FOCUS: An Anthology of Contemporary Jamaican Writing

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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The first edition of Focus: An Anthology of Contemporary Jamaican Writing, was published in 1943 by the City Printery in Kingston, Jamaica, and was edited by Edna Manley who is often referred to as the mother of modern Jamaican art (The Diaries: ix). Manley was a celebrated sculptor and artist, whose bronze and hardwood sculptures from the 1930s and 40s such as “Negro Aroused”, “Horse of the Morning”, “Pocomania”, “Strike” and many others, are now iconic emblems of an early nationalist sensibility. She was the wife of Norman Manley, one of the founders of Jamaica’s People’s National Party and mother of Michael Manley, Prime Minister of Jamaica from 1972-1980. Edna Manley was born in Cornwall, England in 1900; she met and married her husband, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, while she was a student, and returned with him to Jamaica as soon as he graduated. In the introduction to Edna Manley: The Diaries, Rachel Manley, her grand-daughter, writes that her grandmother wanted to establish herself in Jamaica as a serious artist, “to conceive an art form that reflected her new realities, and to sow the seeds of a nascent national culture” (ix).

In the 1943 editorial of Focus Edna Manley signals these “new realities”:

Great and irrevocable changes have swept this land of ours in the last few years and out of these changes a new art is springing. Historically art gives a picture of contemporary life ... but underlying the picture of the present is the trend of the future, when new values will predominate (np).

Manley makes reference here to the strikes and protests among almost all sectors of the Jamaican workforce that took place during the late 1930s. These labour rebellions resulted in a series of radical political shifts that began in 1938 and led, in 1944, to the first general election in Jamaica held under full adult suffrage. She also registers important developments taking place in the arts, including the emergence of anti-colonial, Jamaican, or regionalist cultural forms that would be used to express this new political consciousness.

Although the work selected for the first edition varied in style, tone and theme, it sought, on the whole, to celebrate or speak to the majority of the population who were black, working class, or poor. Most of the contributions in all the 1943-1960 editions were poems and short stories, but the journal also included drama, essays, and visual art. Many of the writers and artists were young: H.D Carberry and M.G. Smith had both been at school with Edna Manley’s sons, and George Campbell, an even younger family associate, was the nephew of Miss Boyd, the Manley’s “long-suffering, much treasured” housekeeper (Brown, 1975: 237). Much of the poetry selected represented the editors’ desire to publish literary works and visual art that reflected the lives, aspirations, and the hitherto marginalised culture of ordinary Jamaicans. Campbell, for example, like many other poets included in these collections, uses the figure of the working woman to signify both the island’s past, one founded on the gruelling labour of women, and also its future, its “destiny”. The swinging rhyme of the following lines is used to suggest that art is formed from the circumstances of these women’s oppression: “Women stone breakers/ Hammers on rocks/ Tired child makers/ Haphazard frocks/ … Destiny shapers/ History makers/ Hammers and rocks” (Campbell, 1943: 66). Daisy Myrie’s “Market Women”, in the 1948 edition, strikes a similar note: “Down from the hills they come,/ With swinging hips, and steady stride,/ To feed the hungry town”, as do these lines in Ken Ingram’s poem, “It is a Rose-Red Morning” (1956): “Who are those going down the hills?/ Who are those going under the leaves/ Under the bamboo awning?” (150). Unlike Campbell’s, however, both poems construct a literal and figurative distance between the dominant poetic voice and the women subjects that that voice portrays. They also reinforce the geographical and social divide between the rural providers and the urban consumers.

Although P. M. Sherlock’s “An Old Woman” and Neville Dawes’s “Dedication”, both in the 1956 edition, also use the figure of the old black working woman as emblematic of a national heritage defined by strength, resilience, resistance but also subjugation, their use of this figure is nuanced and complex. Dawes’s poem, “Dedication”, is taken from a cycle of poems entitled “Report on a Village” and expresses its boy-subject’s intimate connection with his rural environment, the language or ‘dialect’ of the village and the labour and sacrifice of the old woman whose presence is central to the poem’s meaning:

Dragging from country clay an August making
Anagram of words and weather,

The Adam boy clothed, from waist up, in rich
Cadenzas of dialect and the old toothless woman
Storing neuralgic sorrows in her chalky face
And Calvary crimson over her; so dedicate
A little making to the dust-roads and the
slave polished tombs (160)

In this poem, as in Derek Walcott’s later work, nature provides both the subject and the script of its verse. The poetic persona, “[T]he Adam boy”, names his world using the language both of the everyday “dialect” and a colonial education. 

Several poems in Focus 1956, such as “M.G Smith’s “5 O’Clock Fantasia on Battersea Bridge”, or George Campbell’s “New York” and “We Stand at the Zoo”, describe the writers’ experiences in Britain and North America. A strong, connected theme is that of return and, in many cases, this work expresses both an intense longing for a way of life that seems to be fading, and the difficulty and joy of reconnection. The reference to the Camelot legends in these lines from Neville Dawes’s “A Childhood Revisited/Acceptance” are characteristic of the frequent references to Greek classical and English mythology found in the work selected for Focus: “When weathers twisted the old thunder-voice/ I was King Arthur’s irrelevant steed on the lightning page/ Castling …” (159). Although Dawes came from a small village in rural Jamaica, like Stuart Hall discussed below, he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and, as he explains in a note to a later edition of this poem, as a boy he had completely identified with the legend of the Round Table. In many ways that identification places him, educationally, at some remove from the majority of Jamaicans but in proximity to most of the other writers of this period (Walmsley, 1968). Another example of the persistence of such poetic tropes can be found in the two poems in the 1956 edition by the influential British academic Stuart M. Hall, which describe the subject’s conflicted feelings as he embarks on a journey into a new future. Both the poetic register and the title of the cycle “New Landscapes for Aeneas” are evidence of what Henry Swanzy has described as the Victorian literary sensibility characterising some of the anthology (Griffiths, 2016). Unlike the poetry of Neville Dawes, however, Hall’s does not register a poetics that reflects the mood or the requirements for an anti-colonial, nationalist cultural sensibility.

The editorial team, Marjorie Foster-Davis, Vera Bell, Robert Verity, Edna Manley, and Clinton Black privileged political themes and poetry that expressed a consciousness about present inequalities and the need for a better future. H. D. Carberry’s “My Country Grows” (1956) is one such example, and Slade Hopkinson’s poems from the cycle Cynic’s Sonata, another among many. Hopkinson, a Guyanese-born poet and dramatist, who was among the first cohort of students at the University College of the West Indies, Jamaica (now the University of the West Indies), produced a substantial body of work reflecting many themes that preoccupied other writers of the period, including a consideration of the relationship between the artist, his work and his society. Unfortunately, however, his work has been overshadowed by many of the writers anthologized in Focus, as well as other Caribbean poets such as Martin Carter, Derek Walcott, and Edward Brathwaite, who were his contemporaries, but whose work has garnered an international reputation. The stridently political poems selected for inclusion in the 1956 Edition represent just one aspect of his work. In the prose poem “Don’t Weep for Them” for example, he writes: “Don’t weep for them. The poor I mean. Don’t weep for them and enjoy it … don’t use them, keep them and use them as sanctified opportunities to experiment with your own christian feelings” (183-4). This cycle of prose-poems speaks directly to the inequalities in contemporary Jamaica while also reflecting classical English literary influences.

In its comparable interweaving of religious and political figures, George Campbell’s 1943 poem “I Dreamed” more explicitly expresses socialist affiliations but also the struggle to reconcile a new politics with the religious traditions to which the speaker continues to adhere: “Jesus the perfect man loved and knew Lenin./ He saw the revolution without him/ He saw it with him” (66). Many of Campbell’s other poems use striking poetic diction and vivid metaphors to reveal the inequities of early twentieth-century Jamaican society, thus earning him the title “Poet of the Revolution”. In “The World We Accept”, he writes: “Here are - / Bilious houses/ At the womb-head of comfort/ …Here are - / Magnificent skeletons with shrinking skins/ Shrinking” (67). Campbell’s first and only collection of poetry, First Poems, was published in Jamaica in 1945 and later republished in 2012. While Campbell was well-regarded and frequently anthologized during the late 1930s and 40s, he did not pursue a career as a writer. Like M. G. Smith, H. D. Carberry, K. E. Ingram, and Evan Jones, who authored one of the most frequently anthologized poems from this period, “Song of the Banana Man”, and many other writers included in Focus, he left Jamaica during the 1940s. Whereas George Campbell remained in the USA for many years, returning to Jamaica in 1978, another frequently anthologized poet, H. D. Carberry, left Jamaica to study Law at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, but continued to write. Carberry returned to Jamaica to become a Judge in the Jamaican Court of Appeal. The poem for which he is best known, and which has appeared in almost all Caribbean poetry anthologies is the pastoral anthem “Nature”, published in the 1943 edition of Focus: “We have neither Summer nor Winter/ Neither Autumn nor Spring./ We have instead the days/ When the gold sun shines on the lush green canefields - / Magnificently” (73). Although, like “Nature”, many of his poems did evoke a distinctively Jamaican pastoral, much of his work, including the short story “Symbols”, was also concerned with depicting Jamaica’s yawning class divide.

Further editions of Focus were published in 1948, 1956, and 1960, all of which were edited by Edna Manley. Mervyn Morris, Jamaican Poet Laureate (2014-2017) recalled the spirit of the anthology with Focus 1983, but there were no subsequent editions. The 1943-1960 anthologies were ground-breaking in their content and served to launch or to cement the reputation of a first generation of writers whose work self-consciously addressed issues of a Jamaican national and cultural identity. The work of canonical Jamaican writers such as Vic Reid, Roger Mais, John Hearne, Neville Dawes, Philip Sherlock, and A. L. Hendriks, among others, was included in several editions of Focus and the 1960 edition was dedicated to Roger Mais, the celebrated novelist, short story writer, essayist and political activist, who died in June 1955. Many of the poems included in Focus have appeared in many twentieth-century Caribbean or “Commonwealth” anthologies and have become the mainstay of the Caribbean schools’ literature curriculum. As many of the works’ titles suggest: “An Old Jamaican Woman Thinks of the Hereafter” by A .L. Hendricks, “Jamaican Fisherman” by P. M. Sherlock, and Basil McFarlane’s “I Am Jamaica”, these poems were self-conscious expressions of a nationalist or regional sensibility. These were writers who wrote Jamaica and the Caribbean into existence; they wrote to oppose centuries of erasure by colonialist literary expression.

Although better known as a playwright, Dennis Scott’s “Uncle Time” and “Let Black Hands”, both of which appeared in Focus 1960, appear regularly on the Caribbean schools’ curriculum. Although Jamaican Creole is most frequently evident in the dialogue of the short fiction, rather than in the poetry selected for these editions of Focus, “Uncle Time” is unusually prescient in its use of Jamaican Creole to narrate the subject of the poem. Scott writes: “Uncle Time is an ole, ole man …/ All year long ‘im wash ‘im foot in de sea,/ long, lazy years on de wet san’/ and shake de coco-nut tree/dem quiet-like wid ‘im sea-win laughter’ (31). Here Scott employs a “literary” rather than transliteral Creole, a form used by contemporary Jamaican poets and prose writers such as Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, or dub poets Mikey Smith and Oku Onuru.

Fewer examples of prose fiction were selected for the anthologies published by Manley and her editorial team and, with the exception of those by Claude Thompson and the novelists Vic Reid and Roger Mais, all of whose short fiction has suffered critical neglect, very few of the stories have been either republished or gained any critical attention (“The Lesser Names”). The most successful short stories attempt a new literary register, either through their focus on women working class characters, or through the use of Jamaican Creole. In much of this work, however, such as M. G. Smith’s “The Ford” (1960), Michele Edwards’s “Hurricane” (1956), Neville Willoughby’s “An Eye for an Eye” (1960), or Hugh Panton Morrison’s “Home is the Hunter” (1956), the class distinction between the narrator and the story’s characters is all too evident either in the stories’ reliance on black, working class stereotypes or in the use of an intrusive middle-class point of view. In contrast, a short story such as Carberry’s, referred to above, or those of Vera Bell, Vic Reid, Roger Mais, and Claude Thompson, incorporate this class divide into their themes, thus reducing the reliance on an anthropological gaze. Claude Thompson’s short fiction is unusual in its deployment of abstract modernist forms and in the works’ interconnection of the abstract with the material and the political. Thompson’s own anthology, These My People, was published in Kingston in 1943 and illustrated by Albert Huie, one of the best-known artists of the period. Huie’s lino and wood cuts, as well as paintings by celebrated artists Gloria Escoffery, Karl Parboosingh, Leonard Morris and Ralph Campbell, were included in all the 1943-1960 editions of Focus.

Very few women writers were contributors to the first four anthologies. Vera Bell’s poem “Ancestor on the Auction Block” has been included in almost every Caribbean poetry anthology since its first appearance in the 1943 edition of Focus. Her short fiction “Easter Lilies” and “The Bamboo Pipe” are also frequently anthologized. Better known for her painting, Gloria Escoffery has continued to contribute to the cultural life of Jamaica, and the themes and poetic style of the work included in Focus reflect a commitment to the cultural changes of this period. Inez K. Sibley’s tightly constructed retelling of a folk-myth, “The Terror Bull and the Taunt Song”, included in the 1956 edition of Focus, was a very popular short story that was aired on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices and originally published in Public Opinion in 1949 (“Gruesome and Yet Fascinating”: 76-77). Sibley’s short story collection entitled Quashie’s Reflections (in native dialect) was first published in 1939, then edited and republished in 1968 by Philip Sherlock as Quashie’s Reflections in Jamaican Creole. This early anthology included several vignettes that had also appeared in the Jamaican newspaper The Daily Gleaner. Although her fiction has been neglected in recent decades, Sibley was an early pioneer of the use of Jamaican Creole in literary contexts (“The Lesser Names”: 47-49).

Wayne Brown describes the women included in Edna Manley’s literary circle and in the anthologies as “a strange group of young Englishwomen. Marjorie Foster-Davis, Esther Chapman, Cicely Waite-Smith, Margery Stewart, Vera Alabaster …”, all of whom were journalists, teachers, welfare workers, or artists, and “close acquaintances of Edna’s” (238). They were well-connected and also belonged to networks that extended beyond the Manley circle. Esther Chapman, for example, was the editor of the widely-circulated West Indian Review and Cicely (Howland) Waite-Smith’s work was published as a collection by The Gleaner Company, and in many different magazines, newspapers and anthologies during this period. Of the handful of plays included in Focus three, Storm Signal (1943), Grandfather is Dying (1943), a drama set in Europe, and The Creatures (1956), republished in a 2012 anthology of “early” Jamaican plays edited by Yvonne Brewster, were by Cicely Waite Smith.

Other writers whose drama was selected for Focus include George Campbell, whose abstract, experimental Play Without Scenery (1948) was performed by the Little Theatre Movement at the Priory School in Kingston, Roger Mais, and M.G. Smith. Smith’s The Leader begins with a discussion in Jamaican Creole, among a group of “Peasants” identified in the script with the letters A to D, as Youth, and The Rest. Other members of the cast are also unnamed and include the Bicyclist, a Woman and a Chorus. The play intermixes, to unsettling effect, local realism and aspects of classical Greek drama such as strophe and antistrophe. Mais’s The First Sacrifice (1956) also uses classical forms and dramatizes a fictionalized conflict between Cain, Abel and Cain’s lover (in the drama), Leah. The play opens with Lucifer, who contends with Michael for the soul of Cain. Using the Biblical description of Cain as a “vagabond and a fugitive upon earth” (206), Mais’s drama reconfigures him as an artist, a “mystic and poet” (205) who struggles to believe in the God-given beauty of the natural world, while being beset by forces of darkness. Mais also uses “A Chorus of Sons and Daughters”, who emerge in the second half of the play to affirm “the ultimate goodness and beauty of all things created/As distinct from the ugliness and negation of things not created” (210). The drama’s concern with the figure of the artist and his place in the world is one that is repeated throughout many of the contributions to these anthologies, including Frank Hill’s play Betrayal (1943). His revision of Biblical myth echoes Vivian Virtue’s King Solomon and Queen Balkis (1938), a verse drama included in Virtue’s anthology Wings of the Evening, published in Kingston in 1938 by the New Day Press. Although Virtue’s play was not included in Focus, a small selection of his poetry appeared in the 1943 Edition.

The plays included in Focus were examples of a more serious form of theatre that might have been staged by new companies such as the Little Theatre Movement, The Caribbean Thespians, and the University Players. This work was sandwiched between a selection “foreign imports”, often staged at the Ward Theatre in Kingston (Mixed Company: 10) and “offerings of comedy duos, satire, improvisation and variety shows” staged at venues such as Marcus Garvey’s Eidelweiss Park (Mixed Company: 219). Both the small selection of dramatic work anthologized in Focus and its reliance on European classical or modernist structures and tropes, however, suggest that the development of more serious forms of theatre, reflecting Jamaica’s “new” political and cultural realities, was as yet in its early stages.

Focus did not operate in a vacuum. The period 1938-1950 saw a flourishing of outlets for Caribbean literary production and many writers’ work appeared in several publications. The most popular was perhaps the literary pages of the newspaper Public Opinion, established in 1937 to counter the more conservative politics of the dominant newspaper of the time, The Daily Gleaner, and to advance the pro-independence politics of the Jamaica Progressive League, headed at the time by W. Adolphe Roberts, a prolific poet and prose writer, whose work also appears in most editions of Focus. Other publications of this period included the “little magazines” such as Pepperpot, The West Indian Review, special issues of the London-based Life and Letters, and the BBC’s Caribbean Voices. In 1950, the Gleaner founded Jamaica’s first publishing house The Pioneer Press. In 1947, encouraged by W. Adolphe Roberts, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps visited Jamaica and while there met with members of the Poetry League of Jamaica. Following their visit, the poems of over thirteen Jamaican poets were selected for their anthology The Poetry of the Negro, 1946-1949: this selection included Una Marson and Claude McKay, neither of whom, inexplicably, was anthologized in Focus. Again, inexplicably, this African-American anthology was greeted with dismay by Manley (The Diaries: 28). Another significant omission from the first four editions of Focus was the poetry of Louise Bennett, who was well regarded by Manley but whose work she valued as an example of folk art, and as an educational tool rather than as poetry with its own literary and aesthetic value (The Diaries: 26). This omission was rightly judged by Caribbean Voices editor Henry Swanzy as serious and led, in part, to his claim that her anthology privileged Jamaican middle-class sensibilities. He was highly critical of what he judged to be the “deplorable influence” of her literary clique on the Jamaican literary scene (Griffiths, 2016). It is inevitable, however, given Jamaica’s colonial status, the absence of an infrastructure that benefitted its majority, and the paucity of cultural resources, that the writers whose work was being published in Jamaica during these decades were middle-class. It is also inevitable that most writers were part of a very small number of interconnecting circles that included journalists, politicians and publishers and that their close proximity to each other would lead to rivalry and unwarranted criticism. The reach and value of Focus, however, is unquestionable. Many of the writers included in these anthologies are now household names in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Their work is a staple of the regional literature curriculum, and their poetry, if not their names, is familiar to readers around the world.

Works Cited

Bontemps, Arna and Langston Hughes (eds.). The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. New York, Doubleday, 1949.
Brewster, Yvonne (ed.). Mixed Company: Three Early Jamaican Plays. London: Oberon Books, 2012.
Brown, Wayne. Edna Manley: The Private Years, 1900-1938. London: Deutsch, 1975.
Griffiths, Glyne. The BBC and the Development of Anglophone Caribbean Literature 1943-1958. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Manley, Edna (ed.). Focus: An Anthology of Contemporary Jamaican Writing (1943-1960). Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint Co., 1976.
Manley, Rachel (ed.). Edna Manley: The Diaries. Jamaica: Heinemann, 1989.
Scafe, Suzanne. “‘Gruesome and Yet Fascinating’: Hidden, Disgraced and Disregarded Cultural Forms in Jamaican Short Fiction 1938-1950.” Journal of Caribbean Literatures. 6.3 (2010): 67-80.
––. “‘The Lesser Names Beneath the Peaks’: Jamaican Short Fiction and its Contexts, 1938-1950.” The Caribbean Short Story: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Lucy Evans, Mark McWatt and Emma Smith. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2011. 44-58.
Walmsley, Anne (ed.). The Sun’s Eye: West Indian Writing for Young Readers. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1968.

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Citation: Scafe, Suzanne. "FOCUS: An Anthology of Contemporary Jamaican Writing". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 25 January 2020 [, accessed 30 September 2023.]

19578 FOCUS: An Anthology of Contemporary Jamaican Writing 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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