Many famous poets were also activists, but how many historical figures do you know who wrote poetry for fun – and what can their writing tell us about them? In this feature, poets Jay Bernard and Walt Hunter explore the under-appreciated writings of Claudia Jones, who was most famous for setting up London’s first Caribbean carnivals – and who just so happens to have written poetry too.
We met in Cambridge at the Race and Poetry and Poetics UK conference in 2018, where we ended up chatting about Claudia Jones in the pub. A little while later, we got back in touch and decided to have a long overdue conversation about Jones and her work. A handful of her poems have come down to us, thanks to Carole Boyce Davies’s scholarship, and they give the briefest glimpse into the inner, private world of a woman known primarily for starting the first Black newspaper in Britain, The West Indian Gazette, and for organising the first Caribbean carnivals in London. Jones’s subtitle for the first carnival held in 1959 was ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom’, fitting for someone with an internationalist, liberatory viewpoint such as hers.
Claudia Jones was an activist, community organiser, Marxist, editor and writer. She was born in Trinidad in 1915, moved to New York as a child, then was deported for her activities as a communist in 1955. She was accepted by the UK government on humanitarian grounds and lived in London until her death in 1964. Writing and thinking during a period of fierce anti-colonial struggles around the world, Jones celebrated creative expression as the harbinger of a liberation yet to come.
Walt: What is it about Claudia Jones’s poetry that both of us find so enchanting and vital? What is it about the way that poetry is read, that means her criticism is more valued than her poetry?
Jay: Well, I think it’s interesting to discuss her work because she is a well-known figure (better known for her journalism and community organising) who happens to have written poetry. The poems aren’t particularly well-known, but they’re a great find because she’s doing all sorts of things in them, formally, aesthetically and socially too. Are there things you see in the poems that especially interest you?
Walt: When I was at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, reading through her poetry, I noticed this genre that she uses a lot – the paean, the ode. Like in ‘Paean to the Atlantic’.
Jay: Yes, and poems such as ‘To the Crimea’, ‘To a Dear Friend on her Birthday’, ‘Lament for Emmett Till’…
Walt: And I thought, what is it that the paean is supposed to do as a form? She’s writing a paean in these really emergent situations: she’s in prison, she’s being deported. I like the paean because it’s a forward looking form. The paean calls on us to imagine new ideas about what the future might be like. As a diasporic poet, if we want to call her that, she’s not going back and recovering a cultural past that has been lost, neglected, or deliberately erased. She’s creating a revolutionary future. Maybe the paean helps her to imagine that.
Jay: I didn’t notice until you just said it, but the majority of her poems are to another person. There’s an epistolary quality – they’re almost like letters. She speaks directly to friends or activists who are in difficult situations, in prison, because she is coming from the same experience. The poems show that there are so many different ways that you can understand poetry – how it can be read, received and circulated in the private, personal realm. The academic approach, of only taking into consideration what is on the page and eschewing biography, doesn’t necessarily make sense if you are talking about poetry shared between friends.
Walt: I think that’s exactly right. There are poems addressed to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, or Blanca Canales Torresola – people who were in prison; women in anti-colonial movements, in Puerto Rico; women in the US fighting for a greater recognition of Black politics within their political organizations.
All of that is built into the epistolary (letter-like) structure of her poems. Their proximity to letters makes me think of somebody otherwise completely unrelated to Jones, Emily Dickinson. At the same time, while these poems are addressed to specific people, I think they’re also meant to be taken up and used by others as well. I think that her ode to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is also a poem that could come to mind when I was thinking of you, Jay. The poems create a lasting connection between people in different but related political situations.
Jay: Yeah, completely. I mean, in ‘For Consuela’… the two verses I like the most are:
I saw you in the passion-flower,
in roses full of flame,
pure lily valley whose bower
marks resemblance to your name
Oh, wondrous Spanish sister,
long-locked from all you care,
Listen – while I tell you what you strain to hear
and beckon all from far and near
I mean, it’s gorgeous, right? She talks about ‘hearing’ a lot in her poems, which makes me think of an imprisoned person straining to hear another through the wall, or to hear the outside world. But I also think about what people need to hear in order to overcome the kind of circumstances Jones herself grew up in. The critical part of me kicks in after that – there’s a lot of very dodgy rhyming going on elsewhere in the poem.
Walt: Do you find a kind of curious pleasure in that with her poetry? Or do you find it kind of grating to the ear?
Jay: I’m conflicted. Some part of me is grateful that she wrote poems at all, another longs for her to have really been a poet. But if you’re a political activist who was leaving prison, who had memorised the poems you knew the guards wouldn’t let you take outside, wrote them out on the train back to New York, then sent them to a friend who themselves might have been imprisoned – it’s such a particular sensibility, you know? You can see evidence of this: things she’s making up on the fly, rhythms that she’s half-remembering. These poems are probably one draft, you know? And so there’s a lot about time. She’s doing time, then making up for lost time, doing what she can in the time she has.
Walt: I think of all the ways in which the US government made it impossible for her to have that time – by arresting her four times. Even before that, when she was young and had just immigrated to New York, the housing conditions evidently exposed her to tuberculosis from nearby sewage.
Jay: Yeah, the government is so present. She was put on trial and then deported. She had several heart attacks. She couldn’t rest. And that is embedded in the poetry. We often extract literature from its production and from its environment, you know? We divorce the writing from how and where it was written. Yet here you can see where she essentially abandons the rhyme scheme mid-way. Those traces animate what we know about her full, busy life.
Walt: Speaking of these traces, there’s that poem called ‘There are some things one always remembers’. Reading it this morning, I found it very affecting: phrases like the ‘harshness of reality’ hit me hard. There’s also something that’s undeniably a little cliched about some of the language in it. I don’t know, Jay, I think I find myself in the contradictory position of, on the one hand, wanting to ‘defend’ some of her poetic choices because I feel committed to her writing and thinking. And then, on the other hand, worrying that I am being too generous to some of them too. Generous is the wrong word…
Jay: I think what you’re saying is that we’re in this contradictory position of appreciating her as a person and therefore wanting to appreciate her poetry. That’s how this poetry operates, right? And it works! But we’re “supposed” to be critics, not comrades in arms, so it’s uncomfortable, because a lot of the language she uses isn’t that sophisticated. In fact the playwright Winsome Pinnock highlighted this tension in her 1989 play about Jones, A Rock in Water.
The lines that I highlighted in ‘There are some things one always remembers’ are:
one remembers till
it hurts remembering too
One reading is that someone can remember until to remember hurts the memory, distorts it. So she has that poetic insight, she allows for ambiguity. This poem feels like a storecase of time – plans, outlines, cycles of nature and cycles of memory. They feel like first drafts, yes, but you could see them as first drafts of ideas that she elaborated on in her activism.
Walt: I love your phrase ‘storecase of time’. The fact that she works through to that thought so quickly is an extraordinary aspect of the poem. ‘One remembers till / it hurts remembering too’: Even that word “hurts” is unclear. Is it hurts to remember too, or is it hurts my remembering, like you said – is damage done to the memory by the process of remembering itself?
Jay: I wish we knew more about when these were composed and where, who she had in mind. I don’t know how far you got with those notebooks of hers at the Schomburg in New York?
Walt: We’d have to go back and spend a long time looking closely at them. I was surprised to discover her relation to Chinese youth activists and to the whole history of mid-century Pan-Asian political movements that she gets involved in before she dies – perhaps there is another connection here to our present. She really was an international leftist. When you read her poetry, you’re immediately thrust into that network.
Jay: Yes, evidence of her concern for others, which leads back to what you were saying about the paean. Maybe she had an exemplary warmth and that’s what really penetrated the culture. When you look at her archive it’s quite disarming… At the Schomburg, I remember being surprised by how cute the cards from her deportation party were. All of this revolutionary stuff, then there are all these cards with teddy bears and balloons.
Walt: Let’s take those rhymes again. Because I think you’re right. There is an element of the joyous, of what she calls “the loom of language”, the colorful, beautiful texture of language. One of the great details in Carole Boyce Davies’s book, Left of Karl Marx, is that she was a Prize-winning weaver while she was in prison in West Virginia. The carnival, the poetry, the weaving, the journalism, the friendships, the critical theory: all of that is not the same thing, but all of it is so closely adjacent. And maybe that suggests a way of reading poetry that moves beyond the isolated artefact.
Jay: Do we know anything about her influences? Because this is where there’s a lot of room for someone to dive into the archives. What I like about discussing Claudia Jones is that we’re not able to provide all the answers to whoever reads this – actually there is a lot of scope for young writers to go and look at the archives themselves and contribute to what we know about her as an intellectual, creative, political figure. The fascinating thing, the reason this handful of poems is so generative, is precisely because we don’t know much about it.
Walt: I’m interested in whether some of her influences included poets who were publishing in The Crisis and other newspapers. I wonder how much of that might have shaped some of her poetry. As scholars we can trace the influence of Keats on a poet who writes for the masses. But what about poets who write for the masses on each other? That’s the kind of network of influence it’s harder to pin down.
Jay: She would have known popular tunes like Joe Hill. She knew Paul Robeson who spoke at her funeral. Maybe she was more influenced by song.
Walt: Should we look at ‘Clay Sculpture’? This is one of those poems in which, once again, the last stanza has longer lines. It’s almost like poetry is the engine for speeding up her thinking process.
Jay: I think ‘Clay Sculpture’ is the best poem that has come down to us, along with ‘Paean to the Atlantic’ and ‘Ship’s Log’. There’s a little Blake in there – it reminds me of ‘The Clod and the Pebble’. ‘Clay Sculpture’ feels like she’s had the time to say what she means. I’ve read it quite a few times before I’ve read my own work on stage. It’s such an interesting precursor to what I was trying to do in Surge, because here she’s literally writing about history and how we shape it. There’s a naturalism in her approach, but there’s also this artifice, this crucible of political action, that shapes history.
Walt: I love that explanation of Surge. One thing that strikes me about ‘Clay Sculpture’ is that it’s a little story about the making of art. In other words, as an artist, you start with this mass of raw material—for poetry, that could mean all the ways that language has been formed and patterned in the past, as well as the events or experiences to which the language refers. When you make that mass into a work of art, you bring out something that’s already latent in the materials, but that needs you as a maker to give it form:
I’ve marveled how its contents rare
Are snared in secret lime
How nature hid in tablets here
Past History in its prime.
The poem is waiting in the unshaped sculpture’s materials. Because she can’t see poetry as extractable from history and politics, that unshaped matter, or whatever’s resting in that sculpture before it’s made, is ‘past history in its prime’.
Jay: We know that she did a ceramics course, which is a wonderful image: the revolutionary goes to a pottery class. She didn’t really believe in separation, she didn’t believe in segregation. She understood that you could transform the world into something that was both prehistoric and startlingly new. That’s why I love that poem.
Walt: Yes, and I think that notion pervades a lot of her work: the idea that the world is waiting to be transformed, as well as to be praised and lamented and memorialized. We see it in the way that even her poetry transforms itself: the rhymes get lost and re-emerge, the lines get longer.
Jay: One thing we haven’t expanded on is Carole Boyce Davies’s role. She has pursued Claudia Jones through history and done a lot of work to understand her legacy. The poems aren’t published anywhere in Britain, as far as I know, and certainly not in a standalone volume. So again, there is work to be done here. Boyce Davies is a good model.
Walt: Yes. Whenever I think about Claudia Jones, I also think about Boyce Davies. She’s one of my great heroes as a scholar. And I think what you put your finger on is that the role of the archivist, the role of the scholar, can be an indispensable element to bring into the consideration of the poetry.
Jay: Plus she really illuminates Jones’s intellectual journey – how she recognised Marxism as a framework for conceptualising gendered exploitation and Black women’s liberation long before terms like ‘intersectionality’ existed. So you can see how the recent ban on discussing critical race theory or anti-capitalist movements in schools in the UK is deeply problematic – how do we talk about someone as central to British cultural history as Claudia Jones? Interestingly none of her poems speak to her position as a Black woman, even though it’s absolutely crucial in her theoretical work.
Walt: Carole Boyce Davies draws out from her reading of Jones the fact that her Marxism is not a nationalist, parochial politics. It is an internationalist, hospitable position, open to all comers who want to make the world a transformed place for workers of all kinds—and especially Black women workers. In our age of enclosed nationalisms of all sorts, Boyce Davies and Jones are saying, your ability to envision a political role for yourself can be something that is scaled up to the global.
Jay: So I have another reservation here. I wonder what it means to talk about somebody who was visiting Russia under Stalin. She supported Mao. It’s difficult because she was involved in a set of geo-politics that no longer exists in the same way.
Walt: Yes, what does one do with that? It’s a good reason to read her poetry as well as her theory, because poetry has a hard time being dogmatic, I think. Most of our conversation today has been about elements of the poems that are not at all dogmatic about any kind of position, other than perhaps a position towards history, the past, or the future. Sending a message out is always a complicated thing for poetic form, because the elements of poetry get in the way a little bit, they run some interference, or they carry a message into an amplified, ecstatic mode.
Jay: Yes, and if we look again at ‘To a Dear Friend on Her Birthday’, one of the main ways that people related to each other within those activist circles was as comrades. The idea of friendship meant we were relating to each other as a community, not just a set of individuals. It relates back to her concern for others.
Walt: There is this melancholy, late credo that Carol Boyce Davies includes in Beyond Containment, in which Jones writes, ‘my very certitude and commitment have overshadowed in the eyes of some my personal interest in people.’ Yet it’s written all over her poetry, that desire for friendships with other women in particular.
You and I, Jay, have both looked at the archives, we’ve both read the poetry. We have a certain image of Claudia Jones in mind. Yet there are still so many mysteries about her.
Jay: What’s the biggest mystery for you?
Walt: I think the biggest mystery for me is whether there are still other poems. And where they are: if they’re simply in small magazines and newspapers, if they’re under pseudonyms, if they’re in the possession of people’s children, or in a closet somewhere. I hope that we find more of them.
Jay: The question becomes: whose archives don’t we know about? Are we going to find one day, in some basement somewhere, some unknown person who happened to have had a rich poetic exchange with Claudia Jones back in the fifties? You could write a poem about that, couldn’t you?
Walt Hunter is a poet, translator, and associate professor of world literature at Clemson University. He is the author of Forms of a World: Contemporary Poetry and the Making of Globalization (2019) and Some Flowers: poems (coming in 2022).
Jay Bernard is a writer from London and the author of Surge (Chatto and Windus, 2019). Jay won the Ted Hughes award 2017 and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award 2020.