GUYANA UNDER SIEGE
 
The Mob at the Door:
A 'Biography' of Martin Carter
 
   
by Al Craighton
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Among the many things the poets W.B.Yeats and Martin Carter have in common is the role they played in the shaping of nationhood in their respective countries. Each holds a very high place in the hierarchy of the literary genius produced by his country, but in both cases, their role goes beyond the production of the great corpus of national literature. It includes the formation of a literary consciousness and involvement in the corresponding current of revolutionary politics. Yeats' Ireland and Carter's British Guiana fifty years later, waged wars of independence against the same colonizing power. The similarities between them come to life in this comment on the life of Yeats by critic and editor, George MacBeth.

"His greatest successes seem to me to have been achieved in writing about his friends and the causes for which they spoke, fought and died. Irish history and Irish politics came alive to Yeats through the doings of people he knew and loved. His best work is a commentary on the history of a whole country at the establishment of its freedom, a period of agonizing crisis seen through the eyes of a particularly sensitive and involved member of it. Ireland was still small enough in the early twentieth century for one man to feel its problems personally and mould great poetry out of them."

Substitute Guyana for Ireland and that could well be a comment on Carter. Yeats became an Irish Senator after a period of tangential involvement in the political rebellion. His poem Easter 1916 is about the Easter Rising for which some of his friends were executed. Like others of his friends and associates in the PPP, Carter was imprisoned in a detention camp at Atkinson Field in 1953. Like Yeats, he became a minister of government, a 'technocrat,' under the PNC after independence. Yet he was to take to the streets again in protest against that same government a decade or so later. Yeats claimed he properly learned to be a poet during those years close to the revolution in Dublin when he came to appreciate poetry as a public art. Similarly. Carter grew up as a poet against a political background that no doubt helped to bring him to maturity as a writer, but he emerged as "a particularly sensitive" universal humanist who could feel his country's problems "and mould great poetry out of them."

The June, 2000 issue of Kyk-Over-Al (Number 49/50) is a testament of this aspect of the life and work of Martin Wylde Carter (1927-1997), to date, Guyana's greatest poet. The journal documents his career in 411 pages. The editors, Ian McDonald and Vanda Radzik silently celebrated Kyk's 50th volume, launched on December 19, 2000 on the virtual anniversary of Carter's burial (on December 18, 1997). The memorable celebration of the poet was more loudly proclaimed, and for this they drew on a large number of contributors who knew him personally, are fellow writers, or mere critics and students of his work. The result is a virtual biography of the poet.

One of the vital factors that emerges from the volume is the contribution Carter made in a very informal way to literary consciousness in pre-independence Guyana. Eusi Kwayana, Jan Carew, David de Caires, Roy Heath and Wilson Harris among others, recall the almost ritual sessions of literary readings and discussions in which Carter was central. They continued even up to the seventies, contributing to Guyanese nationhood no less than the political activism recorded by other contributors such as Janet Jagan and Rupert Roopnaraine.

Kyk 49/50 is thus sub-titled 'The Martin Carter Tribute,' following Number 48, which is a Language Issue dedicated to linguist and lexicographer, Richard Allsopp. But it is more than the biography of one described by Kwayana as "a friendly, dreamful, dangerous man." It includes critical essays by leading scholars, reviews, poems dedicated to Carter as well as a selection of his own prose and poetry.

There are two significant observations about the poetry. Carter's celebrated piece, Proem is reprinted as a kind of preface to the volume. It is a fitting statement about the poet, his poem and its audience, which is an overture to the book Poems of Succession and Selected Poems (1989). But it was removed from that strategic position in the Red Thread reprint of Selected Poems (1997) and is now restored in this document. Secondly, and of greater importance, is the recent discovery, after his death, of previously unknown, unpublished Carter poems, which now appear in Kyk 49/50. Of these, the most noteworthy is an untitled love poem, which seems far more complete and polished than the other four. "Wanting to write another poem for you," the poet "searched the world for something beautiful." What he finds is crafted with the usual neatness of Carter's metaphysical verse.

Outside my window, law unto itself
This tall green crown confirms an oath I swore
With mighty roots invisible in earth
And amongst seeds that war with God and die.

Of importance too, is the publication of two original handwritten manuscripts. The first is the poem now known as Death of a Comrade, which was first scribbled on a page and sent to Janet Jagan under its original title For a Dead Comrade. It was written as a tribute to late Barbadian trade unionist, Ivan Edwards. The second, Poem of Prison, was also handwritten and sent to A J Seymour for possible publication. The prose selections are mixed, (some early pieces which are not earth-shaking and others of greater import), and are of historical importance, following Nigel Westmaas' much more substantial collection in The Martin Carter Prose sampler in Kyk 44.

Collections of poetic tribute to a great personality are normally valued more for the tribute than for the poetry. Such is the case with the volume dedicated to the memory of Cheddi Jagan and edited by David Dabydeen, which mixes genuine poetry with contributions of no poetic pretensions, published in good faith to record the writers' valuable sentiments. It is of note, therefore, that Kyk 49/50 prints poetic tributes to Carter including two which are particularly serious verses of merit. The Last Walk by Stanley Greaves is no surprise from a long established poet whose first collection is expected soon out of Peepal Tree. But Freedom, a well crafted poem, startles, coming from Ameena Gafoor, previously known as a critic.

Also of interest is that this edition of Kyk-Over-Al may be seen as a companion volume to Stewart Brown's All are Involved: The art of Martin Carter, released by Peepal Tree at the 'West Indian Literature Conference, Textualities/ Sexualities,' hosted by the University of Guyana in March, 2000. Brown edits the most important collection of Carter criticism, drawing on a wider field of writers, but for the most part, sharing the same list of contributors with Kyk. Brown himself, as well as Clem Seecharran in the UK, has a critical essay in the journal, whose tributes are not mere sentiment, but include sound, scholarly papers. Nevertheless, the journal, even while honouring the poet, does not abandon some of its routine features. It still keeps abreast of the latest books through reviews of Pauline Melville by Denise de Caires, and of the newly emerged Onya Kampadoo by Joyce Jonas, while the paintings of another Guyanese great, Aubrey Williams, is noticed by Elfrieda Bissember.

It is Wilson Harris who mentions Carter's admiration for Yeats. He recalls Carter quoting a line from the Irish poet, "What if the mob at the door is the state." It is no wonder such a line appealed to Carter, who expressed many similar sharp observations that shock and disturb. If the editors of Kyk-Over-Al 49/50 had asked Yeats to submit a poetic tribute to Carter, his most likely selection might have been A Coat, written in 1914, to express his moving from "old mythologies" to poems wrought out of the problems of his newly emerging nation. For Carter whose shirt became a banner for the revolution, whose lips and fingers became the ragged edges of a cloud and the trembling leaves of the canna lily, and who recognized "the man who walked sideways," Yeats is a kindred spirit. It is this, above all, that is documented in Kyk-Over-Al.

A Coat I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they'd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked.

W.B. Yeats

[Editorís Note: This review appeared in the Stabroek News, in December 2001. The biography itself is in the literary magazine in Guyana, Kyk-Over-Al, 49/50, edited by Dr. Ian McDonald and Vanda Radzik, June, 2000.]     ted from
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