“There are certain moments that demand a sermon, a lecture, a balled fist, a bowl of water or a rose, but not a poem.” This is typical of the kind of advice that the poet Kwame Dawes places on his website for fellow poets. It is evident that Dawes does not view poetry as an everyday pastime devoid of social relevance. He appeals to his poet colleagues to strive to achieve clarity and acuity and he does that firmly but with humour: “The moon is always far away. We shall surely not forget that.”
Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana in 1962 but moved to Jamaica at an early age where he spent his youth and where, every year, he still organizes the Calabash Literature Festival. Nowadays Dawes lives in the United States where he lectures at the University of Nebraska. To date he has published seventeen collections, the most recent of which, Duppy Conqueror (published in 2013), contains a selection of poems drawn from virtually all the previous collections, as well as various new poems. Apart from poetry, Dawes has also published novels, short stories, a play and a book about the reggae singer Bob Marley.
Music in general and reggae in particular plays an important part in Dawes' poetry. Not only is frequent reference made to crucial reggae-musicians such as Marley and Lee 'Scratch' Perry, but the actual poems themselves are also drenched in musicality. In a certain sense, Dawes manages in that way to fulfil the role of a traditional troubadour or griot. He tells stories that hark back to ancient myths and important historic events. At the same time Dawes might also be seen as a kind of protest singer because many of his poems deal with social injustices and problems. In many of his more recent poems, for instance, he addresses the matter of slavery. Dawes has also written tracts on topics such as Aids and racism.
In his book Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic in Caribbean Literature, Dawes has endeavoured to formulate a new kind of poetics based upon what is known as revolutionary 'Roots Reggae' dating from the seventies and eighties of the previous century. He maintains that the reggae of that time provides a classic example of how one can deal with individuality within a community and innovation within a tradition. It goes without saying that also Dawes' poetry constitutes an effort to draw together such duality. His poetry is dedicated and fairly traditional in terms of its form yet despite all of that there is a clear and recognizable voice that resonates. It is a voice full of compassion that does not shy away from hard or even gruesome images yet despite such atrocious images it manages to remain upbeat and has a swing to it.
Dawes is a poet who places himself, or at least his talent, at the service of the all-embracing history and culture of the countries in which he has lived and others. In that connection one might cite the dedication that he so beautifully worded in the poem 'Inheritance':
while I pick through your things for the concordance
of your invented icons for this archipelago.