Protest in West Indian Folk Poetry
Chase, Randolph, Kola
Folk poetry is simply poetry that takes for its theme, the aspirations, problems, plight and general concerns of the folk, and it is articulated in their own voice with the attendant speech rhythms. To protest against their plight in their own language is to bridge the gap between poet and people. In folk poetry, this gap between audience and poet is bridged by the use of dialect and the actual audience /poet response. Therefore, the dialect poems of Claude McKay or Linton Kwesi Johnson have a way of creating an immediate intimacy between poet and people. This is enhanced even further when the poet is or used to be a member of the same socioeconomic class as his audience--the folk.
Thus Walcott's language is decidedly different from that of Evan Jones or Paul Keens-Douglas. The atmosphere of communality in the poems of Evan Jones, for example, "The song of the Banana Man" and Paul Keens-Douglas' "Tim Tim." is in a sense not too far removed from the lyrics of reggae and calypso; they are all residues of an oral tradition. Prior to slavery and colonisation, the oral tradition in Africa was an intrinsic pan of its cultural fabric. The assimilation forced by colonialism substantially altered the African culture of the slaves. When Derek Walcott contends that "to change your language/you must change life," he is metaphorically expressing the loss of a rich oral tradition as the slaves entered the New World. With the new language they learnt a new culture. This is Walcott's "false folklorique" which follows. What the transported African lost was "the technique of expression central to entertainment. The verbal techniques or oral art embodied in the speaker-audience relationship of the poet." (1)
On entering the New World, the African was confronted with "a literary tradition based on the use of the written word ... and the symbols of language in a linear progression contained by a definite space. This is directly opposed to the freedom of the human voice to extend itself as far as the speaker's breath control and requirements of style and subject matter would allow." (2) Gradually, the oral tradition was being buried; the slaves had, in Walcott's words "changed their language."
But not for long, for the voice of dissonance at the disillusionment of Emancipation and the "dream deferred" emerged as a voice of disaffection and protest with W. F. B. Dubois' Pan-Africanism in 1919. It was picked up by the Harlem Renaissance, called negritude and Negrismo in the French and Spanish Caribbean respectively. As the word Renaissance suggests, it was a cultural awakening which harked back to the African past, illustrated for example by Brathwaite in -Masks. Relics from the African past emerged thus in the poetry of Langston Hughes and the Cuban Nicholas Guillen who both sought to extricate relies of a buried African culture. While Hughes used Jazz and Blues, as the musical framework of his poems, Guillen used the "Son." an Afro-Cuban musical beat, in his dialect poems. The Jazz. the Blue, and the Son are all derived from African musical theme, and beat. Paul Laurence Dumbar had before them and like them "given hi, own cadences, embellishments and a style captured on the printed page." (5) One of the themes of Jazz and Blues poetry is protest against social conditions. But it is significant to note that this protest was entirely about blacks, primarily written for the blacks in their own language. This is the most central theme in the lyrics of reggae and calypso.
It is true that folk poetry, exemplified by the poetry of calypso, Reggae, Jazz and poetry for the literate and educated, has always been treated separately, with the hint that the latter is superior artistically. Yet the very ones who make this judgment readily admit the creativity and popularity of Louis Armstrong's Jazz lyrics. There has always been this breach in artistic appreciation for these two separate strands of poetry. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this breach began to be evident. …