Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series.
When, as students, teachers or lovers of literature, we are introduced to Modernist literature, one of the first poets that we meet is American poet T.S. Eliot. His more famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock,” (1915) — frank, yet full of despair — opens with an epigraph from another famous work, Dante’s “Inferno” — a narrative poem where the speaker takes a spiritual journey through nine circles of hell and witnesses the various punishments meted out to sinners.
So, this is not a love song as much as it’s an emotional and psychological collage of images, an internal monologue of a man experiencing a sense of pointlessness and self-doubt in a fractured world that offers him no peace or surety.
A poem like this fuels the imagination because it is layered with beautifully evoked imaginings of its anxious persona. Just imagine when you might have bitten “off [a] matter with a smile,” or to be in a situation where you feel like you “squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question,” or “To see the streets as one continuing argument.” The speaker’s anxiety also resonates in the lines, “Do I dare Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
The poem’s persona symbolizes the modern man, at a time in the world when there is much discontent, disconnection and uncertainty, when America is in the middle of World War I. Its significance for a Virgin Islands student might be that this was also a time when Virgin Islanders were in the throes of uncertainty as the islands were in the twilight of Danish colonialism.
Upon first reading, you might say so much despair, so much psychological anguish. Not a tidy sonnet, ballad, haiku or other predictable poetic form. It owns itself in the way many modernist poems own themselves. In the end, the persona is at the seashore admitting that he has arrived at his destination — “growing old with his pants leg rolled.” Always observing, not playing a part. Not able to carve out his own space and march mindfully to the rhythms of his own life.
When Eliot’s deeply metaphorical intertextual free verse style took center stage, many felt that he made poetry seem too difficult. William Carlos Williams, who first published works that defied the structures established in the traditional canon, is another Modernist American writer, born of a Puerto Rican mother, whose work always inspires mixed reactions. In fact, critics regard Eliot’s work as the work that most overshadowed Willams’ experimental imagistic poetry. Of Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheel Barrow,”(1909) included below:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
One student said, “I get the metaphor concept. But this red wheel barrow, glazed with rain and chickens in the yard, doesn’t speak to me. It’s so simple. Is this really poetry? What does this mean? Why is this important?”
Those are the very questions that might inspire reflection. But, it’s the imagery, you see. Poems don’t always have to be difficult and there will be poems that fire up our disdain like that. All we can do is step back and imagine. Just imagine our own style as we work our own metaphors.
Aristotle, the first major Western literary critic, said in the “Poetics” that of all the gifts necessary for a poet, the gift of metaphor was the most important — our ability to represent something in terms of something else, or apply words or phrases to any space, place, object or idea that are not even applicable, yet making sense on some level.
Pressure Buss Pipe’s “basket” metaphor in the 2019 St. Thomas Carnival Road March song, “Do it and Done,” is a live popular example. Accordingly, “ Do it and Done” would have been advice that the anguished persona in the poem referenced earlier would have been wise to follow as he meandered through his life, ambivalent and insecure.
So, the question a person might ask here is: Is there a Modernist period in Virgin Islands literature? Can we place such a lofty label on the works of our writers? Mindfully and carefully, maintaining a critical eye, we might answer, why not? After all, the qualities of life that characterize the era exist in abundance in the literature of the period. Versions of the Modernist elements such as a lack of opportunity, disintegration of life, the ambivalence about “doing,” are all captured in the Modern Virgin Islands continuum of experience.
These tropes in Virgin Islands literature are sprinkled throughout The Caribbean Writer. The first such harvest, of works only by Virgin Islands writers included in Volumes 1-15, was edited by Marvin Williams (1955-2010), entitled “Seasoning for the Mortar” (2004).
At 33 years old, The Caribbean Writer is the oldest consistently published literary journal in the region. Yes, the Caribbean region. Our impressive list of advisory editorial board members is world renowned. Before writers like Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat and others received regional and international acclaim, they were first published in The Caribbean Writer. Today, the journal is sought-after by scholars in far-flung parts of the world and has its fire burning at the hearth of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at the University of the Virgin Islands.
The works published by The Caribbean Writer are voted on or refereed by a board of five of the university’s professors and scholars. Many of the works are marked by the rejection of the boundaries between designated levels of literature, as well as the distinctions between different genres and forms of writing — a hallmark of Modernism
Additionally, Virgin Islands writers have been breaking the strictures of the traditional cannon from very early on. This free-style expression that resonates in the writings was being explored after the Transfer and after World War I, even though forerunners, like celebrated writer J. Antonio Jarvis, used the enduring sonnet form as a framework for some of his own poetry. Yet, it was Jarvis that said in 1944 that in “pure literature, the Virgin Islands have produced scarcely anything that reached professional level.”
I am not sure whether or not he was including himself in that critique of “pure literature” and it depends on what he was looking for in the renditions that he was being critical of. But, I would like to suggest that if he were alive today, he would be forced to revisit those words in the face of the quality of the works of Virgin Islands writers in the mix of the last 30 years of The Caribbean Writer and beyond.
— Alscess Lewis-Brown, St. Croix, is the editor of The Caribbean Writer; she has written six books for young readers, including the popular Moko Jumbi Majorette series, and she is a part-time professor at The University of the Virgin Islands.