Thursday 10 July 2014


Young readers in the Caribbean and around the world are in for a treat with a vibrant new anthology of poetry titled Give the Ball to the poet.

Timed to coincide with the 2014 World Cup and the Commonwealth Games (23 July to 3 August in Glasgow, Scotland), the book has its own exciting tempo, with adroit word-play by writers from across the Caribbean region.

The poetic atmosphere is further enlivened by the dynamic illustrations of artist Jane Ray, giving the whole collection a colourful, sensuous flair.

“We tried to represent the past, the present and the future of Caribbean poetry,” says Morag Styles, Professor of Children’s Poetry at Cambridge University and one of the editors of the anthology along with Georgie Horrell and Aisha Spencer.

“Readers will find the uniqueness and music of the Caribbean here, and there are some delightful new voices alongside the more established poets,” Styles adds.

Poetry lovers will recognize the works of well-known writers such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Louise Bennett, Derek Walcott, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Olive Senior and Velma Pollard, among others, while the emerging generation of poets includes Kei Miller and Shara McCallum of Jamaica.

Prof. Morag Styles
Aimed primarily at students aged 11 to 16, the anthology will appeal equally to grown-ups as the poems range from humourous and cheery to serious and provocative.

The main emphasis is on Caribbean poetry as it is spoken, according to the editors, thus many of the poems seem to call out to be read aloud. Take “from Dreamer” by Jean Binta Breeze. It begins:  roun a rocky corner / by de sea / seat up / pon a drif wood / yuh can fine she.

This kind of lyricism and rhythm swings through the collection, whatever the topic. The anthology, in fact, has several themes, one of the first being sports and games. It is especially with sports that readers see the poets ready and willing to play - with language, ideas, meaning and more.

In Sir Garfield, John Agard of Guyana pays homage to one of cricket’s greatest players with a poem that holds the lines: he hit one six and he hit two six / he hit three six and he hit four six / he hit five six and he hit six six / Six six in a row. / Licks-o licks-o! Sir Garfield on de go.

Further, in the work that gave the book its name, Agard links writing and cricket, with these thoughts:

If is true de poet
does commune with nature,
then de fast bowler (don’t forget)
does talk to de wind.
So rub a poem on yuh flannel,
rub till de poem red as hell.
About time de poet
have a little spell.

In “Good Sport”, meanwhile, Jamaican poet Valerie Bloom writes wryly of the sleep-inducing qualities of some games, but again with that certain melody: I can’t understand people who do not like sport,/ I appreciate games of every sort,/ For I find that when I’m trying to sleep,/ Sports is much more effective than counting sheep.

Along with the more whimsical works, the anthology comprises some hard-hitting poems that have caused controversy even before this publication. An example is “I Am Nobody’s Nigger” by Dean Atta, who excoriates rappers for their use of the so-called N-word. Atta reminds readers that this was one of the last words heard by Stephen Lawrence, the young man murdered by racists in London in 1993.

The England-based poet rebukes those celebrities who “put money over everything … over self-respect and self-esteem,” charging that they “killed hip-hop and resurrected headless zombies”.

Jamaican poet Velma Pollard. © Mckenzie. 
This work and others form part of the poems of “resilience and resistance”, as Guyanese British poet Grace Nichols puts it in her foreword.

After the sports sections, the book “opens out into the broader concerns” of a complex Caribbean and its culture, she says.

The writers give us poems to "chant and sing and dance to as well as poems for quiet wide-eyed contemplation", says Nichols.

Velma Pollard's "Bridgetown" would fit this latter category, coming from a poet whose work has an artistic sensibility all its own. Because the sea / walks here / this city / hands you heaven, she writes. Words that could also be used to evoke the Caribbean.

Published by the Commonwealth Education Trust, Give the Ball to the poet is an outcome of the Caribbean Poetry Project, which is a collaboration between The University of the West Indies and the Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge. The book was produced by Third Millennium Publishing for the CET, with Neil Titman and team.

Jane Ray's illustration for a Jean Binta Breeze poem