Associate Professor of English
Penn State Behrend
A preponderance of anglophone Caribbean poetry, particularly performance and vernacular based work, takes place in the street. The focus on street life extends across the twentieth century both in the Caribbean and in the diaspora, ranging from Claude McKay’s ballads written in the voice of a constable as he walks his beat to Louise Bennett’s market women demanding space and recognition at crowded intersections to Dionne Brand’s documentation of microaggressions and alienation in the streets of Toronto. The fact that so many poems take place in the street, or draw inspiration from its sights and sounds, makes sense given the prominence of street-performance culture in the region. However, this broader trend only partially explains Caribbean poets’ preoccupation with urban geography. Unlike other street-based cultural forms, such as carnival, centered on ephemeral moments of celebration and subversion, street poems often stage quotidian conflicts to call for broader inclusion in the public sphere. The characteristic street poem features a speaker wandering down the road sharing observations—elements that become increasingly politicized in the post-independence era.
My project establishes the street poem as a unique genre in Caribbean literature, tracking its development across the twentieth century. Caribbean poets have long been recognized for their challenge to poetry institutions through engagements with oral traditions and vernacular languages, but their innovative approaches to representing the urban environment, which differ from Euro-American modernist depictions of the city, have received scant attention. I argue that the publicness of the street poem disrupts Western conceptions of poetry as a confessional discourse of private thoughts and reframes questions of vocal authority as inseparable from the social production of space.