Carter, Martin 1927–1997
Martin Carter 1927-1997
(Full name Martin Wylde Carter) Guyanese poet.
Well known in the Caribbean for his politically charged verse reflecting Guyana's struggles for independence, Carter began publishing poetry in the 1950s, when he was a young socialist in the colony of British Guiana (now Guyana). His commitment to political activism is reflected in his poetic themes, which center to a large extent on the sociopolitical evolution of Guyana as it moved from colonial rule to independence in 1966 and to political turmoil in the postcolonial era. Critics have pointed to an intense revolutionary spirit in Carter's early poetry, when he held high hopes for the creation of a free country, and a more introspective, despairing turn in his later verse as he increasingly grew disillusioned by the corruption, racism, and hostility among Guyanese leaders.
Carter was born in 1927 in Georgetown, British Guiana, into an urban middle-class family. After attending Queens College, Carter joined the British Guiana Civil Service, eventually serving as secretary to the superintendent of prisons. As he grew increasingly interested in political and social affairs during the 1950s, he began contributing poetry and editorials to periodicals, including Kyk-Over-Al and Thunder, submitting some essays under the pseudonym M. Black to protect his employment with the civil service. Having left the civil service by 1953, he joined the People's Progressive Party (PPP), an anti-colonial, non-racial, socialist party focused on gaining freedom from Britain. After achieving a legitimate victory in 1953, the new government was quickly deposed by British troops. Carter's militant outspokenness and intense opposition led to his being jailed on two separate occasions during the mid-1950s, which prompted the composition of his most famous poetry collection, Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (1954). Carter resigned his membership in the PPP when it split along race lines, working during the late 1950s as a schoolteacher and then as an information officer for the Booker Group of Companies from 1959 to 1966. When Guyana gained its independence from Britain in 1966, Carter served as the new republic's representative to the United Nations. The following year he became Guyana's Minister of Information, serving until 1971 when he resigned over corruption in the African People's National Congress (PNC), the republic's ruling party led by lawyer and statesman Forbes Burnham. In the mid-1970s Carter served as lecturer at Essex University in England and then returned to Guyana to begin a longtime affiliation with the University of Guyana, where he was writer in residence from 1977 to 1981, before serving as a senior research fellow. During the late 1970s and early 1980s he was involved with the Working People's Party (WPA), which attempted both to revitalize Guyana's revolutionary fervor and to thwart Burnham's corrupt regime (Burnham had become president in 1980). His health declined in the 1990s and Carter died in Guyana in 1997.
Carter's first collection, The Hill of Fire Glows Red (1951), established him as a revolutionary, centering on themes involving the independence of Guyana, rage at the British occupation, and pride in his country. One of the volume's most quoted poems, "This Is the Dark Time My Love," focuses on Guyanese feelings about the rampant violence brought by British soldiers. "University of Hunger," considered among Carter's finest, describes not only the physical but also the spiritual desires of the Guyanese, delineating the suffering and hardships of surviving in a colonized land. The powerful Poems of Resistance from British Guiana, written while Carter was in prison, reveal the narrator's passionate enthusiasm for independence. Upon completion the poems were secretly transported out of prison to be read at political demonstrations protesting colonial oppression.
By the 1960s, however, Carter's revolutionary passion and optimism had begun to decline. His 1961 volume Conversations reveals the poet's disenchantment with the existing world. By 1964, when the poems in Jail Me Quickly (1966) were published in the New World Fortnightly, Carter had already developed an overwhelming sense of disillusionment evidenced in verse that documents the often corrupt and violent political evolution of Guyana of the early 1960s. In Poems of Succession (1977), composed between 1964 and 1975, the poet still concerned himself with social and political problems, but his poetry became more contemplative, self-reflective, and philosophical. A sense of hopelessness and defeat pervades 1980's Poems of Affinity, 1978-1980, written after the murder of the WPA leader Walter Rodney and the slaying of an activist Catholic priest in broad daylight during a protest march.
Early critics viewed Carter as a Guyanese poet who was little known elsewhere and who worked primarily within the rubric of "protest poetry." This reputation emanated from the acclaim brought about by his Poems of Resistance from British Guiana and his activism of the 1950s. Detractors have claimed that Carter's early emphasis on political issues distracted him from the craft of poetry; later commentators, however, have begun to argue against this assertion, claiming that earlier critics were too blinded by Carter's often forceful political statements to recognize the poetic skill evident in his early verse. These later critics have contended that, even in his first publications, Carter was concerned with presenting a compassionate, humanist vision along with his political convictions. They have also noted that what has been termed Carter's "private" poetry, published later in his career, does not in fact divorce itself from political consciousness but also contains a great deal of exposition of the poet's political ideas. Stewart Brown finds that this merging of the personal with the political occurs throughout Carter's body of work: "Carter's poetry offers its readers the chronicle of a life … committed to being, in Guyana, and traces the evolution of his commitment to the notion of social justice, beyond the contagions of racial politics, through the tumultuous period his seventy or so years spanned." Other critics have addressed the fact of Carter's limited literary recognition outside the Caribbean and his lack of commercial success, emphasizing his commitment to remain in Guyana instead of relocating to a metropolitan area to advance his writing career.
The Hill of Fire Glows Red (poetry) 1951
To a Dead Slave (poetry) 1951
The Hidden Man (Other Poems of Prison) 1952
The Kind Eagle (Poems of Prison) (poetry) 1952
Returning (poetry) 1953
Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (poetry) 1954; republished as Poems of Resistance 1964; republished as Poems of Resistance from Guyana 1979
Poems of Shape and Motion (poetry) 1955
Conversations (poetry) 1961
Jail Me Quickly: Five Poems (poems) 1966
Man and Making—Victim and Vehicle (lectures) 1971
Poems of Succession (poetry) 1977
Poems of Affinity, 1978-1980 (poetry) 1980
Selected Poems (poetry) 1989; enlarged and revised edition published as Martin Carter: Selected Poems 1997
Poems by Martin Carter (poetry) 2006
University of Hunger: Collected Poems and Selected Prose (poetry and prose) 2006
Kamau Brathwaite (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Brathwaite, Kamau. "Resistance Poems: The Voice of Martin Carter." In All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, edited by Stewart Brown, pp. 130-44. Leeds, U.K.: Peepal Tree, 2000.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Brathwaite considers how the shape, form, and content of Carter's poems of resistance (from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s) changed in response to the political turmoil in Guyana during that same period.]
Martin Carter is one of the few authentically optimistic English-writing Caribbean poets. Not a personal optimism based on a private garden/plot, although there is/was that too; but a more general political anticipation of and confidence in the future of anti-colonial struggle. Like Campbell1 and Reid2 in Jamaica, Telemaque3 in Trinidad, the early Walcott4 in St. Lucia, Seymour in Guyana, Martin Carter expresses the postwar West Indian certainty that the former colonial territories would soon attain political independence, and that there was, or soon would be, a national identity of which we would all be proud. This would be based on love/possession of landscape, as expressed by Derek Walcott:
If we know anything, we know we can have a better
Island, bright as advertisements let it lose its litter
Of hovels, hunger, and let there be no loss of anger
Infectious in the peasant, which is the worse danger.
Almost impossible and absurd the distant love for
England. Love is here, and luck under your
Feet; the world is green outside, you rot in rooms5
and/or on mass consciousness, as in A. J. Seymour's
They are all heroes. They make history
They are the power in the land.
And the children grow
Force their way out of the slums into the professions
And stand up in the legislature.
Today they hope
But tomorrow belongs to the people.6
Carter himself has little of landscape—at least in the physical sense of local colour—in his poems. In his work we have no poems about, and few references to, Georgetown houses, Stabroek market, kokers, rivers, etc., that we find in Seymour; no sense of the world-creating jungle that pervades the poetry of Wilson Harris. ‘Old Higue’ 7 is his only folk poem—and one of his weakest:
Old higue in the kitchen
peel off her skin—
mammy took up old higue skin
and pound it in the mortar
with pepper and vinegar.
But from his first published booklet, The Hill of Fire Glows Red (1951), No. 4 in Arthur Seymour's Miniature Poets series, we find the then only 24 year-old Carter already centrally concerned with anti-colonial political action, and the dynamics of revolutionary peoplehood:
I tell you and I tell no secret—
now is long past time for kneeling
with clasped hands at altars of poverty.
How are the mighty slain?
by this hammer of my hand!
by this anger in my life!
by this new science of men alive
everywhere in this province!
thus—are the mighty slain!8
The people's destiny is to destroy the bastions of power and privilege. But Carter, coming clearly from an area of some privilege himself, is still able to preserve, at this stage, a sympathetic tension between the opposing forces:
Do not stare at me from your window, lady,
do not stare and wonder where I came from—
Born in this city was I, lady,
hearing the beetles at six o'clock
and the noisy cocks in the morning
when your hands rumple the bed sheet
and night is locked up in the wardrobe.
My hand is full of lines
like your breast with veins, lady—
So do not stare and wonder where I came from.
My hand is full of lines
like your breast with veins, lady,
and one must rear, while one must suckle life.9
One gets the feeling, though—though one can't blame him—bliss was it in that dawn to be alive—that Carter was at this point rather pleasurably seeing himself as the people's revolutionary poet; their cultured street preacher:
if you see me
looking at books
or coming to your house
or walking in the sun
know that I look for fire!10
and it was rather ‘nice’ was it not, to be so recognised by the common man:
I am most happy
as I walk the seller of sweets says ‘Friend’
and the shoemaker with his awl and waxen thread
reminds me of tomorrow and the world.11
It is the voice of Revolution without the Revolution. And yet, better this hope, lilted voices, out of the morass of colonialism, than smugness, ignorance of reality, directionlessness or alienation:
This is my hand
for the revolution …
that night there will be thousands of torches
from the hospitals the lame will come
the mad will be sane again
for the revolution.12
The poems that make up The Hill of Fire Glows Red were published (1951) soon after the formation of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), an anti-colonial alliance (East Indian and African; Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham) committed to constitutional independence from Britain, national integration and development under Marxist/socialist principles. Carter was himself a member of this party which was, in the words of one of its historians, ‘the first organisation with real political party credentials ever to have existed in British Guiana.’13
In 1953, the PPP won an overwhelming victory at the polls—the last, as it turned out, to be held under the old Crown Colony system. Not tomorrow but now, all at once seemed to belong to the people. But Cold War conquering US was not so sure or too happy. Jagan's ‘doctrinaire’ Communist programme was seen as a soft-under-belly South American threat. Local and expatriate Guyanese Big Businesses couldn't have agreed more. Within six months of the popular victory, the constitution was in suspension. British troops patrolled the country, the PPP government was splitting and out of office, and Carter (along with certain other militants) was in detention camp with, as his friend and colleague Sidney King (now Eusi Kwayana) put it, ‘a strange hedge of barbed wire and a gate of bayonets.’14
This is what they do with me.
Put me in prison, hide me away
cut off the world, cut out the sun
darken the land, blacken the flower
stifle my breath and hope that I die!15
You think of green mornings
Naked children playing in the rain
And even fishes swimming in a pool …16
It is not easy to go to sleep
When the tramp of a soldier marches in your brain
You do not know whether to sleep or wake:
When a rifle crashes on the metal road …17
With this imprisonment, Carter's poetry enters its second and for many its finest phase. The young fiery optimism of The Hill of Fire disappears as sudden as a match blown out; and in its place is anger and a thickening sense of waste in The Kind Eagle (1952), The Hidden Man (1952), and Poems of Resistance (1954):18
It was a city and a coffin space for home
a river running, prisons, hospitals
men drunk and dying, judges full of scorn
priests and parsons fooling gods with words
and me, like a dog tangled in rags
spotted with sores powdered with dust
screaming with hunger, angry with life and men.19
I stretch my hand to a night of weary branches
feeling for leaves or any twig of blossom:
But the branch is withered with no green leaf for me
and the stalk is brown and has no petal for me
and sleep is time that hides me from my labour
and rest is death that rids me of my panting
and dogs and branches and dim rooms of distress
are living worlds that populate my dark.20
The ‘Letters from Prison’, then, and the extracts from the two poems just quoted, illustrate Carter's description of and reaction to his detention. From here, he appears to take two courses. One set of poems, coming to mental grip with his environment, may be said to be his prison carvings:
A prison is go back, go back, go back,
lash of two things, shell which is the heart
and heart which is the shell—the hollow tear.21
These lumps of hardened air
invisible drums are beating at my head:
I hear drum drum drum
loud drops of wax falling from time's black candle.22
It is in this group that we come upon the fine controlled images of:
City moon clad, black tree domestic, dreary doormouth
earth no mother, sky no father, space no home in
No mark, no madness like this sanity23
is air dust and the long distance of memory
is the hour of rain when sleepless toads are silent
is broken chimneys smokeless in the wind
is brown trash huts and jagged mounds of iron.24
But there is also a shift in the contrary direction—another understandable (?) reaction to imprisonment—the drift into dream and (false) rhetorical hope: into images of resurrection and monumental cosmos: ‘the kind eagle soars and wheels in flight’.25
I make my dance right here!
Right here on the wall of a prison I dance!
This world's hope is a blade of fury
and we, who are sweepers of an ancient sky,
discoverers of new planets—sudden stars
we are the world's hope26
O wherever you fall comrade I shall arise.
In the whirling cosmos of my soul there are galaxies
Stalin's people and the brothers of Mao Tse-tung27
O come astronomer of freedom
Come comrade stargazer
Look at the sky I told you I had seen28
It is as if, comparable to the moment, mentioned above, that the young Carter, in his red of dawn, saw himself in the role of revolutionary; that now, at a time of reversal of those dreams, he saw himself in the role of victim or sufferer:29
It is not easy to be free and bold!
It is not easy to be poised and bound!
It is not easy to endure the spike!
So river flood, drench not my pillar feet30
Ego becomes foremost:
In the burnt earth of these years
I dip my hand, I dip my hand.
I plunge it in the furies of this world.
I find the lake whose source leaks from a river.
I splash the pool that feeds my painful flowers.31
O beauty of air like a glad woman!
O fringe of grass always so ever green!
O sloping ocean, sloping bed of love!
O trophy of my search! O human guide.
Each day I ride a wild black horse of terror
but every night I lock him in my bosom …32
Although you come in thousands from the sea
Although you walk like locusts in the street
Although you point your gun straight at my heart
I clench my fist above my head; I sing my song of
These last two poems are clearly propaganda or ideological pieces, written in anger at the arrival of British troops, come to support the imperial takeover of the constitution:
You come in warships terrible with death …
I know your finger trembles on a trigger
And yet I curse you—Stranger khaki clad.34
But fortunately, even though the pressure and perhaps even the temptation must have been there, Carter, in The Kind Eagle, even though he gives us rhetoric, seldom gives us such plain bad verse. Compare, for instance, the gun/heart image, quoted at 33 above with say, ‘This Is the Dark Time, My Love’ :
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.35
It is in the gun aiming at dream, rather than heart, that the cool source of poetry resides; and Carter's is no exception. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss his self-regarding rhetoric too quickly, since it is an essential part of his political stance which in turn is/was an intimate component of his poetry. Further, as we shall see, it is this very rhetoric which is at the base of his finest achievements, when he attains a tension/equilibrium, in his own words, both poised and bound.
The movement towards this begins in ‘Till I Collect’ 36 where we find, perhaps for the first time, a reticence or countervailing gesture coming to confront the erstwhile one-way wordage:
The fisherman will set his tray of hooks
and ease them one by one into the flood.
The net of twine will strain the liquid billow
and take the silver fishes from the deep.
But my own hand I dare not plunge too far
lest only sand and shells I bring to air
lest only bones I resurrect to light.37
In ‘I Am No Soldier’ 38 we see its development because here the reticence of ego (impotence of incarceration) is caught—and released—within a tactile circumambient landscape:
But now the huge noise of night surrounds me for a
I clutch the iron bars of my nocturnal cell
peeping at daylight.
There is a dark island in a dark river
This is intensified in ‘I Come from the Nigger Yard’ with
It was me always walking with bare feet,
meeting strange faces like those in dreams or fever
which connects with but is extended into
And there was always sad music somewhere in the
like a bugle and a drum between the houses
voices of women singing far away
pauses of silence, then a flood of sound.
But these were things like ghosts or spirits of wind
What is even more remarkable is that Carter's prison experience gave him not only new rhythms:
A prison is go back, go back, go back40
I hear drum drum drum
loud drops of wax falling from time's black candle41
earth no mother, sky no father, space no home in
but a whole new formal shape of poem: ‘You Are Involved’ 43 and ‘Death of a Slave’ :44 which correlate in line and language, with the barred, controlled, formal cell and structure in which he found or imagined himself:
This I have learnt:
today a speck
to-morrow a hero
hero or monster
you are consumed!45
And it is in ‘Death of a Slave’ that Carter first reaches the kind of metaphorical equilibrium which, given the kind of poetry he was writing then, is one of his most significant achievements. The poem does not begin like ‘Death of a Comrade’ 46 with his typical long, singing: ‘Death must not find us thinking that we die.’ Instead there is the rare (as in ‘Involved’ ), sparse:
Above green cane arrow
is blue sky—
Beneath green arrow
is brown earth—
Dark is the shroud of slavery
over the river
over the forest
over the field.47
‘Slave’ here is a prisoner to oppression of man, history and landscape, finally of time. But he is also implanted in the landscape and through his heart and seed of blood/death comes to possess it:
In the dark earth
in cold dark earth
time plants the seeds of anger48
So that the death of the slave creates life, while time (in which this death is subsumed) creates anger. Anger and life are therefore equated, and from here on, (‘This Is Another World’ ), the poem begins to move into outer and inner time, outer and inner space, in a cycle that becomes, like Harris', both eternal and seasonal, universal and particular in reference:
Day passes like a long whip
over the back of a slave …
Night comes from deep forest
in a boat of silence49
And yet, by the time the poem comes to its close, Carter has done even more than this; for he has contracted the life of the poem back to the image of the dying slave and is able to re-enshroud the verse with an apparitioned end-stopped finite sense of death; the enormous root and wheel of time, hidden under the body of its blood:
The slave staggers and falls
his face is on the earth
his drum is silent
silent like night
hollow like boat
between the tides of sorrow.
In the dark floor
In the cold dark earth
time plants the seeds of anger50
It is in this context, with this background, that we can come to ‘University of Hunger’, regarded by many as Carter's finest poem, with its long surf-like confident lines, and its epigrams moving within them like coralline resistors:
They come like sea birds
flapping in the wake of a boat
is the torture of sunset in purple bandages
is the powder of fire spread like dust in the twilight
is the water melodies of white foam on wrinkled sand
O long is the march of men and long is the life
and wide is the span.51
Yet, ten years later, this fine extended hope was in ruins. The political optimism of the 50s had never come to life. Each Caribbean territory of British rule had decided—some reluctantly, some selfishly, the rest because they had no choice: one from ten, as Eric Williams had said, leaves nought—to continue the difficult process of decolonisation on their own. There would be no federal West Indian nation, but the old colonial fragments, each flying its own strip of flag. Within the wider Caribbean, too, there had been failure. Cuba under Castro, had dared to burn the nest of the high-flying American eagle; the West Indies had joined the boycott against the incendiaries. In Guyana, where this fear of communism, brought nearer, many thought, by the presence of militant Cuba, had already crippled constitutional development, there was further regression. The 1955 factional split in the once-nationalist PPP, had become two parties, Jagan and Burnham, based on race, on slave and indentured servant. So instead of fighting the oppressor, the country began to fight itself. By 1962, nothing less than a race war was raging in the country. The politics of hope had become the politics of hate. Carter, traumatically bewildered and wounded, held on to his original PPP/nationalist/anti-imperialist comradeship for as long as he could; resigned, retired (1956), but reappeared when Burnham's ‘African’ party came to power in 1964. But it wasn't the man who had written ‘Tomorrow and the World’ 52 and ‘Cartman of Dayclean’. 53 Now it was
All, all who are human fail,
Like bullets aimed at life,
or the dead who shoot and think themselves alive!54
In 1971, the Minister of Culture, as he had become, resigned again from power. For many, he long before that had resigned himself from poetry.
This, as we shall see, was/is very far from being the case. But between, Poems of Resistance (1954) and Carter's next published sequence of poems, Jail me Quickly (a set of five that appeared serially in New World Fortnightly late in 1964 reprinted together in NWF 34 (1966)) there appears to have been the most dramatic loss of faith yet recorded in our literature. There is, of course Aimé Césaire's revocation of communism in 1956. But Césaire has gone on, since Lettre a Maurice Thorez, to write most of his major plays,55 in addition, among other pieces, to the collection of poems, Ferrements (1960). Carter, on the other hand, has written very little56:
True, was with them all,
and told them more than once:
in despair there is hope, but there is none in death.
Now I repeat it here, feeling a waste of life,
in a market-place of doom, watching the human face!57
It is a measure of the difference in their worlds. Césaire, the expatriate gallic creole, can make a creed of rhetoric. For the native Caliban, sooner or later the line and image have to match the ruined stone and language of the environment.
This is why we were so interested in those tight cellular poems in Poems of Resistance. From ‘You Are Involved’ and ‘Death of a Slave’, Carter had a choice: towards ‘imagism’ and perhaps a more direct correlation with experience; or a continuation of the long rhetorical line: marvellous vehicle for hope, fire and anger, but less efficient in the aftermath of ash and ruin. But habits and old skills, gestures of past successes, die hard. And Carter, although acutely aware of the changes in both his inner and outer self, seemed unable or unwilling to vouchsafe the pristine mask
O rain and fire, hopeful origins!
O rust and smoke, only enduring end!
I almost stumble underneath the waste
while squandered daylight mocks my deep remorse
Behind a wall of stone beside this city,
mud is blue-grey when ocean waves are gone …
And I have seen some creatures rise from holes
and claw a triumph like a citizen,
and reign until the tide!59
Is this really Carter's voice or is it, as he himself puts it, the ‘childhood of a voice’:
The familiar white street
is tired of always running east,
The sky, of always arching over.
The tree, of always reaching up.
Even the round earth is tired of being round
and spinning round the sun.60
We do not know what really ‘happened’; but in terms of his poetry, we are aware that by 1964 Carter had, for his own purposes—retreat? disguise? failure of his own rhetoric?—acquired a persona; borrowed a voice:
… think you I do not know
that love is stammered, hate is shouted out
in every human city of this world?
Men murder men, as men must murder men,
to build their shining governments of the damned.61
The music, the associations here are with that other young/old disillusioned/hopeful revolutionary, W. B. Yeats:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude….62
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction. ….63
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?64
Carter's creatures rising from the holes, clawing a triumph like a citizen, and reigning until the tide (‘Black Friday’, see above), have clear, close connection with Yeats' ‘The second coming’: ‘The blood-dimmed tide’ (above), and the ‘vast image out of Spiritus Mundi’, that rises out of the desert sands. There is nothing more specific than this; but the echoes are there. Compare Carter's
Now there was one whom I knew long ago
And then another to whom I paid respect:
The first I would salute, the second praise
But all is gone, all gone, the murderer cried.65
With the Irishman's
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words …
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.66
My explanation for this is based on the notion of sympathetic models. There is much in the early revolutionary/colonial Yeats that would have attracted Carter; and the Irishman's later old-man's impotence theme, would have tolled bells in Carter's post-1962 disillusionment consciousness. Also, they were both great bards, great creators of rhetoric.
But the significant thing is that Carter does not appear to reach back and across to this literary connection until after 1962: at a time when, instead, one would have assumed him to be moving closer and closer into his own thing. Why this was/was not happening can only be a matter of conjecture, without some intimate knowledge of Carter's biography.
My guess is connected with a point I made earlier, to the effect that Carter's work has dealt little (directly) with his landscape: physical and socio-cultural. In formal terms, there is no nation language (dialect), no ‘nancy forms’; (compare, for instance, Carter's ‘Old Higue’ with Wordsworth McAndrew's; or even better, with a poem like Lorrimer Alexander's ‘Moongazer’). When the bottom fell out of the (international) long-lined rhetorical world, there were only two possibilities: a development of the survival structures like ‘Death of a Slave’, or a reversion to sympathetic models. With his non-dialect literary education and instinct, the latter was perhaps the most certain choice for Martin Carter. It gave us the single voice crying from the pages of Jail Me Quickly :
And how to leap these sharp entanglements
or skirt this village of the angry streets?
How utter truth when falsehood is the truth?
How welcome dreams how flee the newest lie?67
Now, crossing the divide towards 50, Carter will begin to write his most difficult, probably his most beautiful poems; his—what he has in fact called—Poems of Suc- cession. 68 Not now from the hill of dawn, the running streets of noon, the afternoon of prison; but from the greenless, almost wordless wilderness itself:
Trying with words to purify disgust
I made a line I simply can't remember:
For hours now I've poked through memory
A desperate child in a jam-packed garbage can.
It should have been a line with nouns and verbs
Like truth and love and hope and happiness
But looking round it seems I was mistaken
To substitute a temple for a shop.
To see a shop and dream of holy temples
Is to expect a toad to sing a song.
And yet, who knows, someone may turn translator
When all these biped reptiles crawl again.69
In Savacou 3/4 (March 1971), there is even evidence of a return to the survival model:
In the premises of the tongue
dwells the anarchy of the ear;
in the chaos of the vision
resolution of the purpose.
And would shout it out differently
if it could be sounded plain;
But a mouth is always muzzled
by the food it eats to live.
Rain was the cause of roofs.
Birth was the cause beds.
But life is the question asking
what is the way to die.70
From this kind of utterness, most West Indian writers would have turned back from, or gone on into un/ peaceful silence. Carter's irake is that out of the existential residue of his illuminations, he is still creating stark from ash.
If these are riddles, riddles write themselves
And where we end no starting indicates:
Your eyes that sparkle teach me how to mourn
For all our deaths are certain as our births.
And making this today I test the burden
Then free myself, but not to weigh you down
What we call wings the birds can give no name
To heaven is their flight, on earth our sin.71
Or as he says in ‘Proem’ :
Not, in the saying of you, are you
said. Baffled and like a root
stopped by a stone you turn back questioning
the tree you feed. But what the leaves hear
is not what the roots ask. Inexhaustibly,
being at one time what was to be said
and at another time what has been said
the saying of you remains the living of you
never to be said …72
By any standard, despite the few qualifications one might retain, this is a major achievement: a poet writing so plain, so true, so nearly harshly peaceful, that conventional criticism hesitates (so little has been written on this man) for lack of models of procedure. Our critics deal with dance (the ‘life’ of the poem) or dancers (the poet as maker). But with Martin Carter, how can we know the dancer from the dance …
1. See George Campbell, First Poems (Kingston, 1945).
3. See H. M. Telemaque, ‘In our land’, In Caribbean Voices [: An Anthology of West Indian Poetry, Vol. 1—Dreams and Visions, Selected by John Figueroa; London: Evans Brothers, 1966.] p. 58 (1971), and other anthologies. See also some of the poems in Scarlet (Georgetown, 1953).
5. Derek Walcott, 25 Poems (Bridgetown, 1949) p. 19.
6. A. J. Seymour, The Guiana Book (Georgetown, 1948) p. 42.
7. Carter, The Hill of Fire Glows Red (British Guiana, 1951), p. 5.
8. Ibid., p. 3.
9. Ibid., p. 4.
10. Ibid., p. 9
11. Ibid., p. 11.
12. Ibid., p. 14.
13. Leo A. Despres, Cultural Pluralism and Nationalist Politics in British Guiana (Chicago, 1967), p. 4.
14. Introduction (p. 2), Poems of Resistance (London, 1954).
15. ‘Letter I’, Resistance, p. 10; all references are to the 2nd edition (1964).
16. ‘Letter 2’, ibid., p. 12.
17. ‘Letter 3’ ibid., p. 14.
18.The Kind Eagle and The Hidden Man, both published in Georgetown in 1952, are subtitled ‘Poems of prison’, and ‘Other poems of prison’, respectively. The pages of these books are unnumbered. Poems of Resistance was first published in London (1954) with an introduction by Sidney King (see above), and again in Georgetown (University of Guyana, 1964) with an introduction by Neville Dawes. It is interesting to note that Carter's first ‘Poems of prison’ were published a year—or so it seems—before he actually went to prison—unless, of course, there is an error in their dating.
19.Resistance, p. 21.
20. ‘I stretch my hand’, The Hidden Man (G'town 1952). There is no pagination.
21. ‘Who walks a pavement’, The Kind Eagle (G'town, 1952). There is no pagination.
22. ‘O where to hide’, ibid.
23. ‘No madness like this sanity’, The Hidden Man.
24.Resistance, p. 1.
25. ‘The kind eagle’ from The Kind Eagle; reprinted as ‘The knife of dawn’, Resistance, p. 16.
27.Resistance, p. 4.
28. Ibid., p. 5.
29. For Carter's discussion of the artist as victim in Caribbean society, see Man and Making—Victim and Vehicle, The Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures, Fourth Series, (Georgetown, October 1971)
30.Resistance, p. 16; the version in The Kind Eagle reads ‘drown not my pillar feet’.
31. ‘O human guide’, The Kind Eagle.
33.Resistance, p. 26.
35.Resistance, p. 17, my emphasis.
36. ‘The hidden man’; Resistance, p. 24.
37. Ibid., my emphasis.
38.Resistance, p. 3.
39. Ibid., p. 20.
42.The Hidden Man.
43. ‘Eagle’; Resistance, p. 18.
44.Resistance, pp. 6-7.
45. ‘Eagle’; Resistance, p. 18.
46.Resistance, p. 8.
47.Resistance, p. 6.
49.Resistance, p. 6.
51.Resistance, p. 2.
52.Hill, p. 10.
53. ‘The hidden man’; Resistance, p. 25.
55.Christophe (1963); Une saison au Congo (1966).
56. This essay was written before Carter's Poems of Succession (1977) which suggests that Carter was writing, though not publishing very much.
57. ‘Black Friday’, op. cit.
58.NWF [New World Fortnightly] (1966), p. 23.
59. ‘Black Friday’, op. cit.
60.NWF (1966), p. 25.
61.NWF (1966), p. 22.
62. W.B. Yeats Collected Poems (London 1952), p. 232.
63. Ibid., p. 211.
64. Ibid., p. 245.
65. ‘Conversations’, MS dated August 1965.
66. Yeats, op. cit., pp. 202-3.
67.NWF (1966), p. 23.
68. Martin Carter, Poems of Succession, New Beacon Books, POS 1977, 117 pp. This most welcome collection (appearing after this article was written) contains selections from nearly all Carter's published pamphlets and sequences: The Hill of Fire Glows Red (1951), The Kind Eagle (1952), ‘Returning’ (1953), Poems of Resistance (1954), ‘Poems of shape and motion’ (1955), ‘Conversations’ (1961), ‘Jail me quickly’ (1963), plus 41 poems written since 1963—representing some, but by no means all, and certainly not all the best of the poems that Carter has been writing recently. Also missing are selections from To a Dead Slave (1951) and The Hidden Man (1952).
69. ‘Conversations’, op. cit.: printed in Succession (p. 64) where Carter dates the sequence 1961 (cf. n. 64, above).
70. ‘Occasion’, Savacou 3/4 (1970/71), p. 171 In Succession (p. 85) the title is ‘The mouth is always muzzled.’
71. ‘Anonymous’, New World Quarterly, Guyana Independence Issue (1966),
72.Succession, p. 9.
Stewart Brown (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Brown, Stewart. "Introduction: The Poems Man." In Poems by Martin Carter, edited by Stewart Brown and Ian McDonald, pp. xiii-xxiv. Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean, 2006.
[In the essay that follows, Brown discusses the reasons why Carter's poetry has been largely inaccessible to readers outside the Caribbean.]
A poet cannot write for those who ask
Hardly himself even, except he lies:
Poems are written either for the dying
Or the unborn, no matter what we say.
("They Say I Am" )
Across the Caribbean, Martin Carter is regarded as one of the great poets of the region, one of those revered voices who have chronicled the journey from colonialism to independence, alongside such figures as Nicholas Guillen, Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite.1 That his work is hardly known outside the Caribbean is largely because of his early reputation as a ‘political poet’: he was interned by the British colonial authorities in the early 1950s for his involvement in the supposedly subversive actions of the first democratically elected, non-racial and idealistically socialist government in the Caribbean.
His poems of that period were published as Poems of Resistance from British Guiana in 1954 by the London socialist press Lawrence & Wishart. While a few of those early poems—‘I Come from the Nigger Yard’, ‘University of Hunger’, ‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’, and ‘On the Fourth Night of a Hunger Strike’ —have become classics of socialist literature, translated into several Eastern European and Asian languages, and are among the foundation stones of Caribbean poetry, his work has hardly been acknowledged in more general accounts of poetry in English. It was too easy for a lazy critic to settle for a version of Carter as the anti-colonial radical who swore to use his shirt ‘as a banner for the revolution’ and who consequently wrote ‘plain bad verse’—as one commentator asserted—putting his cause before the necessary craft of making poetry.2
Such a view of Martin Carter's poetry could not have been sustained by anyone even half-way seriously examining his work, even if they were restricted to the early pieces collected in Poems of Resistance. The linguistic cunning and rhythmical measure underpinning a poem such as ‘University of Hunger’, for example, contribute as much to its mesmeric power as poem, as do the ideas that drive it and the imagery that so haunts anyone who reads it:
is they who rose early in the morning
watching the moon die in the dawn.
is they who heard the shell blow and the
is they who had no voice in the emptiness
in the unbelievable
in the shadowless.
O long is the march of men and long is the life
and wide is the span.
One quality of that poetic language is its subtle use of a Guyanese creole construction—‘is they …’—a device which opens the poem up to all sorts of echoes and resonances.3 And while the written language of the poems never ventures far from standard English, that same cast and inflection of voice is evident in many of the later poems, helping to establish a verbal connection between the philosophical musings of ‘the poems man’—as one small girl dubs him—and the life of the society he speaks to and from. Indeed, looking at his work overall it is hard to think of a contemporary poet who showed more concern for craft, who measured his utterance with greater care, who thought more about the intricacies of the relationship between art and society, than Martin Carter. As he put it in his poem ‘Words’, written in 1957,
These poet words, nuggets out of corruption
or jewels dug from dung or speech from flesh.
Like many poets across the world writing in the teeth of political oppression and cultural disintegration, Carter knew the real value of words, knew that they might be both weapon and the means of spiritual survival; ‘the bread that lasts’, as Derek Walcott put it. But Carter also had a profound belief in the power of poetry to work at all sorts of levels and in all sorts of circumstances. Those famous poems-of-resistance—smuggled out of prison to be read aloud at political rallies, at trade union strike meetings, recited by crowds at popular demonstrations of dissent against colonial oppression—those poems acknowledged that particular context in their language and their form. Carter wrote them with a simplicity and directness that is not at all typical of his poetry as a whole, and while they remain crafted literary artefacts, they were liberated from the constraints of the library or the elite literary soirée—as he knew they would be—by their appropriation as orature, as a public poetry-of-resistance. Those poems—‘University of Hunger’, ‘I Come from the Nigger Yard’, ‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’ and the others that have been so often anthologised—not only bound Carter to his local audience—his comrades in struggle, transcending issues of class and race in that period of national crisis and outrage—but also established Carter as a figure of especial respect among Caribbean intellectuals generally, wherever they might have found themselves.
In 1992 Carter came to the UK to take part in an Arts Council-sponsored reading tour with other Guyanese writers based in Britain. At a packed reading in central London he read to an audience which included many exiled Guyanese—few of them, I'd guess, regular attenders of literary events. As he read from those poems, that audience began to recite them with him—not to read them from a book but to recite them from memory—they were there etched in the memory banks, a part of their being, fundamental to their identity as Guyanese people. And just as Martin Carter seems to have moved easily among the whole spectrum of the Guyanese people, from the most desperate to the most distinguished, so his poetry seems to speak across the race and class divisions that have so scarred Guyanese society. Few poets in our time, and fewer still writing in English, have made such an impact on the consciousness of a people.
And yet, as I say, in English his work is hardly acknowledged beyond the Caribbean. To be fair, access to Carter's poetry has always been a problem for would-be readers outside Guyana, for unlike so many colonial writers of his generation, Carter didn't migrate to the metropolis to pursue a literary career, he stayed in the Caribbean, in Guyana. As time went by he came to understand the full implications of the choice that had to be made, between leaving the region in order to find publishers, an audience, the possibility of commercial success—but at the cost of that sense of exile and alienation so many Caribbean writers of that period expressed—or to stay and feel his ambitions frustrated by the narrowness of life in a post-colony, the parochialism, the lack of a developed literary culture, the sense of being, as he puts it in one of his essays, ‘a displaced person’ in the very society he has stayed to serve. So when he writes that ‘The artist cannot change the nature of his fate: all he can do is endure it …’,4 we cannot but be conscious of the personal pain in that assertion. But to stay and write was to make a statement of commitment and integrity as a poet of—rather than simply from—Guyana.
Martin Carter was active in Guyanese politics one way and another throughout the forty years following his release from detention in 1954; disowned by and disowning in turn the two charismatic figures who dominated Guyanese politics in that period, Chedi Jagan and Forbes Burnham. He served for a while as Minister of Information in a Burnham government in the late sixties, at a moment when it seemed possible that a new, multicultural politics might be forged out of the old divisions, but that prospect proved illusory and he soon resigned, publishing a snarling poem which announced both his departure and his reasons:
And would shout it out differently
if it could be sounded plain;
But a mouth is always muzzled
by the food it eats to live.
("A Mouth Is Always Muzzled" )
Carter's natural position seemed to be on the margins of formal politics; an outspoken agitator, his poems spoke to—and for—the conscience of the nation. It was a dangerous position to fill: he was a friend of Walter Rodney, the Guyanese historian and radical activist murdered in 1980, and Carter was himself badly beaten when he joined a demonstration against the then government's attempts to manipulate the constitution to try and keep themselves in power. After those—and other, similar, events—Carter seemed to stand back somewhat from the public struggle. As Rupert Roopnarine, the Guyanese scholar and political analyst, put it, Carter
‘embraced the pure practice of poetry as the only available practice for a seeker of truth in an era of degradation. He turned inwards and so did the poems. In the end, the truth of craft was all.’5
All his writing life Martin Carter published primarily in local journals and newspapers, and for many years his work was available only in very fugitive, limited-circulation collections. As George Lamming has observed, Carter wasn't at all interested in self-promotion or fame, indeed, he seemed philosophical about the success or otherwise of his poetry in those terms to the point of complete indifference, trusting rather that time would sort the ‘true poems’ from the rest soon enough.6 The 1989 edition of his Selected Poems, again published in Guyana, quickly sold out and a revised second edition was published just a few months before Carter's death in 1997, by the Red Thread Women's Press in Georgetown. It is a beautifully made book, illuminated by two leading Guyanese artists, but even that is a hard book to lay hands on outside of Guyana.
The main aim of this volume, Poems by Martin Carter, is to make Carter's work available to a wider international audience, across the Caribbean and beyond. With one or two exceptions we have drawn our selection from the Red Thread edition of the Selected Poems, which Martin Carter read and approved, with the addition of a few poems which have come to light in the years since the poet's death. We have also organised the poems in the—approximate—order of their composition, insofar as dated versions of the poems are known to us.7
In many ways, that early fame or notoriety set a misleading burden on Carter's reputation. His later work, while it never lost its political edge, was more oblique and cerebral than the overtly political poems of his youth, seeming to have more in common with the—so called—magical-realism of many of his fellow South American poets than with the naturalism of much socially committed African-American and Caribbean poetry of the second half of the century. Carter's work represents a sustained poetic and philosophical process; the individual poems are part of a much more ambitious intellectual undertaking that went on throughout the poet's life. Consequently, his later poetry didn't really ‘fit’ in terms of the prevailing orthodoxies and has not been read with the attention it deserves, has not found the kind of publishers and audience that might have followed it if it had been translated from the Spanish, say, with Vallejo, Neruda and Paz. They are his contemporaries in every sense, his work is of that originality, force and stature.
is an old one. It is as old
as a petal or a flower
or the rain or the still air
of a child's wild guitar
shuddering in the silence
("Let Every Child Run Wild" )
With Poems by Martin Carter we are able to read a selection of Carter's best poems in the chronological order of their composition, reflecting the particular importance of locating the work of this poet in his time and place. At one level it is possible to read Martin Carter's poetry as a kind of testimony of despair, tracing a movement from the optimism and assertion of those early poems towards the world-weary meditations of his later years, when that dream had been shattered by the intrigues and disappointments of Guyana's post-colonial and post-independence struggles for survival as a nation. Faced with such a situation, it is perhaps not surprising that a poet of Carter's sensitivity should resort to a kind of personal code in shaping his responses—hence, perhaps, the perception that Carter's poems shift, over the course of his career, from the heart-on-sleeve accessibility of the early, optimistic poems to a more closed, cryptic kind of verse.8 There is no doubting Carter's despair over the betrayal of the possibilities that the end of colonial rule offered, or of his bitterness at the way Guyanese politics has been reduced to the self-mutilation of ethnic rivalry—the old colonial tactic of ‘divide and rule’ internalised and exaggerated for perceived short term advantage.
Carter understood, perhaps more profoundly than any of his literary contemporaries, the real depths of desperation and despair that was the lot of so many Guyanese people through the twentieth century. And that bitterness is certainly apparent in many of the later poems.
keep working for a storm, some
kind of fury to write new dates
in our vile calendar and book.
("Some Kind of Fury" )
But on reflection, and in the light of more attentive rereading that a substantial selection such as Poems by Martin Carter allows, it is clear that such a view of Carter's achievement is too simple, leaves too much out of account. Rather, Martin Carter's poetry offers its readers the chronicle of a life—in its many facets—committed to being, in Guyana, and traces the evolution of his commitment to the notion of social justice, beyond the contagions of racial politics, through the tumultuous period his seventy or so years spanned. The poems bear witness to the fundamental integrity which characterised so much of his practice as both a man-in-society and as a writer. They provide a kind of record of that fiercely intelligent, sternly poetic sensibility responding not only to the political turmoil but also to the personal and domestic claims on his emotions and energy—he wrote several beautiful love poems through his career—as well as to the spiritual and the elemental dimensions of life in Guyana.
Reading the poems across the span of this collection it is clear too that, beyond the despair and bitterness, there is an emphasis on the possibility of redemption through creativity. But that possibility of redemption depends, the poet insists, on the people taking responsibility for their own society, for their own futures. The later poems bear the evidence of that intense self-scrutiny in their pared down compression, in the pithy density of their language, in their lack of unnecessary ornament or dramatic pause. His poem ‘Rice’, for example, is much more than simply a complaint about rural poverty and exploitation.
What is rain for, if not rice
for an empty pot; and pot for
in a hungry village? The son
succeeds his father in a line
to count as he did, waiting,
adding the latest to the first
of his losses; his harvests
of quick wind padi …
Rather, the poem is a meditation on the cycle of life and death and the futility of that necessary struggle in the context of an elemental time scale. Guyana is a place of immense natural forces—the sea, the rainforest, the rivers, the distant mountains, even the power of the rain when it falls, and like most Guyanese writers, Carter was ever conscious of that contrast between the cruel grandeur of those elemental forces and the puny self-aggrandisement of mankind's ego. Martin Carter was a great poet, one who ‘dreamed to change the world’ but came to accept, as he put it in one of his last poems,
Here is where
I am, in a great geometry, between
a raft of ants and the green sight
of the freedom of a tree, made
of that same bitter wood.
("Bitter Wood" )
1. This Introduction is adapted from a memorial essay, ‘No voice in the emptiness: the poetry of Martin Carter’, which was first published in Planet: the Welsh Internationalist, Aberystwyth, no. 129, June 1998. In its current incarnation the essay has benefited greatly from the comments, corrections and creative input of Ian McDonald.
2. For a writer of such stature and reputation, sustained over so long a period, the serious criticism of Martin Carter's work has been sparse and, until recently, all of it scattered through limited-circulation literary magazines and Caribbean academic journals. In 2000, the Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press published All are Involved: the Art of Martin Carter (ed. S. Brown), a collection of essays and commentaries on Carter's work which draws much of that material together, alongside previously unpublished scholarship. Readers are also directed to two recent editions of the Guyanese literary journal Kyk-Over-Al, edited by Ian McDonald, which focus on aspects of Martin Carter's work:
no. 44, May 1993 is a special issue, guest-edited by Nigel Westmas, devoted to Martin Carter's prose.
no. 49/50, June 2000, ‘The Martin Carter Tribute’, which one commentator has described as being effectively ‘the biography of Martin Carter.’ It also includes a supplement to the ‘Martin Carter's Prose’ special issue, no. 44.
3. For a full—and brilliant—discussion of Carter's language in this poem, see Barbara Lalla's essay 'Conceptual Perspectives on Time and Timelessness in Martin Carter's 'University of Hunger" in All are Involved: the Art of Martin Carter, as above.
4. Martin Carter, in his essay ‘The Location of the Artist’ in Kyk-Over-Al no. 44, May 1993, p.111-112.
5. See Rupert Roopnarine, ‘Martin Carter and Politics’ in All are Involved: the Art of Martin Carter, as above.
7. The task of dating and checking the texts of Carter's poems was greatly facilitated by access—just before this volume went to press—to Dr Gemma Robinson's meticulous scholarship in the Notes to her scholarly edition of Martin Carter's Collected Poems and Selected Prose, University of Hunger (Bloodaxe, 2006). Previous editions of Carter's poems have organised them in the order of the publication of the collections in which they first appeared, even though some of those collections include poems that Carter had dated as belonging to an earlier decade. Where we have evidence of the precise date of a poem's composition—usually because the poet dated a manuscript and later included that date on a published version—we have retained and included that date at the foot of the poems printed in this edition. With other poems, the exact order of composition is harder to establish except within the parameters provided by the dates of publication of his collections, hence our careful assertion that the poems are laid out here in the approximate order of their composition.
8. In his brief essay ‘On Poetry’ first published in 1976, Carter suggests that any engagement with poetry involves a kind of code-breaking exercise, the mutual engagement of minds. See Kyk-Over-Al, no. 49/50, June 2000, p.122-3, in the ‘Martin Carter's Prose’ supplement, edited by Nigel Westmas.
Brown, Stewart, ed. All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter. Leeds, United Kingdom: Peepal Tree, 2000, 403 p.
Contains historical and political background essays, critical essays, memoirs, tributes, and poems written in remembrance of Carter. Contributors include Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, Stanley Greaves, Derek Walcott, and Janet Jagan.
Carter, Martin, and Fred D'Aguiar. "Martin Carter: 1927-1998 [sic]." In Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets, edited by Kwame Dawes, pp. 11-21. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
Interview revolving around Carter's ideas on such topics as poetics, his reputation in Guyana, and linguistics.
Robinson, Gemma. "‘If freedom writes no happier alphabet’: Martin Carter and Poetic Silence." Small Axe 15 (March 2004): 43-62.
Investigates Carter's "tendency toward silence" during the 1960s, focusing on the collections Conversations and Jail Me Quickly in order to ascertain the reasons behind this decrease in poetic activity.
Robinson, Jeffrey. "The Root and the Stone: The Rhetoric of Martin Carter's Poems of Succession." Journal of West Indian Literature 1, no. 1 (October 1986): 1-12.
Focuses on the "increasing concern … with the effects of time on words" expressed in Poems of Succession and how this concern affects the narrator's role as orator and creator of images.
Additional coverage of Carter's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Writers, Ed. 2; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 42; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; and Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.