English
Ann Ho

Redressing Modernism

The Poetry of Grace Nichols, 1984-2009

  • Faculty Advisor

    Evan Mwangi

Published On

June 2018

Originally Published

NURJ 2017-18
Honors Thesis

Introduction

The Jan. 26, 1986 edition of The Sunday Times announced the completed installation of Poems on the Underground. It reconfigured the world’s oldest underground transport system, one that had sheltered people during the Blitz, as an unexpected cultural vehicle that circulated poetry on its carriage walls. [1] The inaugural installation curated works by Robert Burns, Seamus Heaney, Grace Nichols and William Carlos Williams. [2] Placing Guyanese-British poet Grace Nichols’ work alongside Burns’ vernacular Scottish romanticism, Williams’ American modernism, and Heaney’s Irish formalism, speaks to her merited position among canonical Anglophone poets. Indeed, from her earliest books in the 1980s, to Picasso, I Want My Face Back (2009), written during her residency at the Tate Gallery, Nichols has reconstructed the poetics of canonical modernism, typified by writers and artists from T.S. Eliot to Pablo Picasso. Her modernist revaluations emerge concurrently with her participation in municipal functions, ranging from civic life of the commute, to museum residency. Through her poetry, Nichols articulates the daily experience of Black Britons in the space that Stuart Hall describes as “the land which they are in but not of, the country of estrangement, dispossession and brutality.” [3] Nichols’ Poems contribution “Like a Beacon,” thereby adds a cosmopolitan dimension to the installation, and addresses London as both the traditional seat of imperial power, and the setting for postcolonial mobility. Accordingly, this essay will posit selections of Nichols’ poetry as such a link between 1980s Black British poetry, and several previous generations of modernist literary and artistic representation. As such, Nichols’s poetic oeuvre spans beyond its current inclusion in the postcolonial canon of the Greater Caribbean. Her engagements with T.S. Eliot’s representations of London’s social underclasses form a systematic redress of a previously colonizing literary form. Nichols subsumes these earlier models into the creation of a uniquely gendered and racialized modernism. [4] Through this new, “Nicholsian” rendering of modernist language and themes, Nichols writes herself into the configuration known as “global modernism.”

1. Fred Hill, “The Tension and the Glory of Subway Poetry,” The Architectural Leagues’s Urban Omnibus: The Culture of Citymaking, March 23, 2016, http://urbanomnibus.net/2016/03/the-tension-and-glory-of-subway-poetry.

2. Anne Boston, "Poetry in Motion," The Sunday Times (London, UK), Jan. 26, 1986.

3. Stuart Hall, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978), 357.

4. Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness,” in Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough (London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988), 251-67. In his criticism of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe asserts the need to redress Western depictions of primitivistic and racist representations.

In the mid-twentieth century, writers and literary scholars alike began retreating from Eurocentric representations of modernity, criticizing the illiberal and politically irresponsive works of canonical modernisms. As Mark Wollaeger states in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, “By the 1980s, the study of modernism had become relatively suspect, especially on political grounds.” [5] Cultural production of that decade began to reflect the need to articulate the multiple imbrications of identity, which a fairly monolithic discourse of white British modernism had before excluded. Beginning with the Caribbean Artist Movement in the 1960s, Black British writers orchestrated identities of blackness to create innovative modernist forms.

5. Mark Wollaeger, “Introduction,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3-25.

In the moment and setting where modernism has fallen into scholarly disrepute and illogic –– 1980s London –– Nichols unexpectedly redefines modernism as a form that interrogates, rather than conforms to, prevailing modernist depictions of British social order.

As a postcolonial writer, Nichols’ writings and subject matter are informed and influenced by her subjectivity. Her poetry, per Jahan Ramazani, “[…] gives expression and shape to a cross-geographic experience, enjambed between the (post)colonies and the Western metropole.” [6] Nichols was born in Georgetown, British Guiana in 1950, and moved to the United Kingdom in 1977. The transnationality of her work results from her lived experience through the 1966 decolonization of British Guiana, its transformation into an independent state, and her subsequent immigration to Great Britain shortly before the socio-political unrest of 1981. [7]

6. Jahan Ramazani, A Transnational Poetics (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2009), 163-64.

7. Maria Helena Lima, "Politics of Teaching Black And British," in Black British Writing, ed. Victoria Arana and Lauri Ramey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 34.

Global modernism emerges out of a discourse-wide recognition of modernism’s formation from global and transnational cultural forms. In his New World Modernisms, Charles Pollard attributes the rise of modernism to the influx of non-European, artistic and ideological imports:

There is, of course, a rich irony in this reshaping of modernism by postcolonial writers, for European modernism itself develops, at least in part, in response to the influence and demise of European colonial empires [8]

8. Charles W. Pollard, New World Modernisms: T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Braithwaite (Charlottesville: U of Virginia Press, 2004), 25.

Nichols plays a significant role in the radical “reshaping of modernism by postcolonial writers,” to say the least. The irony of this revanchist project, as suggested by Pollard, lies in the acknowledgement of European modernism as a colonizing form –– how can the postcolonial writer conceive of a decolonized modernism, or employ modernism as her aesthetic form? In his Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said anticipates precisely this emergent discourse of global modernism: “There is a huge and remarkable adjustment in perspective and understanding is required, to take account of the contribution of modernism to decolonization, resistance culture, and the literature of opposition to imperialism.” [9] It is my objective to consider Grace Nichols’ work under Said’s formulations of global modernism. Through her literary reconceptualization and reconstruction of classical modernist forms, Nichols expresses a British post-colonial subjectivity and engages in the socio-cultural discourses of her day.  

9. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993), 242.

From Race to Riots: Children’s Modernism as Social Critique

The site in which Nichols directly critiques Eliot’s work, and pushes poetic language into the new dimensions of hip-hop takes place, surprisingly, in a children’s poem. Nichols wrote the deceptively simple “Cat-Rap” in the mid-1980s. In it, she critiques both T.S. Eliot’s elitist, “white-face” depiction of London’s most economically disadvantaged communities in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and Andrew Lloyd Webber in his musical, Cats. Nichols’ allusion is brief –– Macavity, the knavish cat of Eliot’s children’s book, appears only once in the thoughts of Nichols’ feline speaker. However, the context provided by the historical period during which Nichols writes drastically alters one’s reading of “Cat-Rap.” Amidst a heated political climate and discordant discussions of urban crime, several major events necessitate a redress of classical modernist representation. The violent Brixton Riots erupt in April 1981, as frictions between an urban, multiracial class and discriminatory policing practices reach their zenith. Just one month later, Webber’s Cats opens in the West End, and showcases a colorful, but de-racialized phantasmagoria of London’s lower-class population, with Eliot’s cat-burglar, Macavity, in center stage. Margaret Thatcher’s sweeping economic reform policies in the 1980s defunded systems of welfare, affecting the most economically vulnerable populations, particularly the multiethnic and immigrant classes of London.

Indeed, Nichols’ little-known children’s poem is, in fact, a complex triangulation of the revivals of classical modernist representations in the 1980s, political riots occurring in underdeveloped London boroughs, and the changing registers of poetic language through forms of postcolonial children’s literature, and an emerging hip-hop modernism. The magnitude of Nichols’ intervention is fascinatingly masked by the fanciful, faux-naivete of “Cat-Rap.” Through close-reading at a historicist register, I posit that Nichols voices her stance through an indiscreet children’s feline character to directly parallel the ways in which postcolonial political and literary voices found traction in what Nichols calls the “street-sound galaxy,” or an emergent hip-hop discourse. This section will feature Eliot and Webber as interlocutors of a classical modernism, Lord Leslie Scarman and Stuart Hall as economic and racial commentators in Nichols’ contemporary moment, and Nichols as a distinct Black British cultural critic in the 1980s. What I hope to achieve is an illustration of the ways by which Nichols gave voice to the Black British experience amid the dissenting cultural cacophony of the 1980s.

A cat-lover, T.S. Eliot wrote “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” for his godchildren’s amusement in the early 1930s. The poem was published alongside 14 others in 1938 in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Andrew Lloyd Webber later adapted it into the hit musical Cats in 1981. Eliot’s Macavity poems whimsically explore feline consciousness, while also expressing the breakdown of metropolitan social order. In Eliot’s poem, Macavity’s crimes baffle the nation’s premier institutions of social order: the Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad [10], the Foreign Office and the Secret Service. With a penchant for committing high-profile robberies, Macavity embodies a “fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity,” and satirizes lawbreakers’ ability to evade blundering social institutions. Nichols evokes this commentary when she first pens “Cat-Rap” in order to convey racial and civil unrest against the police serving London’s lowest economic stratum, which had the highest rates of theft and robbery during the 1980s.

10. "Flying Squad," in Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, ed. Adrian Room and Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (London: Cassell & Co., 2009).

Webber’s popular musical depicts the scourge of impoverished conditions in London’s lower classes. Performed without any scene changes, the musical takes place in an exotic and colorful junk yard. The original cast of Cats was predominately white, and further whitened by cat-face makeup. This visually conveyed a demographic fiction to audiences. Webber’s white-washed, campy, staged poverty hardly represented the realities of 1980s Brixton –– the locale of the very first influx of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, and the site receiving what Stuart Hall calls the “looming spectre of the Thatcherite assault on the structures of welfare support.” [11] A soaring unemployment rate and stagnant housing development led to a rise in urban petty crimes, especially theft.

11. Stuart Hall, “From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence,” in History Workshop Journal 48 (1999), 187-97.

The Brixton Riots of April 1981 occurred in the central part of the London borough of Lambeth. The area had a multicultural demographic. Many of its inhabitants were of Afro-Caribbean descent. Between 1976 and 1980, the Brixton Division was responsible for a third of overall crimes in the Lambeth borough, but nearly 50 percent of all robbery and violent theft offences. [12] The events of the Brixton riot unfolded over the course of two days following highly sensationalized reports of police intervening in the hospitalization of an injured black youth. Metropolitan police met with protesters in the streets, resulting in hundreds of injuries. Lord Leslie Scarman, a Law Lord of London, and political authority at the time, published the summary of his inquiries into the Brixton riots in the December 1981 issue of Police magazine. Scarman championed reform in police training for multiracial communities. However, his other observations were, when decontextualized, easily made into arguments for retaining the status quo: “There was a strong racial element in the disorders; but they were not a race riot. The riots were essentially an outburst of anger and resentment by young black people against the police.” [13] These statements were popularly skewed as Scarman’s dismissing institutional racism as a cause of the violent outbreak, and affixing a pro-Thatcherite agenda –– decreasing Brixton’s more formidable and urgent blight: the “disadvantages” of black youth that spawned spirited disruptions of society. Thus, Scarman’s published report left only soft recommendations to policing law, and contributed to deracializing the civil struggles plaguing the multiethnic compositions of the British underclasses. His arguments, though progressive in many aspects as they concern a Britain’s problematic policing system,and locating the source of unrest to social and economic insecurity, demonstrate what Stuart Hall calls the “pervasive disavowal and double-talk which across the years has covered over the yawning gaps between policy and practice in [police] institutions.”

12. Richard Blom-Cooper. British Journal of Criminology, Delinquency and Deviant Social Behaviour; London 22.2 (Apr 1, 1982): 184.

13. Lord Leslie George Scarman, “Judgement of Scarman: Brixton stood firm against anarchy,” in Police: Monthly Magazine of the Police Federation of England and Wales (Sussex, England), December 1981.

Amidst the disquieting clamor of social discussion by politicians and scholars, flummoxed by the malapropos, and widely popular release, of Cats, Nichols puts forth her own response to Eliot and Webber’s whitened portrayals and “multicultural” fantasies of urban crime and race. The beginning lines of “Cat-Rap” depict Nichols’ speaker-cat lounging on a sofa with a “furry-fuzzy head” full of metrical conceits. Nichols uses this description of cat fur in the subtle racialization of her speaker. A “furry-fuzzy head” connotes the image of kinky, fuzzy hair, a major symbol of black identity.

Questions of racial visibility and representation arise between Nichols’ and Eliot’s contending cat poems. Nichols’ cat rapper, unlike Eliot or Webber’s Macavity, does not embody the same invincibility or legendary abilities to evade the police. Rather, Nichols’s feline speaker envisions death before such comparisons can be made: “When I get to heaven / gonna rap with Macavity” and more hauntingly, “Well, they say that we cats / are killed by curiosity.” [14] An image of a racially Black cat, as opposed to Eliot’s ‘invisible’ Macavity, discriminately provokes lethal policing methods. As such, Nichols voices the demands of Brixton’s protesters for reforms in racial bias in policing. She critiques the children’s modernism in Eliot’s Macavity and Webber’s Cats as whitened reactions to the new composition of the British underclasses. Likewise, she critiques their deracialized portrayals of urban crime, while hinting at the pessimism of the black community’s expectations of systemic policing reform. Macavity, an ostentatious and whitened figure of urban crime, remains a “heaven”-like, ill-fitting emblem of the populace.

14. Grace Nichols, “Cat-Rap,” in I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 1988), 170.

The cat rapper’s wish to rap alongside Macavity is a subconscious desire to be heard. The racialized voice of Nichols’s poetic cat fails to find a place in the marginalizing (and criminalizing) theatres of Eliot’s and Webber’s high modernism. Instead, she discovers alternative spaces of cultural dissemination by rapping in a “street-sound galaxy.” [15] Here, Nichols begins to develop spaces for Black British voices and expression. Through moments such as her revolutionary inclusion among white canonical poets in Poems on the Underground, Nichols paves the way in replenishing outlets through which marginalized voices can freely speak. These spaces, developed by Nichols, take form in various subterranean, urban venues, such as the street and the Tube, which later became critical arenas for the development of hip-hop, protest poetry and graffiti. The emerging art forms of the 1980s concern themselves with the politics of systemic racism and injustice.

15. Grace Nichols, “Cat-Rap,” in I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems, 170.

Nichols critiques the utopian language and image of the multicultural lower classes, seen in both Eliot’s Macavity poems, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats musical through her “Cat-Rap.” What sets Nichols’ modernist engagement apart from other Caribbean renderings and critiques of Eliot’s work is her specific literary confrontation with his Cats poems. In his T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide, David E. Chinitz asserts that “Eliot’s lighter poems inspired only indifference or impatience in most of his critics…Even today, and despite the Lloyd Webber musical, references to the Cats poems are exceedingly rare in the criticism.” [16] Without a thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding the era in which Eliot’s Cats poems resurface in popular culture, Chinitz greatly curtails the poems’ racist and derogatory representations of London’s social underclass, obscuring those elements under the “lightness” and frivolity commonly associated with children’s literary form. The re-emergent popularity of the Eliot Cats poems, in the wake of violent civil unrest, inspired Nichols to much more than “indifference” or “impatience.” Nichols’s “Cat-Rap” stands as a brilliantly complex triangulation and redress of modernist representations, fiery discourses on policing measures, and the effects of Thatcherite reform on the urban populace, masked under the fanciful tone and voice of children’s literature.

16. David E. Chinitz, T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide (Chicago: UChicago Press, 2003), 179.

Conclusion

Primarily understood as part of the Black British postcolonial canon, Grace Nichols has largely been excluded from the broader discourse on global modernity. It is extraordinary then, that her links to canonical modernist writers occur specifically in scenes of daily urban life. From her contributions to the inaugural Poems on the Underground as the only female, postcolonial writer, to an unsuspecting children’s rap in the style of Eliot’s “Macavity,” Nichols’ poetry finds voice and traction in these various “street-sound galaxies” –– the spaces where prevailing, white-washed, modernist representations are being remodeled into the informal headquarters of an incoming intersectional, transnational, ‘hip-hop’ discourse. The purpose of this analysis has been to show how Grace Nichols attempts, amid contending evocations of a white-washed, British modernity, to articulate a specific and deliberate politics of the contemporary Black British experience through her redress of modernist literary forms. Following other Black British innovators, such as the Windrush Generation writers, Nichols becomes a third-generation interlocutor of modernism. With one foot in the critique of high modernist representations, and the other in the inchoate beginnings of hip-hop modernism, Nichols gives name and characterization to a post-Thatcherite, metropolitan experience of language, voice, and the embodied Black British experience. Her poetry is a confluence of emerging forms of cultural expression, resistance, and intersectional feminist thought for Black people living in the British metropole. From her early work in the 1980s, to 2009’s Picasso, I Want My Face Back, Nichols has both ushered in a reimagined Black British literary modernism through experimentation with Afro-Caribbean literary forms, and redressed notions of racialized and gendered postcolonial identity. What unites these various endeavors were Nichols’ attempts to uncover and disseminate the cultural memory of London’s urban classes, and put forward a reconfigured past that can be employed in the construction of a Black British identity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ann Ho graduated in 2017 with a Bachelor’s of Arts in English and a minor in Slavic Literatures and Languages. Inspired by her engagements in both the development field and literary criticism, she is invested in interdisciplinary research, particularly in the fields of postcolonial/transnational literatures and cultural studies. Ann has completed an Honors Thesis in English on Grace Nichols’s poetry and the ways in which it redresses modernist representations of gender, politics, and race in the revanchism of Thatcherite Great Britain in the 1980s. Post-graduation, she is working in the non-profit sector for a year and realizing her dreams of becoming an amateur oil painter before applying to doctorate programs in English literature.

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