Anthony (Tony) McNeill was born in Kingston, Jamaica, the son of an elected member of the Legislative Council. He attended Excelsior School and St George's College in Jamaica; took his first degree at Nassau Community College, an MA at Johns Hopkins University in Writing Seminars in 1971, an MA/PhD at the University of Massachusetts in 1976.
He worked for a time in the USA before returning to Jamaica in 1975. His jobs included journalism, radio production, civil servant, trainee hotel manager, a successful pools hustler, failed encyclopaedia saleman and janitor. Between 1975-1981 he was assistant editor of Jamaica Journal. His greatest ambition was, he wrote, to be a 'jz.' (jazz) pianist, but 'Not enough/talent/perhaps'.
His talent for poetry was unquestioned and huge. His first collection was Hello Ungod, followed by Reel from 'The Life Movie' (1972) which established his reputation.
Reel comes out of the creative tension in McNeill's work between his concern for aesthetics and his commitment to social justice. He wrote from the USA in 1970 that he was glad 'I live in a country which affords the luxury (is this true) of pure - or almost pure - poetry. I don't think I could write if my first concern wasn't for the aesthetic, a concern which would be immoral/Uncle Tom here' (Introduction to Reel). The child of a seriously middle class family whose only contact with the nation-language speaking working class was through family helpers, he seriously contemplated becoming a Rastafarian. However, by the time McNeill returned from America, so many other young Jamaicans of his class background had become Rastafarian, it had come to seem merely fashionable, an unoriginal choice. Nevertheless, some of the most imperishable poems in Reel display a deep but complex empathy with Rastafarian figures.
Perhaps of all Caribbean poets, in his search for a conteporary voice and forms, McNeill displays the greatest connection to American poetry, to African American poets such as Sonia Sanchez, but also EE Cummings, W.S. Merwin, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams - and Emily Dickinson (McNeill has a penchant for both very long verse lines shading into prose poetry, and very short, gnomic lines). Some of these, but overwhemingly McNeill's own experimentalism, are evident in his next published collection, Credences at the Altar of Cloud (1979). There are influences from 'jz.' in the shape of John Coltrane of poems working through exploration to some kind of resolution. In comparison to the tight discipline of Reel, Credences is far more inclusive, including the retention of typos as 'mutants'.
There are other creative tensions in McNeill's work, between the desire for belief and his knowledge of its impossibility: whether in the Catholicism of his youth, Rastafarianism, to a pantheistic feeling for god in nature, to the idea that to find the language-in-music was also to find the truth. Whether the result of these tensions (which produced many powerful poems) whilst McNeill wrote voluminously in the years after Credences, (five manuscripts in one weekend he told Daryl Dance [New World Adams]), it is evident that his life fell apart. Alcoholism, drugs and psychic breakdown blighted his life for many years. In 'Anthers and Omens' he wrote: 'I realised very early I had no gift for conducting a life. So I shifted my focus and sang a wreath' (Chinese Lanterns, p. 41).
However, in the years before his early death in 1996, he produced a final collection, Chinese Lanterns from the Blue Child (Peepal Tree, 1998) which included both recent poems and a few from the 1980s period. This collection won the 1995 Jamaican National Literary Award. It contains poems of unbearable poigniancy and beauty, poems which arrive at a moment of peace and lucidity, but also the knowledge that his life is almost over. In 'Chinese Lanterns from the Blue Child' he writes: 'Once long ago in a village in China/ A boy cast word-lanterns/ Before crossing the Sea/ He passed the secret/ of building/to me' (p.36).
From Kamau Brathwaite to Edward Baugh and most recently, Kwame Dawes, other Caribbean poets at least have been in no doubt of McNeill's status as a major Caribbean poet. There is undoubtedly much unpublished work which cries out for recovery (two poem novellas, he told Daryl Dance).
An interview with Anthony McNeill is included in New World Adams: Conversations with Contemporary West Indian Writers, Peepal Tree, 1992, 2002.
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