from Poetics.ca #2...
Blackening English: The Polyphonic Poetics of George Elliott Clarke
This essay will address modes of polyphony and hybridity in George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls and Blue. In addition, the anxiety of influence will be addressed as it applies to Clarke’s two extraordinary texts. Clarke’s poetics are interested in the negotiation of cultural space through adherence to and revision of tradition. Whylah Falls establishes a voice for the Africadian community – a voice that employs iambic pentameter, the Mississippi Delta blues, and modernist vers libre. Blue establishes an equally multivocal poetic voice as well; but it is through lyrical means, and employed to more polemical/performative ends. Despite the impressive range of Clarke’s influences, I will, for the sake of brevity, limit this discussion to the intertexts of Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka, Christina Rossetti, Ezra Pound and Petrarch. In the process of discovering the complexity of Clarke’s poetics, I will also discuss issues of history/historiography, political rhetoric, and “gender trouble.”
sugar-headed children race
In a very clear biographical sense, the crisis of exile that is faced by Walcott in the above excerpt was also faced by Clarke after a disastrous reading in front of his community. After this formative experience, Clarke swore that he would never write poetry that was inaccessible to his community.
“So people started yelling at me: ‘Get off the stage.’ It was very direct: ‘You’re boring. Go home.’ The people didn’t want to hear some dry shit” (Compton, page 145).
Clarke was not performing, but simply reading poems from his first collection, Saltwater Spirituals, when he was heckled so mercilessly. His discovery was that his poems from that collection could not be performed. His response is found in the polyphony of Whylah Falls – these are poems that combine abstract, intellectual, and specifically literary, content with a home-place vernacular. The poems are meant to be performed and sung. (Although I am using the term “polyphony” to denote multivocal verse, the musical connotations of the term can be applied to Whylah Falls.) It seems that Cora’s advice to Missy, in the poem entitled “Symposium,” to “sit back, relax and be black” can be read as a sublimated, lyrical internal dialogue.
The influence of Walcott, the “Commonwealth Bard,” on Clarke is based on more than just one biographical intersection. Formally, both poets strive for a hyper-literate, high modernism. Clarke looks to Walcott’s “blackening of English” as a movement out of exile. In fact, the notion of exile-as-trope is the essential point of departure for both writers. Consider this excerpt from an almost sycophantic open letter to Walcott, penned by Clarke:
“I write in a cold place where I possess beleaguered rights. Canada wants nothing to do with any combustible sorrow or inflammatory blues. It demands a clipped, precise speech, some tone of majesty to restrict American slovenliness, republican vulgarity. It demands metre akin to its own War Measures Act. The climate will hardly let you spark any fire. But your books are portable infernos. I use to warm and illuminate this hostile, killing environment.It is interesting to note that Derek Walcott wrote much of his celebrated verse in New England – a climate that is not altogether disparate from Clarke’s Nova Scotia.
Both Clarke and Walcott desire the engagement of the canon, and the mythification of “non-literary territory” (i.e. St. Lucia for Walcott, Nova Scotia for Clarke —- both poets share the Atlantic). And, as noted, the poets desire the poetics of exile – the negotiation/ renegotiation of the community from the position of the exile (in the case of Walcott and Clarke, the exile is self-determined) and the inevitable revision of the community to integrate a new poetics or world view. Clarke’s evocation of Walcott as Commonwealth Bard illustrates that this is a postcolonial modality as much as it is specifically a Canadian one. The essential difference in the two poets’ respective points of departure lies in the distinction between the Caribbean colonial experience and the African American/Africadian experience.
The poem, “Look Homeward, Exile” is a suitable example of both Clarke’s fixation on the Walcottesque and his fixation on the tropes of home and exile. The nostalgic voice is X’s: “I can still see that soil crimsoned by butchered / Hog and imbrued with rye, lye, and homely / Spirituals everybody must know” (page xxx). The crimsoned soil foreshadows the death of Othello Clemence. Besides the spilled blood, the earth is also marked with rye, lye and spirituals. The imagistic establishment of the home place occurs at once within the first few lines of X’s reminiscences.
From this position of retrospect, the exiled poet cannot be soothed: “Still, nothing warms my wintry exile – neither / Prayers nor fine love, neither votes nor hard drink” (page xxxi). Despite the familiar iambic lines and the seemingly cathartic subject matter of nostalgic memory, the poet remains outside of home. The exiled X provides us with a more than sufficient hook for the sweeping, extravagant narrative-based poem sequence that follows.
Anne Compton makes the following observation regarding Whylah Falls and geography/history: “Whylah Falls mythologizes a specific place (Weymouth Falls, N.S.) and an event (the killing of Graham Cromwell), but it does even more than that. Under the pressure of events (the razing of Africville and Cromwell’s death), it reconceptualizes a people and a 200-year-old history in mythic terms” (page 139). In other words, Weymouth Falls is the historical/geographical home place; Whylah Falls is its fictional/mythic analogue. The Sissiboo is the historical/geographical home place; Sixhiboux River is the fictional/mythic analogue; Cromwell’s death is the historical/sociological event; Othello Clemence’s death is the fictional/mythic analogue.
Despite efforts to establish a poetic voice of the Africadian community, Clarke, like Walcott, cannot resist a corresponding consistent fetishism of English Literature (i.e. “Albion”), from the classical to romanticism to high modernism. Shakespeare, Shelley, Milton, Chaucer, Eliot, Yeats, etc., are consistently evoked. Is this an effort to legitimize the text? To include the Hegelian master/slave binary within Africadian poetics (like Walcott)? To acknowledge the prosodic and thematic literary modalities that Clarke cannot seem to live without? Saltwater Spirituals was written entirely in free verse. Clarke confesses that he was never at home within this tradition: “I’ve never been comfortable within unfettered free verse even though I was writing it in Saltwater Spirituals. I needed blank verse . . . This is the way we speak” (Compton, page 147). The notion that there is something natural about the iambic pentameter, that it is the closest textual, poetic transcription to the speech patterns of English, seems archaic. Perhaps Clarke meant to say “this is the way we sing.” Clarke goes on to uncover a much more compelling reason for the persistence of the sonnet, and of blank verse in Canadian poetry, saying: “I think this is [the sonnet form] also postcolonial. We have inherited this thing. Now what can we do with it?” (Compton, page 148).
What appears clear to me is that the communal poetic voice is perhaps too ironically informed by Clarke’s hyper-literate and colonial training in literature. The attempt at negotiation of inherited language seems clear, but I cannot help but think back on the community response to Saltwater Spirituals and wonder if Clarke has really captured an idiomatic truth about the community through his hybrid voice of colonial/postcolonial rhetoric. I will turn to the more recent collection, Blue, in order to continue this interrogation.
Clarke indulges in poetics as far-reaching as performative rhetoric, and as conventional as the traditional Eurocentric, Petrarchan sonnet in Blue. Inspired by poets ranging from Ovid to Ezra Pound to Amiri Baraka, Clarke succeeds in conjuring up a plurality of poetic voices that range from imagistic to politically stunning to appalling. The polyphonic success of Blue is based in its ability to perform poetic difference (that is, the ability to perform the difference between the self and other, the subject and object) within the subjectivity of one poetic voice. (There is a quite different realization of polyphony in Whylah Falls.) In the section of Blue entitled Black Eclogues, Clarke manages to evoke the most strategic elements of vitriol in his homage to Baraka’s aesthetic in the poem entitled “Calculated Offensive.” Here, the poetic voice rages:
To hell with Pound!Compare Clarke’s rage against Eurocentrism with Baraka’s original incendiary text entitled “Black Art”:
We want “poems that kill.”Note that both Baraka and Clarke employ the collective “we” as a rhetorical device, drawing in or excluding the reader, depending on his/her ethnicity. What is achieved in this brief, emulative poem is the revelation of hyperbolic language: how it succeeds to evoke emotion, anger or discussion in both Clarke’s text and in Baraka’s. The skilfully written rhetoric reminds me that poetic language needs to function in a hyperbolic mode. Whether the aim is the image or the idea, modes of rhetoric and/or figurative language are dependent on hyperbole. This is the essential truth that poets like Baraka teach us. I think it is not an overstatement to claim that what Walcott is to Whylah Falls, Baraka is to Blue.
The second section of Blue, Red Satires, is not a departure from the vitriol of the first section, but rather a slightly more articulate version of it. What emerges here is a lyric I that replaces the rhetorical we in poems that pine for, and spit on, Pound, Yeats, et al.:
Imbibing libretti and bleak liqueur
The title of the poem from which the above text was extracted is “Onerous Canon.” The notion of canon reformation and/or canon revision is an ever-present preoccupation of Clarke’s.
In Whylah Falls, the exuberance of the hybrid poetic voice is strikingly intoxicating, and the pressure placed on canonicity and on the Africadian community’s history falls in line with Linda Hutcheon’s discourse on historiographic metafiction (or metapoetics, if you will). Informed by Marjorie Perloff’s discourse on postmodern verse, Hutcheon makes room for verse in her definition of historiographic metafiction: “As in fiction, there is an opening up of poetry to material once excluded from the genre as impure: things political, ethical, historical, philosophical. This kind of verse can also work to contest representation and the traditional notion of transparent referentiality of language in its problematizing of narrative form and, as such, resembles historiographic metafiction” (page 64).
“ I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple tree And wore them all that evening in my hair: Then in due season when I went to see I found no apples there. With dangling basket all along the grass As I had come I went the selfsame track: My neighbours mocked me while they saw me pass So empty-handed back . . . I let my neighbours pass me, ones and twos And groups; the latest said the night grew chill, And hastened: but I loitered, while the dews Fell fast I loitered still” (page 896.)Rossetti’s voice is one of dissatisfaction with the terms of sexual political/poetic discourse. Rossetti’s aims are to re-evaluate and revise gendered tropes and their traditional associations. The poetic voice “loiters” unapologetically within a poem that sets up a provisional construction of feminine power dependent on fertility/motherhood. Selah’s sense of self is perhaps too problematically based on her status as a woman incapable of childbirth: “You could never dream / my womb is gone /hollowed by scalpels / and Casanova cancer” (Rossetti, page 70). Wells argues that Selah’s infertility is the reason for her rejection of the rose symbol: “The traditional symbol of perfection [the rose] is inappropriate for her because she is lacking a uterus” (page 66.) Further, Blue contains consistent evocation of traditionally feminized tropes: “Selah opened like a complex flower” (page 66), “Shelley’s a garden enclosed” (page 56). It appears that the terminology of the sexual discourse too is informed by the male gaze. However, the women, specifically Shelley and Selah, possess the power of poetic revision. Shelley eventually negotiates a relationship with X on her own terms. She has the last word in the last poem of the collection, entitled “Envoy”: “X and I ramble in the wet / To return home, smelling of rain. / We understand death and life now – / How Beauty honeys bitter pain” (page 181).
In Blue, we find a more problematic male gaze in all of its assumptive, interpellative power. In the section entitled Gold Sapphics, the “lyric I” moves into the space of sexual and textual desire. In “April 19, 19C: A Sonnet” Clarke’s poetic voice waxes conventional: “This sorrow-stricken canal, pent-up sea, / April-fierce water welling, ferries old, / Harsh news: I’ll love her down to extinction” (page 90.) His verse is striking and strikingly phallocentric dependent on Pound and Petrarch as much as it is resistant of them. The poetry and the beloved that Clarke desires are seen exclusively through a male gaze – there is no deeper understanding of gender present, just the looming promise to “love her down to extinction” with a perverse delight in essentialist pleasure inscribed for good measure. Clarke’s poetic voice warns “No child should read me! / Some lines are encased in ice (chiefly the ones inked for a slut)” (page 136). This ironic utterance refers to the anticipated resistance of readers to embrace the poetic voice’s indulgence. What is at stake in any text such as Clarke’s Blue is whether the poet has the ability to persuade his/her reader into his/her performative realm: I am persuaded to give in to reactionary, political utterances such as “To hell with Pound!” but I resist the wonderment inspired by the “wonderbra” (page 81) that is celebrated in Gold Sapphics. In fact, I would argue that there is very little that can be read as sapphic about the poems that make up this section. There is no traditional sapphic verse in the formal sense. However, there is the theme of desire that inhabits this section. Sappho’s desire is indeterminate and incandescent. Here, Clarke is too preoccupied with a specifically masculine desire to persuade me that the Gold Sapphics work completely. Specifically, the lack of characters to inform sexual discourse makes this section somewhat disturbing. For a poet who values polyphony and hybrid poetic voices, this section is strikingly singular. Whylah Falls depends on the values of polyphony/hybridity for its salvation. The blues are the antidote for the formal fetishism; the postmodern historiographic approach is applied to the historical event of Cromwell’s murder; the establishment of an Africadian poetics redeems Clarke’s dependence on the model of modernist/Walcottesque exile; the gender problematics of Petrarch are evoked, challenged and inevitably left in an indeterminate state as a result of the complexity of the female characters. Blue does soar with pluralistic possibilities as well. In the section Blue Elegies, we find the heart of this collection. The first poem simply numbered i, is an anaphoric and powerful piece that defines Clarke’s notion of “blue” within the context of plurality and complexity:
“Blue is a noose strangling the vulnerable sky Blue is a generic nigger, a genre nigger, an angry nigger . . . Blue is a guitar in a Wallace Stevens sonnet carved from The Cenci... Blue is Hitler in bed with Chamberlain in Munich with Eva Braun” (page 107.)
Blue is most certainly about the African-Canadian experience (as opposed to Africadian in Whylah Falls). However, the text attempts to transcend ethnicity and performs complex, perverse juxtapositions: “Stevens’ triumphant “The Man with the Blue Guitar” is referenced here, alongside the image of the “genre nigger. angry nigger.” What Clarke captures is the weight of poetic history: the historical presence (Stevens’ canonical text) and the historical absence (Clarke’s genre/angry nigger). Aside from the specific poems that are elegies, the entire text can be read as elegiac longing for an African-Canadian/Acadian history and mourning of the history that has been lost or put under erasure.
Jon Paul Fiorentino
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