About Kamau Brathwaite

In its insistent rhythms and vivid parsing of postcolonial histories, Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry is among the most significant to emerge from the West Indies in the last century. Born in Barbados in 1930, Brathwaite won a scholarship to study at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where his reading of History doubtless laid the foundations for his later writing. On return to the Caribbean, he began a career as a teacher, later becoming a lecturer; he has published on the social and cultural history of the region, including a volume titled The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica (1971). At the same time, this keen academic awareness of the history of his homeland met in his poetry with personal experiences and the present day, to produce a series of book-length sequences that take in the captivating landscapes, troubled past, and characters and identities of the West Indian nations. Rights of Passage appeared in 1967, earning much critical praise and the accolade of a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and was followed by Masks (1968) and Islands (1969).
Though Kamau Brathwaite has published dozens of volumes and continues to write, the extracts featured in this Poetry Archive recording draw on the first section of the lauded Masks, titled ‘Libation’ – which is to say a ritual pouring of a liquid, in this case metaphorical, as an offering to a god or spirit. Though the listener will find that these poems deliver a uniquely specific take on a mythological creation story, and centre on Brathwaite’s adopted home of Ghana, West Africa, they are nevertheless representative of much of the qualities of his writing in general, particularly in their insistence on the poem as language springing from a sung rhythm, in the spirit of the oral tradition. A distinctive stylistic hallmark of Brathwaite’s poetry is the way in which refrains, and even individual words, are often repeated to transformative, incantatory effect, as part III, ‘Atumpan’, testifies. Here, the drumming god Odomankoma is summoned in verse that mimics the eponymous twin drum set, a piece of sacred kit that is used both to provide the bass to traditional dance, and to send messages between villages. In Brathwaite’s poem, it becomes a powerful emblem of poetry itself – a means of making music, but also of communicating across physical and cultural boundaries. Yet Brathwaite’s is not merely an affirmative verse, as part II, ‘The Making of the Drum’, illustrates. In fact, the very goat that is killed for its hide in order to manufacture the drum is, in the poem’s reckoning, “horned with our sin”. “Stretch your skin, stretch // it tight on our hope”, implores the speaker, “we have killed / you to make a thin / voice that will reach”.
Throughout the poems included here, Brathwaite’s commanding yet richly warm delivery brings the words to life, much like dancers compelled by a drum’s beat. Listening to him read is something of an hypnotic experience, and confirms Publishers Weekly’s assessment of his work as “sinuously syncopated and consistently exciting”.

The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Rights of Passage;...


Elegguas, Wesleyan, 2010


Ancestors, New Directions, 2001


Strange Fruit, Peepal Tree, 2015


Born to Slow Horses, Wesleyan University Press, 2005


Black + Blues, New Directions, 1997 (first published...



1970 Cholmondeley Award

1983 Guggenheim Fellowship

1983 Fulbright Fellowship

1987 Companion of Honour of Barbados

1994 Neustadt International Prize for Literature

2006 Griffin Poetry Prize, International Winner

2006 Gold Musgrave Medal for Literature from the Institute of Jamaica

2010 W. E. B. Du Bois Award

2011 Casa de las Americas Premio

2015 Robert Frost Medal from Poetry Society of America


Kamau Brathwaite Downloads

1from Masks (i) Libation (i) Prelude


2from Masks (i) Libation (ii) The Making of the Drum


3from Masks (i) Libation (iii) Atumpan


Books by Kamau Brathwaite