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An ambiguity, then, is not satisfying in itself, nor is it, considered
as a device on its own, a thing to be attempted; it must in each case
arise from, and be justified by, the peculiar requirements of the
situation. On the other hand, it is a thing which the more interesting
and valuable situations are more likely to justify.

--William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity

To do justice to the formal hybridity of postcolonial poetry we need to
track closely the dazzling interplay between indigenous and Western
forms.... In the most successful examples, the result of this
intercultural dynamic is transformative--a poem that would have been
unimaginable within the confines of one or another culture.

                       --Jahan Ramazani, The Hybrid Muse

Since at least the publication of William Empson's seminal study of the concept in 1930, ambiguity has been acknowledged as an unparalleled source of poetic significance. Poetry's defining feature, its verbal economy, positions ambiguity--the undecidability and consequent flexibility of meaning--as an indispensable avenue for cultivating perspectival richness--for doing more, in short, with less. Duplicities of diction, varied implications of metaphor and simile, ironies of voice, structural forkings of grammar through lineation and syntax: these are but a few of the strategies by which a skilled poet might, through singular poetic elements, express multiple ideas toward a given subject. Through such means, a short poem (the length, say, of a sonnet), becomes capable of enfolding a wealth of suggested meaning equivalent in scale to that of a play, a novella, or even a novel, and of rewarding readers alert to its trickery with a glimpse of emotional depth or intellectual insight as profound as literature is capable of rendering. (1) As the epigraph from Empson above suggests, poetic ambiguity is not sought for its own intrinsic value or interest, but instead becomes an imperative resource in relation to "the more interesting and valuable situations" in which human beings find themselves. The more conflictual, complex, or momentous a poem's subject, the more the poet may resort to such strategies to ensnare its full range of significance.

Since the time of Empson's writing, however, world history has undergone a number of epochal shifts, shifts that present new situations of interest and value for which his study was necessarily unable to account. In particular, the global spread of English and the emergence of Anglophone postcolonial literature have generated a range of new concerns and contexts that his methods, founded on the history of pre-WWII British literature, are if not ill-equipped, then at least incompletely equipped to engage. (2) The new uses to which English has been put in subsequent decades by poets of Caribbean, South Asian, African, and Irish origin have stretched the language's traditional resources both by responding to the novel experiences of colonization and postcoloniality and by "hybridizing"--in the terminology of the second epigraph text above, Jahan Ramazani's pioneering The Hybrid Muse--its diction, its rhythms, its figural repertoire, and its grammar. Beyond simply serving as a clear and fresh source of such situational interest and value as Empson describes, this hybridizing process bears with it novel possibilities for the generation and exploitation of poetic ambiguity. The "transformative" modulation of English into a global and "transcultural" medium described by Ramazani has indeed yielded poetry "that would have been unimaginable within the confines of one or another culture," work whose "dazzling interplay between indigenous and Western forms," when melded with the economy or condensation characteristic of all poetry, yields a host of ambiguous features to which scholars and students of poetry--and of postcolonial literatures more broadly--must respond.

This essay offers such a response, and it argues that attunement to the ambiguities of Anglophone poetry produced by formerly colonized populations generates novel insights not only into the poems themselves but also into the postcolonial experiences they reflect and into the global evolution of English as a poetic and literary medium. I seek to contribute to the efforts announced by the recent Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry to "forge connections between postcolonial studies and poetry studies" and to "advance the claims of poetry for a larger role in postcolonial scholarship" (Ramazani 2017, 5). As Ramazani's introduction to the collection observes, "poetry has been largely ignored in postcolonial studies" in favor of the more "documentary or socially mimetic" aesthetics of fiction (5). I share with him and the volume's other contributors a commitment to the notion that poetry's formal density and intricacy bear the potential to reveal if not greater insights into postcolonial experience and postcolonial literary developments than fiction or drama, then at least other or further insights. I would argue, moreover, that it is only by attending specifically to the ambiguity of Anglophone postcolonial poetries that many of their most revelatory features can be identified.

In particular, in the examples to follow I will emphasize ambiguities that arise out of the Janus-faced nature of Anglophone post-colonial poetry, which, as an intercultural medium, is poised on the dividing line of a number of binary oppositions toward which postcolonial criticism has gravitated in recent decades. Such binaries include: the opposition between oral and written literature; the opposition between standard and vernacular languages; and the opposition between colonial and metropolitan literary audiences or readerships. It is on the boundary between such oppositions that Anglophone postcolonial poetry develops types of ambiguity for which Empson's exclusively metropolitan theories are incompletely equipped to account. Such ambiguities are not unlike the tensions and opacities that emerge through literary translation from one language to another; indeed, though Anglophone writers merely shuttle between different versions of a single language, a vernacular English such as Jamaican Creole is sufficiently distinct from the "standard" it lives alongside to make the movement from one to another a partly translative act. As Bill Ashcroft describes in Caliban's Voice: The Transformation of English in Postcolonial Literatures, "The post-colonial writer faces in two directions, so to speak. The decision he or she makes is not just how to write 'between languages,' but how to make language perform this 'bearing across'" (2009, 163). Ashcroft recommends that the term "transformation" be used in place of "translation" to better pinpoint the effects produced by efforts to render vernacular and indigenous languages in standard English writing. He further argues that not only are both languages ("source" and "target," respectively) reshaped in the process of this "bearing across"; "more significantly, perhaps... in a subtle way reader and writer are transformed in the cultural engagement represented by post-colonial literatures" (160). The poets addressed here all affirm the accuracy of Ashcroft's claims, not only by exploiting the linguistic interculturality of their postcolonial contexts to create novel and striking ambiguities, but also through the way in which engaging these ambiguities transforms the interpretive protocols and cultural perceptions of the Anglophone reader.

In the effort to elucidate the transformative effects that arise in Anglophone postcolonial poetry, this essay will document a range of ambiguities bred by its intercultural features, moving from simpler to more complex types. I will begin by emphasizing the role of the most elementary of these types, the pun, in the work of Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, arguing that the two share a preoccupation with the novel formal possibilities that arise at the intersection of vernacular and standard, performative and written poetic media. Though standard English predominates in both poets' oeuvres, their occasional deployment of vernacular highlights the ambiguous potential generated by fortuitous, homophonic intersections between standard and vernacular diction and pronunciation. I then turn to a consideration of the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett, arguing that she makes the possibilities momentarily glimpsed in Heaney and Walcott a comprehensive aesthetic strategy for staging the complexities of postcolonial interculturality. The standard-vernacular pun becomes the organizing principle behind Bennett's deployment of the poetic genre perhaps best known for its duplicitous tendencies, the dramatic monologue. I will pair Bennett with another Anglophone author of dramatic monologues, the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel, who also exploits the ambiguous potential generated by the intersection of vernacular and standard usages, to demonstrate that the dialogic nature of Anglophone poetic enunciation holds the potential to transform not just singular poetic elements like the pun, but larger poetic genres. With Ezekiel, I will then begin to pivot from ambiguity's alterations of genre toward the final and most complex level of Anglophone poetic ambiguity, that of grammar. Because vernacular Englishes not only substitute alternative diction for standard terminology but observe different grammatical protocols than standard English, vernacular phrases, clauses, lines, and sentences hold rich potential as sites of duplicitous signification. After bringing this feature into view with Ezekiel's "Indian English," I offer a taxonomy of deviant or non-standard grammatical features evident in Creole English as a framework for identifying such ambiguities in the work of Walcott and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Both poets, I will show, exploit the intersections between vernacular and standard grammatical structures as an avenue toward modes of transformative poetic enunciation that not only reflect, but are uniquely equipped through their ambiguity to reflect upon, the intercultural nature of the Anglophone postcolonial condition. I will then conclude the essay by likewise reflecting upon that condition as revealed through poetic ambiguity, as well as on the larger implications of ambiguous reading practices for the study of Anglophone postcolonial poetry.


The first type of Anglophone ambiguity to be addressed expands upon the claims and linguistic basis of Empson's third type, the pun, by which, in his words, "two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously" through a single word or phrase (1966, 102). As distinct from standard English poetry, Anglophone texts are frequently marked by what Ashcroft calls a "metonymic gap" between standard and vernacular usage--that is, a linguistic disparity that indexes the larger one between indigenous or colonized cultures and metropolitan ones. As Ashcroft describes, by accentuating this gap, "the local writer is... able to represent his or her world... in the metropolitan language, and at the same time, to signal and emphasize difference from it" (2009, 175). The two writers on whom I will focus in this section are not as fully committed to vernacular media as some of those from which Ashcroft derives this concept. However, both invoke this gap at key moments in their oeuvre, and both exploit it in a manner that highlights the richly ambiguous potential of the intercultural, vernacular-standard pun. I refer to Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, two poets whom Robert Crawford, in his seminal study Devolving English Literature, calls "barbarians" by virtue of their assertion of "freedom from the Anglo-centric pressures present from the origins of the university discipline of English Literature" (1992, 305). In that both of these poets, again in Crawford's words, "strove for the mastery of a decorous English" while also "seeking an ability to pronounce their own cultural difference" within that medium, their occasional vernacular forays enable some of the larger features of Anglophone ambiguity to be set in sharp relief (287).

The vernacular dimension of Heaney's poetry most pertinent to the question of the pun is somewhat difficult to access in that, as Crawford notes, Heaney's work, aside from "occasional dialect words... is written almost entirely in standard English" (1992, 289). Recent commentators on Heaney's "regionalism" such as Richard Rankin Russell have in general tended to echo Crawford's suggestion that in the absence of a reliance on vernacular diction, for Heaney Irish "place names function as dialect, asserting the bond between a particular culture and its soil" (289). (3) Heaney's work, however, frequently indicates the centrality if not of vernacular diction, then of vernacular accentuation of standard English, to his poetic project. Perhaps the most direct invocation of this variable arises in a poem to which Crawford devotes significant attention, "The Ministry of Fear," from the larger work "Singing School" in North (1975). The poem is dedicated to Seamus Deane and centers on recollections of their childhood together as classmates and aspiring poets:
I tried to write about the Sycamores
And innovated a South Derry rhyme
With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushedand pulled.
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.

Have our accents

Changed? 'Catholics, in general, don't speak
As well as students from the Protestant schools.'
Remember that stuff? Inferiority
Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on.
'What's your name, Heaney?'

'Heaney, Father.'



(Heaney 1999, 127)

Two aspects of the passage particularly stand out: the "inferiority complex" visited upon the speaker by virtue of his minority status as an Irish Catholic amid a predominantly Protestant and British Northern Ireland, and the poetic possibilities that arise through the discrepancy between his English pronunciations and the dominant ones. The speaker recalls the sensation of riding roughshod over "the fine lawns of elocution" adorning his British school as simultaneously alienating and enabling. If Catholics "don't speak as well as students from the Protestant schools," their improper English nonetheless facilitates innovation, which here takes the form of novel rhymes derived from the regional inflections of County Londonderry, where the short vowel sounds "hushed and lulled" are subversively aligned with the long sounds of "pushed and pulled." Heaney here marks a postcolonial problematic we shall also see highlighted by Walcott and others, by which standard English exerts an alienating pressure on the accent/pronunciation of the colonized, a sense of "inferiority" that also "complexes"--to pick up on the enjambed suggestion--or complicates the postcolonial poet's political and literary consciousness. At the poem's conclusion, the speaker seems poised to convert such complexity into an enabling aesthetic moral: "Ulster was British, but with no rights on / The English lyric" (128). The enjambment, however, again proves pivotal and highlights that there are "no rights on" for the Catholic residents of Ulster--a state of affairs that thus becomes appositively equated with "the English lyric" itself as a poetic form. Alerted to this train of suggestion, the reader suddenly becomes aware that even the rhyme innovations facilitated by rogue pronunciation serve to align submissiveness ("hushed" and "lulled") with violent domination ("pushed" and "pulled").

It is noteworthy, however, that aside from the line in which Heaney directly telegraphs the deviation of vernacular pronunciation from standard, the passage quite deliberately fails to mark such discrepancies. At the close of the passage, it is implied that the interrogating teacher pronounces Heaney's name differently than the young Heaney himself, and yet the two versions are typographically identical. The poem later echoes this moment--as well as again gesturing toward the larger implication of the Northern Irish educational system in colonial oppression--when a young Heaney is interrogated by the police, who bully him upon hearing his Catholic first name: "'Seamus... ' / Seamus?" (1999, 128). It is only the prior context of "The Ministry of Fear" that helps the reader sort out these indistinctnesses; indeed, we can only do so fully if already intimate with the Londonderry-based pronunciations to which Heaney alludes. "Heaney" and "Heaney," "Seamus" and "Seamus," appear the same, but they are to be read differently, just as "hushed and lulled" and "pushed and pulled," though discrepant according to standard expectations, are instead to be read rhymed. Such unexpected convergences and divergences between standard and vernacular English pronunciation bear upon an extensive series of crucial interpretive questions for readers of Heaney. In that the poem for the most part fails to mark these features typographically, however, many of these remain unanswerable. Which words in the poem align with standard pronunciation, and which with "Deny" inflection? Does the speaker's accent at the moment of poetic enunciation mirror that of the boy Heaney, or has it changed? Does the "Father" questioning Heaney speak with Oxbridge intonation, or some hybrid of standard and local? What about the police? Within local, vernacular inflection, which words align with standard pronunciation, and which do not? Taking our cue from the speaker's innovative rhymes, if we cannot rely upon dictionary phonetics, which words and which lines rhyme, and which don't? Which portions of the poem then "chime" together sensorily--and thus, perhaps, ideally--and which don't?

This line of inquiry returns us to the issue of the pun, which we may use to highlight suggestively, if not resolve, these larger poetic opacities and ambiguities. Put simply, if the reader of a poem doesn't know how individual words are to be pronounced, s/he is incompletely equipped to identify the fundamental linguistic unit upon which the larger semantic ambiguity of the pun rests, the homophone. It is only in performance that the precise alignments of Heaney's words and phrases with other, fortuitously coincidental ones can be confidently identified. This is, surely, part of the intent behind "The Ministry of Fear": to suggest the existence of, but stop short of "informing on," so to speak, a vernacular, Catholic, Northern Irish poetic domain of distinct ethnic and linguistic identity. For the seeker of vernacular-standard ambiguities, what is then needed is either direct access to poetic performances, in which suggestive inflections are naturally more prominent, or for the poet to provide graphic/written indications of where such inflections arise. Heaney's poem remains tantalizingly suggestive on the page but on a fundamental level frustrates efforts to detect sites of homophonic convergence. To extend, for example, the reading lesson imparted by Heaney's "South Derry rhymes" by hunting for other, similar vowel sounds in standard pronunciation (the long u of "pushed" and "pulled," the short u of "hushed" and "lulled") that may be productively fused through vernacular accentuation to identify novel puns, would be a fascinating, but ultimately inconclusive exercise.

It is at just this impasse that the work of Derek Walcott can be of assistance, because, unlike the Heaney of "The Ministry of Fear," Walcott often marks his vernacular usages graphically so as to facilitate reading strategies aimed at identifying devices like the vernacular-standard pun. One such pun arises in a text that resides at the beginning of an extended period of vernacular experimentation by Walcott, "Sainte Lucie." Along with subsequent texts such as "The Schooner Flight" "The Spoiler's Return," and Omeros, "Sainte Lucie" evokes the heady, palimpsestal linguistic mixture of Walcott's nation of origin, ranging across standard English, vernacular English, and French patois usages. As glossed in Homi Bhabha's seminal reading of the poem in The Location of Culture, "Walcott's poem on the colonization of the Caribbean" portrays the latter "as the possession of a space through the power of naming" (1994, 231). Walcott here develops the motif of the shadow that will later play such a central role in the dynamics of postcolonial identity formation in Omeros, by which names serve as shadows of human substance but are imperfectly linked to such substance as a result of colonial alienation. (4) In the wake of the colonial "complexing" of language and identity, native inhabitants of St. Lucia can only wonder "what secret elude[s] the children / under the house shade," and there is "something always being missed / between the floating shadow and the pelican" (Walcott 2014, 211). This "something" that "should have rounded the day" is rendered evanescent by the gap between (mainly) British words and St. Lucian things, whose shadow is cast not by indigenous nomenclature but by the Empire on which the sun never sets (211). It is in this space that Bhabha identifies "a specifically postcolonial performance of reinscription" by which "the focus shifts from the nominalism of imperialism to the emergence of another sign of agency and identity... a poetics of the interstitial community" (1994, 231).

Walcott, however, troubles this affirmative reading at several points during the poem by invoking the coincidence between colonial and metropolitan English pronunciations. It is here that perhaps the poem's central ambiguity arises, indexed in an explicitly foregrounded pun:
evening opens at
a text of fireflies,
in the mountain huts
ti cailles betassion
the black night bending
cups in its hard palms
cool thin water
this is important water
water is important
also very important
the red dust drum
of evening deep
as coffee
the morning powerful
important coffee
the villages shut
all day in the sun.

(Walcott 2014, 213)

This passage's efforts to consecrate or sacralize the topography of St. Lucia run aground upon the discovery of the auditory homophony of two starkly divergent words: "important" and "imported." Walcott highlights his speaker's querulous distance from vernacular pronunciation, perhaps in reflection of a sense of his own, more "decorous" English habits. Is the word implicitly overheard in these locales "important"--and, thus, a denomination of potentially demotic and affirmative cultural and national priorities--or is it "imported"--and thus, instead, denominative of the cooptation of such priorities by the very imperial forces they would be defined against? Vernacular pronunciation renders the two options indistinct. As the passage and the poem proceed, this momentary homophonic indecision undermines the speaker's attempt to locate "important" sites, activities, and values by which to measure the nation, all of which may instead or also be derivative of foreign, dominative categories interposed either by British imperial sources or--as in "import[ed] water" and "import[ed] coffee"--by the advertising lingo of multinational capitalism.

The centrality of this pun is later affirmed when the word "important"--and its sinister echo--are affixed to the text's central concerns, identity and naming, which are similarly destabilized and partly coopted by such expropriative agencies: "still waiting in the sun /for my shadow /O so you is Walcott?/ you is Roddy brother? /... and the small rivers / with important names" (2014, 214). Walcott himself, these lines suggest, partakes of the larger sundering of name and identity evident in the island's topography, whose "importance" is impossible to pinpoint apart from "imported" meanings. Here then, we light upon many of the same postcolonial themes and preoccupation identified in Heaney's poem, whose speaker was also troubled by the refraction of his language, his name, and his identity across the gradient of vernacular-standard English usage. Where Heaney's speaker encloses a protective linguistic and ethnic space beyond the reach of the standard English reader, a space that can only be accessed through vernacular performance or the reader's intimacy with its tendencies, Walcott instead avows his and his nation's postcolonial dispossession by openly marking and exfoliating the homophonic coincidence between vernacular and standard pronunciations of semantically divergent words. This is an ambiguity at the level of diction that is only made possible at the interface of standard English usage and orthography and vernacular pronunciation, and Walcott telegraphs and insists upon the reader's awareness of it as an imperative dimension of the poem's larger exploration of language, identity, and postcoloniality.

Beyond the specific political implications of Heaney's and Walcott's poems, then, what "Sainte Lucie" and "The Ministry of Fear" highlight together is a novel aesthetic ambiguity dependent upon the coexistence of vernacular and standard uses of English words in the Anglophone postcolony. In such a "transformative" context (in both Ashcroft's and Ramazani's senses of the term), novel coincidences emerge between words that may be distinct in standard orthography and pronunciation but intersect when refracted through vernacular accentuation. Such possibilities depend on a number of interrelated factors derived from convergences and divergences of written or graphic and spoken or phonic English that only begin to arise when colonized populations begin to inhabit and alter the language of the colonizer. We may be further justified in assuming, given the striking convergence of these phenomena across the gap separating the distinct postcolonial situations of St. Lucia and Northern Ireland, that similar poetic tendencies might arise in parallel cultural contexts in South Asia, Africa, or elsewhere. Not only, then, is the Anglophone postcolonial situation an especially "interesting and valuable" one that "justifies" the poetic deployment of ambiguity in the ways Empson suggests; this situation furnishes poetry with novel materials for the generation of ambiguities that are uniquely suited, not simply as ambiguities per se but through the intercultural nature of their component parts, to registering and reflecting critically upon that situation's complexities.


With Walcott and Heaney's open and direct reflections on the possibilities of vernacular-standard punning, we begin to glimpse the nature of the types of ambiguity that emerge in the Anglophone postcolonial situation, all of which draw upon the coincidences made possible by the cohabitation of linguistic resources drawn from both the colonizing and colonized groups. The examples I have adduced thus far, however, represent only a partial deployment of such ambiguities, which for both poets represent momentary, if highly suggestive, departures from their predominant, "decorous" Englishes. What further poetic features and potentials arise in poems that are more fully committed to the use of the vernacular, whether Irish, Caribbean, or that of other Anglophone postcolonial locales? In this section, I will pursue this question by examining the work of two poets whose work evinces a more thorough and extensive deployment of the vernacular, the Jamaican Louise Bennett and the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel. Both poets also draw heavily on the particular poetic genre whose fork-tonguedness we might expect to be particularly suited to exploiting devices like the intercultural pun, the dramatic monologue. In that the form of the dramatic monologue has been utilized at least since Robert Browning to stage the poetic equivalent of unreliable narration, close readings of vernacular iterations of this form prove particularly revealing regarding the broader features and possibilities of postcolonial ambiguity. (5)

I turn first to a text that is one of a handful of agreed-upon members of the still-nascent postcolonial poetic canon, and one that is certainly the most anthologized of Anglophone dramatic monologues, Louise Bennett's "Colonization in Reverse." Ramazani--who has helped drive this canonization by devoting a chapter of The Hybrid Muse to Bennett and by superintending her inclusion in The Norton Anthology of English Literature--has highlighted the wily irony of Bennett's Creole verse as perhaps its central feature. (6) In his reading of "Colonization," Ramazani persuasively shows that Bennett's chronicle of the midcentury migration of Jamaicans to England skewers both colonizer and colonized alike, such that while "mocking the British imperial enterprise" and "repossess[ing] the rhetoric of colonization" on behalf of her countrymen, who now "reverse colonize" the metropolitan center, "Bennett also turns her irony on her fellow Jamaicans" to suggest that while "the Jamaican settlement of England couldn't be as exploitative as the English settlement of Jamaica, yet neither is it altruistic" (2001, 127). While noting the larger ambiguity of perspective Bennett conveys toward this turbulent postcolonial process, Ramazani does not, however, emphasize the ways in which particular words and phrases of Bennett's are semantically ambiguous and exploitative of the divergent linguistic constituencies the poem engages. Attending to these more specific ambiguities, in particular those of the vernacular-standard pun, both affirms Ramazani's reading of Bennett's duplicity and expands our awareness of the richness of her postcolonial perspective.

Stanzas 3-6 of "Colonization" are particularly revelatory with regard to Bennett's deployment of the vernacular-standard pun.
Dem a pour out a Jamaica
Everybody future plan
Is fi get a big-time job
An settle in de motherlan.

What a islan! What a people!
Man an woman, ole an young
Jussa pack dem bag an baggage
An tun history upside dung!

Some people doan like travel,
But fi show dem loyalty
Dem all a open up cheap-fare-To-Englan

An week by week dem shippin off
Dem countryman like fire
Fi immigrate an populate
De seat a de Empire.

(Bennett 1982, 117-8)

In stanza 3, describing the career aspirations of members of the Jamaican exodus, such aspirations are rudely undercut by the sonic coincidence between the creole infinitive "fi get" ("to get") and the standard English verb root, "forget." On the one hand, Bennett suggests, Jamaican immigrants anticipate economic advancement through the "big-time job" that awaits them in England; on the other hand, the reality of their "future plan" upon arrival will demand they "fi get" this dream. This ironic undercutting is later confirmed when some arrivants are forced to "settle fi de dole," for unemployment insurance, while one named Jane "will never fine work / At de rate how she da look" (117-8). Bennett's irony further suggests that such "settling fi de dole" is partly a kind of postcolonial vengeance, whereby black subjects formerly exploited for capitalist surplus value now return the favor, but we should at the same time also note that this irony carries ominous undertones alluding to the discriminatory experiences endured by this burgeoning "Black British" group at midcentury. (7)

The other puns quoted in the passage seem, indeed, to corroborate these pessimistic implications. In stanza 4, beneath the ebullient and celebratory tone, Bennett plays upon the Creole word for "down," "dung," to suggest that Jamaican immigration, instead of a positive development, takes the "upside" of "history" and "tun[s]" (turns) it to "dung" or excrement. At this particular moment, when Jamaica has only just attained its independence from England, to follow the departing forces of empire back to their source and thus perpetuate relationships of colonial dependency is to convert "history upside" (in which case history becomes, in keeping with Creole usage, possessive), its beneficial turn, to feces. Bennett's suggestion that Jamaicans bring not only "bag," luggage, but also "baggage," a distinction that must imply the more colloquial, metaphorical meaning of a burden or trauma, reinforces this reading, as does her final, devastating pun. Here, Jamaicans' frenetic "shippin off... / Fi immigrate and populate / De seat a de Empire," which on the surface it seems an affirmative, reverse-colonizing description of imperial chickens coming to roost, is rendered instead as one further turn of the imperial screw, as a "de seat," or deceit, by the British, who once again dupe their colonial subjects. For Jamaicans to migrate to the heart of the imperial power networks from which they have only recently achieved separation, this pun suggests, bespeaks their continued bewitchment by them. In this sense, the "baggage" they bear may be on ongoing interpellation by colonial power, and perhaps, implicitly, to cling to the "seat," so to speak, of the departing British is to continue to mire oneself in the historical "dung." Such subversive meanings persistently rise to the surface of Bennett's monologue, and they are perhaps the central means by which she exploits the potential of the genre to undercut the conscious intent of its speakers. Bennett's anonymous persona seems to celebrate her nation's postcolonial immigration, yet, repeatedly, puns emerge--"fi get," "upside dung," "de seat"--that cast these sentiments in a darker and more complex light.

For my larger purposes here, it is essential to note that each of these puns depends upon Creole diction coinciding with--and being contextually undermined by--standard diction. With Bennett, then, we see the ambiguous possibilities momentarily and self-reflexively registered by Walcott in "Sainte Lucie" converted into both a subtler and a more systematic poetic principle. What for Walcott's speaker is an openly mused-upon intersection of Creole and standard diction Bennett instead renders an unspoken and surreptitious register of her persona's speech. Her dramatic monologue leverages the unique irony generated by the potential friction between vernacular and standard usage, and she may even suggest that such friction, by semantically undermining Creole, further reflects Jamaican immigrants' neo-colonial predicament and thralldom. What would be the result, beyond mere incomprehension, of such Creole usage being uttered by these immigrants before British customs officials or employers upon their arrival? In such situations, the standard English ear might misprize "fi get," "dung," or "de seat," with potentially harmful consequences. What may be a disadvantageous ambiguity in such contexts, however, here becomes a highly advantageous resource for registering postcolonial interculturality in all its fissured complexity.

I have thus far bracketed questions of medium and audience in my consideration of Bennett, but such concerns are undoubtedly pertinent to the assessment of her ambiguity. Different hearers or readers of Bennett's poetry will undoubtedly process her work very differently, and only those capable of accessing both registers, the vernacular and the standard, are positioned to gauge its full significance. Bennett herself was British-educated, as many in the audience of her performances would have been, both through the colonial education system predominant in Jamaica before independence and through the rarer experience of enrollment in British universities. These factors, combined with the more general use of standard English by British colonials themselves, would render such duplicities potentially accessible to a number of different hearers. We must also bear in mind that, though Bennett's work has been read almost exclusively in terms of theories of orality and poetic performance--partly as a result of Bennett's long career as a public personality performing not only poetry but music and standup comedy (in both Jamaica and England)--her work is not simply based in a performance medium but displays other features that are only evident in print. As Bennett scholar Mervyn Morris summarizes, "Bennett's art is both oral and scribal; the forms are not mutually exclusive" (1982, xix). (8) In particular, in the above passage, we may note that Bennett's ballad stanzas place a great premium on enjambment and thus on the consequent emphasis bred by written lineation. Where Bennett's recorded performances of "Colonization" seem to downplay the severance between enjambed lines, on the printed page, the division between "populate" and "De seat" inevitably places greater stress upon the latter, and thus on its consequent pun. (9)

These same considerations animate the work of another, relatively neglected postcolonial author of vernacular dramatic monologues, the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel. As noted by Bruce King in Modern Indian Poetry in English, Ezekiel's vernacular poems, in particular the collection titled Very Indian Poems in Indian English, represent a pivotal departure from the norms of English usage in South Asian poetry: "As most educated Indians have aimed at speaking approved British English, there has been no attempt by poets to use local varieties in the way Nigerian and West Indian writers of serious literature mix... supposedly sub-standard with standard English... Ezekiel's poems might be seen as a step towards using local speech in serious verse" (2005, 101). In his introduction to Ezekiel's Collected Poems, John Thieme argues further that these works represent "a serious attempt to probe the nuances of a language being shaped in the interstices of cultures," and stresses that their method of "recording neutrally" vernacular utterances places a particular burden on readers, who "are forced to place themselves in the role of the poet, inventing his missing words and with them an attitude to the subject matter in question" (2006, xxx-xxxiv). As with Bennett, it is in this dimension of Ezekiel's work--the transaction between writer and reader filtered through the vernacular speaker of a dramatic monologue--that the "interstices of cultures" stand out in relief, and it is here that readers' efforts "to complete the meaning of his poems," as Thieme neatly phrases it, encounter the challenges and possibilities of Anglophone ambiguity (xxxiv).

These concerns are perhaps most boldly highlighted by a poem not included in the Very Indian Poems, "The Railway Clerk," from the 1976 volume Hymns in Darkness. The following quotation consists of the final four lines of stanza I, stanza 2's single line, and the entirety of stanzas 3 and 5.
Money, money, where to get money?
My job is such, no one is giving bribe,
while other clerks are in fortunate position,
and no promotion even because I am not graduate.

I wish I was bird.

I am never neglecting my responsibility,
I am discharging it properly,
I am doing my duty,
but who is appreciating?
Nobody, I am telling you.


Once a week, I see film
and then I am happy, but not otherwise.
Also, I have good friends,
that is only consolation.
Sometimes we are meeting here or there
and having long chat.
We are discussing country's problems.
Some are thinking of foreign
but due to circumstances, I cannot think.
My wife's mother is confined to bed
and I am only support.

(Ezekiel 2006, 184-5)

The astuteness of Thieme's observation regarding the centrality of missing words to Ezekiel's "Indian English" is here immediately evident, nowhere more so than in the second stanza, where the speaker's wish to be a bird and fly away from his cares demands that the reader supply the indefinite article. Part of the pathos and distance generated by the poem derives from what would once have been called the "broken" nature of the speaker's English, which he stresses as part of his own anxiety and insecurity by noting that he lacks a higher education and is "not [a] graduate." Ezekiel thus signals his awareness of and intention to address a more educated and standard English reader, and it is here that the duplicity of the poem's vernacular utterances assume added significance. The third stanza's anaphoric refrain, "I am," emphasizes one such possibility, whereby the standardized reader may, if perusing these lines not vernacularly but, as Thieme puts it, "neutrally," hear not avowals of the faithful performance of "responsibility" and "duty" but larger reflections on the harried state of the speaker's entire being. The speaker's whole existence, in this reading, is reduced to such nagging labors: "I am never neglecting my responsibility... I am doing my duty." Such duplicities serve as a primary medium through which the dramatic monologue undermines its speaker and gestures toward larger insights regarding the miseries and confinements of workaday, modern Indianness. Later lines also necessitating reader "completion" reaffirm this same pattern. The speaker "ha{s} good friends," but that is both "[the] only consolation"--the only influence that dilutes his misery--and also "only consolation"--suggesting that something more than mere "consolation" is needed to achieve relief. "Some" of these friends "are thinking of foreign"--of emigrating--"but due to circumstances," he himself not only "cannot think [of foreign]"; beset by these circumstances, he "cannot think" at all. Among the circumstances that prevent both thoughts of bird-like escape and any thought whatsoever is the fact that his "wife's mother is confined to bed" by illness or infirmity. As "[the] only support" for his mother-in-law, the speaker finds no escape from stress in his private hours apart from the railway, and the totality of such problems leaves him further feeling that he is "only support," only a prop and an object, in his life as a whole.

Though Ezekiel does not utilize the standard-vernacular pun, he does, then, exploit the same intercultural hinge or articulation between standard and vernacular usages to generate ambiguity. The activation of these possibilities depends, as with Bennett, on the coincidence and simultaneity of semantic meanings on these distinct levels, an awareness of which is crucial to the larger import and suggestiveness of his monologues. Ezekiel's vernacular lines may be read according to a familiarity with "Indian English" usage or they may be read according to the kind of Oxbridge expectations and protocols his clerk finds frustratingly inaccessible. It is worth noting that this duality is especially dependent upon reading the poem, as opposed to hearing it performed aloud, because in written form, the accentual inflection of its vernacular is comparatively neutralized, thus facilitating a more flat or "tin ear" reception of its words and phrases. Though the written-oral interchanges here are distinct from those of Bennett, whose Creole orthography often prevents the sorts of standardized reading possibilities Ezekiel exploits, we are in fact dealing with the same phenomenon that manifests in her pun on "dung," which certainly stands out much more boldly in print than when pronounced aloud. Though derived, then, from distinct poetic features--in Bennett's case, the homophonic pun, and in Ezekiel's a more general set of convergences partly located in oral-written difference--with both writers, we witness the potential that resides in the intercultural ambiguities generated by the Anglophone contexts of the former British Empire. In the particularly duplicitous form of the postcolonial dramatic monologue, we begin to see what transpires when such ambiguities are made not just an occasional or ornamental means of enriching poetic significance, but an organizing principle and a total strategy of literary composition.


What, then, is the "more general set of convergences" on which Ezekiel's intercultural ambiguities depend? It is in answering this question that we begin to glimpse what may be the most complicated level of vernacular-standard duplicity, that of grammar. On this level, it is not momentary coincidences of diction, or even an interweaving of such coincidences within the strategies of the dramatic monologue that give rise to ambiguity, but rather the structural coincidences of vernacular and standard English at the level of more complex grammatical units such as the phrase, the clause, and the sentence. Such fortuitous alignments are related to one of the "strategies of transformation" Ashcroft identifies within the broader effort of postcolonial writers to achieve a cultural "bearing across" between vernacular source and standard target languages, namely "syntactic fusion," which operates by the theory that "alien world-views might come closer if their linguistic structures were somehow meshed" (2009, 178). But it is not merely the impulse to infuse standard English with the syntactic rhythms of vernacular usage that motivates Anglophone poets' structural alignment of source and target, or that provides for their greatest achievements in intercultural expression. Rather, it is the novel potential for the fusion of vernacular and standard meanings. Such fusion often derives not, in fact, from a deliberate attempt to unify colonized and colonizing English usages, but from the fortuitous ability to read one according to the rules of the other at any given moment. By exploiting the dialogic site of Anglophone enunciation both through vernacular structural arrangements that ramify within standard reading protocols and through standard arrangements that signify meaningfully via vernacular ones, poets like Ezekiel exploit the potential for postcolonial poetic ambiguity and, thus, for intercultural expression to the fullest possible extent.

Specifically, "The Railway Clerk" exploits several grammatical features of "Indian English" as a means of gesturing toward the kinds of coincident "standard" meanings that both undermine the speaker's self-presentation and locate him in larger networks of significance. Subhash Chander Sharma lists the following as vernacular features employed by Ezekiel: "dropping of articles, wrong use of prepositions, using imperfect or continuous tense in place of simple or indefinite ones[,] and above all Indians' craze for employing idioms" (2015, 553). These aspects of Indian English grammar prove central to generating the ambiguities I have noted. The poem's final line, in which the speaker is both "[the] only support" for his infirm mother-in-law and "only support" in the overall context of his life, hinges upon the vernacular tendency to drop articles, as does the equally poignant ambiguous reading of the line, "That is [the] only consolation." Equally crucial are those lines that deploy the "continuous" or present progressive tense in the third stanza, which, in addition to suggesting that the speaker's entire being is reduced to his labors and chores ("I am never neglecting my responsibility"), also contribute to a sense of ongoing, homogeneous, empty time that may exceed the meanings derived from vernacular intention. Other ambiguities seem to arise from grammatical features highlighted by Ezekiel yet not noted by Sharma, such as in the lines "Some are thinking of foreign/but due to circumstances, I cannot think," in which are evident a tendency either to substitute adjectives for nouns or to drop their accompanying nouns (foreign what?) and a tendency to truncate the second iteration of parallel constructions (cannot think of what?), with the latter being central to the poem's larger suggestion about the clerk's general mental suffocation. In each instance, the idiosyncrasies of vernacular, Indian English grammar are positioned so as to foreground other, secondary meanings accessible through standard reading protocols. (10)

Nowhere, however, is the ambiguous potential of vernacular grammatical structures more boldly evident than in Creole poetries of the Anglophone Caribbean like those of Bennett and Walcott and others such as Edward Kamau Brathwaite. The incredible flexibility and diversity of Creole English grammar and syntax facilitate an almost infinite array of potentially ambiguous constructions and effects. (11) I have in fact already begun to highlight such constructions through my reading of dictional ambiguity in "Colonization in Reverse," many of whose puns depend upon Creole phrases such as "de seat" and "fi get" being homophones for standard English words. This convergence between the Creole noun phrase and simple standard nouns such as "deceit" or between the Creole infinitive and standard verbs such as "forget" represents the most rudimentary or basic level of vernacular grammatical ambiguity, but, as I have shown, the potential semantic suggestiveness of such alignments is tremendous. It is on this level that many of the richest effects of Brathwaite's "nation language"--Caribbean English shaped by vestigial, African linguistic features--come into focus. The constituent poems of Brathwaite's best known work, The Arrivants, like Bennett's Creole utilize the alignment of vernacular noun phrases and standard diction to generate devastating puns, such as when the speaker of "Postlude" in Rights of Passage describes "the shock / of dis- / possession," or when the speaker of "The Emigrants," describing Columbus's thoughts upon arriving in the Caribbean, asks, "What did this journey mean, this / new world mean: dis- / covery?" (1973, 78; 53). Both the key phrases here, "dis-possession" and "dis-covery," exploit (and emphasize through enjambment) the coincidence between the vernacular pronunciation/spelling of the adjective "this" and the standard function of "dis" as a negative prefix, to generate potent vernacular-standard puns, according to which, here, black Caribbeans are colonially possessed and dispossessed at once, while Columbus notes the "covery" or concealment of Native American "voices... in the leaves" as the fearful obverse to his "discovery" of their islands (1973, 53). (12)

Such ambiguities persist and intensify at more complex grammatical levels. The work of a number of recent scholars on Creole and African American vernacular deviations from standard grammar is of crucial relevance here. Building on the work of American linguist William A. Stewart, Wai Chee Dimock's Through Other Continents stresses the prominence of the absent "tense-marking auxiliary" verb or "copula" in African American Vernacular English sentences like "he a friend" (2006, 153). Given that, as Dimock summarizes, Stewart discovers in such usages "'structural traces of a Creole predecessor'" (153), it should not be surprising to find that Caribbean Creole poetries display the omission of auxiliary verbs, as does another important vernacular poem by Walcott, "The Schooner Flight," which begins "In idle August, while the sea soft. . ." (2014, 237). Velma Pollard's reading of Brathwaite's "Wings of a Dove," which stresses his deployment of the Rastafarian "pronominal I," which in its most basic form inverts nominative and objective cases, substituting "I" for "me," pinpoints another vernacular grammatical deviation prominent in Caribbean poetries (2013, 463-6), as does Sonya Posmentier's reading of "The Schooner Flight," which highlights Walcott's use of "the idiomatic present tense" (2017, 112). The latter effect is evident as the poem's speaker, Shabine, continues the auxiliary verb-lacking first line quoted above by describing past events with present-tense verbs: "and the leaves of brown islands stick to the rim / of this Caribbean, I blow out the light / by the dreamless face of Maria Concepcion / to ship as a seaman on the schooner Flight" (Walcott 2014, 237).

Such examples--the dropping of the copula, the pronominal Rastafarian I, the idiomatic present tense--are part of a much larger network of Creole and nation-language alterations to standard English grammar, all of which bear profound ramifications for the deployment of poetic ambiguity. We should note that many of these effects often entail a substitution between, or even a direct inversion of, grammatical categories and/or parts of speech. Substituting I for me, present tense verbs for past, or other common Caribbean vernacular effects like the inversion of number in subject-verb agreement (as when Shabine says "nothing else move / but the cold sea" [Walcott 2014, 237}) and the use of objective-case pronouns like "me" and "them" as possessives (as when the speaker of Brathwaite's "Postlude" describes "watchin' me brother / here sharpen [he] blade" [1973, 80I): all of these grammar-bending features hold the potential to steer meaning in divergent directions for the poet attuned to the dialogic nature of Anglophone textuality. Posmentier seems aware of this potential when she notes that the idiomatic present tense of "The Schooner Flight" "formally bridges the past... with the present," but she does not explore the poem's deployment of its opening tense duplicity further (2017, 112). In several key places, however, Walcott exploits such ambiguities to enrich the poem's perspective and implications, for example at the end of the opening stanza, when Shabine "pile in / to the back seat" of a cab to begin the "flight" from Trinidad and his affair with Maria Concepcion: "And I look in the rearview and see a man / exactly like me, and the man was weeping / for the houses, the streets, that whole fucking island" (2014, 237). These lines are rife with ambiguity stemming from the forked potential of the idiomatic present tense. The reader is first presented with the possibility that in this case, the literal present is in fact meant, such that Shabine is currently, in the moment of poetic utterance, "look[ing] in the rearview" and "seeing" his former self at the moment of departure. Shabine may have "look[ed]" in the rearview mirror then, or he may, metaphorically, be doing so now. This grammatical decision ramifies largely, because while according to the idiomatic present tense reading, it is only the past-tense Shabine who "was weeping," according to the literal present tense one, it is the present-tense Shabine, who both reflects back upon his earlier, weeping self and who is still, at this moment, "exactly like" that self. Has Shabine moved on from the mournful feeling that possessed him then, or does it persist? (13)

Brathwaite's use of vernacular-standard grammatical ambiguity is, if anything, even more extensive than Walcott's. The poem "Cane," from the third volume of his "New World Trilogy," Islands, stages these effects too plentifully to catalogue fully here, but a few key quotations may highlight their poetic resonance. Befitting its culminating position in the sequence titled "Rebellion," the poem offers an incendiary expression of black colonial rage at "dis-possession." The speaker, describing the fire that he hopes will "ketch a light / that will wink in dis / wicked darkness," generating both religious inspiration and destruction of the plantation power structures indexed in the poem's title, prays:
Goin' to burn burn now
In dis willin' wind
till we hurt, till we hate,

like it finish;
an' I walkin' there
in de midst o' that fire

clear clear clear wid muh heart on fire
till I know that the journey end
that the passion done

that the story end;
that we hate, that we fear,
that we sorrow,

burn through the dark
o' de long night through
to the sun o' tomorrow's

fire; an' it ridin' there
like my heart on fire
in de cool o' de blazin' air.

(Brathwaite 1973, 229)

This gorgeous passage utilizes many of the grammatical tendencies I have noted thus far, from vernacular pronunciations and spellings of individual words ("dis," "de," "wid") to the removal of the copula ("an' I walkin' there," "an' it ridin' there") and the inversion of number in subject-verb agreement ("the journey end"). But it is perhaps the Creole use of the nominative pronoun "we" as a possessive that gives rise to its most duplicitous effects. The poem elsewhere exploits this ambiguity in individual lines, as in the speaker's description of "how we burn we blood / how we split we love /... how we reap so much less / than we plan" (226). In such descriptions, the grammatical flexibility of "we" is boldly emphasized, functioning as both nominative subject and possessive adjective in rapid sequence. Does the second line, then, mean, "how we split [our] love," "how we split [and] we love," "how [our] split [and] [our] love" or "how [our] split we love"? Do the speaker and his fellow workers "reap so much less than [their] plan," "reap so much less than [they] plan [to reap]," or "reap so much less than [they] plan," generally? In the above passage, "we" bears similarly profound implications. Will the workers "burn" "till [their] hurt, till [their] hate, /... it finish[es]," or will they "burn... till [they] hurt, till [they] hate / like it [is] finished]"? Will the process of burning consume the hate and hurt, or will it yield them? The speaker then vows to "walk... / in de midst o' that fire /... till / the story end," but what will the end of that story be or bring? The knowledge that "[our] hate," "[our] fear," and "[our] sorrow /... burn through the dark / o' de long night," or that "we hate," "we fear," "we sorrow / [and we] burn through the dark," in which scenario "burn" becomes another, parallel action "we" perform, all of which continuously occur as, not before, "the story end[s]"? Do the hate, fear, and sorrow burn and thus dissipate, in which case such dissipation constitutes or signifies this end, or is the endpoint of the journey--the object of "till"--that "we" still burn with hate, fear, and sorrow? Do "we," finally, define our journey as "finishfing]," as overcoming, or as more deeply inhabiting a righteous anger emblematized by "the sun o' tomorrow's / fire"? As a result of vernacular-standard grammatical ambiguity, these crucial questions regarding the poem's perspective on postcolonial "rebellion" are, to a significant extent, undecidable.


Empson's pioneering methodology plots poetic ambiguity on an ascending scale from simpler to more complex types. Ascending this scale entails the recognition and confrontation of ambiguities of increasing complexity relative to a particular poem's view of its subject, until finally one reaches "the seventh type of ambiguity... [which] occurs when the two meanings... the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer's mind" (1966, 193). The more significant ambiguities I have adduced here clearly exemplify this highest level of ambiguity by staging the fundamental division of their creators' minds relative to the agonistic experience of postcoloniality. They do so, furthermore, by exfoliating the novel ambiguous potential that resides at the intersection of vernacular and standard English elements in the Anglophone postcolony. From the pun on important/imported in "Sainte Lucie," to the systemic exploitation of such puns in "Colonization in Reverse," to the grammatical convergences of "The Railway Clerk," "The Schooner Flight" and "Cane," we have witnessed the potential of Anglophone ambiguities to serve as a rich resource for indexing the imperial cooptation of indigenous meaning (Walcott, "Sainte Lucie"), for undercutting post-independence triumphalism with suggestions of ongoing colonial dependency (Bennett), for locating quotidian experiences of economics and language within a larger postcolonial framework of quiet desperation (Ezekiel), and for suggesting that efforts to envision and establish present (Walcott, "The Schooner Flight") and future (Brathwaite, "Cane") eras severed from the temporality of colonialism may yet remain bound by that temporality. Each such ambiguity, we might summarize, expresses both a desire for, and pessimism regarding the likelihood of, full postcolonial liberation--as fundamental a mental division, perhaps, as it is possible to express. Furthermore, ambiguity arises in these works from across the former Empire--from Ireland, to the Caribbean, to South Asia--not simply at the level of authorial perspective and consciousness, but in terms of the very linguistic preconditions and raw materials of Anglophone poetry as a medium. The riven, dialogic nature of the site of postcolonial poetic enunciation, then, though it may be leveraged as a means of reflecting upon such socio-historical and experiential conflicts, ultimately presents a far more fundamental type of ambiguity derived from the very material infrastructures--from the symbolic order--of the postcolonial condition.

This is not, however, by any means to define the postcolonial poetic agon as inevitably debilitating, though it is certainly noteworthy that many of the ambiguous meanings brought to light here tend toward an ironic undercutting of the postcolonial liberation story. Rather, what Bhabha calls the "interstitial community" of postcoloniality, and what I have called, following Ramazani, the intercultural dynamics of Anglophone poetries, here facilitate cultural expressions and poetic artifacts that embrace and affirm the post-colonial legacy in all its non-binary complexity. It is remarkable to note the extent to which these phenomena span the former reaches of the British Empire, and may thus be said to be transnational not simply in the sense of bridging metropolitan and colonial influences, but also in the sense of bridging otherwise distinct postcolonial contexts. I would suggest that it is only through a reading strategy of the sort pioneered by Empson, one attuned to the astonishing richness of poetic signification which is then augmented by an awareness of and familiarity with the linguistic multiplicity inherent in these contexts, that we can fully reckon with literary representations of such transnationalities. Sensitivity to poetic ambiguity, especially to the ambiguities generated at the boundary between the binaries of vernacular and standard, oral and written, provides a unique basis for rendering our interpretive methodology correspondingly interstitial and intercultural. Conversely, we should also note, sensitivity to Anglophone postcolonial ambiguity in particular provides an equally advantageous means of expanding our view of the intricacies and possibilities of poetry itself as a literary form.

Several further questions are also raised by the foregoing discussion. To state bluntly one that may be a sort of elephant in the room at this point, are the readings I have offered sound? Does it make sense to read vernacular poetries, as I have done, as ramifying dually within standard reading expectations, protocols, and methods? This is a fair question. With some of the poems I have addressed, in particular "The Ministry of Fear" and "Sainte Lucie," the answer is clearly yes, in my estimation, given that standard English is their predominant mode of utterance. Walcott, for example, explicitly signals, via the homophones "important" and "imported," that some fusion of vernacular and standard diction via native pronunciation is permitted in the text. Heaney is similarly suggestive through the open invocation of vernacular and standard accentual differences, though his poem is much cagier than Walcott's in its graphic marking of potentially ambiguous features. But what of those poems whose mode of utterance is predominantly vernacular? I would suggest that one basis for likewise answering yes relative to such poems resides in what Helen Vendler once called the "macaronic style" of Walcott's vernacular works, specifically "The Schooner Flight." Vendler's argument that the "mixed diction" that gives the poem this characteristic "has yet to validate itself as a literary resource with aesthetic power" is perhaps in need of qualification, because it is only through the coexistence of standard and vernacular modalities that the opening of "The Schooner Flight" is able to signal that both sets of reading protocols are intended or "in play" (1982). Were the poem entirely in vernacular, we might be less inclined to read for the presence of vernacular words, phrases, clauses, lines, etc., that also signify in standard terms, whereas the "macaronic" coexistence of grammatical cues facilitates reading the poem's idiomatic present tenses literal. This is also the case with "Cane," which, though written in vernacular to a greater extent than "Schooner," in lines such as "how we split we love" quite deliberately calls attention to the alternative possibilities of standard readings of inverse nominative and possessive case pronouns. (14) With "The Railway Clerk," the speaker himself emphasizes that he is "not graduate," thus gesturing toward the oppressive shadow of standard expectations looming over his "Indian English" and directly invoking university English as a set of protocols by which the poem can also be read. Generally, then, it would seem that the poems I have discussed, not only those that observe a "decorous" English but also those that utilize "macaronic" mixing of vernacular and standard and those that observe a stricter vernacular, signal to the reader that the split optic of ambiguous reading is not only pertinent, but central to their meanings.

In this era of concerns over cultural appropriation, it is worth asking whether Bennett's "Colonization," which uses a more homogeneous vernacular than any other poem surveyed here, "intends" its Creole diction and phrasing to yield simultaneous, standard significance. Does "upside dung" definitively suggest the scatological resonances I have argued for, and does "de seat o' de Empire" definitively suggest that the Empire yet hoodwinks its former subjects? Despite Bennett's own British university education and frequent engagement of a British readership through her BBC performances, it may be impossible to answer yes to such questions with full confidence. And yet, these secondary, standard meanings do seem to work, or fit. Does the question of intent then necessarily circumscribe our zone of concern in engaging the ambiguous semantic potentials of Anglophone verse, or does the mere possibility of serendipitous convergences with standard meanings suffice to authorize consideration or inclusion of them? Reading "Colonization" in a classroom of American students, one finds that these standard connections--as well as the question of their validity--quickly rise to the surface of discussion. Even assuming that Bennett had in mind only a vernacular, Jamaican audience, would that invalidate such connections?

A remark from Terry Eagleton's seminal Literary Theory: An Introduction regarding the value of Empsonian methods of ambiguous reading, as opposed to the New Critical emphasis on paradoxical "ambivalence," is pertinent here: "Whereas the reader is shut out by a locked structure of ambivalences, reduced to admiring passivity, 'ambiguity' solicits his or her active participation... it is the reader's response which makes for ambiguity, and this response depends on more than the poem alone" (1983, 45). Along these same lines, I am also reminded of Rebecca Walkowitz's recent revitalization of the concept of the death of the author as a means of grasping the implications of contemporary translation, according to which she distinguishes the notion of the "work," as a stable aesthetic object, from the "edition," which instead indexes the submission of the work to the cultural lability generated by the global dissemination and reproduction of literary works. The multiplicity of reader constituencies in the slightly narrower bandwidth of the Anglophone world similarly renders poems like the ones addressed here subject to the "active participation" of its different constituencies. Taking seriously the extent to which the reader response that activates ambiguity "depends on more than the poem alone" perhaps means opening our interpretive practices to such alternative bases of significance. We should not, in my view, press this line of thinking so far as to declare the death of the Anglophone postcolonial poet, but it may be incumbent upon a literary-critical methodology fully attuned to the transformative, intercultural nature of the contemporary globe to embrace such readings even where they diverge from our sense of authorial intention. (15)


(1) The American poet Robin Coste Lewis describes that this very insight led her to convert from novelist to poet. After suffering a traumatic brain injury in an accident, Coste Lewis was instructed by her neurologist to write only one sentence per day. The challenge was revelatory: "I would sit there for eight hours a day thinking of one line and it became delicious... It was this huge epiphany--'Oh, this is what poetry is! You can put an entire essay into one line!' It was odd but it was the greatest gift, and I never looked back" (quoted in Chen 2015). Lewis's verse in her National Book Award-winning volume Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems (2015) attests that her insight into poetry's richness hinges on a sophisticated sensitivity to poetic ambiguity.

(2) For recent studies of William Empson, see Matthew Bevis, ed. (2007) and Michael Wood (2017).

(3) See Richard Rankin Russell (2010; 2014). Of particular relevance is the section titled "Wintering Out and Unifying Ulster Dialects," 201-13, in the former.

(4) See Walcott (1992). The motif or symbol of the shadow is central to Walcott's postcolonial epic, in particular through the poem's Afro-Caribbean hero, Achille, who, in book 3, journeys to Africa in a fever dream and rediscovers his cultural roots through a conversation with his dead father, Afolabe. Afolabe and Achille engage in a prolonged dialogue in which the former urges the latter to see the importance of ancestral names as mimetic "shadows" of identity as constituted prior to colonialism. See especially 136-9.

(5) On the history and characteristic features of the dramatic monologue, see Alan Sinfield (1977).

(6) See Stephen Greenblatt, et al., eds. (2012, 2726-7).

(7) Though there are numerous studies devoted to the white nationalist discrimination and violence endured by the growing population of Black British citizens before and after the rise of Enoch Powell in the late 1960s, Paul Gilroy (1987) remains a rich resource. See in particular chapters 2 and 3.

(8) On the oral and performance aspects of Bennett's work, see the following: Bruce King (2006, 192-3); Rajeev Patke (2006, 190-5); Janet Neigh (2017); and Denise deCaires Narain (2013). Carain takes issue, like Morris, with the tendency to read Bennett in strictly oral/performance terms, as does Suhr-Sytsma, who laments that Bennett "has been accorded only fitful recognition... as a writer of poetry" (2013, 239).

(9) For a performance of "Colonization in Reverse," see the 17:45 mark of the recording "Miss Lou: Live in Concert" (2012). Listeners will hear the elision of the enjambment between "populate" and "De seat" to which I have referred, as well as another interesting feature, namely that instead of "fi get a big time job," Bennett substitutes "fi take a big time job," almost as if to avoid the pun that stands out so noticeably in print. On Bennett's radio and live performances and her more general celebrity, see Mervyn Morris (1982, xiii-xiv); Neigh (2017, 169-70); and Jahan Ramazani (2001, 105-8).

(10) Ezekiel himself highlights one of the features of Indian English noted by Sharma but absent in "The Railway Clerk," the misuse of prepositions, in his poem "Background, Casually," attributing this tendency specifically to "undernourished Hindu lads,/ Their propositions always wrong" (2006, 179). An example of this tendency arises in the "Very Indian Poem" "The Patriot," whose implicitly Hindu speaker asks his addressee, "You want one glass [of] lassi?" (2006, 238). The question of which particular indigenous linguistic communities give rise to the grammatical features of the "Indian English" poems is of course an important one. In addition to this explicit mention of Hindi-inflected English, other poems such as "Irani Restaurant Instructions" openly announce the native basis on which their vernaculars rest (240). King further emphasizes the "Gujarati-influenced English often used" in Ezekiel's native Bombay (now Mumbai) as one of the texts' central sources (2001, 101), while one reader of the manuscript of this essay--a South Asian linguist--pointed out that the absence of articles is a feature of many South Asian languages, including Ezekiel's own first language, Marathi. For my purposes above, however, the primary consideration for assessing vernacular-standard ambiguity is not the ways in which indigenous languages give rise to different vernacular English tendencies, but rather the ways in which those tendencies, once manifest, may be exploited for their discrepancies from standard usage. The key site for the production of such ambiguity is the gap between (vernacular) English and (standard) English, as opposed to the gap between (vernacular) English and Hindi, Persian, Gujarati, or Marathi--though the latter clearly impacts the former.

(11) Bill Ashcroft's claim that "the literature of the Caribbean provides the widest range of possibilities of syntactic variation" is pertinent here (2009, 178).

(12) On Brathwaite's "Nation Language," see Brathwaite (1994). For a robust, recent reconsideration of the political and aesthetic significance of nation language, see Matthew Hart (2013, Chapter 4). See also Velma Pollard (2013, 460-63); Anthony Reed (2013, 517-25); and Lee M.Jenkins (2017, 155-61).

(13) This line of interpretation begins to provide an answer to a question raised by Ankhi Mukherjee regarding Walcott. Amid her discussion of the poem "The Spoiler's Return," Mukherjee muses, "Walcott's metropolitan creolizing validates and legitimates Creole as medium appropriate for high... literature. What is less clear... is whether he sees Creole as having grammatical possibilities beyond serving as nonstandard English in the contact zone" (2014, 104).

(14) Like Helen Vendler does with Walcott, Hart uses the term "macaronic" to refer to the mixed linguistic registers of Brathwaite's poetry. Hart reads Brathwaite's poem "The Dust" from Rights of Passage, and

Brathwaite's "nation language" poetics more generally, as an exemplar of what he calls a "synthetic vernacular": "(The poem] demonstrates the synthetic instability of nation language, which... is defined not by the consistency of its vernacular discourse but by its modulation between different forms of oral and scriptural language. At the level of word and phrase, Brathwaite's language is dominated by its visibly and audibly synthetic nature... English orthography is paired with black orature and italicized representations of Caribbean non-Englishes" (2013, 128-9). Hart's assessment of the "synthetic" basis of Brathwaite's poetry is highly relevant to my emphasis on vernacular-standard ambiguity, though Hart does not stress the concept of ambiguity and though his modernist emphasis differs from my own. Hart's reading in fact builds upon a larger scholarly trend of reading Anglophone Caribbean poetries by writers like Walcott and Brathwaite as belated, "new world" exemplars of modernist aesthetics. For another instance of this trend, see Charles Pollard (2004). Hart also explicitly draws upon modernist studies that traces the debt of British and American writers to black vernacular English, with Michael North (1994) being the seminal example. Though it falls outside the scope of my work here, the prevalence and dynamism of vernacular-standard ambiguities in Anglophone poetries seem to bear implications both for reading such poetries as modernist and for reassessing modernist poetries that bear vernacular allegiances.

(15) Rebecca Walkowitz's (2015) discussion centers on Anglophone fiction writers J. M. Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro, both of whom have openly courted the divergent and diverse constituencies of the Anglophone and non-Anglophone world through an open embrace of the implications of and, in the case of Ishiguro, the compositional challenges of literary translation. Walkowitz's distinction between "work" and "edition" borrows from the work of Peter McDonald, who distinguishes between the concepts of the "type," which refers to "the intellectual content of the work" or the core text itself, and the "token," which refers to "instances of the work" such as are generated through multiple editions (99). Walkowitz reads Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go as both thematically preoccupied by this distinction and as embodying it through its global circulation in translation. For my purposes above, a remark of Coetzee's quoted by Walkowitz is highly compelling: "The words are written; I cannot control the associations they awaken" (97).


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T. J. BOYNTON is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary British Literature at Wichita State University. His work has appeared in ELH and Eire-Ireland, and is forthcoming in JML: Journal of Modern Literature and The Edinburgh Companion to Irish Modernism. His book manuscript, "The Despotism of Fact: Celticism, Capitalism, and Transnationalism in British and Irish Modernism," reconsiders the influence of Arnoldian Celticism on modernist depictions of Anglo-Irish colonial capitalism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
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Title Annotation:ESSAYS
Author:Boynton, T.J.
Publication:College Literature
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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