In This Chapter

Olive Senior

‘Grung’/ground(ed) Poetics: ‘The Voice from the Bottom of the Well’

Authored by: Michael A. Bucknor

The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature

Print publication date:  June  2011
Online publication date:  June  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415485777
eBook ISBN: 9780203830352
Adobe ISBN: 9781136821745


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Searching for an answer to the question of where the poetic or creative voice comes from, Olive Senior turns to ancestral wisdom. Her Philip Sherlock Lecture, her most explicit and extended explanation of her own poetics, recounts the response of rural Jamaican community elders when asked to explain the source of their wisdom. They declared: ‘grung tell me wud’. Like her community griots, Senior finds value in ‘putting [her] ear to the ground’ and, with her own confession that ‘grung tell me word too’, she invites us to consider her work as a kind of (what I am calling) ‘grung’ or grounded poetics (2005b: 36). The idea of ‘putting ones [sic] ear to ground’ and listening to the underground or submerged voices conjures up a poetics reminiscent of Brathwaite’s ‘alter/native’ creative tradition (1977/78). For Senior, this tradition departs from a strict adherence to European scribal orthodoxies, by privileging and incorporating native practices, rituals and beliefs, alternative cosmologies, orality – the voice of ancestral wisdom – and those subjects marginalized by society. Alongside the ‘English literary canon, the whole of Western civilization in fact’, Senior argues, is the ‘new canon that has been formed out of our grounding ourselves in our own soil’ (2005b: 38). The metaphor of the ground is a very fertile conception of her creative endeavour. In one word, Senior captures a philosophical posture, her history of rootedness in a rural community, the voice of an alternative source of creative expression and her focus on everyday people whose lives are given value and validation in the hands of her extraordinary talent. The essay, ‘The Poem as Gardening, the Story as Su-Su: Finding a Literary Voice’ (2005b: 35–50), which outlines her artistic philosophy and creative process, performs her own theory by reclaiming the mythology and story-telling tradition of her community. Her notion of the significance of ancestral wisdom is expressed in the story about the elders (‘The Poem’: 36); her privileging of the magical power of utterance, orality and ritual practice such as ‘tan-deh’ is illustrated in the story of the immobilization by stone of a pregnant woman’s baby (37–8); her theory of ‘resonance’ and clearing ground/artistic space is culled from the beliefs about an empty gourd, and her idea that ‘the true reader is the see-er/seer’, with the ability to see beyond the material and below the surface, is grounded in a reference to religious specialists such as healers who ‘receive messages from the spirit world’ (44). In all of this, she champions a creative practice that emerges from ‘a welling up from below, … that creative flowering that is rooted in the tongue’ (48).

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