Machines for Long-Distance Thinking

Author: Cóilín Parsons (Georgetown University)

9781107166844i 1

Nathan Suhr-Sytsma. Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017, xi + 287 pp.

Many readers of this journal will know that the current Ambassador of Ireland to the United States, Daniel Mulhall, begins every day by tweeting some lines of Irish poetry. Rarely does a whole poem or even a whole stanza fit into a tweet, so he is often forced to abridge a poem, but despite the artificial limitations of the platform, the daily tweet works—Mulhall’s poetic diplomacy rests on the serendipitous formal congruence between poetry and instant online communication. A skeptic could see that easy susceptibility of certain poetic forms to the constraints of technology as a troubling sign of poetry’s particular promiscuity—those composed on Twitter aside, it’s hard to see novels being so easily decanted. Or the scholar might quail at the triangulation of literary culture, corporate power, and the exigencies of the state that poetry makes possible through its availability to new electronic forms of dissemination.

Or we could, with Nathan Suhr-Sytsma’s Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature, celebrate the ways that poetry’s portability meant that it had “a surprisingly prominent role” (10) in the institutions of literature and politics in a time of decolonization, and lent itself to being wielded, repurposed, transmitted, and scattered. Poetry, this book argues, can form publics and counterpublics, speak to local and translocal concerns, and create new constellations of meaning and feeling across times and spaces. The key to its mobility lies in “poetry’s typical concision,” which means that it can be “composed more quickly than long-form fiction and reprinted more widely” (10). During the Nigerian Civil War, we learn, Chinua Achebe abandoned novel writing and turned to writing poetry, as he didn’t have time to write anything that would require the “extended dedication” (147) needed of a novel. At the same time, poetry’s “customary brevity” allows for it to be anthologized easily and brought into translocal conversations that other literary forms resist, making it possible for “an enterprising editor to present a literary geography of the entire Commonwealth in a single volume” (77). Suhr-Sytsma’s story may stop just short of the digital age and explosion of forms of instant communication, but he convincingly argues that poetry was its own form of rapid communication long before its marriage with social media. And yet poetry is not merely a deterritorialized meme; in African literature in particular, it has long had deep ties to indigenous performance practices. While poetry participated in and shaped long-distance debates about the emerging postcolonial world, it also negotiated local aesthetic and political concerns. Poetry is immediate, embedded, and portable.

This is the genius of Suhr-Sytsma’s outstanding new contribution to the field of transnational postcolonial studies—it combines a deep attention to form and language with meticulous research in the area of print history. In the process, the book makes a thoroughly original argument about the border-crossing formation of postcolonial literature at a time of political upheaval and violence in Northern Ireland, Nigeria, and elsewhere. The book is built on an architecture of network analysis, but Suhr-Sytsma’s argument goes beyond this limited method (a sort of sophisticated gossip at times) to investigate how “poets on separate continents are related to each other by the structural dilemmas they negotiate as much as by interpersonal connections or stylistic affinities” (22). The result is a print-history story that extends Jahan Ramazani’s enabling work[1] by overlaying a sociological approach to the field of postcolonial poetry, while also avoiding some of the worst excesses of sociological analyses to African literature (seen in, for example, Wendy Griswold’s Bearing Witness[2]).

In charting the transnational emergence of postcolonial literature through the medium of magazines, journals, and pamphlets, Suhr-Sytsma skillfully plots the networks of publication that bind Ireland, Nigeria, Britain, and the Caribbean together, proving that Ireland was not (as many have argued) an exception in the postcolonial world, but a node in a vast and complex network. While we might, with Joe Cleary and David Lloyd and others, agree that Ireland was “differentially integrated” into the global economy,[3] Suhr-Sytsma’s analysis of the materiality of publication indicates the cooperative co-emergence of Northern Irish writing (his principal Irish focus) with the entire field of “Commonwealth Literature,” which was one discursive site of the emergence of postcolonial literature.

Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature is meticulously researched, drawing on archival sources at Emory University, the Harry Ransom Center, Leeds University, and in Belgium and Nigeria. It is also theoretically sophisticated, constantly illuminating, often counterintuitive, beautifully written, and filled with keenly observed close readings—an astonishing achievement in a first book. While deeply read in the fields of Irish Studies and African Studies, Suhr-Sytsma is not beholden to their archives, their guiding questions, or their diasporic geographies. In balancing these disciplinary demands so deftly, Suhr-Sytsma mirrors the writers he analyzes, whose work struggles “to convoke transnational publics in print without expatriating themselves literally or culturally” (7).

Constraints of space won’t allow me to detail all of the rich argumentation in this book, so I will summarize quickly the early sections on the non-Irish poetry. In skipping over these chapters, I do a disservice to the fine and detailed research that marks them and their hard-won conclusions. Chapter 1, “Provincializing the Greenwich Meridian,” realigns what Suhr-Sytsma calls the Greenwich Meridian of literature, explicitly taking on Pascale Casanova’s problematic arguments, which see a literary world classified according to its closeness to the (invariably European and metropolitan) prime meridian, while assigning the rest to an anterior time. Suhr-Sytsma’s argument, by contrast, identifies Ibadan, Leeds, and Belfast (and the work of Tony Harrison, J.P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, and Seamus Heaney) as new centers of writing and publishing that create their own “literary present” (59). Shifting the focus to a very particular point in time, Chapter 2, “Editing the Commonwealth,” examines how the rubric of Commonwealth literature was produced by the Commonwealth Arts Festival of 1965, and the work of Les Murray, Louise Bennett, and Edward Lucie-Smyth, and others. If, like me, you instinctively recoil from the term “Commonwealth” and the clubby post-imperial bonhomie it implies, you will find this chapter uncomfortable reading, as Suhr-Sytsma convincingly argues that the field of postcolonial literature owes a deep institutional debt to the “Commonwealth,” which was “at once a late-imperial bid to retain a sphere of cultural influence after the end of empire and a genuine attempt to surmount British parochialism” (83). The book returns to Okigbo in Chapter 3, “Fashioning the Modern African Poet,” charting how he (and Achebe and Wole Soyinka) responded to the challenge of writing and acting as intellectuals in the face of the Nigerian Civil War, building a world of poetry and print that listened deeply to local concerns and spoke freely to international publics.

These chapters are interspersed with interchapters that focus on a particular publishing venue: an illuminating sensitive reading of the place of Mbari publications of Ibadan and its covert sponsorship by the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom; a discussion of Derek Walcott’s choice to publish in the London Magazine and boycott the Commonwealth Arts Festival, favoring the little magazine as a venue in which he felt he could successfully negotiate the demands of St. Lucia as well as a wider reading and writing public.

Readers of this journal will likely be most interested in the last two sections and the conclusion, where Suhr-Sytsma turns to more familiar territory for scholars of Irish literature: the Honest Ulsterman magazine (whose first editor, James Simmons was teaching in Nigeria at the outbreak of the civil war) and the publishing circuits of Northern Irish poetry. In his analysis of two of Simmons’ poems about the war in Nigeria, which were published at the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Suhr-Sytsma offers one of the finest renderings of the complex challenge of inter-colonial comparisons at a time of decolonization. While Simmons is invested in non-hierarchical comparisons between violence in Nigeria and Northern Ireland, “Nigeria 1967” cannot escape an implicit differentiation between the supposed savagery of Africa and the civilization (even if threatened) of Northern Ireland, and a “diachronic temporality that tacitly made the European the archetype for non-European” (160). Ultimately, we read, Simmons’s attempt to wrestle Northern Ireland into an analog with Nigeria was doomed, thanks to differences of “scale and political rhetoric” (160), and Suhr-Sytsma himself is reduced to describing the cross-colonial relationship as being marked by an “eerie propinquity” (161), which seems deeply (and correctly) tentative.

This is followed by a discussion in Chapter 4, “Publishing the Troubles,” of a series of poems by Northern Irish writers published in The Listener and New Statesman at the outbreak of the Troubles. Both weeklies covered politics and literature, and each of the poems discussed here (including a number of Heaney’s bog poems, Michael Longley’s “Wounds,” and Derek Mahon’s “A Disused shed in Co. Wexford”) walks a fine line between the twin poles of their publication venues. Suhr-Sytsma argues persuasively that the poets in question experimented with ways to write poetry that appealed to a wide and politically-engaged audience without becoming mere journalists in the process, peddling information and opinion. The result is a chapter that navigates carefully the lines of distinction (Suhr-Sytsma is consciously borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu here) that are so often blurred when we speak of the relationship of Northern Irish poetry to the Troubles. The book concludes with a brief and brilliant analysis of two later poems, one by Heaney and another by Geoffrey Hill, that are “possessed…by brief encounters with individuals and discourses from another continent” (196), proposing haunting and possession rather than influence as a way to think about postcolonial poetic exchange.

This book itself is also haunted; it is haunted by its archives, as the study of transnational anticolonial networks remains stubbornly indebted to colonial sources. If this sounds like a criticism of a blind spot in the book’s theoretical formation, it is not, for Suhr-Sytsma self-reflexively foregrounds these issues, writing in the conclusion that, “Because the circulation of knowledge about Africa in Britain and Ireland has remained inseparable from legacies of colonialism, even Heaney’s endeavor to honor Nwoga [Donatus Nwoga, a Nigerian student who published Heaney’s first poems, in a Queen’s University magazine] relies on materials as fraught with colonial history as the two men’s original meeting” (199). Transnational or translocal comparisons across the postcolonial world are burdened with problems of knowledge formation inherited from the colonial archive. While the scholar of transnational writing might want to shatter calcified national literary traditions, the danger of comparative readings of postcolonial writing is that they take place along an axis of comparison all too easily available for us to use—analogy.[4] Print history may appear to be a way to escape the trap of analogical thinking, but it too is built on given relations dictated by publishing demands determined by a small and powerful set of editors. At the same time, scholars of cross-colonial comparisons could fall (and many have) into the trap of employing a form of “diachronic comparison,” which “runs the risk of implying that writers from the global South belatedly inherit a modernity proper to the global North” (3). While not necessarily beset by archival problems, this form of reading for influence has the spurious effect of consigning the global South to the “waiting room of history.”[5] An attention to print history, Suhr-Sytsma argues, allows us to expand these models of influence to take into account “synchronic relationships across continental and racial lines,” highlighting the mutual entanglements of postcolonial writers (3-4).

The advertisement for print history as the cure for the ills of comparative studies of postcolonial literature is not entirely convincing, but Suhr-Sytsma’s sensitive and critical reading of the emergence of postcolonial literature is one of the most sustained and thoughtful engagements with the problem of the archives available for postcolonial comparison I have read. He doesn’t provide an answer to the problem of how to compare across postcolonial sites without getting caught in the nets of colonial knowledge, but he asks the question repeatedly and offers dozens of case studies and frameworks for how to think about difference and sameness in the postcolonial world. Perhaps more importantly, Suhr-Sytsma proves that a poem can be deeply embedded within its publishing context and also speak to and imagine publics and ideas that are, as Okigbo writes, “far hence” (206). A poem posted by a state official on Twitter can still become a fugitive and a machine for long-distance thinking.

[1] Jahan Ramazani, A Transnational Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[2] Wendy Griswold, Bearing Witness: Readers, Writers, and the Novel in Nigeria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[3] Joe Cleary, Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (South Bend, IN: Field Day Publications, 2007), 45; David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Postcolonial Moment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993).

[4] See Kaori Nagai’s Empire of Analogies: Kipling, India, and Ireland (Cork: Cork University Press, 2006) for a thorough study of analogical thinking as it applies to Ireland and the empire.

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8.