McDonald, Ian (A.)
McDONALD, Ian (A.)
Nationality: Guyanese. Born: St. Augustine, Trinidad, 18 April 1933. Immigrated to Guyana in 1955. Education: Queen's Royal College, Trinidad, 1942–51; Cambridge University, 1951–55, B.A. (honors) in history, M.A. Family: Married Mary Angela Callender in 1984; three sons. Career: Chair, Demerara Publishers, Georgetown, 1988–94. Director of marketing and administration, 1976–99, and since 2000 chief executive officer, Sugar Association of the Caribbean. Since 1972 chair, Demerara Sugar Terminals, Georgetown; since 1981 director, Theatre Company of Guyana, Georgetown; joint editor, with A.J. Seymour, 1984–89, and since 1989 editor, Kyk-over-Al magazine. Director, Hand-in-Hand Fire and Life Insurance Company Ltd. Captain, West Indies Davis Cup Tennis Team, 1960s. Awards: Royal Society of Literature prize, for novel, 1969; Guyana National award, 1987. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1970; Guyana prize for literature (poetry), 1992, for Essequibo. D.Litt.: University of the West Indies, 1997. Address: c/o Sugar Association of the Caribbean, Demerara Sugar Terminal, River View Ruimveldt, Georgetown, Guyana.
Selected Poems. Georgetown, Labour Advocate, 1983.
Mercy Ward. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo, 1988.
Essequibo. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo, 1992.
Jaffo the Calypsonian. Leeds, Peepal Tree, 1994.
The Tramping Man (produced Georgetown, 1969). Included in A Time and a Season, edited by Errol Hill, Kingston, Jamaica, University of the West Indies, 1976.
Television Play: The Hummingbird Tree, adaptation of his own novel, 1992.
The Humming-Bird Tree. London, Heinemann, 1969.
Editor, AJS at 70: A Celebration on His 70th Birthday of the Life, Work, and Art of A.J. Seymour. Georgetown, Autoprint, 1984.
Editor, with Stewart Brown, Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry. London, Heinemann, 1992.
Editor, with others, They Came in Ships. Leeds, Peepal Tree, 1998.*
Bibliography: In Bibliography of Literature from Guyana by Robert E. McDowell, Arlington, Texas, Sable, 1975.
Ian McDonald comments:
Formal poetry is not just a minority taste; it is a miniminority indulgence in Caribbean society. There is no conception of what Pushkin was talking about when he wrote, "That hour is blessed when we meet a poet … he stands on a basis of equality with the powerful of the earth and the people bow down before him."
We inherited a society in which poetry was viewed with noncomprehension if not with scorn. It was the most discredited of the arts. As Arnold Bennett said, in English-speaking countries the word "poetry" disperses a crowd quicker than a fire hose. The breach between formal poetry and ordinary people widened until the divorce came to be accepted as a sort of law of nature.
And yet there can never be any doubt about the deep and abiding importance of poetry. Language is the most potent force in any society, and poetry is the purest form of language. When language in this purest form is neglected, soon language itself will be corrupted and perverted. When societies descend into such a condition, true poets find it hard to exist and, in despair, go into exile. Soon a vicious circle of corrupted society and poetry in exile begins to spin. Such a phenomenon is well known. What is less measurable is the incidence of internal exile arising from a cultural indifference to native creativity and contempt specifically for the art of writing poetry.
In this context of poetry endangered a way to get through to the ordinary person had to be discovered or rediscovered. Verse in "nation language," folk ballad, calypso, dub poetry, performance poems have accordingly emerged, and thank God for them all and their growing influence.
But as a "formal" poet myself I am uneasy in this realm of newly popular poetry. I desperately want Caribbean poets to close the gap between ordinary people and poetry. I hate the idea of poets in their ivory towers. I loathe the thought that nobody should learn and love poetry except poets themselves and teachers of poetry. But I am very doubtful that I myself can ever join the performance poetry bandwagon. So I hope my own poetry can somehow fit in somewhere between the "formal, unread" and the "fashionable, dub."
I want poetry to gain influence by telling truth, giving pleasure, and creating fascination. Like all art, poetry must be inextricably bound up with giving pleasure and stimulating the ordinary imagination. If a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience, he has lost the audience most worth having. I believe that profoundly. I cannot get out of my mind some lines written by Osip Mandelstam, that great poet who lived and died in difficult times:
The people need poetry that will be their own secret To* * *
keep them awake forever And bathe them in the bright-
haired wave Of its breathing.
Ian McDonald's creative work, which began while he was at Cambridge University in the 1950s, may be divided into his Trinidad phase (including Selected Poems and his novel, The Humming-Bird Tree) and his Guyana phase (he has worked there since leaving Cambridge in 1955). From the outset McDonald's poetry has revealed a remarkable consistency of style, a long-line conversational lyric, carrying along with it and expressing a sensibility of Matisse-like color and elegance of decor, under which there has always resided an intense appreciation for the outsider, the underperson, the psychological exile, and, in his second major book of poems, Mercy Ward, a compassionate concern for those who suffer in hospitals, hospices, and asylums. In 1984 he became joint editor—along with its founder, A.J. Seymour—of the literary periodical Kyk-over-Al, becoming the sole editor after Seymour's death in 1989.
Selected Poems contains most of the early classics—"Jaffo, the Calypsonian," "Yusman Ali, the Charcoal Seller," "Pineapple Woman," "Pelting Bees," "The Stick Fighters," and "Indian Love Statement":
Tassim loves her like an idiot, makes himself a saga boy,
Puts green cedar leaves to scent his clothes, sweetens his
hair with bay rum.
He makes sweet eyes at her all day and praises her
He does nothing practical and his only gift is sentiment.
I on the other hand am determined to make less brittle
love to her.
Though I am as I will be overall gentle I bring her not a
little pride and confidence.
Also I bring her faults: she knows the smell of my sweaty
armpits if I work hard
I do not hide it: cane-field sweat is good water.
Nor do I hide some roughness in my manners, being
unused to Tassim and his like.
Yet I bring her also gifts and assurances of love, a basket
A chaplet made of jumby beads, boxes of mother-of-pearl,
A parasol of rough blue cotton stemmed and ribbed
Beads, candied shaddocks, rings, everything I bring her in
But there are also relatively new poems, such as "Mais of Jamaica," "Son Asleep, Aged Six Months," "Colour Poem," "My Father's Prayer Book, Page 44," and a blind, hushed, inspired poem of great courtesy and love for Seymour, one of the great-grandfathers of Caribbean literature:
One night your poems were in my hands
And sudden as blindness in the room
The lamplight in the dark went out:
I was sightless in the poem's heart.
I sat there in the deepening night,
A half-moon slowly etched the trees,
The sea-wind slowly made its quiet sound.
I held your poems on my knee
And in my mind their cadence grew.
Gradually I heard them like waves that run
Driven by the wind against a far-off shore:
That restless whisper from when the world began,
That eternal sound that men have hungered for.
When Seymour died in December 1989, McDonald was with him almost to the end, and he concluded a memorial he wrote for him with these words (I recall part of it here since it is as much a poem as McDonald or any of us has ever written):
The last time I visited there was no recognition. I sat by his bed and called his name but there was nothing. He slept, his breathing laboured, his head wet with perspiration, an old, good man going to his death. I sat by him and held his hand for a long time. Sometimes there was life in his fingers and I looked to see if he would wake but he did not wake. I sat holding his hand with my memories of him until it was dark and I felt it was time to go. At first he had been like a father to me and later I had been like a son to him. I closed my eyes and dreamed and said a confused prayer … Now, half-dreaming, hand in hand, beside the old man who could not any longer speak his clear and shining lines, I sensed the greatness of his spirit come near enough to touch and move me one last time as the greater silence gathered like welcoming.
Mercy Ward, which appeared a year before this affecting song of praise, is one of the most moving documents produced by any writer of the Caribbean. Here are some fifty men and women facing death with fear, patience, panache, ache, and often courage—"The few deep breaths she takes /Seem precious things to do." The Essequibo River, sky, and mango trees and breathless memories run by outside their brilliant, ordinary, ended/ending lives:
The stroke stuns him into just a stare:
Mouth screams without a scream being there.
Neck muscles tighten, throat-apple thrums.
Plucks with fingers at his lips and tongue
To rip out songs or words or anything,
He strains and sweats to say a single word.
Paradise would be to let out half a cry...
More softly now,
On the brown, iron bedside table
She's dropped an old fan delicate as fern.
Ivory stems pinned with silver pins:
Torn yellow silk opening in between
Shows red plums on a tree with birds.
Lace gone black tatters on the spray of bone.
Sweetheart's gift now nearly all used up,
It lies abandoned, heirloom at its end.
Framed beyond all further composition
She'll never pick it up again it seems.
Glossy grape-skin once, now so raisin-withered,
Blue-veined, liver-freckled hand
Plucks weakly at the congealed sheet.
A nurse in passing senses what is wanted:
An ancient grace is reasserted.
How honourable are simple, well-learned ways!
>A practised gesture with a lovely thing
At once transforms the gesturer:
What gathered round this death's defeated,
What is brutal falls away,
Momentarily all's not lost.
Life's pattem knits up anew:
What's to come has been before,
What has gone may re-appear.
All's not settled, all's unsure:
The picture can be drawn again.
If only briefly, she fans the breathless air.
—Edward Kamau Brathwaite