Postcolonial Poetry in English by Rajeev S. Patke,

Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006

Postcolonial poetry in English
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Postcolonial poetry
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Rajeev Patke’s new publication Postcolonial Poetry in English is an excellent addition to the Oxford University Press series ‘Oxford Studies in Postcolonial Literatures’, under the general editorship of Elleke Boehmer. This plainly bound, concise and comprehensive introduction to postcolonial poetry is a gem that should be available for both undergraduate and postgraduate students in every university library. Each volume in the series aims to provide the reader with an accessible introduction to a key area of postcolonial literary studies by contextualising specific texts in the historical and social climate within which they were conceived, as well as elucidating other relevant figures, movements, institutions and cultural events. In this volume, Patke adeptly couples his knowledgeable criticism of postcolonial poetry with an exceptional grasp of the social history relevant to the genre. Patke refutes a ‘uniformly cross-cultural’ interpretative approach to postcolonial poetry, and focuses on the diverse and colourful effects that localised theory and politics have on the poetry of specific regions of the postcolonial world, whilst also engaging with their wider spheres of influence. By saturating his work with adept narration and analysis of the social history surrounding the problematic export of English as a colonial language; the conception of a postcolonial poetic mentality amongst writers; and further the development of the genre of postcolonial poetry, Patke’s work provides the reader with an excellent introduction to postcoloniality as well as postcolonial poetry. Patke notes that he has tried ‘… to make space for poets to speak for themselves …’, and never is a quotation included that is not intrinsic to furthering his argument.

The book is structured in three main sections which follow his thematic focuses of introduction, narration, and analysis. Part I introduces the reader to the relationship between poetry and postcoloniality, by linking colonial history and its specific literary formulations, to the poet’s desire to achieve an authoritative and individuated poetic voice. It also charts the influence of English in Britain, interestingly focusing on an exploration of the reactionary existence of the language in Ireland, in both a political and literary sense. Patke moves from such ‘local themes’ to ‘global applications’, deftly demonstrating an awareness of the wider influence and applications of discursive specificities without falling foul of generalization. In ‘Back to the future’, Patke provides the reader with an insightful interpretation of three volumes of poetry published between 1989 and 2002, as a means of demonstrating the postcolonial poet’s fluid relation to their own historicity, as emphasised by their engagement in ‘a vocation that is energized rather than disabled by the traumas of a colonial past’.

Part II narrates the ‘Development of Local Traditions’ in the socio-geographical contexts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Black Africa, and the Settler Colonies (Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand). Each sub-section provides the reader with an extended discussion of the historical and cultural events and figures that have shaped that zone, and affected others, from the pre-colonial period to the modern day. For example, in discussion of Caribbean postcolonial poetry, he provides the reader with a comprehensive social history of the Caribbean aptly demonstrating the shaping of Caribbean postcolonial linguistic concerns, both in relation to poetry and in the wider context of the region’s artistic output. By discussing the development of Calypso, Reggae, and Dub Poetry (showing transference to a metropolitan setting with reference to the Black British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson) Patke aptly captures for the reader the importance of orality in Caribbean literature. His descriptions of such countercultures are excellently negotiated, and phrases such as ‘Words come off the page and move to a beat learnt from music’, are as lyrical as they are topical.

Part III analyses in more detail the work of a number of postcolonial poets as a means of explicating the problems of self-representation; the cultural politics surrounding issues such as gender and modernism; and the recurrently discussed experience of voyaging from migration to self-exile, that Patke notes is rendered by poetry ‘… through the metaphor of translation between languages, cultures, and values’. In particular the section ‘Recurrent motifs: voyage and translation’ provides the reader with beautifully delineated discussions of ‘The voyage home’, ‘Postcolonial exile’, and ‘Postcolonial translation’, in the Caribbean, Malaysia, and India. Patke also makes reference to European cultural critics and philosophers such as Bakhtin, Derrida, Benjamin and Adorno demonstrating his healthy interdisciplinary approach to the study of postcolonial poetry, and providing for the reader an account of postcoloniality not wholly removed from modern European discourse. Patke provides a concise guide to the major poetic works of Brathwaite and Walcott, and also includes examples of pertinent literary criticism to which the reader can then journey if they are so inclined. A good example of this is a reference made to Robert Fraser’s interpretation of Brathwaite’s The Arrivants. In the final chapter of the book, Patke engages with the waning cultural resonance of the term ‘postcolonial’, arguing that in the future such a ‘period of ‘cross-over’’ will come to an end; his brilliantly chosen epigraph from Heaney is invaluable: ‘Post-this, post-that, post-the-other, yet in the end / Not past a thing’.

Postcolonial poetry in English

The book is exceptionally well produced, and is easy to navigate, with a detailed index and helpfully titled sections. There are also concise overviews at the beginning of each section allowing the reader to interrogate each chapter’s content before reading on. The wealth of material included in Patke’s book will inform and delight the lighter reader, and also lead the deeper researcher onto a multitude of further sources. His poetic interpretations are well thought out and sensitive, presented in such a way as to encourage the reader to ruminate further on elements that he lacks time to further explicate. Patke’s book would therefore prove an excellent teaching text, directly encouraging both student and teacher to not only engage with his own discourses on postcolonial poetry but to engage with the wider body of work that he has drawn on. Coupled with a highly involved verbal discussion on the topic, I feel that this text has the potential to provoke even the inexperienced student into responding fluently to postcolonial poetry. This book was a pleasure to read, as well as highly informative. Patke’s exceptional writing style and his adept handling of such a vast body of information secures it as a very useful research and teaching text.

Newsletter Issue 12 - April 2007

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