Caribbean poetry and reggae: A marriage in literature

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Al Creighton (Stabroek News) begins his article with an excerpt of Lorna Goodison’s poem “For Don Drummond,” to explore the organic connections between Caribbean poetry and reggae.

In 1998, Peepal Tree Press in Leeds, UK, published Wheel and Come Again, An Anthology of Reggae Poetry, selected by Kwame Dawes. By that time, the connection between poetry and reggae music had been long established. So was the affinity between poets and musicians, as the selections demonstrate.

Colin Channer, in the Preface, called it Caribbean poetry’s tribute to reggae music, but it goes much deeper as Dawes interrogated in his Introduction. Caribbean poetry and reggae music connect in various ways, many of which make themselves evident in the selections, sometimes the poets, and sometimes musicians to whom some poems are dedicated. Additionally, the interface between poetry and music has strong historical significance.

The history includes the evolution of reggae itself from the urban grassroots and the dancehalls of Jamaica in the late 1950s. At that time, the generative musical rhythms were interacting to provide a new genre in popular music, and more significantly, a local brand. That was running concurrently with the rise of a Jamaican recording industry where competing producers were turning out local recordings. A secondary line of creativity was to emerge among the dee-jays who played and promoted the selections. Their poetic utterances began to take on a life of their own and were eventually recorded as DJ dub. A range of artistes such as Big Youth occupied centre stage as major performers alongside the singers in the late sixties over into the seventies. 

Then, by 1971, Dub Poetry evolved and was first published in the history-making, record-shattering edition – Savacou 3/4 – on the Mona Campus of UWI. Bongo Jerry is a major representative of that group published by Savacou; additionally, he was a pioneer of Rasta reggae poetry. Immediately foremost literary critics Gordon Rohlehr and Mervyn Morris recognised the great worth of what was developing. Simultaneously, leading dub poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Alan Mutabaruka, Mikey Smith and Jean Breeze popularised the new form in the UK and the Caribbean. Johnson, Bongo Jerry and Breeze are anthologised in Wheel and Come Again

By the time this volume came out in 1998, the nexus between reggae and Caribbean poetry was well established and already celebrated in the literature. Stewart Brown, Morris and Rohlehr had published Voiceprint, emphasizing the many oral developments in a Caribbean poetry highly influenced by and associated with orality, oral literature, reggae and dancehall. Not surprisingly, Morris and Brown, both poets, are also anthologised in Wheel and Come Again. Significantly, Brown is an Englishman but immersed in West Indian literature and culture. Dawes is a Jamaican literary critic who is also a prize-winning poet and short story writer.  Interestingly, as well, he spent many years as a performer in a reggae band. He, therefore, personifies the life of the anthology. He was able to select several different types of poetry from the mainstream West Indian poets steeped in the rhythms, reflecting the dancehall culture, dedicated to some of the legends of the music like the great Bob Marley, Michael Cooper and Don Drummond.

Some of these ‘literary’ poets have produced immortal verses to suit the type selected by Dawes.  Prominent among them are Edward Baugh, Fred D’Aguiar, Anthony McNeill, Kendel Hippolyte, Olive Senior, Pamela Mordecai, Dennis Scott and Lorna Goodison. Outstanding individual poems from some of them stand as immortal monuments to “reggae poetry”. These include Kamau Brathwaite’s “Stone for Mikey Smith”, McNeill’s “Ode to Brother Joe”, Scott’s “Dreadwalk” and quite a few tributes to Don Drummond. The monarch of them all is Morris’ “Valley Prince”, and also included in Dawes’ anthology are “For the D” by McNeill, and “For Don Drummond” by Goodison. 

Drummond was one of the extraordinary talents of this music. After Bob Marley he is arguably the most revered and is certainly held up as Jamaica’s greatest instrumentalist in popular music.  His work as a trombonist spanned the historical walk from ska through rock steady to reggae.  He learnt his music at the well-known Alpha Boys’ School in Kingston, which was already famous on its own as an institution for the less privileged but became legendary after Drummond’s meteoric rise up the musical scale. 

Goodison’s poem celebrates him as supernatural, through her many references to the spiritual, the traditional and the extra-human. It is claimed that anyone “born with a caul” can see spirits, and Goodison implies this gave Drummond his extra gift, an added intelligence, the ability to see what ordinary humans could not. Indeed, his music is considered out of this world. [. . .]

The title of the anthology of reggae poetry “wheel and come again” is actually taken from reggae in performance. It is a practice of the DJ or the Selector to interrupt the flow of a tune with a sudden stop, and a reverse to the music, often to the delight of the audience. Additionally, the publication says the poems were “selected” by Dawes. This is a clear reference to the name given to one who actually operates the machine that plays the music – he is called a selector.

For full article, see

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