I see a frightened humanity
A sad and confused society
One may be mistakenly tempted, on looking at the printed lyrics of “Progress”, to come to the conclusion that it is a formless juxtaposition of words. In fact, it is a carefully crafted literary work that merits analysis, and reveals a meticulous adherence to the stringent norms of prosody and poetic forms.
For those of us grown accustomed to a regular pattern of a fixed number of lines and end rhymes, the work might seem to fall short of the standard expected of an authentic calypso. However, a closer examination will be rewarded by the realisation of the true nature of the work.
Some researchers have come to accept the formula of stanzas comprising eight or nine lines of varying length with no evident rhyme scheme. Listening to the stage presentation of the song could possibly suggest a different format, that of 25 lines, differing in length, but involving a syllabic, stress and rhyming pattern of surprisingly intricate regularity.
Each stanza comprises a similar, though not identical, number of syllables, and there is a repetition of stresses depending on the metric variation employed by the poet. The poet alternates his usage of the different metric feet to achieve the desired rhythm, which, when put to music, creates a melodic structure that is unique in the calypso world.
For example, the first three lines in each stanza, though differing in end rhyme, are identical in syllable and stress numbers, as well as the metre employed. And this fidelity to structure, with a careful and deliberate craftsmanship permeating the work and marrying form, to content, to melody, is what creates the pleasurable acceptance by the ear and the ease with which the poem is remembered.
There are 19 rhyme clusters of varying numerical value, most of them couplets, but some repeated four to six times, with a final count of 57 rhymes, some at the end of a line, some internal.
It is worth mentioning that the language utilised throughout the work maintains a strict adherence to the rules and structure of standard English, deviating therefrom on only four occasions, apart from the typically Trini use of the term “craziness”. Considering the liberty with which our calypsonians express themselves in our unique linguistic idiom, this quality in the poem makes it all the more singular in the art form and enhances its appeal and comprehension to a universal audience.
I once knew a Catholic priest, a devout and spiritual man, of whom there are not many, (man or priest), who found great difficulty in going beyond “Our Father” in his meditation, because he could not understand how the greatness of the Godhead could possibly have a paternal link with puny humanity.
In Dr Winsford “Joker” Devine’s masterpiece, the profundity of that first word, which is more sentence than word, mirrors the experience of that holy man.
For when the poet says “Today” he conjures up, not only the reality of our present existence, but the history of past millennia as well as the possibilities of the future.
“Today” represents our groundings in the now, but is also a vivid reflection of the experience of those who stood in their present and what will be the actuality of our successors.
It has been said that God exists in an eternal present, an unending today: yesterday, today and the same forever. It is such a quality that is invoked by that first word, with its forceful emphasis on the second syllable, shaking our attention like Beethoven’s first four notes in his ‘Fifth Symphony”, or a Shakespearean opening verbal salvo.
We are forced to listen, then contemplate from our present-ness the to and fro of the poet’s meditation.
An extrapolation on events in a calypso tent
It is intermission. The ladies lean across vacant seats to chat about other ladies, their men, current events and other inanities, while the previous occupiers of those seats are huddled in apparent disorder at the bar, filling or replenishing orders for said ladies and themselves. Then the MC comes to the mike to announce the beginning of the second half of the programme. Nobody takes him on. I saunter casually back to my seat, arguing about the day’s cricket with Junior, while the band makes its introductory noises to the shuffling of music sheets. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to begin, provided all those disorderly patrons will kindly take their seats. All yuh siddong nah!!
Right. I obey the man, mostly to avoid a heckle, sit, still talking to Junior, when the music strikes up and the MC introduces the next act. A slim youth comes on, Junior still talking at a rate, when we hear the first two syllables of a song that will remain embedded in our minds forever....”toDAY”. The audience gradually goes silent as the first stanza unfolds, drinks remain suspended, and King Austin launches into a performance to know no equal.)
When I look around
The poet establishes the focus of his meditation. He is contemplating the reality of where he is, the material that impinges on his senses and on his consciousness, this sphere of life reflecting the totality of his existence.
The world to which he refers, though grounded in his present reality, is a shifting image of the history of man, whose achievements are to be the focus of the calypso.
What do I see?
The question posed here is reminiscent of a child’s philosophical “why”. The poet stands in awe at his surroundings, like the naughty boy who ran away to Scotland and “stood in his shoes and he wondered”. This state of wonder manifests itself several times in the work, and juxtaposed with the numerous references to the sense of sight,(“ I see” is repeated on seven occasions), serves to underline the dual role of the poet as observer and prophet.
This is the third use of the phrase, and is the introduction to the body of the poet’s meditation, the launching pad for the expression of all that he has distilled in his consideration of life and the reality with which he is confronted.
Footprints that man
has left on the sand
This echo of a line from American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm Of Life”, represents that look backward from the initial “today”, as the poet contemplates all the successful endeavours and the failed enterprises in which man has been involved over time.
However, whereas Longfellow’s footprints allude to those sublime acts that lead to greatness, our poet ponders over the question whether the fruits derived from man’s ambitious exploits and the grandiose ideas yet to come to fruition can be considered truly beneficial to mankind.
And I ask myself
The introspective prelude to the repeated question, “ when will it end?” reflects the meditative posture that permeates the poem, once again reminding us of the philosophical stance adopted by the poet, and the state of wonder engendered by his observations.
It is plain to see
Finally, his meditation reaches the beginning of a number of conclusions, based on his acute observation of life, and leading subsequently to a consideration of where all that he sees is heading.
What he sees is a world in which man’s greed and ignorance of the rhythms and regulations embedded in Nature have resulted in a degradation and gradual destruction of those gifts meant to be used for the benefit of all: the waters, the flora and fauna, the topography, all fall victim to that quest for financial gain that typifies the modern concept of progress.
The plenitude inherent in nature has been decimated by the greed of those who will profit at all costs, to the detriment of the environment and the needs of mankind, now and in the future.
Old rivers run dry.....
The Blue Basin River, which only recently provided entertainment to our children wading knee-deep in waters replete with guabines, taters and millions, now disappears into the bowels of WASA, not to be seen again.
San Fernando Hill, once a proud landmark visible all the way from the Northern Range, now lies scarred and bedraggled, a sad skeleton laid bare by predators.
And birds and beasts are continuously forced to seek new territory as their natural habitats are decimated by squatting and the insidious fingers of encroaching concrete.
This abuse of Mother Earth is to be recalled later in the biblical allusion to “soil that wouldn’t bear”. But whereas Leviticus speaks about the strictures of a threatening deity trying to keep a wayward people in line, the concern here is with the criminal and deliberate mishandling of resources by man in the furtherance of “his quest for success”.
And the poet ends his opening stanza with a plaintive question seeking a response to what he sees as a befuddling unfolding of a reality to be examined in the following three.
By the end of the first verse, we begin to realise that something special is unfolding. The lyrics, which we would truthfully like to hear again, leave a residue of substance in our minds, and I look at CK on my left, who raises an appraising eyebrow, then at Junior, who splutters, “Wheydismancomeout!?)
The remainder of the work concentrates on a variety of issues considered crucial to an understanding of modern society and the many problems resulting from what is seen as progress.
Several important themes are addressed, not in a deeply analytical manner, but sufficiently suggestive to shake us out of the intellectual lethargy so typical of modern existence.
There is mention of the alienation bred in the bosom of a society that has lost its groundings in meaningful relationships; intelligence and expertise utilised for purposes detrimental to the common good of mankind; the growing cancer of wealth accumulation for its own sake; the divisions deriving from the undermining idiocy of ideologies that eat at the heart of any progressive endeavours that could benefit mankind; and, always present in the discussion, the expressed concern of the spectre of man’s greed as he desecrates the gifts of nature in pursuit of that ephemeral power supposedly bestowed by wealth.
Austin sings his second verse to an audience by now so enthralled, that not a voice is heard after the vociferous acclamations that followed the first. “Kaiso, kaiso!” resounded through the hall as the young bard, as nonplussed as a true veteran, gathered his resources to launch into another literary and artistic salvo.. ”I see...”
The work is structured around eight questions, interspersed among the four stanzas. The intrinsic motif of the central theme surrounds each question and is introduced by the twelvefold repetition of the visual verb.
The eight questions posed are:
What do I see?
When will it end? (Repeated)
I does wonder why?
Where do we go from here?
What shall be next?
How long will it last?
How shall it be in time to come?
Can this world withstand this constant misuse and abuse by the hands of man, as they try to shape this world in a way to fit in with all their plans?
The poem is clearly centred on the aspirations of man through time, and the effects these have had and continue to have on his status in this his world. However, the poet adopts an ambivalent attitude towards his identification with mankind, sometimes espousing the values with which he agrees, then distancing himself from those he considers detrimental. This is the cause of his attitude of wonder, and the basis of his repeated questions as to the real worth and endurance of what is considered progress.
This ambivalence manifests itself clearly in a consideration of the Mankind who leaves historical footprints, who, confused and frightened by his reality, turns to drugs and wonders at the inevitability of the coming judgement, as compared with the Mankind who unscrupulously clears all obstacles in his path towards financial gain, and continues to abuse Nature in his selfish and sacrilegious quest to re-create her in his own image and likeness
The positive achievements of man through time as compared with the manner in which he relentlessly pursues financial gain by destroying the environment, is the nagging problem troubling the mind of the poet. The social injustice born of this undying greed; the use of scientific genius, not for true progress, but for the benefit of a powerful clique; the psychological and societal ills deriving from this hunger for profit at all costs, these are what the Observant Man, as distinct from the Profiteering Man, ponders, impelling him into a state of wonder, uncertainty and concern.
It would be difficult to gainsay that the underlying thrust of the thesis expressed is anticapitalist. The evils inflicted on our natural resources, the greed for financial gain with all the negatives emanating therefrom, reflect much too closely the spirit of that economic system, the basis and driving force of which is profit at all costs.
Devine will return to this topic in other works, particularly Sparrow’s “Capitalism gone mad,” but here we see a condensation of his thought, his questioning of the wisdom of such a procedure and his concern over the deleterious effects inherent in its continuance.
The final question in the fourth stanza is particularly relevant in these times, as the poet ponders whether the world can survive the abuse inflicted on mankind by the unscrupulous “as they try to shape this world in a way to fit in with all their plans”.
One may be forgiven for observing, in mankind’s present ongoing pandemic situation, the possible fulfilment of those prophetic words. This could easily lead to conclusions that would be labelled as being conspiracy based, so wisdom dictates that we await the slowly unfolding drama that, hopefully, may culminate in the revelation of truth.
And the poem leaves us with the ominously haunting repetition of the warning articulated in stanza two....”time is running out”.......
The faithful exit the tent onto Wrightson Road, homeward bound and slightly inebriated, not by the frequent imbibing of amber fluids, but steeped in the experience of a catharsis of fear and wonder created by the throbbing memory of those haunting lyrics wedded to an incomparable melody.
East, west, north and south we head back to our mundane tomorrows, but fully aware that we may never savour another masterpiece to equal what we have just heard.
Mervyn Mauricette is a retired St Mary’s College teacher