Andrew Salkey in the mid 1960s. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.
This is a poem about Jamaica, about the experience of the slave trade and of colonisation and about a struggle for freedom and for identity which still rages today among Caribbean peoples. It deals with political issues, but is not simply a political poem. Rather it conjures up the swirling colours, the music, the moods, the atmosphere of a bustling, suffering, vital island community.
So says the blurb for the first edition of Andrew Salkeyâs epic poem published in 1973, a typescript of which is currently on display in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land. The poem had been 20 years in the writing. Its seed lay, presumably, in the poem of the same name that won Salkey the Thomas Helmore Poetry Prize in 1955, though nothing remains of this earlier effort in his archive here at the British Library. There are, however, records of the poemâs publication and reception among the fifty cartons of papers (and sound recordings) that make up the Salkey Archive. These boxes have been extensively mined for the Windrush exhibition: the number of items on display from this one archive is testament to Salkeyâs importance as a central figure in the Caribbean arts scene and his tendency to act as its unofficial archivist. He was jokingly labelled âChief Recorder of Caribbean authors and their whereaboutsâ by close friend Sam Selvon in recognition of his meticulous collecting and documentation activities. But more than that, Salkey played a crucial role in connecting and encouraging writers, influencing the decisions of British publishers and asserting the worth of Caribbean arts and cultures internationally.
'Jamaica' poem by Andrew Salkey, from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310.
As a novelist, poet, broadcaster with the seminal BBC programme Caribbean Voices, activist, academic and co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Salkeyâs importance is difficult to overstate. Born in Panama in 1928, brought up in Jamaica, resident in Britain from 1952 and later the US, Salkey was a truly diasporic figure. His political interests in revolutionary Cuba, newly-independent Guyana and Chileâs fight against the Pinochet regime are all evident in the archive, as is his stellar network of correspondents which include CLR James, Chinua Achebe and even a fan-letter from Maya Angelou. His own writing is well represented too, with manuscripts and correspondence pertaining to many (though not all) of his novels, poetry, childrenâs stories and non-fiction books.
Salkey interviewing Ray Charles for the BBC, 1966. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.
When it came to deciding which example of Salkeyâs own work to include in the Windrush exhibition, the decision was not easy and I wish we could have included more items. Whereas his novels exploring the Caribbean immigrant experience in Britain had previously been displayed in exhibitions at the Library, we felt that this time the poem Jamaica deserved a showing. For myself and my co-curator Elizabeth Cooper, Jamaica stands out for the power and directness of its language, and also because it was representative of many Caribbean writers and artistsâ desire to possess their own understanding of Caribbean history and culture. Salkey explained this desire for greater knowledge to Anne Walmsley (quoted in her book The Caribbean Artists Movement):
I got a British Museum reading card, and I went to the Public Record Office nearby. And I really started learning about me and home and the history, because I damnâ well wanted to talk to Jamaicans about Jamaica in the long poem that I was hoping to write. And therefore for the first time I began to realise myself as a colonial and us as a colony, and our history, and the way that we were forever at somebody elseâs beck and call. Our economy wasnât ours. Even our language wasnât really ours. We had to, at least I had to, relearn a great deal.
Present in the archive is the original (anonymous) readerâs report that was submitted to Salkeyâs publishers, Hutchinson. The reader judged the poem to be âa work of imagination and originalityâ - âalways interesting, and often moving â nowhere more so than in the descriptions of what "freedom" means, when it consists only in abolishing licensed slavery.â They noted some reservations about the symphonic structure (which Salkey removed prior to publication), but praised Salkeyâs use of dialect:
The many dialect sections seem outstandingly successful to me: they capture a very rich human feeling and present no difficulty to someone unfamiliar with Caribbean speech, like myself. Within their terse and repetitive rhythms, there is a great deal of unforced poetry. This is the real language of ritual and as such it has a greater lyricism and power than the well-contrived but slightly stale formality of the other sections.
On publication Jamaica received a mixed response, both from critics and friends. The TLS (25 Jan 1974) described the poem as âa loud cry for the island to reclaim its identity from the wrongs and sorrows of imperialism, ancient and present, and reassert Caribbea in myth, history and current bloodâ, but did not find its execution entirely successful. One friend, Judy Ruggles, wrote to say she had initially regarded it as âAndrewâs indulgenceâ but had since changed her mind on visiting Jamaica for the first time. The Jamaican Daily News lauded the poem for telling the islandâs pre-Columbian history, whereas the sharpest criticism came from the UK version of the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner (21 August 1974) which opened its review by quoting Samuel Johnsonâs line: âSir (it) is like a dogâs wailing on its hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at allâ. Despite first impressions, the reviewer is not, actually, questioning the quality of the writing so much as the reason for publishing a 100-page poem that it says hardly anyone will read since Salkey âantagonisesâ his middle-class readers with the inclusion of âfour-letter wordsâ, and âThe masses who may approve of that sort of thing do not buy books, neither prose nor poetryâ. But I will give the last word to Christopher Laird, publisher of the Trinidadian arts journal Kairi, who declared âAgain I must tell you how successful your âInto History Nowâ has been and how much we all dig it. Hardly a statement can be made these days without fitting in a line from âInto Historyââ.
That influence has lived on, as demonstrated by Raymond Antrobus who read from the poem at Mondayâs event on the sound of the Caribbean voice. He spoke about his appreciation of Salkeyâs poetry and the importance of seeing a copy of Jamaica on each of his parentâs bookshelves â his English mother and Jamaican father - as he was growing up.
Part of the power of Jamaica lies in its refrain âI into history, nowâ with its radical sense of embodying history in order to reclaim it. Salkey returns to this idea in the final movement of the poem. Starting with an invocation to âgrab weself like we know weselfâ, it concludes with these lines:
Culture come when you buck up
It start when youâ body make shadow
on the lanâ,
anâ you know say
that you standinâ up into mirror
I say to meself,
âIs how the mento music go?â
âIs how the river flow?â
or, âHow the sea does lay down so?â
I done witâ you.
I into history, now.
Is the lanâ I want
anâ is the lanâ
I out to get.
The twenty yearsâ journey of self-discovery that Salkey embarked upon with this poem was a long one, but a necessary one given the gaps and silences that have dogged our understanding of Caribbean history, culture and identity. Elsewhere in the exhibition we feature the work of other cultural figures who embarked on a similar learning process, from poet James Berry who wrote about coming to terms with his Caribbean background only after witnessing racism in the southern states of the US, to novelist Andrea Levy who has written about her own revelation that she was part of the âblack experienceâ despite growing up in a light-skinned, middle-class family who had distanced themselves from the black community due to the legacy of colonial-era shadism. This flourishing of Caribbean literature is in evidence throughout the exhibition, so if you havenât seen it yet there is still time as the display runs until 21 October.
As for Andrew Salkeyâs archive - without which the exhibition would be considerably poorer - we are pleased to announce that cataloguing of the collection will begin early next year and will lead to a conference to be held here at the British Library in 2020, thanks to the support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.