Monday, March 28, 2011

Today in Language: Léon-Gontran Damas

Léon-G. Damas was a French Guyanese poet (from la Guyane Française), born March 28, 1912. He was one of the leading lights of the movement of a loose grouping of French-speaking Caribbean and African writers known as négritude. The movement tried to emphasize and celebrate the African origin and culture of black Frenchmen or blacks colonized by the French. The two biggest names associated with the movement are Aimé Césaire from Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal.

In the middle of the social and political upheaval in French West Africa, a bit more than a decade before most of the countries there were to gain their independence, Senghor published in 1948 an Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Anthology of the New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in French).

In his introduction to Damas in the anthology, Senghor writes, "la poésie de Damas est essentiellement non sophistiquée" ("Damas' poetry is essentially non-sophisticated"). Not exactly a compliment, maybe, but Senghor goes on to explain: "[Sa poésie] est faite des mots de tous les jours, . . . le plus souvent des mots les plus simples et des expressions du peuple" ("[His poetry] is made from everyday language, most often the simplest of words and expressions of the people"). That is perhaps the highest compliment possible for a writer (not that "sophisticated" or difficult writing doesn't have its place).

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