- Global Anglophone Poetry: Literary Form and Social Critique in Walcott, Muldoon, de Kok, and Nagra by Omaar Hena
Here are two arguments you have likely encountered if you read postcolonial poetry:
1. Poet P, who uses English or European techniques, shows that we can consider those techniques wholly apart from their origins, because P uses them so well to present her non-English or non-European life. Those techniques are, simply, part of the global literary scene, available for all poets equally.
2. Poet Q, who claims to eschew English or European techniques, demonstrates that poets must eschew them in order to represent non-English or non-European lives. Newly independent nations, especially those of the African diaspora, need a brand-new "nation language" (Kamau Brathwaite); large, optimistic, non-European countries require a new, unrestrained kind of language with "the quality of sprawl" (passim, Les Murray's name for the wide-open, honest Australianness that his poetry also pursues).
Omaar Hena's Global Anglophone Poetry: Literary Form and Social Critique in Walcott, Muldoon, de Kok, and Nagra is a largely persuasive study of four [End Page 263] Anglophone postcolonial poets that demonstrates how and where both of these arguments can be wrong. Derek Walcott, Paul Muldoon, Ingrid de Kok, and Daljit Nagra are all, as Hena claims, "receiving and repurposing canonical literary forms" (2), among them epic, pentameter, end rhyme, florilegium, elegiac lyric, and dramatic monologue. Hena does more with modes and genres than with forms in a strict sense, caring more for history than for acoustics—though he can certainly hear the latter. All four of these poets are nationally, if not internationally, honored for their mastery of modes and forms. And yet, despite what the word "mastery" suggests, Hena finds that these poets show what forms, modes, and genres cannot do. Their poems demonstrate "how aesthetic uses of language can sometimes make legible their own limitations before social realities" and how poets can use literary form to show the limits of "structural inequalities" that limit what art and artists can accomplish (162, 43).
Hena accurately argues that Nagra's poems of mimicry and persona—with their foolish-wise Black British and Asian characters—point to the stereotypical expectations integral to the British multiculturalism that has given Nagra his success in the United Kingdom: without the cultural bias that these comic poems mock, there would be no basis for the comedy. De Kok's lyric and elegiac poems—traditional in mode, though written in free verse—show how "a marginal writer must link up with the cultural capital of authors recognized as central to the Anglo-American cultural core … to become legible in the global North" (159; emphasis in original). Walcott accomplished a similar linkage in Omeros (1990), an epic that Hena argues is conscious of what it appears to have lost in making those links, in adopting European symbols and sounds. In Omeros, both the system of ocean currents that the sailor Achille must traverse and the world literary system that Walcott has traversed—with its fish and pirogues, its hexameters and its nationalisms—propose "an aesthetic model of globalism" hemmed in "by … the inequities of the global literary marketplace" and global inequity more generally (29). The closer Walcott gets to success and power (both aesthetic and institutional) through his command of literary forms, the farther he seems from the relatively powerless, marginal St. Lucia that he wants to represent. Put more baldly: you can write St. Lucia in a way that makes St. Lucia seem important and legible in Manhattan and Islington, or you can write St. Lucia in a way that makes you seem close to the real St. Lucia, but you cannot do both at once. Hena argues that this circle cannot be squared. It can, however, be made into a subject for an epic poem, boosted by puns and dialect spellings, as in the name of Achille's canoe: In God We Troust. [End Page 264]
While Hena's consideration of Walcott reflects...