Nationality: Jamaican. Born: Edward Alston Cecil Baugh, Port Antonio, 1936. Education: University of the West Indies, Mona. Family: Married Sheila Baugh. Career: Professor of English, University of the West Indies, Mona. Has had several visiting professor-ships in the United States and Canada. Address: University of the West Indies, Mona, Department of English, Kingston 7, Jamaica.
A Tale from the Rainforest. Kingston, Jamaica, Sandberry Press, 1988.
West Indian Poetry, 1900–1970: A Study in Cultural Decolonisation. Kingston, Jamaica, Savacou Publications, 1971.
Derek Walcott: Memory As Vision: Another Life. London, Longman, 1978.
Editor, Critics on Caribbean Literature. London, Allen and Unwin, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1978.
Editor, Language and Literature in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica, West Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, 1979.
Editor, with Mervyn Morris, Caribbean Theatre. Kingston, Jamaica, West Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, 1986.
Editor, The Caribbean Poem. Kingston, Jamaica, West Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, 1989.
Editor, It Takes a Mighty Fire: Poems, by H.D. Carberry. Kingston, Jamaica, Ian Randle, 1995.* * *
Edward Baugh is known internationally as an insightful critic of West Indian literature, but he is also a compelling poet. He was one of those included in Seven Jamaican Poets (1971), and groups of his poems have appeared since then in Focus, From Our Yard, and The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse. Several individual poems are widely admired and anthologized, among them "Truth and Consequence," "The Carpenter's Complaint," and "The Warner Woman."
Baugh's collection A Tale from the Rainforest (1988) is especially interested in words that try to efface themselves and in the ironies of human self-exposure. The very first lines pin down the dilemma: "This poem contemplates a time/beyond the consoling agony of words." "Imagine" expresses fond dreams of a time before language, when there was "only gesture that admits no ambiguity." These poems, in complaining against their own medium, imagine worlds beyond or before words, but such is not our world.
Pivoting on the word "gesture," Baugh in some poems turns his attention to drama, that is, to words enmeshed in the world of action and reaction. "Truth and Consequences"—the emphasis is squarely on the "and"—considers a minor player in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Beset by a mob, the man protests, "& I'm Cinna the poet. I never meddled in politics!" But as Baugh comments, the mob knew better, shouting, "Then tear him & for his bad verses!" So the poem draws its lesson: "there's no such thing as 'only literature.'/Every line commits you."
Two other poems draw on Shakespeare to reflect upon a declaration by Hamlet: "I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious." Baugh takes this as a revelation of the prince's shocked self-discovery but understands why Claudius and Polonius mistake it for playacting. For "who would believe him? What, the Lord Hamlet? Such a capital chap?" As a group, these Shakespeare poems state the collection's troublesome axioms: every line commits you, but no one believes your revelations.
Baugh never flinches from the recognition that even poets cannot find the words for those they love or those they lose, which is the subject of his most moving work. The poem "Words" unforgettably depicts the moment when a mother and son who share a passion for words (in fact, her legacy to him) are confronted with the unspeakable and find that it takes the form of a word. In "Small Town Story" the poet himself is the "capital chap" unknown to his fellows:
At after-dinner speech, I find
No word for mates with whom I roared
The sun to sleep in june-plum days.
Among the fine portrait poems and elegies that dominate the second half of the book, several are concerned with effectually speaking the true word. This is explicit in "For Simon Cole," "The Pulpit Eulogists of Frank Worrell," and especially "Yard-Boy," an homage to a family servant that ends like this: "he polished our shoes./And I polish these words/from which nothing/accrues to him &/and this, I insist,/is a tribute."
Baugh commands many registers of tone. There is plenty of comedy in his work, and there is also the miraculously balanced emotional weight of "Ingrid Bergman's Hat-Brim at the End of Casablanca," a poem even better than its title. Perhaps his greatest tonal resource is his command of spoken Jamaican, arguably the supplest variety of English to be found in the Caribbean. There are no so-called dialect poems here, but even many of the poems that seem to be in Standard English move to discernible Jamaican rhythms. And when the language is entirely Jamaican, Baugh deploys quite distinct voices. Different manners of Jamaican speech serve to express bruised feelings in "The Carpenter's Complaint," bitter, double-edged satire in "Nigger Sweat," and sweet ruminations in "Getting There," a poem about driving perilous roads to visit the tenth muse, a Kingston girl who has moved up into the hills.
Readers may first notice the engagement with Shakespeare, but the collection also makes apparent Baugh's close links with other Caribbean poets. There is certainly an affinity with the magnificent sustained elegy of Ian McDonald's Mercy Ward. Baugh shares, too, Dennis Scott's habit of direct talk about what poems are for. "Cold Comfort," an extraordinary poem about reading Philip Larkin in the Caribbean, is certainly part of the ongoing conversation that includes both Mervyn Morris's "Literary Evening: Jamaica" and Scott's "More Poem."
Baugh's poems are funny, intelligent, probing, and full of profound affection. By temperament a private poet, Baugh keeps finding himself in public and still manages to tell the private truth.
—Laurence A. Breiner