Professor C. Noland
Léon Gontran Damas and Aimé Césaire on Nègritude
In their poems, Léon Gontran Damas and Aimé Césaire both explore and expound upon what it is to be black. These men were bedfellows in their heyday, and they both wrote around nègritude, a term referring to acceptance and celebration of blackness in spite of nationality or culture, that they coined alongside Léon Sédar Senghor. Damas’ poetry tends to be blunt and raw, yet also very profound; that is to say, the reader can tell right away how Damas feels about his subject material at any given time, but can’t always tell exactly what he is really writing about without closer examination. The language is plain, but there is still vivid imagery. On the other hand, Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land is not blunt at all, but uses dazzling images and metaphors to craft his masterpiece. The style switches frenetically from a flowing sort of prose to an explosive lyric. Césaire’s language is much more complex, much more difficult to decipher. Rather than having decisive ends to stanzas like Damas tends to do, sometimes Notebook has abrupt, choppy transitions; perhaps the poem is living up to its name as a “notebook”, a rough but beautiful predecessor of a never-polished final draft. In spite of their differences, these two authors also maintain some similarities. There is much use of anaphora, alliteration, and rhythm, the latter of which is often caused by the former two. The anaphora seems to help emphasize the emotion, be it joy or suffering. The alliteration adds a richness, a stream of tones that pour smoothly from the throat. There is often a rhythm which infuses a kind of music to the silent roar emanating from the pages. Also, the poetry of both Damas and Césaire possess an intense profundity which forces the reader to look behind the black and white to find meaning.
A case-in-point of Damas’ bluntness is his poem “Bargain”. He directly communicates to the reader: “I feel like an awful fool/in their shoes/in their dinner-jacket/in their shirt-front/in their collar/in their monocle/in their derby hat” and then goes on to say that these clothes “weaken my limbs/and strip my body of its loin-cloth grace” (Damas 41). Whereas normally one might feel quite dapper in the clothing Damas describes, he himself feels stifled in these clothes; stifled by French culture, Western culture. He also feels stifled by the way he is expected to conduct himself: “I feel like an awful fool/in their drawing-rooms/in their mannerisms/in their bowings and scrapings/in their endless need for affection” (Damas 41). Although every culture has its constraints, Damas finds the Western culture more constricting, with its humdrum, self-serving, instantly-gratifying way of living, no longer taking time to smell the roses as it were.
Césaire’s poetry is not blunt at all. It contains sequences that don’t seem to pertain to each other, and as soon as the poem begins to show some sort of reason behind the passion and fury, the pattern changes. Césaire begins “au bout du petit matin”, or “at the end of daybreak” in the Antilles. He tells a depressing tale about the Antilles, “burgeoning with frail coves, the hungry Antilles, the Antilles pitted with smallpox,” (Césaire 1). But soon afterward he begins to recount a Christmas, starting warmly, cheerfully: “It had come first, Christmas did, with a tingling of desires...” but then flies away with “a purple rustle of its great joyous wings...” and then, even more unhappily, its fallout “made the shack life burst like an overripe pomegranate” (Césaire 7). The poetry is unknowable, unpredictable, much like the human range of emotions that Césaire so readily spouts forth in his colorful fountain of words.
Damas’ imagery comes in a narrative form more often than not, and though the language does not contain many adjectives, it still paints very intense pictures....
Cited: Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Translated and edited by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 2001.
Damas, Léon Gontran, ed. Shapiro, Norman R. Nègritude: Black Poetry from Africa and the Caribbean. October House, Inc. New York, 1970.
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