“I See My Land”: Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Olive Senior on World Poetry Day, 2021

Our recently installed Poet Laureate, Olive Senior, has pledged to help foster environmental awareness through her poetry. She was guest speaker at this year’s World Poetry Day celebration organised by the National Library of Jamaica in partnership with UNESCO – a virtual event, of course. I am hoping that next year we will all be together, so that the words and music can flow effortlessly. But in these COVID times (or what another highly creative Jamaican, Fabian Thomas, named “Covidity” – not Livity) we have to just do what we can. It was still a lovely and thought-filling occasion, as always.

Actress and playwright Dahlia Harris was MC.

Here she talks about the everyday poetry that many Jamaicans grow up with. Her words were greatly enhanced by a wonderful “vox pop” conducted by young reporter Brithney Clarke, in which she asked Jamaicans: “Can you recite poetry that you recall? Is poetry important to you?” Responses from young and old were enthusiastic. There was Miss Lou, and more!

Vox pop at Half Way Tree.

I am more than excited to know that Ms. Senior has taken on this mantle – not just her illustrious title, but also to use her wonderful poetry (and others’ I suspect) to make us open our eyes and love the land we live in. Words, art, music – all can inspire us to environmental action. If poetry cannot inspire, what can?

Here is Ms. Senior’s speech on World Poetry Day (I added some YouTube links to the songs!)

Poet Laureate of Jamaica Olive Senior speaking on World Poetry Day, March 22.

Olive Senior

Why Poetry?

World Poetry Day March 22 2021

Today we are celebrating World Poetry Day established by UNESCO “to encourage reading, writing and the teaching of poetry.” Thanks to the National Library of Jamaica for sponsoring this event.

‘Why poetry?’ some might well ask. Especially at this time.

Yet, one of the things that the pandemic is demonstrating is how people around the world are turning to poetry for consolation and emotional sustenance. Part of the magic of poetry has always been its ability to bring communities together at times of celebration or bereavement.

Not all poetry is the same, of course. There is the poetry that is meant to harass our brain cells, leave us reeling from shock or bring us to laughter or tears. Poetry to be studied and analysed and dissected. But the art of poetry is such, that a poem of any origin can take root in one individual soul or touch a whole world.

Unfortunately, many in Jamaica seem to have lost that love of poetry that we once had. Perhaps because we have come to regard poetry as something written down in books, to be studied for exams and then forgotten. Many do not see poetry as relevant to their lives, especially when lives are so overburdened with everyday challenges.

As Poet Laureate, I would like to see us turning back to a world where poetry played a role in everyone’s life. Many of us can still remember our fathers and mothers, lettered or unlettered, able to recite well known verses or lengthy poems. At a time when oral cultural transmission and memory work were strong, having bits of poetry in one’s personal baggage was a matter of pride. One could pull from memory and throw at others, as needed, words to console, to heal, to teach, to warn, to entertain or amuse, to impart everyday wisdom and rules of life, and even to offer back-chat or ‘throw-word’.  For the young ones, poems were part of entertainment and play.

I don’t feel that my job today is to appeal to those among us who were brought up on poetry, who love poetry, who already know that poetry matters.

My address rather is to those of you who do not think poetry has any bearing on your lives. I would like to convince you by pointing to the many ways your lives are already touched by poetry from birth to death, perhaps not recognised as such, because we are calling poetry by so many other names.

Acknowledging the poetry we already consume in our everyday lives will encourage us to want more of it, the way our grandparents did, by memorizing. It is now well established that our popular music did not originate from thin air, but lyrically had its origins in the oral recitations, proverbs, church hymns, and teachings embodied in Grannie’s sayings.  

So I want to take you who is not a lover of poetry through some of the ways poetry is already embedded in your life. In the process, you might even remember and want to say with me, the words of some of what you didn’t even remember that you knew.

We need to reiterate that poetry is part of written culture, yes, the thing we learn in school. The poetry of ideas and craft, of a tradition of named poets and performers and international recognition of both written and spoken poetics, books and recordings.  

But poetry also belongs to the people. It is the one craft that offers possibilities to everyone to take words into the mouth and toss them around to see them fall into shape. But first we need to begin at beginning, fostering a love of words in children, encouraging them to acquire language along with rhythm and rhyme.

And that is where our introduction to poetry begins, as children, in the world of Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes.

Who does not remember:

Golden slumber kiss your eyes/smiles await you when you rise…. or

Sing a song of Sixpence, a pocket full of Rye

Or

Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow?

Which of you can dredge from memory those teaching tools known as Memory Gems that werewritten or pinned up on the walls of every schoolroom and repeated as needed to keep young folk on the straight and narrow and imprinted on our conscience throughout life?

Speak the truth and speak it ever

Cost it what it will

He who hides the wrong he does

Does the wrong thing still.

Or

Lives of great men reached and kept

Were not attained by sudden flight

But they while their companions slept

By toiling upwards in the night.

Most of these pearls of wisdom are part of world culture.

But we in Jamaica have generated our own ways of transmitting wisdom in rhyme and verse, best exemplified by Louise Bennett and those young poets of the spoken word who are following in her footsteps.

So in these hard times, many will find their situation perfectly captured in, for instance, that old poem of Miss Lou’s: “Dutty tough”:

Sun a shine but tings no bright

Doah pot a bwile, bickle no nuff

River flood but water scarce,

Rain a fall but dutty tough

Tings so bad dat nowadays when

Yu ask smaddy how dem do

Dem fraid yuh tek it tell dem back,

so dem no answer yuh

And even when dutty tough, we have the poetry of our folk songs to remind us of better, such as “Mango Time” when:

At the height of the mango crop

When the fruit them a ripe and drop

Wash you pot, turn them down, mango time.

We tend to forget too that poetry is embedded in what we call mnemonic devices, or personal reminders:

Thirty days hath September

April, June and November

This is part of universal lore. But we have our own Caribbean mnemonic too, in our hurricane reminder:

June too soon

July stand by

August you must

September remember

October all over

I shouldn’t have to remind you that song lyrics are also poetry, and Jamaica has given some of the most memorable lyrics to the world, from the consolation of

the rivers of Babylon

to so much of the offerings of Bob Marley or Toots or Burning Spear or Bob Andy, or Buju, to name a few, or of the creative vibes of the new generation taking fresh lyrics to the world.

Try tuning out the sound sometimes and listen to the poetry, to the sheer lyrical genius of, say, The Heptones’ “Book of Rules”:

Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings

in clown-ragged capers in sawdust rings

While common people like you and me

Are builders for eternity

Each is given a bag of tools

A shapeless mass, and a book of rules  

I hope that by now I have convinced you on the fence that you are already consuming a great deal of poetry without realising it. And I have yet to refer to probably the most popular means of poetry transmission in Jamaica, known as the land of churches – religious or sacred hymns. Yes, all hymns are sung, but they too begin life as word, as poetry, ranging from Jamaican Revival hymns such as:

Noah build the Ark and gone

Another generation come

or the amazing poetic metaphor of likening the betrayer Judas to a “Parakeet in the Garden”

To the Rastafarian

There is a land….far, far away….

To the beloved church hymns from Europe or America, old and still universally popular, such as:

When peace like a river

Attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul

Yes, on World Poetry Day, I hope I have managed to convince you, Unbelievers,  that there is so much that one can say in answer to the question: Why Poetry? Perhaps, even answer the question: What is poetry?

To those of you who already write, read and teach poetry, who speak poetry, who love poetry, I am depending on you to help spread Word.

I have already announced my intention to use my mandate as Poet Laureate to help to foster environmental awareness through poetry, with the slogan “I see my land.”

We need to open the eyes and ears of our children especially to the beauty and power of words so that they can practise holding them in their mouths, continue to dance to the timeliness rhythms of their mother’s heartbeats, feel the power of nursery rhymes and ring games in the school yard as ways of acquiring sound, word and power.  Let us use our natural gifts for rhyme and rhythm and song and word play to talk about matters that concern us all.

Poetry can help us to take responsibility for our world by giving us new ways of seeing. “I see my land”, is a way to bring poetry down to everyone’s line of sight, in backyards, lanes, seaside or mountaintop.

Let us by next World Poetry Day be able to offer up some poems that can assert with pride: “I see my land”.

Poetry on the street, recited from childhood memories. Everyday poetry.


7 thoughts on ““I See My Land”: Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Olive Senior on World Poetry Day, 2021

  1. Dear Miss Senior,

    Heartfelt congratulations on your appointment. I found your speech very moving. I have shared it the three Platanos Academies Trust schools, who are now on their 3rd Publication by Arts Council England.

    Thank you.
    Humroy

    Like

    1. Thank you Humroy for taking notice and for sharing the information. And to you Petchary for helping to spread the word,
      .
      Olive

      Like

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