Oct 28, 2018 | 3:15 PM - 4:45 PM | Main Loft
How to Compose Emancipation Songs: The Persona of Caliban in Edward Brathwaite's Poetry
In Act 1 Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban tells Prospero and Miranda: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse” (1.2.362-363). By doing so, Caliban raises an explicit concern regarding the power dynamics associated with language – it is both controllable and transmittable. However, less attention is paid to what Caliban does with this knowledge. Caliban has long been a favoured persona for postcolonial writers for his resistance against Prospero’s domination over him, paralleling the sentiments felt by Caribbean writers concerning the vestiges of the colonial systems they find themselves within.
One poet that uses the persona of Caliban extensively is Edward “Kamau” Brathwaite. In my paper, I will focus on two of Brathwaite’s poems: “Caliban” and “Letter Sycorax”. Using the theories of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Frantz Fanon among others, I will attempt to answer how Brathwaite works with the persona of Caliban to reclaim his own language by focusing on the form as well as the linguistic interplay of puns and Caribbean references within his respective poems. By analyzing Brathwaite’s poetry, I contend that Brathwaite uses Caliban’s knowledge of the transmission and control of language to reclaim power in his writing. In other words, I argue that Brathwaite appropriates Caliban and views this Shakespearean character as a sign of emancipation from the bonds of language. One poem demonstrates the process of constructing, deconstructing, and rebuilding one’s language; the other poem demonstrates the joys and difficulties of putting one’s new language (and identity) into practice. By reclaiming language, Brathwaite frees his own Caribbean identity and culture from the bonds of colonial institutions, and by extension, gives Caliban freedom, too.
Politics and the English Language Revisited
It has been almost three quarters of a century since George Orwell published his seminal essay on the state of English prose, “Politics and the English Language.” Since that time there have been extraordinary technological, linguistic, social and political changes that have both exacerbated and challenged many of the habits of thought and writing that Orwell observed and criticized. Tweeting, texting, blogging, the decline of print media, a political culture that is overtly “post-truth” yet obsessed with “fake news” – these are only some of the things that affect and reflect the manner in which we express now ourselves in speech and writing. Then there is the general decline in reading across the culture, as well as in universities and colleges, institutions once thought to be guardians of the written and spoken word. It’s time we revisited Orwell’s analysis to see what light it might shed on our current situation and what we might yet do, as Orwell himself counselled us, to change our linguistic habits and thereby our political culture.
Grayson Chong is a poet, dancer, and scholar. In June 2019, she will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto with a major in English and double minor in French and creative writing. Grayson hopes to pursue a PhD in Caribbean studies. Her scholarly work focuses on early modern literature, Shakespeare and his contemporaries, poetry spanning across all periods, and postcolonial theory with an emphasis on Caribbean literature and culture. Grayson’s recent works are published in The Scarborough Review. She has presented at both national and international conferences, including (but not limited to) the University of Toronto Undergraduate Shakespeare Conference and the Sigma Tau Delta Annual Convention hosted in Cincinnati, Ohio. Grayson’s poetry and prose are featured in multiple anthologies, journals, magazines, and websites, including (but not limited to) The Scarborough Fair, The Tracery of Trees, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Young Voices Magazine. She has presented her creative works in many conferences including the Annual English Undergraduate Conference at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Grayson is currently working on two poetry collections: Songs for Diane and Redemption Songs. Songs for Diane is, in its broadest strokes, a collection on sonnets that reinvent and retell the lives of Shakespeare’s women in a 21st century context. Redemption Songs is a collection that focuses on experiences living within the Caribbean diaspora.
Dr. Ron Srigley teaches in the Departments of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Laurentian University and in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Humber College. He is the author of Albert Camus’ Critique of Modernity and Eric Voegelin’s Platonic Theology. He is translator of Albert Camus, Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism. He is currently at work on a manuscript entitled Albert Camus Reconsidered for Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Canada. He essays and interviews have appeared in The Walrus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and L’Obs.