The early years of the poetry of Trinidad & Tobago


Some context


The poetry of Trinidad and Tobago is a scarcely collected treasure: not one comprehensive anthology has been produced since 1947’s Papa Bois. In recent years, Anson Gonzalez has instigated an archival campaign, the like of which has never been seen before in the islands. Included in his output for 2006 was his 41 Trinidadian Poets, a record of the best work from 1973 to 1993, as captured by The New Voices journal he edited over that period. Cane Arrow Press is working on an anthology that seeks to bridge the period between Papa Bois and 41 Trinidadian Poets but also to reproduce representative poems from the entire 85 year period of T&T’s history of published poetry collections.


The potential for an English based literature in the country only extends back to 1797 when Britain wrested Trinidad from the Spanish. Elsewhere in the West Indies, British influence had been felt since 1623, with islands such as Barbados under unbroken British rule since 1625. In Trinidad, by dint of Spanish hospitality, it was the French who held sway by the end of the eighteenth century and this persisted for all of the early life of the Crown Colony, so much so that in 1869 JJ Thomas, a Trinidadian school teacher, felt obliged to defend the local language -French patois- in his book The theory and practice of Creole grammar. By 1838, only 14 villages on Trinidad, spoke a form of English and it was not until 1920 that the effect of mass migration from the English-speaking West Indies could be said to have created an  English – speaking majority on the island. The discovery of oil in 1910 did much to hasten the influx of English speakers. Tobago, a part of the Windward Islands Colony, only became a ward of Trinidad in 1889 and the independent country of Trinidad & Tobago came into being in 1962.


Early days: 1922- 1937


Throughout the nineteenth century, poems were published in local newspapers and some laudatory verse was issued to mark Queen Victoria’s jubilee and passing but any useful discussion of TT poetry in English can only date back to the 1920s. Of the poetry of those early years, similarly, we might expect only tentative steps on the route to a national aesthetic. This is borne out in reality: the earliest collection we can find is AD Russell’s 1922 offering The Legends of the Bocas. Much of the West Indian poetry of the 1920s and 30s is disregarded by the critics as mere reproduction of received colonial models to which a little local colour has been added. But the reader should be allowed to make up his or her own mind as to which poems have something to say about Trinidad & Tobago. Even the most imperial of poems may cast light on local issues: the two are not necessarily exclusive. Yet the paucity of much of the early poems  – as poems – makes it easy to disregard the early work. Additionally, the particular circumstances of the Trinidad of that time led to a comparative dearth of poetry in relation to fiction.


Trinidad appears to be unique in the West Indies in producing a band of poet-politicians centred on Alfred Mendes, CLR James, Ralph de Boissiere and slightly later, Albert Gomes. Their work and that of their contemporaries is largely to be found in two literary journals, Trinidad (1929-30) and The Beacon (1931-33, 1939). Mendes, a Portuguese Trinidadian, set up a literary group with like-minded individuals on his return from serving in France in the Great War. The group were well placed to reflect the disenchantment of many sectors of the population with colonial rule. These included the marginalized white Creole communities, French and Portuguese, the burgeoning black educated class, a genuine urban working class, a rising Indian middle class and liberals of all classes inspired by leftist foment in Europe. Whilst Trinidad only saw two issues, Mendes published four collections of poems between 1924 and 1927 and James had a story accepted by the English periodical Saturday Review in 1927.


Gomes, excited by the prospect of a local magazine and recently returned from studying in New York, decided to take up Mendes’s lead and published The Beacon from 1931. As a focus for anti-colonial intellectualism, The Beacon had no parallel at the time. It scandalised all aspects of local bureaucracy and received notices up and down the West Indies and in the motherland. Whilst its value as a political and social organ is perhaps more important than its poetry, some of the latter is collected in 1937’s From Trinidad: A selection of the fiction and verse of Trinidad, British West Indies. Beacon member, Alfred Cruickshank, also published a collection that year.


In all, just eleven poetry collections were published before WWII. Poetry left to the intellectuals languished while fiction prospered in their hands. Mendes introduced the first known discussion on West Indian literature in 1933 and we know from  A M Clarke that much poetry ‘of the people’ was being written yet little saw the printer’s press. A complete absence of local publishers at that time certainly did not help matters. However, with the ascendancy of English as the main language, Calypso had emerged out of its Afro- French roots and became the prime means of recording the culture of the time. Magazines such as the Coterie’s Clarion came into being and a member of the Coterie of Social Workers, Olga Comma-Maynard published her first book in 1929. The Trinidad Guardian, founded in 1916 was by the 1930s publishing articles on poetry and even some criticism.


Even though fiction and calypso appear to be the people’s art of the time, a fair amount of poetry of the 20s and 30s exists to this day; we can only deduce why so little Trinidadian poetry emerged. For such a politically charged era, it seems strange that published poetry remained firmly in the grip of Victorian Britain. Since the return of soldiers from the Great War in 1918, rights for the working classes had been championed by Cipriani and others with clout and as well-informed intellectuals, the influence of Claude McKay, American modernism, African rootedness and the potential literary use of local English-based Creole would have been all too evident to the Beacon group but these only seem to figure in their fiction. The presence of the censor has been cited as a reason but Gomes et al were never deterred by his threat in publishing their stories. It has been suggested that a measure of elitism contributed to the exclusion of ‘street’ culture from the poetry but this does not explain why the poetic models were antique even by British standards. It seems that stories grew naturally out of the yard and out of calypso; poetry needed to digest the incipient language and work out local models before moving towards an indigenous form. Such anthologies as were available to the general public would have been the ‘school’ anthologies in which featured the Romantics and High Victorians. Also, compulsory schooling was only partially introduced in 1935 and it was not until the end of WWII that it extended to all the population.


Not surprisingly, the poetry of the inter-War era has been characterised by its trite lyricism, its weak historicism, sterile abstraction and over-rhetorical protest but some of it does speak of an incipient Trinidad and we have sought to include poems that for us have that sort of provenance; whether something was written out of T&T rather than about it; whether the author has a particular belonging to this country and thus the ability to influence others in this way. Hence we have opted for A D Russell despite his British origins and his privileged status as a judge. His Boca Chimes lives on in the music of the late John Donaldson. Comma-Maynard, despite her child-like verse, does record the transition from French to English creole. Mendes’s Cadet Corps begins to get to grips with the people and the place and Thomasos and Carr do record the growing urbanisation of the community in their descriptions of Port of Spain. Paul Da Costa hints at the beauty of the local landscape while Hugh Stollmeyer, unusually for a member of the former plantocracy urges black uprising in the pages of the Beacon of November 1933 (The time has come).


Moving on: 1938- 1962


The late 30s appears to be the time when Trinidadians at large took to poetry. It was a time when society became even more politicised and the Butler strikes in 1937/8 were a major turning point. A M Clarke in interview remembers a Guardian article of 1938 devoted to Art and Literature and a great debate in its pages as to what should constitute poetry. The Guardian column continued up to Independence and beyond, and was for a time written by Sam Selvon, a decent poet in his own right. The literary club was also on the rise and the war years gave rise to no fewer than twelve collections, one of which, Wind in the palms (1940) was introduced by Harold Telemaque, then leader of the TT Union of literary and cultural clubs. Both Mendes and Gomes had been disparaging about  the potential of such clubs and their output throughout the West Indies is notorious. In Trinidad, however, they kept poetry ticking over in the absence of anthologies at periodic intervals. Clarke’s anthology Best Poems of Trinidad (1943), the first Trinidad anthology dedicated solely to poetry, purported to be transitional in nature but largely represented the last flowering of the Beacon group. In 1939, Albert Gomes himself had published two collections along with his final issue of The Beacon and C A Thomasos had printed his Poems, a limited edition distributed free of charge to his friends. Telemaque, an important newcomer, gave us a hint of change in Best Poems, as did Edgar Mittelholzer newly arrived from British Guiana and Willy Richardson who later moved to England to work for the BBC on Caribbean Voices. Eric Roach has some early work here under the pseudonym Merton Maloney. Clarke and Telemaque together published Burnt Bush in 1947, a volume they once again heralded as ‘transitional’, that is between colonial and local identities. The Five Folio group started by Justice Hallinan in 1946 included the writers Giuseppi, Holder, Carr, BJ Ramon-Fortune and  Mittelholzer. They were later joined by Thomasos, Hill, Herbert, Clarke, Farrell and Seepersad Naipaul, father of Vidia. Their 1947 anthology Papa Bois is the last general roundup until Gonzalez’s 41 Poets almost 60 years later.


In the West Indies at large, poetry writing was given a boost by the introduction of the BBC’s Caribbean Voices in 1943.  It broadened the context of the local writer to include the whole West Indies and continued up until Federation in 1958. For the first time, poets could hear their work and the programme has been credited by Kamau Brathwaite as being the single most important catalyst in the creation of the West Indian poetic voice. Another 10 or so collections appeared after the war and prior to independence which followed the dissolution of the Federation in 1962. Local poets continued to be anthologised in Caribbean Quarterly, an organ of the University College of the West Indies from 1949 and in the two most influential journals of the period, Bim in Barbados and Kyk over al in Guiana, both of which date to the mid-1940s. Both Kyk and Bim were edited by committed West Indians, AJ Seymour and Frank Collymore respectively whose drive and purpose contributed in no large measure to the development of a West Indian literature free from the circumscription of London. This was mirrored in Trinidad in the work of poets such as Telemaque and Roach especially. Among West Indian poets as a whole they more than most appear to have developed that sense of local identity within the broader context of the archipelago, a feature that continues through to current TT poetry. Notwithstanding this, poetry output in Trinidad was low compared to the other territories and few poems are represented in Seymour’s federation anthology. This is corrected in Caribbean Quarterly’s offering though where 11 poets were featured.


Telemaque’s In Our Land is one of the earliest poems of this era to express this firmer sense of the search for identity. Curiously, his sentiment is echoed in Richardson’s poem of similar title in Clarke’s Best Poems. Simple naming of natural phenomena and the placement of TT people within this context was a common device. Roach’s Homestead was praised by Brathwaite in the pages of Bim where the cedar cited is that of the tropics leaning into the Trades and not that of the 18C English park. Telemaque’s Homecoming is another of this ilk where the narrator having travelled to the metropolis returns home to extol the virtues of his hills, his cane fields and cedars and his women. Neville Giuseppi attempts to address Caribbean history in praising Toussaint rather than Nelson as a war hero while Cobham connects to the third world in his ode to Mahatma Ghandi. Both Clarke and Giuseppi continue to address the ongoing urbanisation of the country in poems such as Wheels within Wheels and The Engine.


While poetry continued to amble forward, Calypso continued to move forward apace. Kitchener continued to send calypsos down from Manchester until his return in 1963.

Sparrow, perhaps our best lyricist-calypsonian (although we all have our favourites) emerged on the scene in 1954, while a mini calypso craze ignited the globe at and just after the release of Belafonte’s calypso album in 1958, thus bringing a local art form to the world instead of the other way around as was usual. There have been several studies on the literary impact of calypso and several pieces were included in Voiceprint as being worthy of poems in their own right. In all this, the presence of the critic becomes important and the creation of UCWI in 1948 provided a base for such scholarship.


Independence and beyond: 1962-1974


The poetry of the pre-Independence era showed a little development from that of the pioneers, yet it is still feeble in its realisation of ‘Trinidad,’ and this despite the excitement that surrounded the build-up to Federation and then Independence. Unlike Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago had no Independence anthology and no controversy about the exclusion of ‘dialect poets’ like Louise Bennett. It was not until Derek Walcott’s In a Green Night (1962) that the old Victorian mould was finally broken. Walcott, an adopted son, begins to shape his poems in a West Indian way in this collection covering the 1948-60 period. The poems emerge from Africa and Europe, Creole and Standard and several of the poems are written out of Trinidad. The ring of pan and the energy of parang ensure that this period of his work remains important to TT poetry.


Independence brought freedom but without liberation. The poets of the newly created country soon turned to examining the cracks in the PNM regime that had held sway since 1956. Clifford Sealey’s Voices (1964-66) picked up where Gomes had left off, providing an outlet for the new TT poets, Roger McTair, Judy Miles, Wayne Brown et al, while the University acted as a focus for more highly charged writing groups. Eric Roach and Neville Giuseppi, activists in their day, almost disappeared from the scene as eventually, the political flood gates were breached by the ‘Black Power’ revolution in 1970. Post-Independence poetry collections prior to the 1970 uprising, number about 15; in the four years that followed, a massive fifty collections emerged. True to form, the nation’s writing seems only to be galvanised by political upheaval as if scenting a chance for renewal. When the dust settled, the chief poets to emerge were Anson Gonzalez and Victor Questel whilst the revolution appeared to invigorate Eric Roach once more.  His description of the circumstances of the revolution spawned two quite different versions of his well-known 1970 poem. At first, Roach saw hope in the chaos. His 1972 revision soon falls back onto typical Trini disequilibrium and he committed suicide in 1974, barely overlapping with the creation of Gonzalez’s New Voices magazine which was to carry the hopes of TT poetry for the next twenty years.


By 1972, the ‘new poetry’ had begun to take shape. In amongst the more strident Africanist collections were important first books from Gonzalez and Questel (a joint publication) and Wayne Brown. Poems of the ‘old school’ continued to accrue, gently recording the landscape and reminiscences of the people and a new spiritual edge began to take shape via poets such as Selwyn Bhajan. It was Gordon Rohlehr who first pointed out that by 1974, the main poetic achievement of the revolution was to make concrete the continuum of life in T&T – black and white, old and young – and his in-depth record of the tumultuous decade surrounding 1970 is recommended reading for literary historians and anyone interested in TT poetry.