NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Vol 17.2: Fall 2017 - Page 34

You can take pride in talking your own language, but you’ve got to pronounce it. And you’ve got to pronounce it clearly enough so the person next to you can hear it…but if you’re black American and you really get angry, you can use a lot of “motherfuckers”… and then you’ve got a poem, right? …It doesn’t matter what you say or what language you use. You still have to use universal rules of being understood…get into a dimension that means you have to produce something that is articulate and elegant, and good language no matter what the accent is. Language, unto itself, is not beautiful or lyrical or divine or compelling. It depends upon the social rituals of culture, be it English, Spanish, French, or Mongolian, to activate the appropriate rhythms that determine what is profane or sacred, vulgate or sensate, and owns the capacity to fuel the imagination to achieve qualities of beauty and profundity. Given the ubiquity of the English language spoken by more than two billion people of the culturally diverse British Commonwealth and other vestiges of colonial rule in the Americas, Derek has declared that “[the] English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination itself.”** Hip Hop rhythms, a global phenomenon originating in the cultural matrix of The Bronx, New York, has inspired youth globally to mint from their quarters a rearrangement of languages that, without culturally specific signifiers, would be merely a disjointed collection of words with no place to land in your ear, your heart, your imagination. In a 1985 Paris Review interview, Walcott proclaimed, I come from a place that likes grandeur; it likes large gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a rhetorical society; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style … I grew up in a place in which if you learned poetry, you shouted it out. Boys would scream it out and perform it and do it and flourish it.* William Grimes, writing an obituary in The New York Times, gratuitously observed that Derek had revealed at an early age, “a remarkable ear for the music of English — heard in the poets whose work he absorbed in his Anglocentric education and on the lips of his fellow St. Lucians….” Grimes would have benefitted from a more informed acumen that poetry is a composition in verse characterized by use of heightened language and rhythm to express an imaginative interpretation of a subject, thus music is central to the development of the form. Since language flows from a particularized cultural sediment that produces its own musicality, Grimes should not be astonished by Derek’s “remarkable ear for the music of English,” which would be no less remarkable, if he were acculturated in the French language, as evinced in Aimé Césaire’s epic tome Return to My Native Land, upon Césaire’s return to Martinique: At the end of the small hours: another house in a very narrow street smelling very bad, a tiny house which within its entrails of rotten shelters rats by the dozen and the gale of my six brothers and sisters, a cruel little house whose implacability panics us at the end of every month, and my strange father nibbled by a single misery whose name I’ve never known, my father whom an unpredictable witchcraft soothes into sad tenderness or exalts into fierce flames of anger; and my mother whose feet, daily and nightly pedal, pedal for our never-tiring hunger, I am even woken by those never-tiring feet pedaling by night and the Singer whose teeth rasp into the soft flesh of the night, the Singer which my mother pedals, pedals for hour hunger night and day. Or if one listens closely to the Bebop groove of King Pleasure’s rendering of Moody’s Mood for Love… There I go There I go There I go There-e-e-e I go Pretty baby you are the Soul That snaps my control one might discern a similar riff in the Chilean Nobel Prize laureate, Pablo Neruda, who, though exiled from his native land, was able to summon the buoyant spirit of a fandango in Sonnet xxvii from his collection of One Hundred Love Sonnets: Naked, you are simple as one of your hands,  Smooth, earthy, small, transparent, round:  You have moonlines, applepathways:  Naked, you are slender as a naked grain of wheat. Derek, whose formal education was in French, Latin, and English, was raised on the verdant isle of St. Lucia, where flora bloom in saturated colors, amidst a multi-bilingual cultural environment of Native American, Indian, French, British, and Dutch, even Hindustani and a mixture of creolized French or English that had become a source of conflict since his colonial youth, as described in his essay What the Twilight Says: In that simple schizophrenic boyhood one could lead two lives: the interior life of poetry, the outward life of action and dialect. Yet the writers of my generation were natural assimilators. We knew the literature of empires, Greek, Roman, British, through their essential classics; and both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made. Grimes’ assessment of Derek’s language skills reminds me of a young English writer I had known on the isle of Ibiza in the early Sixties. Though he lived frugally, just short of the hippy fringe, his sense of high status militated against his willingness to speak or attempt to speak a word of Spanish to navigate his social or domestic needs or desires, yet was contemptuously abrasive, his tone of voice hoisting the British flag, whenever his negotiations were not exacted to his satisfaction. When prompted to learn a bit of Spanish, he rejoined arrogantly: “If you speak perfect English, everybody understands you!” Countering such conceits of prerogative, Derek further notes his resistance to mimicry of language: After one had survived the adolescence of prejudice there was nothing to justify. Once the New World black had tried to prove that he was as good as his master, when he should have proven not his equality, but his difference. 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