Gordon Rohlehr’s critical work is outstanding in the balance it achieves between its particularity and its breadth – from the detailed unpacking of a poem’s inner workings, to locating Caribbean writing in the sweep of political and cultural history – and the equal respect he pays to literary and to popular cultural forms. His “Articulating a Caribbean Aesthetic” remains a stunningly pertinent and concise account of the historical formation of the cultural shifts that framed Caribbean writing as a distinctive body of work. Indeed, along with Kamau Brathwaite, Sylvia Wynter and Kenneth Ramchand, no critic has done more to establish the subject of Caribbean writing and its distinctive aesthetics.
These essays, written between 1969 to 1986, first published in radical campaigning newspapers such as Tapia and Moko, and first collected in 1992, were the work of a young academic who was both changing the university curriculum, and deeply engaged with the less privileged world outside the campus. Rohlehr catches Caribbean writing at the point when it leaves behind its nationalist hopes and begins to challenge the complex realities of independence. Few critics have written as clearly about how deeply the colonial has remained embedded in the postcolonial.
What shines in Rohlehr’s work is not merely its depth, acuity and humanity, but its courage. He writes when his subject is still emergent, without waiting for the credibility of metropolitan endorsements as a guide to the canon. “My Strangled City”, a record of how Trinidad’s poets responded to the upsurge of revolutionary hopes, radical shams, repressions and disappointed dreams of 1964-1975 is an indispensable account of those times and the diversity of literary response that continues to speak to the present. And if in these essays Trinidad is Rohlehr’s primary focus, his perspective is genuinely regional. His native Guyana is always present in his thoughts and several essays show his deep interest in the cultural productions of a “dread” Jamaica, and in making insightful comparisons between, for instance, reggae and calypso.