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Small Axe 7.2 (2003) 71-92

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Shake Keane's "Nonsense":
An Alternative Approach to Caribbean Folk Culture

Philip Nanton

 WEEK FOUR Kaiso Calypso Mauby Maw-beer 'Nanse 'tory Nonsense-story NONSENSE NONSENSE 
—Ellsworth McGranahan "Shake" Keane

The creativity of St. Vincent's Ellsworth McGranahan "Shake" Keane (1927-1997) straddles the conventional boundaries of jazz and poetry. Shake achieved acclaim in the jazz world of 1950s and 1960s Europe as a fluegelhorn and trumpet [End Page 71] player. 1 While his musicianship will remain appreciated by jazz enthusiasts the world over, less attention has been given to his poetry.

Although Keane published five collections in all, and a number of his poems have been anthologized, wider recognition for his writing was not forthcoming until he won the Cuban Casa de las Americas prize for poetry in 1979, for his collection One a Week With Water: Rhymes and Notes. 2 However, the work achieved limited circulation and was soon out of print.

Superficially, this suggests that Keane is the epitome of the "minor" poet: he had a limited output, his poetry for the most part is out of print or not easily accessible and his writing, at present, appears unlikely to outlive him. This is not an unusual fate for most artists. Neither is there any shame or criticism intended in the use of the term "minor" poet. As a general rule, a writer writes because he is compelled to, and more than likely his writing will, sooner or later, be ignored. The label "minor" poet, however, raises a number of questions in relation to someone like Shake Keane. For example, Keane is not considered minor in his native St. Vincent, where his achievements are commemorated by a public monument. Furthermore, the extent to which a poet is considered minor is to some extent a matter of critical response, which in itself is partly led by fashion and marketability. Thus, it is not only the writer or poet who will "perform" his reputation, but also biographers and critics, whose attention or lack of it can rescue a forgotten or minor poet, or consign him to oblivion. Critical reputations are also built on the backs of writers' status and perceived literary value at a particular time.

In this context an unintentional irony is increasingly apparent in the work of many critics of Caribbean literature. Along with the many island nationalisms of the past forty or so years, there has appeared a parallel literary process through which the literary critic legitimizes, through structures of respectability, certain individual writers as well as various [End Page 72] subgroupings of their literature. A central characteristic of this type of criticism is its concern with writing (and reading) that is "serious." Lawrence Breiner has investigated the term as it is used in Caribbean poetry. He appears to recognize "seriousness" as loose shorthand, used sometimes to suggest writing that is profound and sometimes writing that is more widely inclusive or representational than in the past. 3 The point is demonstrated by the innumerable times that "serious" has been applied to the work of the two contemporary icons of Caribbean literature, Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott and Sir Vidiadad Naipaul. That "seriousness" remains an abiding concern of critics of Caribbean literature is illustrated by this recent tribute to Naipaul: "I liked the comedy and the direct style, but I also liked the seriousness of approach which informed the writing, however light its surface." 4 It seems to me that a concern with seriousness also implies a concern for legitimacy and respectability, as much for the writer's work as for the critic who is examining the work; the implications, especially of the latter, are rarely discussed.

In the English-speaking region, Kamau Brathwaite's championing of the "Little Tradition" in his criticism and poetry has done much to legitimize the vernacular and the culture of the folk, and so to encourage this culture to be taken seriously. In a discussion of the relationship of cultural (essentially racialized) diversity to Caribbean society, Brathwaite argues that the objective of all groups...


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