HIS BROKEN GROUND: Edward Brathwaite’s trilogy of Poems

In his work with speech rhythms Brathwaite has made a major breakthrough for Caribbean poetry. In an interview he has said: “So far West Indian poetry hasn’t attempted to use the rhythms of the speech patterns of the area;” The comment ignores attempts by such pathfinders as Louise Bennettt, Philip Sherlock, Derek Walcott, Ian McDonald, Dennis Scott. But, certainly, in his use of West Indian speech rhythms Brathwaite has been far more successful than any other poet. His most consummate achievements are “The Dust” (Rights of Passage) and “Rites” (in Islands); but other sections or these two books make distinct use of West Indian speech patterns. Brathwaite’s ear allows him to suggest American or African speech rhythm, too; as in


See them zoot suits, man? Them black Texan hats?

akwaaba they called

aye kooo


well have you walked

have you journeyed




Speech rhythms are flexible. Successful verse representation of speech is likely to be subtle in movement. But in representing sounds other than speech the artistic problems are trickier. There is the technical challenge of how to be faithful at one and the same time to the sound of speech and to some other, quite different, rhythm. There is the question of whether to say something with the imported sounds or through them. Brathwaite tries both; but he is far more satisfying when mainly he is speaking through the sounds, he is better when he refers to a music rhythm than when he mimics one. In’ “Caliban”, for example, the pan rhythm is referred to, the limbo rhythm is mimicked. In the pan passage speech rhythms play around and against the reference rhythm. In the limbo passage the words are often struggling to keep up with a rhythm which defeats them:


long dark deck and the

water surrounding me

long dark deck and the

silence is over me



limbo like me.


Similarly in “Jou’vert”:


bambalula bambulai

bambalula bambulai


stretch the drum

tight hips will sway


That can work. But the next touplet falls:


stretch the back

tight whips will flay

bambalula bambulai

bambalula bambulai.


The chosen rhythm does not allow for the slight natural break in passing from the final “t” of “tight” to the initial sound of “whips”. Also, in order to maintain his rhyme and rhythm scheme, Brathwaite has used intransitively the verb “flay” which requires an object.

Even when there is no obvious failure in craftsmanship the very accuracy of the imitation can make the achievement seem trivial, especially when the particular point the words are making does not seem to need or to use the form being mimicked. (In spite of failures in technique) the bambalula bambulai at the end of Islands is actually being used: the waking black men chip into the dawn. In “Calypso” (Rights) there is a meaning-gap between the calypso rhythm and what the words are saying; the technical achievement seems more like self-display. Sometimes, too, what may work well when heard tends to look gimmicky in print.

Which raises the question of Brathwaite’s aural intentions. Some of the critics who liked Rights of Passage (the book), as well as some of those who did not, recognized that it needed to be heard. “Brathwaite’s poetry must be read aloud for its full effect to be appreciated. ” “A full understanding of this poem comes through hearing, rather than seeing”; an opinion which Brathwaite is reported to have endorsed. No one who has heard Brathwaite’s own magnificent reading of Rights will be inclined to disagree. Listening to him read, one’s critical hesitations are swept away; great poem or not, this as great work of some kind, strong, clever, understanding, comprehensively truthful. It may even, one feels, be a great poem, If the sense includes performance. After all, with Brathwaite’s experience of jazz and of Africa, perhaps how Senghor sees the matter would suit him: “A poem is like a passage of jazz, where the execution is just as important as the text… I still think that the poem is not complete until it is sung, words and music together.” But Brathwaite’s technical development – toward tighter use of language – has undermined that line of argument. Masks, on the page, offers more rewards and fewer irritations than Rights; and, although in performance it should be no less attractive than the first two books, the latest volume is for the silent reader the most consistently rewarding. No; the fact is, the author of Islands is a better poet than the author of Rights of Passage. His work is finer, subtler, and as important. His discipline is tighter: he is less easily satisfied. He is less willing to allow weak passages; each section must earn its keep. The development may be suggested, not perhaps unfairly, by setting next to each other two unremarkable passages about return:


But I returned to find Jack

Kennedy invading Cuba


black riots in Aruba

and Trinidad


refusing thirsty US marines water.

                                                                                  (Rights of Passage, page 61 )


And so without my cloth,

shoulders uncovered

to this new doubt


and desert I return,

expecting nothing,

my name burnt out,


a cinder on my shoulder.

                                                               (Islands, page 18)


Even carefully allowing for the different contexts of the two passages, the second (without being exciting) is far more accomplished. Except perhaps for that simple “black” and the concealed rhyme (Jack/black), the first passage is as literal and flat as ordinary workaday prose.

Given the close attention which good poetry invites, Islands is the most successful volume of the three. But, of course, the three are one, “the fisherman’s net is completed”. ”This trilogy as a whole,” Brathwaite has said, “is concerned first of all with my own experiences. I am trying to come to terms with being a West Indian who has travelled to Africa.” While this is no doubt true, there is a public message on which the poems insist: that from Africa into the Caribbean there is a real continuity, which European influence obscures; that our psychic wholeness requires greater recognition of our African heritage. The message is essentially the same as Brathwaite has been spreading in his prose. If Brathwaite is a poet trying to come to terms with his personal experience, he is also (and in these poems as well) a public figure arguing for particular kinds of social and cultural change. The trilogy – “this broken ground” – is a large and original achievement.

[1] Edware Lucie-Smith, reffering to Rights of Passage and Masks, London Magazine July 1968, p.100.

[2] “Akan Poetry”, in Introduction to African Literature ed. Ulli Beier (Longmans, 1964)

[3]“Akan Poetry”, in Introduction to African Literature ed. Ulli Beier (Longmans, 1964).

[4] A prose version appeared in Caribbean Prose ed. Andrew Salkey (Evans, 1967)

[5]  ” In the West Indies the test match is not so much a game as a collective ritual – a social drama in which almost all of the basic tensions and conflicts within the society are played out symbolically.” – Orlando Patterson, “The Ritual of Cricket”, Jamaica Journal Vol. 3 No. 1, March 1969.

[6] Muntu (Grove Press: Faber 1961) p. 126. Chapters 2 (“Voodoo – The Embodiment of the Gods”), 4 (“Ntu – African Philosophy”), and 5 (“Nommo – The Magic Power of the Word”) are helpful on the background to Masks and Islands