The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: Poetry of the Jamaican Peasantry

Posted on: December 9, 2007

11:27 PM: I’d given a mere hint at how I’d often found McKay’s descriptions of the local “natives” …inappropriate somehow, not quite fit for a Jamaican novel, with his affection for the word *”peasantry” and this very tight, very defined class structure, in which a move from farmer’s daughter to seamstress meant you couldn’t do dance at “secular” parties. But perhaps he reflected the times. At the library I happened upon a tiny book entitled The Orange Grove and Other Poems of the Jamaican Peasantry by Hurlburt Stafford. It was published by the Saint James Press (I never knew such a thing ever existed in Montego Bay) in 1927. I can’t find any information about either the book or the author except for descriptions on antique book sites.

The poems are very…quaint. Rather like McKay’s novel. There’s the predictable image of the “peasant” woman walking through the forest “queenly” with a basket on her head, odes to market day, a long, long one on an orange grove and, to my delight, an Anancy story. Nothing very revolutionary or eye-popping here but it does have a high curiosity factor. Most of them are of a decent length, at least 3 pages, so I’ll only type the first one, which is short, to leave you with tonight.

A Pretty Pimento Picker by Hurlburt Stafford

Her bosom and her rounded arms are bare,
And through the dark green foliage on the hill
She slowly ranges in the morning still,
While o’er her brown cheek falls her loosened
hair.

A heap of broken branchlets are her care,
Beating off the berries green with woodland skill
Into the perfumed baskets as they fill
With warmest breath of spicery on the air.

Her basket, poising then upon her head
She walks with all the bearing of a queen,
Back where the barbecue, sun-heated, lies:

A nymph Arcadian in her kirtle red,
With glimpses of the girlish form between,
And far-away look in her lovely eyes.

*The more I read, the more his perspective becomes clearer. What a bit of historical knowledge can do. 

4 Responses to "Sunday Salon: Poetry of the Jamaican Peasantry"

I think it’s a very interesting question just how much or how little contextual knowledge should be taken account of in a reading. Leavis, of course, would have had us all ignoring it completely, but I think your experience shows just how important it can be to an understanding of a work. Perhaps we need to consider a novel/poem/play (or I suppose any piece of art) from two perspectives, that of its ‘pure’ worth as an artistic artefact and also in the light of both it and our cultural context.

By the way, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you just how much I enjoy your blog and what a pleasure it is to engage with the thoughts of such an interesting and interested reader – if I haven’t I should have done, because it’s true.

This is a frustrating poem to read. I have some rather pointed thoughts about it, but I want to be fair, too–and/but, as your commenter above notes, it’s hard to know just how to approach it. Even the Formalist critic, consciously or not, reads out of that context established by knowledge of the poetic tradition (how else to identify a poem as, say, a sonnet?).

At a very minimum, though, I think it’s fair to say that, apart from mentioning the “far-away look in her lovely eyes,” the speaker shows little interest in the subject of this poem beyond describing her physical charms. Is the poem only about the woman’s beauty, though?

“Meaning” and “intentionality” are difficult to keep separate from each other, no? To borrow a phrase from Dickinson in another context, at times

they will differ–if they do–
As syllable from sound.

A few of those lines are real wincers, aren’t they? “A nymph Arcadian in her kirtle red”, ouch.

Ann Darnton, yes, I would never go for an either/or approach, and in some books the integration of the two is so pronounced you can’t ignore it.

And thank you, Ann, for such an encouraging compliment. Such feedback is very gratifying.

John B. to be frank, I did not give the poem much attention because it seemed built on a groan-inducing, “picture postcard” image of Jamaica. You know them, nice photo of a plump woman in her “peasant” clothing with a wrapped head, basket on top, maybe holding it with one hand, smiling pleasantly in her lush surroundings, the sun shining down. It’s a superficial perspective because it’s not a lie but it’s a characteristic outsiders generally reduce us to.

It’s why I wanted to know who the heck Hulburt Stafford was to get an idea of…what he was trying to get it, but came up empty.

On a purely aesthetic level it’s pretty corny, to me.

Amateur ha! Tell me about it. It’s as though he picked up a so-so British poetry anthology and chose the worst selections to emulate.

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