Internationally celebrated Jamaican writer recognised at UWI graduation
AS A CHILD she was unaware that her gift to Jamaica and the world would be her natural poetic prowess. So she trained as a painter whose works can be seen on the covers of her books.
Now a major figure in world literature, Professor Lorna Goodison has been conferred with the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) by The UWI, Mona for her contribution to the literary arts.
“I am deeply honoured. There is nothing like being honoured by your own. I feel truly blessed,” she told UWIMONA Now.
Blessed, too, with the gift for words, it was as though Goodison had been subconsciously honing her natural talents from a young age. She instinctively knew that to stand out in her large family she had to carve out a niche for herself.
“My parents had eight children besides me, the others are Barbara, Howard, Carmen, Bunny, Kingsley, Karl, Keith and Nigel who are all intelligent people with strong personalities; and in order to develop my own personality I had to have a world for myself,” she said.
“From an early age I formed a close relationship with poems through the ones I memorized, plus my mother – who had been a teacher of small children before she got married – knew pretty stories that she would tell us at night before we went to sleep,” she recalled.
Poems, stories and songs had always been “a big part of her world”, to the extent that after she became a mother she shared a lot of these stories with her son Miles. “I believe he enjoyed them as much as I did.”
Meanwhile, her poetry skills were nourished at her secondary school.
“I was a student at St Hugh’s High School for Girls, where I received what Derek Walcott calls ‘a sound colonial education’. In retrospect I realized that many of my teachers were literally English teachers. They helped me to understand that poetry wasn’t ordinary language, and there is always mystery at the heart of a good poem.”
She read and was introduced to major writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, John Milton, John Keats, EM Forster, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot and John Osborne. “One of my favourite plays to this day is Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. We did that play for A’ levels. At St Hugh’s I was exposed to a remarkable range of poetry and fiction and non-fiction by great English writers,” she recalled.
Back then, it bothered the young Goodison that the prescribed texts were not written by women, let alone black or Caribbean writers.
“We never read one poem or story written by a woman. And I do not recall us ever reading one book written by a black or West Indian writer. I then began to think to myself: where do people like me fit into this? Then I was greatly helped by one teacher, Lena Robinson, who told me two things.
“First, she told me: ‘You are a writer’. And then when I complained about the lack of diversity in the books we were studying, she told me: ‘You are a writer. Write what you want to read’.”
Years later, the late Neville Dawes and also Sir Derek Walcott would tell her the same thing.
But after graduating from St Hugh’s High School she took a detour, opting to go to art school. She attended the Jamaica School of Art, and then the School of the Art Students League in New York. “I thought that I was going to be a painter who wrote poems and stories; but no matter what I did poetry kept presenting itself. It is fair to say that poetry chose me; something for which I am eternally grateful,” she remarked.
A well-decorated poetry and prose scion, Goodison has received numerous awards over the years, including the Order of Distinction – one of the country’s highest honours for her contribution to the field of literature.
Her works have appeared in the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, The Harper Collins World Reader and the Longman Book of British Masters.
In addition, Goodison said: “Countless train commuters on the London Underground have read my poems and stories which have been translated into many languages, and have appeared in Ms Magazine, The Guardian, The Irish Times, on PBS Evening News and in France’s Le Monde.”
She has been a fellow of the Bunting Institute, Harvard University, and a visiting writer at several schools and universities in the United States and Europe.
Currently, Professor Emerita at the University of Michigan, Goodison credits a love of reading from a very early age with helping her to develop her passion for Literature. In fact, several of her early poems have found their way into her first collection, the groundbreaking Tamarind Season published by the Institute of Jamaica Press in 1980.
“I was always a reader,” she continued. “My sister Barbara, one of the Caribbean’s most respected journalists, was and still is a voracious reader; and largely because of her everyone in our house read The Gleaner as well as The Daily Mirror and The Saturday Evening Post and even The New York Times, on a regular basis. My maternal aunts who had emigrated to Montreal from Jamaica in the 1930s were always sending us newspaper clippings and magazines about life in Canada, so I developed a sense of being part of a wider world from a fairly young age,” she said.
However there was a change: “When my father died, I started to write poetry — as distinct from my very early, very childish efforts — in order to cope with my own grief. In order to accurately express my devastating sense of loss, I had to find my own voice for myself. I knew I would be required to go deep,” she said.
But she also learned that “you cannot command” the words to flow at will. “I have learned over the years to wait for inspiration to come when it comes. I have learned too that sometimes when nothing seems to be happening on the outside, new things are being cultured on the inside.”
For her, poetry is medicine. “I was 15 years old when my father Marcus died. We all had to watch him die from stomach cancer, and that is when I really began to read works of the metaphysical poets like George Herbert and John Donne,” she said.
“It was at this time too that I discovered the early poems of Derek Walcott. I was fortunate to be introduced to Walcott by my sister Barbara and her husband Ancile Gloudon, who had been at The University of the West Indies, Mona with Walcott. I regard him as a mentor. Reading these poets helped me to cope with my own grief. At age 15, I learned for myself the value of a good poem.”
Meanwhile, Goodison who admitted to missing Jamaica since relocating to Canada and marrying Professor Ted Chamberlin, said the move had helped with her writing.
“No matter how much I love Jamaica, I needed to leave as I was not making the best use of my gifts. I have produced most of the body of my work since I left Jamaica. I do not have as many distractions and I just focus on my writing.”
From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People published in 2007 is one of Goodison’s most revered works, which has garnered the prestigious British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and received glowing reviews in The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and was a best book of the year in the Washington Post and The Globe and Mail. It was chosen as a BBC Pick of the Week, and serialized on BBC Radio 4.
Some of her 11 books of poetry include: Tamarind Season (1980), I Am Becoming My Mother (1986), Heartease (1988), Selected Poems (1992), To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (1995) and her latest book is entitled Supplying Salt and Light (2013).
Like a true mother, she has no favourites among her eclectic collection.
“A friend of mine, who is a minister, once told me that my poems can be grouped into two categories: love and justice,” she recalled.
Her husband is her “greatest supporter”. “He fell in love with my poems before he met me,” she told UWIMONA Now.
Meanwhile, Goodison said she has given up on planning her life. She currently globe trots, and is a fixture at major international poetry festivals — her most recent readings were given at the University College of Cork in Ireland, and at the Scottish National Poetry Library.
She also believes in destiny.
“I went first as a visiting writer to the University of Michigan. Professor Veronica Gregg, who now teaches at Hunter College, invited me to Ann Arbor to give a reading and arranged for me to be a visiting writer for a semester. I ended up staying at the University of Michigan for over 20 years, and I will always be grateful to Professor Gregg for opening that door for me,” she said.
“I owe a great deal to the many people, including the members of my own family, my friends and my colleagues at the University of the West Indies — especially Professor Edward Baugh, Professor Mervyn Morris, Dr Nadi Edwards, Dr Michael Bucknor and Professor Dr Morrison and Vice Chancellor Hilary Beckles for the ways in which they have helped and encouraged my work over the years,” she added.
Now, she encourages poets-in-the making, to get away from distracting world noises, noting that such a move will help them to better hone their craft. This includes carving out quiet time for work and putting down the cellphone, and simply unplugging from technology. But most importantly she advised: “You have to know your world, how it smells, looks and sounds. You have to have that visceral connection through which you hear your own clear voice.”
A lot has changed since her days at St Hugh’s when she was exposed primarily to foreign writers and poets.
“Over time, Caribbean Literature has been giving the world a vital, vibrant way of writing that is informed by our history and by a prophetic engagement with the future.”
For her part, Goodison has received the following awards for her work:
- The Musgrave Gold Medal from the Institute of Jamaica
- The Commonwealth Poetry Prize Americas Region
- The Henry Russell Award for innovative creative work and teaching from the University of Michigan
- The Shirley Verrett Prize for Exceptional Creative Work from the Women of Colour in the Academy Project
- The British Columbia prize – one of Canada’s largest prizes for Non-Fiction.