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Strange Bedfellows: Kwame Dawes Uncovers Links Between TS Elliott and Caribbean Poetry

Professor Kwame Dawes

At a first glance, Caribbean poetry and the work of TS Elliott do appear to be Strange Bedfellows, as declared by the aptly titled lecture by Professor Dawes, staged by the National Library of Jamaica. In the enjoyable and insightful lecture, ‘Strange Bedfellows: TS Elliot and Caribbean Poetry’, Dawes uncovered the development of Caribbean writing, showing the ways in which the Caribbean writing had rubbed up against Elliott’s poetry. 

"I think they were more troubled bedfellows than strange,” Dawes said, “and I think that the trouble was largely on the side of the Caribbean poets. I don't think Elliott cared."

In his opening, Dawes promised that the lecture would be “chaotic, occasionally insightful and largely entertaining," and in the main, he was true to his word. However, while he meandered merrily, he never became chaotic. 

Dawes also explained that it was not a completely distant relationship between TS Elliott and Caribbean poets. He delivered a practical example noting that Elliott was the editor at Faber who acquired John Hearne’s work for the major publisher.

Dawes pointed out that although, Elliott had a modest creative output, the impact of his work was significant. "It would have been careless of any aspiring poet to not at least contend with Elliott,” Dawes said.

Dawes explained that the poets of the early to mid 20th century (Claude McKay, Walcott, Naipaul,) as writing in a relative "vacuum". He and poets of this generation he says had not, and the younger generation of contemporary poets firmly "planted" in the tradition created by Brathwaite et al, as well as being able to declare themselves as a part of the global milieu.

"Part of the attraction of Elliott is that he allows us to deal with an Englishness that is not English," Dawes said. He explained that as Caribbean poets strove to openly resist the English canon, Elliott’s work provided a way to approach the "pleasure and the passion” of the body of English literature and then then "usurp that canon". He remarked that as Elliot’s work was not prescriptive, it became alluring as it challenged the poets to find their own ways of expressing themselves.

Dawe's lecture attracted a full house of literary lovers to the National Library of Jamaica“He offers a way to love the British and still break away from that tradition,” Dawes said. He used the example of his own father, author Neville Dawes, whom he described as anglophile and yet radically opposed to colonialism. Dawes explained that the Jamaican education, built on the British system created a fondness for the literature but often created "conflicted" situations as Caribbean writers questioned their place in the English tradition and not merely whether it was a tradition to which they belonged, but whether it was a tradition to which they wanted to belong.

Interestingly, a similar kind of conflict had a similar conflict as he more easily identified with the British rather than American tradition, as was accused of trying to be more British than the British.

"I think Elliott gave them (Caribbean writers) permission to engage with the work and then challenge the work,” Dawes said.

Dawes remarked however that he gets no sense that Elliott was deliberately being a gate crasher of the British Canon that allowed for the incursion of other voices.Kellie Magnus introduces Kwame Dawes

Readings of TS  Elliott's ‘Lovesong for J Alfred Prufrock‘ (read by Andrew Brodber) and Kamau Brathwaite's 'The Dust'  (read by Carolyn Allen) had lay the base on for the lecture, providing a good point of departure from which the audience could see the connections that Dawes would later make. Dawes had been ably introduced by publisher and Vice Chairman of the NLJ board, Kellie Magnus.

The lecture was held at the National Library of Jamaica, downtown Kingston on Sunday, March 23. Kwame Dawes is the co-founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival and Professor of English, University of Nebraska.