hybridity, collage, bricolage, and polyphony. In English-Canadian poetry, then, African-American blues, Hebrew proverbs, Japanese haiku, First Nations' chants, Persian ghazals, and Italian sonnets, along with prose passages, dialogic script, postcard photocopies, and e-mail excerpts may all be employed within a single text (with, perhaps, an accompanying CD-ROM or DVD).

At the conclusion of his entry on literature, Williams recognizes that literacy and illiteracy had become, by 1976, "key social concepts" (188). In the (over-)developed nations, these terms are now often prefaced by computer, suggesting that "effective" literacy demands the ability to function comfortably with this technology. Yet, less-developed nations often enjoy high rates of "actual" (reading / writing) literacy. I speculate that the looming economic ascension of China and India may see a literary Renaissance of no mean consequence within these new commercial "empires while the West satisfies itself with the resonant joys of electronic bleeps and squiggles.

Williams's discussion of literature ends with an alphabetical guide to other key words of related interest: aesthetic, art, creative, fiction, image, myth, nationalist, and novel. I would maintain his list-except for myth, nationalist, and novel-in 2005-06, but would also add gender, globalization, hybridity, ideology, orality, "race," religion, sexual orientation, technology, and translation. Ultimately, the only legitimate definition of literature now is, anything a thoughtful community deems worth reading, extensively and intensively.


1 [from Event]

for Wendy "Motion" Braithwaite

I hate this language that Hate dictates to me. It gusts the tang and bray of a savage civilization-Violent words violently arrived at, violently loved.

Balderdash and braggadocio: what English is-Squabbling cabals in Bibles and newspapers A tongue that cannibalizes ail other tongues. Speculate on the words still bottled blackly, In placid ink-fear what may leap from that innocence: Sound forgeries of lust in lovers' faithless songs.

2 [from Valium]

This homely poem's a queer nigger 'rig' A botch of art in slovenly English, Bad grammar, bad everything; It cannot perform ethically. It even fucks up Black English badly: The metre harries, but the words refuse to fit.

3 [from Valium]

That bang, blackening, of English syllables In my black-black mouth hurts, Them syllables hurt, So I can only vomit up speech Half-digested English Soiling it with acidic Negro stomach juices. My voice ain't classique!

4 [from Valium]

Grammar is a pollution, some poison in my lungs, So what emerges from my mouth-spit, phlegm-Looks tubercular.

My lopsided tongue spoils Her Majesty's English. The jawbreaker words wad my mouth with blood, Even busted teeth.

5 Autobiography [from Valium]

All my English-Canadian poetry Be African-American rhetoric.

6 Of Black English, or Pig Iron Latin [from Grist]

for Kate Kellough

My brain were brass, fucked, alloyed, By alliteration. It were dazzlingly dull For a nigger, niggling with English, Haggling o'er some moping poem, Cut from a second-hand grammar, Rhyming Oxonian et Negronian.

Zounds! My lyrics was tin-plate, Not steel sheet, some gift of gabble, Line blague, maybe glib bilge. Out? What was needed were, was After some hectic loss of respect Higher quality coal-or iron-or gold.... (A tinny Shakespeare, I would like, I'd like, Black English to sound more like tempered steel.)

7 Spoken Word [from Lichen]

(a la maniere de Onijoseph)

My imperfect pitch is pitch, mingling woodpile (niggerish)

and woodwind (ebony)? Sheeeit, motherfucker, all you do's

invent stray, pungent lyrics, callous as jacquerie, violent

as troubled presidents, to get boisterousness into poetry,

to collide words together. Go, scratch poems in frost,

daub poems in sweat. Shakespeare be a broke-ass tongue,

mixing pig's breath of sulphur with horse's breath of sugar, some unpronounceable English trash-rancid, acidic, rash: Balderdash!

Topaz, patois poets why use somebody else's language badly,

baldly? Rather, labour over Braille.

George Elliott Clarke

University of Toronto

GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKE Is E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto and is the recipient of the 2001 Governor-General's Award for Poetry and the Trudeau Fellow Prize from the Trudeau Foundation. His latest book is the acclaimed novel George & Rue. Forthcoming are the poetry collections Illuminated Verses and Black. He is also the author of Odysseys Home: Mapping African Canadian Literature.

Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.