Review: Poetry, Print and Postcolonial Literature

This is the proof of my review of Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature by Nathan Suhr-Sytsma (CUP, 2017), recently published by the Journal of Postcolonial Writing.

This ambitious book opens with an anecdote about the accomplished Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo. In 1965, Okigbo published a poem in a volume of essays to mark the centenary of W.B. Yeats’s birth. Nathan Suhr-Sytsma’s analysis of this poem, which considers its use of Yoruba Oríkì (praise poems) and the influence of the colonial curriculum, is exemplary of the type of analysis he seeks to pursue. The book focusses primarily on the work of three writers: Okigbo, Seamus Heaney (Northern Ireland) and Derek Walcott (Saint Lucia), suggesting that these writers, each born during the 1930s, participate in the anglophone literary world from similarly dominated positions. There are also three excellent short “interchapters” which look closely at the significance of a particular publishing venue. 

The focus on Okigbo’s work is particularly welcome: a poet who deserves significantly more attention in postcolonial studies than he has hitherto received. The analysis of selected literary institutions is careful and well-researched, especially where Suhr-Sytsma draws on archival materials, and the book offers a valuable addition to the burgeoning field of book history in postcolonial studies. The introduction, in particular, is ambitious, tackling some of the major critical debates in current scholarship on postcolonial and world literature. Like a number of other literary critics, Suhr-Sytsma turns to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the cultural field in seeking to reconstruct the literary world in which these poets were writing. 

The book tackles several significant challenges, some of which will be familiar to those working on postcolonial literature. One of these is the dilemma of how to reconstruct particular literary worlds and acknowledge the selection processes this requires. Occasionally, Suhr-Sytsma’s principled ambition to recreate the anglophone literary world of this period, as stated in his introduction, ironically means that it is sometimes difficult to identify how far the selection of material (and the inevitable exclusions) actually reflect the literary field itself, or how far this is a result of Suhr-Sytsma’s own critical practice. For example, although Suhr-Sytsma provides two clear reasons for the lack of female poets in the book — the first, to reflect the literary institutions of this period (27); and the second, related to his decision to track particular “nonmetropolitan poets across the Commonwealth” during the 1960s (27) — the fact remains that their absence cannot be easily explained away. I know, from my own research on transcultural collaboration between poets in Leeds and Nigeria, how difficult it is to chart the importance of women as writers and editors during this period, and Suhr-Sytsma’s book has prompted me to think harder about my own selection processes, as well as the need for more rigorous discussions about the challenges of selection and scope. Acknowledging the difficulties and tensions that subsequently arise should strengthen, rather than detract from, our work in this field. 

The book raises related methodological challenges, including the difficult task of synthesizing close attention to poetics with field analysis; the place of aesthetics and the nature of literary material; the value of concepts such as “modernist” and “classical” poetics in such a project; and the risk of producing an overly-instrumental view of literature when we depend on Bourdieu’s work. These are, as we know, very real problems. This timely book offers a meticulously researched, eloquent response to them and is a welcome contribution to the field of scholarship on postcolonial literature.

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