National identity
Trinidad and Tobago

Eric Roach

Short biography
Eric Merton Roach was born in 1915 in Mount Pleasant, Tobago. He became a schoolteacher after leaving Bishop’s High School in Tobago. He joined the army in Trinidad in 1939. His first poems, some written as Merton Maloney, date from this period. After the war he returned to Tobago as a civil servant. He married in 1952 and in 1954 he left his job to devote his time to writing.

By 1960, though he had accumulated an impressive body of work, including many anthologised poems and publication in Bim, Kyk-over-Al and other journals, there were no offers of publication and he returned to teaching. In 1961, he moved to Trinidad where he worked chiefly as a journalist. In 1973, he again resigned in order to devote more time to his writing. In 1972, he had published a fiercely critical review of the new Caribbean poetry published in Savacou ¾ (‘Tribe Boys vs Afro-Saxons’) and in the absence of the publication of his own poetry of this period, which was indeed much closer in spirit to the Savacou collection than his somewhat intemperate review suggested, he was widely castigated for what were perceived as reactionary views. Almost equally, he was taken up as a stick with which to beat the leading figures in the Caribbean revolution in the arts by its opponents. In the process, Roach’s own poetry was ignored.

In 1974, leaving behind ‘Finis’, a suicide note transformed into art, Roach drank insecticide and swam out to sea at Quinam Bay, itself the subject of a fine poem ‘At Quinam Bay’ full of intimations of wearied ending.

Although many of Roach’s poems (‘The Flowering Rock’, ‘In Mango Shade’ ‘I am the Archipelago’ ‘Homestead’ ‘March Trades’) were frequently anthologised (Sun’s Eye, Caribbean Poetry Now, Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse, Voiceprint et al.) and are among some of the best loved, most quoted Caribbean poems, it was not possible to form a proper judgement of Roach until the publication in 1992 of The Flowering Rock: Collected Poems 1938-1974 (Peepal Tree). This collection, based on the research work of Danielle Gianetti and edited by Professor Kenneth Ramchand, brought together not only the early pseudonymous poems, the poems published but scattered through the pages of Bim and Kyk, but a substantial body of unpublished poems written in the 1970s. These reveal that Roach had continued to change and develop, to build on the achievements of the past, the poems where he establishes himself as pre-eminently a poet who conveyed what he saw of the strength and beauty of the ordinary people of the Caribbean, particularly in their relationship to the land. The unpublished poems reveal Roach as deeply involved with the recovery of Africanity in the Caribbean, and percipient of the coming revolution in gender relations in Caribbean writing.

Kamau Brathwaite describes him as ‘the most splendid voice of the Caribbean Renaissance (1948-1972)’ and of his ‘precious confounded Yeatsian & still utterly Caribbean statements’ and the collection as a whole reveals him to belong, as Ian McDonald asserts in his foreword, to a pantheon which includes at least Claude McKay, Derek Walcott, Louise Bennett, Martin Carter and Kamau Brathwaite.

In addition to his poems, Roach was the author of three plays: Belle Fanto (1967), Letter from Leonora (1968) and A Calabash of Blood (1971).
He was awarded the Trinidad and Tobago National Hummingbird Gold Medal, posthumously in 1974. He refused offers of university scholarships which would have taken him abroad during his teaching, army and civil service careers.