Monday, August 9, 2010

The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English

Ramazani, Jahan. The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

The impetus for Ramazani's study stems from his belief that, at the beginning of the new millennium, contemporary poetry appeared “strikingly provincial in the anglophone West” insofar as it “reassert[ed] boundaries” such as “postmodern or postconfessional, neoformalist or avant-garde” (1), etc. In an effort to re-map the discourse's landscape, the author turns his attentions to “a rich and vibrant poetry...issued from the hybridization of the English muse with the long-resident muses of Africa, India, the Caribbean, and other decolonizing territories of the British empire” (1). Before he launches into his examination proper, Ramazani presents the general framework and fundamental concepts of the hybrid muse within his introduction. First, he demonstrates how neither progressive nor traditional poetic models common to anglophile poetry (i.e. “lyric expression of personal feeling nor...postmodern negation of commodified language”) (3) are adequate paradigms through which to understand postcolonial writing. Moreover, the author defines “hybridity” as “the potentially productive tension between an imposed and an inherited culture” (6). Of course, he cautions that “the term can be misleading if it muffles the power differences between culture or oversimplifies multilayered deposits within any single culture” (6). To this extent, hybrid poets are members of a “small educated elite, anglophone poets of the Third World” with “intensive exposure to Western ideas and values” coupled with “an oblique relation to [their] native culture” (7). Such a blending of cultures produces poetry with “unintelligible,” or at least paradoxical, origins (8) that fosters “skepticism” (10), transitive affiliations, and dislocation (13). No doubt, both Western and non-Western readers tend to perceive hybrid poets as “occupying a [Western] language” and indigenous culture “which they have no rightful claim” (14) to; but, given their alienated status in relation to both the colonizer and the (de)colonized, they transform their “vexed” political, cultural, and ethnic identities into a unique and self-antagonizing poetry by way of language, syntax, form, and tropes in what becomes a “dazzling interplay between indigenous and Western” techniques (15-8). Finally, the introduction concludes with Ramazani explicating the broader implications of his study, specifically his belief that “the hybrid muse” can afford readers “some measure of understanding of the aesthetics, language, and experience of the contemporary world” (20). The first poet Ramazani examines is W.B. Yeats; by placing Yeats within the postcolonial canon, the author challenges the formal boundaries of the discourse usually occupied by “once-subjugated peoples of different colors and ethnicities” (22). To his mind, “sufficient conditions exist for redescribing Yeats as postcolonial” (22). These “conditions” derive from England's occupation of Ireland and the aforementioned poet's ambivalent stance toward that occupation. Moreover, hybrid poetry results as a “consequence of the violent intersection between the British empire and various cultures” and is “unintelligible without some sense of its historical origins” (8). In chapter three, Ramazani explores the poetry of Derek Walcott's Omeros and the contradiction of “how the postcolonial poet can both grieve the agonizing harm of British colonialism and celebrate the empire's literary bequest” (50). Walcott, it would appear, develops an “interethnic connection” through an “unpredictable...knitting together of different histories of affiliation” (50). The following chapter finds the author once again challenging the norms of his discourse. While, traditionally, metaphor was “associated with universalist philosophy and formalist poets, with Aristotle and the New Criticism” (72), Ramazani finds parallels between metaphor and the postcolonial poet in that both are “conceived of in terms of the movement, transference, or alienation of discourse from one place to another, a movement that involves not only a one-way shift but inevitably a bidirectional hybridization” (73). In demonstrating the “bidirectional” tension that arises “out of a historical matrix of violence, occupation, and resistance” (75), Ramazani provides close readings of poems by Indian writer A.K. Ramanujan. Similar to metaphor, scholars situate irony within a contested space in postcolonial studies; and, once again, Ramazani seeks to re-orient that space by outlining the “profound and fertile” (103) links between the two. To do so, he employs the poetry of Caribbean poet Louise Bennett, explaining her use of irony as a method of “twin a relation of antagonism” wherein “the power often multiple and ambiguous” so that the writing “cuts more than one way” (105). The last poet Ramazani looks at is Okot p'Bitek and the manner in which his writing confronts the “vexed relation between postcolonial literatures and anthropology” (141). The “vexed relation” stems from the Western belief that postcolonial literature is “saturated with ethnographic information, conveying for a foreign readership the customs and beliefs of native cultures”; one the other hand, “Western critics have...been all too eager to attend to the ethnographic dimension of” postcolonial literature” (141). In fact, when “specifying their social milieu, postcolonial texts are no more ethnological” than Western literature (141). Moreover, “anthropology's complicity in the colonial enterprise” (141) creates an uneasy dynamic between these discourses. Of course, the inherent difficulty in attempting to refute the ethnographic elements of postcolonial wirters such as p'Bitek is that “typically in the diaspora, these writers return home in their imaginative works, but to a 'home' defamiliarized by anthropological modes of understanding,” thus crossing the boundaries of what constitutes “native” and “anthropological” (142); Ramazani claims that p'Bitek's Song of Lawino highlights these crossings. The collection as a whole concludes with the author addressing critiques of the hybridity model. The first critique, in which the model creates “the false impression of symmetry between unequal terms,” is kept “in check by continually referring back to the colonial and postcolonial matrices of violence, inequality, and oppression” (180). The second critique, that “hybridity replicates the binaries it is meant to supersede” (181), is not so much negated as it is qualified. Ramazani believes that the supposed “defect” of binary thought actually “acknowledges the Manichean structure of colonial divided, while also allowing for the sometimes frenzied traffic across it,” and thus promotes a continual “oscillation back and forth between...dichotomous” elements which produce “intersticial forms” (181). That “all cultures are hybrid and none can claim homogeneity” (181) is the final critique. While the author does not dispute this stance, he does, once again, qualify the charge by positing “a nuance understanding of degrees and modalities of hybridity” (182) along a continuum. In this sense, not all hybridities are equal.

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