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Reviewed by:
  • Poetry of Haitian Independence ed. by Doris Y. Kadish, Deborah Jenson
  • Marlene L. Daut (bio)
Poetry of Haitian Independence
Translated by Norman R. Shapiro
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015

Contemporary Haitian literary criticism has often focused on questions of language and audience: for whom does the Haitian author write? In which language should she or he write, French or Haitian Kreyòl? And who read will read those works? No reader with even a cursory knowledge of Haitian society can be left unaffected by the fact that the majority of Haitians today (as in the nineteenth century) remain monolingual Kreyòl speakers, for whom the vast and rich Francophone literary tradition of the country dating back to the eighteenth century is largely inaccessible. Contemporary Francophone Caribbean novelists Jean Bernabé, Raphaël Confiant, and Patrick Chamoiseau in their famous 1989 manifesto “In Praise of Creoleness” decried the fact that the majority of mainstream Caribbean authors express themselves in European-origin languages rather than the varying Creoles spoken by the majority of Caribbean peoples. This fact led the trio to make a bold claim: “Caribbean literature does not yet exist” since it is a part of a “written production without a home audience.” The choice of Caribbean authors to publish primarily in English, French, or Spanish suggested to Bernabé, Confiant, and Chamoiseau that the writers themselves were ignorant of “the authors/readers interaction,” which is the “primary condition of the development of a literature” (886).

The relative lack of Creole-language texts from the French Caribbean, signaled by these Caribbean writers, dominated the attention of much of twentieth-century Francophone postcolonial literary criticism.1 One of the continuing effects of these debates is that nineteenth-century Haitian authors (who wrote almost uniquely in French) have often been dismissed [End Page 789] as unimportant by those who suggest that their writings are bereft of originality, home audience, and rupture from French literature, and that furthermore this writing lacks the Creole-Kreyòl linguistic innovation that sets late twentieth-century Haitian letters apart from other Francophone Caribbean literary traditions.

At first glance, the poems in The Poetry of Haitian Independence, all of which were originally composed in French, might appear to confirm the idea that nineteenth-century Haitian authors directed their texts to foreign (Francophone) readers rather than to Haitians themselves. However, this is far from the truth. These poems are filled with apostrophes to the Haitian people and brim with references to Haitian history, demonstrating the fervent and robust existence of a Haitian national culture that dates back to the earliest days of independence.

The introduction to Doris Y. Kadish and Deborah Jenson’s edited collection of nineteenth-century Haitian poetry in translation, Poetry of Haitian Independence, which contains a beautiful foreword by the US-based Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat, puts these historically minded poems into the context necessary for understanding them beyond the limits of past scholarship on the topic, while also soundly refuting any singular charge of imitation that might be leveled at the poets themselves. Kadish and Jenson observe, for example, that “[t]he charge of imitation directed at the poetry of Haitian independence was also leveled at [Jacques] Delille, whose critics focused, among other things, on the stilted language that recurs so predictably in neoclassical writing” (xxx). The editors further contextualize both the form and language in which early Haitian poetry appears by explaining that the adoption by Haitian poets of certain neoclassical structures and symbols was a part of many nineteenth-century literary cultures. The neoclassic style may have been attractive to Haitian poets partly because, as they write, “Neoclassicism’s orientation was toward the public. . . . [and] served to fuel public consciousness.” They continue, “Thus, the seemingly incongruous references to mythology and antiquity in early Haitian poetry reflect a tribute to the democratic values of Greek society” (xxx).

With these highly (and expertly) annotated poems, Kadish and Jenson urge a more broadly historicized method of understanding nineteenth-century Haitian literature, one that can help us to move beyond Jean Price-Mars’s famous charge of “collective bovaryism.” Kadish and Jenson write, “Although Price-Mars was advocating...


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