This evening will see the launch of a new book - Teaching Caribbean Poetry - written for English teachers. The book is the latest outcome of an ambitious collaboration between the University of the West Indies and the University of Cambridge. 

This pioneering programme seeks to give poetry a more central place in young people’s learning.

If you think poetry is dull or inaccessible – or simply too difficult – go to the Poetry Archive and listen to a poem called Childhood Tracks read by its author, James Berry. In the simplest of language he takes listeners into the world of a child in a village absorbing the smells, sounds and sights of the day - from the sound of the sea washing on the shore and ‘the dawn-crowing of cocks’ to ‘the slants of evening sun’ slowly disappearing as fisherman mend their nets.

Childhood Tracks is the first of many poems from a wide range of writers discussed in a book to be launched today, Teaching Caribbean Poetry, a collection of essays edited by Beverley Bryan of the University of the West Indies and Morag Styles of the University of Cambridge.

The book introduces secondary school teachers to a relatively new area of literature which, emerging over the last 100 years in parallel with an explosion of music, has been described as “the most life affirming and spiritually uplifting body of poetry”. Its publication reflects the determination of its editors and their contributors (who include poets as well as academics and teachers) to engage young people in the richness of poetry produced in the islands of the Caribbean and their worldwide diaspora.

Teaching Caribbean Poetry is the latest development of an ambitious collaboration initiated in 2010. The Caribbean Poetry Project brings together academics, teachers and poets from both sides of the Atlantic to share their enthusiasm for an art form that many schools, and even some universities, shy away from.  The project has led to workshops and conferences, attended by poets and teachers, both in the Caribbean and in Cambridge – all held with the intention of celebrating a body of writing that has enormous vitality and emotional power.

As a pioneering programme that seeks to give poetry a more central place in young people’s learning, CCP is supported by some of the best-known champions of the art form. Guests at the book launch today (29 October 2013) will include Poet Laureate Carole Ann Duffy, patron of CPP, and Sir Andrew Motion, who is one of its advisors and also director of the Poetry Archive. 

In themed chapters written by members of the University of Cambridge and the University of the West Indies, Teaching Caribbean Poetry explores different aspects of the work – for example its close connection with music, its celebration of language forms, its powerful sense of place and identity, and questions of exploitation and migration. In each case, the contributors make practical suggestions about how teachers can work with classes to engage pupils in an active exploration of the work both through critical analysis and the creation of their own poems. 

David Whitley of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education contributed the chapter on ‘Poetry, place and environment’ that features Berry’s poem Childhood Tracks. He said: “I chose this poem as the opener for a discussion about the importance of sense of place because it takes that simplest of forms – a list – and gathers together a series of memories through the senses. It grounds the poem in a very particular place and gives it a distinctive quality of its own."

It’s a child-centred poem in its seeming innocence and exultation of the smells, tastes and colours of the produce of the earth – ‘the tangled land-piece’ of village plots is portrayed before intensive farming strips it of its diversity.  But the natural sweetness and dripping ripeness of crops like sugar and pineapples is also laden with a brutal history of slavery and oppression.

Whitley compares Berry’s Childhood Tracks to Valerie Bloom’s Two Seasons, another poem that can be enjoyed, read by its author, on the Poetry Archive. Bloom’s poem evokes the intense sensuality of the Caribbean landscape (‘… we have a time when de soft rain come,/ an’ tease open de seedcase/o’ de poincianna and de trumpet tree/’) in contrast with northern climes (‘dem colder place’) and delights listeners with its use of indigenous names for native species of flora (‘guangu’, ‘fee-fee’) and fauna (‘cling-cling’, ‘peeni-wallie’). 

Two Seasons, which opens with the line ‘We don’ have a Springtime like some folk’, can be seen as a reworking, using Jamaican Creole, of a poem that the author may have read at school, HD Carberry’s Nature which, written in standard English, begins ‘We have neither Summer nor Winter’. In this way, Two Seasons speaks to a post-colonial sensibility.

The poets covered in the book range from well-known names such as Derek Walcott and Kamau Braithwaite and popular Caribbean-British poets, John Agard and Grace Nichols, to exciting new voices – among them Kei Miller, Dorothea Smartt and Anthony Joseph. They include a good representation of women with work by Lorna Goodison and Olive Senior explored in some detail. 

The next outcome of the Caribbean Poetry Project will be an anthology of Caribbean poetry for young people. To learn more about the Project go to The Project is funded by the Commonwealth Education Trust.

Teaching Caribbean Poetry, edited by Beverley Bryan and Morag Styles, is published by Routledge.

For more information about this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, 01223 761673

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