Edward Baugh is probably best known as a literary critic whose distinguished academic career has been devoted to West Indian literature, especially the study of Anglophone Caribbean poetry, and in particular the work of the towering Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, a new monograph on whom he has recently published. His books, essays and lectures have made an enormous contribution to the establishment of a vibrant school of criticism, in which lively and serious considerations are given to writing inspired by the unique historical circumstances and cultural life of the Caribbean islands. The titles show a clear direction in his thinking, as in the early pamphlet, A Study in Cultural Decolonisation (1971), or essays such as “Towards a West Indian Criticism”, written just six years after Jamaican independence, and “The West Indian Writer and his Quarrel with History” (1977), a pioneering piece of critical surgery on a complex and omnipresent literary theme. Edward Baugh taught at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies for well over thirty years, and was Professor of English there from 1978 until his retirement in 2001. He has also held many visiting posts in America and the United Kingdom, among them appointments at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dalhousie University and the University of Hull. His work with the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language and Jamaican P.E.N. Club has furthered the prestige and influence of those organisations, and throughout his life Baugh has been able to balance this impressive and valuable record of professional public service with the more private, though no less fraught, life of a poet.
He was born in Jamaica’s Port Antonio, in 1936, a “town which had known better days” as he later wrote. The coastal capital of the parish of Portland was typical in offering its postcard views of colonial splendour, none more dramatic than that of the Titchfield Hotel looking down on the harbour. It was as a boy Baugh witnessed a very unusual sight, when this small faded town briefly became an exotic haven for the legendary Errol Flynn, whose private yacht was anchored in the bay there, while for a few unforgettable years the Hollywood star and his holiday guests took over Port Antonio with characteristic but hitherto unheard of extravagance. But despite his hometown’s momentary starburst of glamour, Baugh was keen to move on, and after Titchfield High School he won a Jamaican Government Exhibition to the University College of the West Indies, where he graduated in English. Thereafter he pursued postgraduate research, and a Commonwealth Scholarship took him to the University of Manchester, where he gained a Ph.D for his study of the poetry of Arthur Symons.
When we turn to the poetry of Edward Baugh, we are immediately conscious of the enormous contrast between the worlds it explores, and the more perhaps prosaic world of academe, administration and public office in which the poet works. After all, the routines and routine intrigues of academic and campus life, so brilliantly satirised by David Lodge, must have a deleterious effect on the creative juices of even a Caribbean poet, with all his advantages of natural beauty and sunny weather, unheard of in Rummidge. But this gives us a key to understanding the often intense lyrical power in some of Baugh’s poems – he has understood the sacrosanct nature of the inner life, and of the poet’s need for protecting his sources, as it were. So for all his social and very sociable worldliness, he can still take part in the act of poetic creation as a poet as well examine and explain it as a critic. And most critically of all for one who has spent decades inquiring into the immense scale, talent and rich language of Derek Walcott’s poetry, Edward Baugh has been able to absorb influence yet avoid imitation, stay tellingly brief in the midst of such epic scale, and ultimately resist the overwhelming temptation to stop writing poetry in the face of such dazzling genius as his great Caribbean compatriot.
Baugh’s most recent collection, It was the Singing, contains all the poems from his first, A Tale from the Rainforest, and the selection he has made for the Poetry Archive contains much of his best work, and many individually very lucid snapshots of time and place, drawing on memory and fantasy, with both emotional weight and calmer, rational thoughts. So his poems often offer a tantalisingly pleasing surface, only to shift and disclose some deeper world with subtler meanings. The past is an unsurprising prism to play with for a poet of Baugh’s generation, and he certainly enjoys indulging the curiosity we feel at examining remembered selves, in long-lost locations and once magical and, as it turns out from the poet’s point of view, unforgettable circumstances or moments. ‘The Warner-Woman’ captures one such memory with an oddly heart-stopping economy, creating a perfect balance between the power of language and silence, as a storm gives way to the waiting calm, and youth passes into age. ‘Pilot Boat’ carefully holds in its craft the very form of an intense moment between lovers looking across the bay as dusk falls, making permanent what for them had similar qualities of the eternal.
Other poems expose the shabby fakery of leaders and populists, whose falseness or wrongness is easily discerned in a few clumsy dance steps. Baugh has a warm way with family stories, and there is something especially touching in all those poems which concern ageing and death. ‘Sometimes in the Middle of the Story’ addresses a grander historical theme, that of drowned Africans of the Middle Passage, and here we have more rhetorical flourish and musical colour, like a phantom fanfare. And in a poem about music and grief, ‘It was the Singing’, Baugh pitches perfectly the absolute truth of how the hymn singing does the business, with its catch in the throat, the whelming stomach and eyes pricking with tears. In total contrast, ‘Nigger Sweat’ scripts in a uniquely brilliant monologue a passage of waiting time for a young Caribbean man in a passport queue at the US Embassy, Kingston. This poem simulates real time, and is a shockingly unsettling depiction of anxiety. Some of these poems will appeal for other, gentler effects, like comfort stones, but all Baugh’s poetry has a wonderful freedom from rancour, historical baggage, sentimentality and regret. He brings clarity and truth to the memory game, and a sweet sense of what it is to rejoice. Since in a former life he was a talented actor and in later life the Public Orator, the poet Edward Baugh has an accomplished way with reading his poems; as one might expect, he does not disappoint. The recording was made for the Poetry Archive at the Radio Education Unit, University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica.