"Linguistic Landscapes: Exploring the Bridge Between Language and History Through the Poetry of Luis Palés Matos and Derek Walcott"
Throughout my time in the Comparative Literature program at Haverford College, I’ve realized that my interests have always led me back to the Caribbean. As someone who studies literature and is fascinated by different languages: focusing on the Caribbean makes sense. Literature in the Caribbean is produced in a multiple array of languages: French, Spanish, Creole, English, and so forth. Which is of course interesting to me. This multiplicity of language in the Caribbean is mostly due to the extensive colonization that occurred in this region in the 15th century. This is also particularly interesting to me—I wanted to uncover the relationship between colonialism and literary production. Besides these academic reasons for my interest in the Caribbean, there is also the fact that I am from the Caribbean and I am tied to it in ways that are perhaps more emotional than scholarly, but I see no problem in this. I actually hope that this strengthens my research, forcing me to a carve a space within the academic for the emotional or perhaps to find a way to blend the two. By examining the poetry of Luis Palés Matos and Derek Walcott, I was able to unpack all these different issues and themes that so enriched my studies in Comparative Literature. The sonic qualities of Palés's poetry were of interest to me since high school and I was excited to explore the ways in which the sonic can be used to define identity. As for Walcott, I read some of his poetry in Asali Solomon's class "Caribbean Literature" and was immediately intrigued with how he used allusions and references to canonical literature in order to define the Caribbean. This thesis allowed me to finalized these threads, but it also challenged me to look beyond traditional representations of Caribbean identity.
Derek Walcott famously writes in his poem “A Cry from Africa” that he is “divided to the vein”—in itself a succinct exploration of what it means to be born into a colonized (or once-colonized) country. Luis Palés Matos explores this division in different words, but to a similar effect, as he describes “la antillana” [the Antillean] that is “una mitad española / y otra mitad africana” (“Ten con ten” 37-38). The history of the Caribbean manifests itself in both of these lines as they complicate narratives of Caribbean identity. My essay not only aims to explore what it means to be divided to the vein, but more precisely, what it means to be divided to the tongue. Through Palés Matos’s lens, this tongue is one that is both Spanish and African and through Walcott, it is African, English, and Dutch. The tongue, when explored through the works of these two poets, becomes a site of resistance. By employing my reading of Homi K. Bhabha’s “OF Mimicry and Man,” I trace how Walcott and Palés Matos challenge a one-dimensional rendering of the Caribbean and allow for a more nuanced understanding. Though both poets work within the linguistic in order to reframe accounts of the Caribbean, they differ in intention and in effect. Walcott’s poetry embraces colonial language and poetics, yet manages to employ them within his larger critique of colonialism. Conversely, Palés Matos defines and (at times) creates a Boricua Spanish, which works within a larger Antillean language. Through this linguistic invention, Palés Matos creates a document that records the sonic aspects of the islands—ones that are inextricably tied to African dance and song. By exploring the linguistic finesse of these two poets, my project aims to uncover how their respective works delineate different accounts—with attention to their advantages and limitations—of a Caribbean history.