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Poetry Archive: Edward Baugh Reading from his Poems

Edward Baugh

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Edward Baugh is probably best known as a literary critic whose distinguished academic career has been devoted to West Indian literature, especially the study of Anglophone Caribbean poetry, and in particular the work of the towering Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, a new monograph on whom he has recently published. His books, essays and lectures have made an enormous contribution to the establishment of a vibrant school of criticism, in which lively and serious considerations are given to writing inspired by the unique historical circumstances and cultural life of the Caribbean islands. Edward Baugh taught at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies for well over thirty years, and was Professor of English there from 1978 until his retirement in 2001. Yet throughout his life Baugh has been able to balance this impressive and valuable record of professional public service with the more private, though no less fraught, life of a poet.

He was born in Jamaica's Port Antonio, in 1936, a "town which had known better days" as he later wrote. The coastal capital of the parish of Portland was typical in offering its postcard views of colonial splendour, none more dramatic than that of the Titchfield Hotel looking down on the harbour. It was as a boy Baugh witnessed a very unusual sight, when this small faded town briefly became an exotic haven for the legendary Errol Flynn, whose private yacht was
anchored in the bay there, while for a few unforgettable years the Hollywood star and his holiday guests took over Port Antonio with characteristic but hitherto unheard of extravagance. But despite his hometown's momentary starburst of glamour, Baugh was keen to move on, and after Titchfield High School he won a Jamaican Government Exhibition to the University College of the West Indies, where he graduated in English. Thereafter he pursued postgraduate research, and a Commonwealth Scholarship took him to the University of Manchester, where he gained a Ph.D for his study of the poetry of Arthur Symons. Baugh's most recent collection, It was the Singing, contains all the poems from his first, A Tale from the Rainforest, and the selection he has made for the Poetry Archive contains much of his best work. The past is an unsurprising prism to play with for a poet of Baugh's generation, and he certainly enjoys indulging the curiosity we feel at examining remembered selves, in long-lost locations and once magical and, as it turns out from the poet's point of view, unforgettable circumstances or moments. ‘The Warner-Woman' captures one such memory with an oddly heart-stopping economy, creating a perfect balance between the power of language and
silence, as a storm gives way to the waiting calm, and youth passes into age. ‘Pilot Boat' carefully holds in its craft the very form of an intense moment between lovers looking across the bay as dusk falls, making permanent what for them had similar qualities of the eternal.

Other poems expose the shabby fakery of leaders and populists, whose falseness is easily discerned in a few clumsy dance steps. Baugh has a warm way with family stories, and there is something especially touching in those poems which concern ageing and death. ‘Sometimes in the Middle of the Story' addresses a grander historical theme, that of drowned Africans of the Middle Passage, and here we have more rhetorical flourish and musical colour, like a phantom fanfare. And in a poem about music and grief, ‘It was the Singing', Baugh pitches perfectly the absolute truth of how the hymn singing does the business, with its catch in the throat, the whelming stomach and eyes pricking with tears. In total contrast, ‘Nigger Sweat' scripts in a uniquely brilliant monologue a passage of waiting time for a young
Caribbean man in a passport queue at the US Embassy, Kingston. This poem simulates real time, and is a shockingly unsettling depiction of anxiety. Some of these poems will appeal for other, gentler effects, like comfort stones, but all Baugh's poetry has a wonderful freedom from rancour, historical baggage, sentimentality and regret. He brings clarity and truth to the memory game, and a sweet sense of what it is to rejoice.

1. The Accident. 2.19
2. Amadou's Mother 1.44
3. Black Sand 1.28
4. The Carpenter's Complaint 1.25
5. Choices 0.54
6. The Dark Hole in the Garden. 1.00
7. Freeze Warning 1.23
8. Guinea-Hen Weed 1.21
9. It Was The Singing 2.17
10. I wish you a Leaf Falling 0.43
11. Nightwalker 0.31
12. A Nineteenth-Century Portrait 1.16
13. Obituary Page 0.39
14. Sometimes in the Middle of the Story 1.49
15. Telling the Time 0.41
16. Words 1.04
17. True Love 0.38
18. The Comings and Goings of Poems 1.15
19. Elemental 0.32
20. Famous Evenings 0.56
21. For Simon Cole 1.10
22. Getting There 1.27
23. Hedge Trimming 1.04
24. Holy Fever 0.24
25. Home Truths 0.39
26. The House 1.50
27. Long Service Award 2.08
28. Memories Like Comfort Stones 0.44
29. Nigger Sweat 2.08
30. Out of Stock 0.55
31. People Poem (The Leader Speaks) 0.44
32. Pilot Boat 1.15
33. River Song 0.39
34. Running River Water 0.56
35. To the Editor Who Asked Me To Send Him Some of My Black Poems 0.55
36. Truth and Consequences 0.51
37. Walking to Jerusalem 2.20
38. What's Poetry For? 1.19
39. ‘When The Doomed Are Most Eloquent In Their Sinking' 1.03
40. You Ever Notice How 1.23
41. The Poet Bemused 0.53
42. An Open Letter to Feelings of Insecurity 1.25
43. The Warner Woman 1.17
44. Lignum Vitae 1.32

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