Last week we highlighted contributions to the celebration of the life and work of Martin Carter and to the rememberance of the poet. The text below is taken from ‘Why Re-Celebrate Martin Carter?’ by Al Creighton presented as the Introduction to the programme ‘An Evening of Poetry, Prose and Music’ at Castellani House December 17, 2008.
This evening we are assembled here to celebrate the life and work of Martin Carter. Every year in December and even at other times of the year these programmes of tribute and remembrance are held, so that this occasion can be best described as yet another re-celebration of the poet. Since it is done so repeatedly, the question might then arise, why do we practise these re-celebrations? The answer that comes easily is that it is possible to do it because Carter is so very celebratable; he speaks to many different situations, he is easily identified with and is so very quotable. Many phrases and lines from his work are used as titles to papers, books and films.
Martin Carter and his work lend themselves to these re-celebrations because of their outstanding qualities. Carter’s work stands out and is inexhaustible, making it possible for us to engage it on these several occasions without repeating ourselves. The reasons for this are almost as inexhaustible as the work itself, and are best described by its very quotable lines. Carter speaks for himself as much as he speaks for all poetry in his dialogue with himself, his poem and his audience in the work which he titles ‘Proem.’ He addresses the continuing, endless experience of engagement; a dynamic relationship between the poet and the poem, between the poem and its audience, the audience and the poet.
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
The title ‘Proem’ and the lines provoke different interpretations of the changing yet enduring qualities of the poetry strikingly characteristic of Carter.
There are several reasons for this. The profound intellectual engagement that his poems invite, which is also a profound artistic engagement; he is a ‘poet’s poet’; his use of language; his occasional use of eroticism; his lineation; his proletarian ideology; the closeness between his verse and his biography; and the sacrificial element found in both man and verse.
Three outstanding metaphysical writers may be found in Guyanese literature. There are others in whose work this is to be found, but the metaphysical quality is a remarkable characteristic in the work of these three. The first and most obvious is Wilson Harris whose exceptional originality thrives on the interplay of the scientific, the physical, the spiritual and the utter corruption of linear time. Another is Mark McWatt in the startling rediscoveries of meaning and explorations of the mind in his ‘interiors’; fresh images observed in physical elements of the landscape. The third is Carter because of the quality of the intellectual engagement exemplified by his “root stopped by a stone” which “turn(s) back questioning” and by his magnets, his instruments and the rainforest in the poem ‘I Am No Soldier.’
Stanley Greaves has commented on the symbiotic partnership between art and the intellect. There tends to be a notion that some subjects such as art in secondary school are for the academically ungifted, but at Queen’s College where he taught art, he found that the best students who excelled at art were the same who excelled at physics or history. In Carter one encounters a depth of intellectual interrogation that is at one with his profound artistic engagement. These become evident when one examines others of his enduring essential qualities such as his very carefully considered use of language and those factors that make him ‘a poet’s poet.’
I am forever intrigued by the word ‘painterly’ that art critics often use. Whenever I hear or read one of them describing an artist or a painting as ‘painterly,’ I spend several minutes trying to work out the meaning of the term. But I regard it as parallel in meaning to the phrase ‘poet’s poet.’ It has become something of a cliché because it is an easy catch phrase commonly and loosely used. However, it very appropriately describes Carter and covers several of his qualities including the nature and process of his thought and the way he uses language and metaphors. This very ‘poetic’ thought process is one of the many factors that make his poetry exceptional and so very appealing. One of Carter’s explanations of the difference between poetry and prose is that “prose begins to continue, but poetry continues to begin.” This immediately recalls ‘Proem’ and the forces of continual change in a poem. “[Y]ou are always about to be yourself in something else ever with me”; the inexhaustible re-beginnings, changes and new rediscoveries that sustains this unending interest in Carter’s work.
In continuing his cryptic definitions, Carter explains his approach to language which also has much to do with the difference between the linear prosaic and the abstract, unpredictable non-conformist poetic. Someone filling out a crossword puzzle has a linear, unproblematic attitude to words, as Carter explains. “They approach words and go so,” he says, extending his outstretched palm in a gesture straight before him. “But I approach words and go so,” he adjoins, suddenly breaking off the direction of his hand in a crooked gesture veering off in a sharp detour.
The unusual and the radical contribute to the ever fresh and the curious in the verse of this writer and some of the odd characteristics that help to sustain a fascination that attracts so many to his work. His lineation is invariably carefully crafted, and moves stride for stride with his linguistic thought. Several of his lines seem built on opposites, a balance of paradoxical statements. They are constructed in a way reminiscent of mediaeval poetry, each line divided into two balancing/contrasting halves with a caesura, a break in the line, in the middle. For example, “A mouth is always muzzled by the food it eats to live,” has two contradictory concepts in either half of the line. A similar construct exists in “the shining sun is hidden in the sky” and “it is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.”
This curious quality continues in Carter’s occasional employment of mild eroticism, engaged with a depth of meaning. In one of his love poems he refers to “your obscene hair” which serves a purpose of uninhibited intimacy, while in other instances he applies it along with a sense of shock. There are times when the poet expresses consternation at human behaviour as in the poem ‘Bastille Day’ and his disbelief at the senseless, callous and unprofitable murder of Father Darke. Another series of events that severely tested the poet’s belief in human nature was the CIA inflamed racial civil war of the early 1960s. The poet swears in his expression of shock by “all origins of creation, whores and virgins” and does so “with a hand upon a groin,/swearing this way, since other ways are false!” Carter’s choice of language is often the main vehicle that carries the impact of his profound intellectual and artistic engagement, always rounding off the perfection of his metaphors. In ‘Black Friday 1962’ he notes “on the rooftops of the city” where “I see the vultures practising to wait.” Any other poet might have been satisfied with seeing the vultures waiting for the killings to take place, but Carter gives the wait an extra incremental edge by having the birds of death practising to wait. This rehearsal is a cynical act as if the vultures know that they just have to wait for mankind to “murder mattie” as is inevitable in this racial slaughter. In another of his poems, “men murder men, as men must murder men to build their shining cities of the damned.”
In another poem belonging to the same group as ‘Black Friday,’ this profound completeness of linguistic conceptualisation is also evident. He calls the group Jail Me Quickly, and in one of the poems there is the exclamation “So jail me quickly, clang the illiterate door/if freedom writes no happier alphabet.” He is again expressing shock at what passes for freedom; he rejects it and says if that is freedom, then he prefers imprisonment. He employs a metaphor of language. The door is insensitive to anything like freedom or any emotion for that matter, so it is illiterate, incapable of words, so the only thing it can articulate is a noise “clang.” But “clang” is also onomatopoeia for the sound made by the slamming prison door. The closeness of the linguistic engagement continues into the next line where there is the notion of freedom “writing” an “alphabet.”
Language goes on, in Carter’s poetry, to be an ally of other reasons why the work is continually capable of re-celebration. It works along with the closeness of his poetry with his biography and his proletarian ideology. Take for example, ‘The Poems Man’ in which the poet meets a 12-year-old girl in the middle of a bridge who calls out “look the poems man.” It seems a village or proletarian setting with a girl whose Creole construct translates the word ‘poet’ with its ring of academia into “poems man,” a man who makes poetry (and probably sells it). Yet she is able to recognise and identify with him as a poet. It is the ideology which has helped to lead many to tag Carter with the misnomer of ‘political poet’ (which he is, but not in the way they think). It is the ideology that inspired Sidney King (Eusi Kwayana) to describe Carter as writing “from the profoundly humanist standpoint of the communist.”
Indeed, this poet’s ideology caused his close association with the PPP in the fifties and the political stands he maintained thereafter. It is the ideology that influenced his thought and the way he seemed to repeatedly offer up himself as a sacrifice. He writes very early in his career “I am no soldier with a cold gun on my shoulder./I am my poem, I come to you in particular gladness” and “I am this poem like a sacrifice.” This caused him to put himself in mortal danger demonstrating on the street against the PNC atrocities and being subjected to a severe beating by thugs outside Parliament Buildings. Ironically, the poem he wrote in direct response to this was fairly bad, which is perhaps why he never published it. This sacrificial tendency recurred at the time when many were worried about him because of his drinking. There was some inward disturbance as if he was consuming himself through drink since he felt a part of “the nature of our vileness” and “all are involved, all are consumed.” He had the strength, however, to recover from that phase.
Carter has said that he never published single poems. He felt that poems must be surrounded by other poems and, indeed, from the group The Hill of Fire Glows Red, since 1951 he has been releasing groups of poems even up to Four Poems and Demerara Nigger in the 1990s. This sense of wholeness characterises the way several elements work together to make Carter’s poetry unforgettable. “All the instruments we have agree” according to Auden, that Martin Carter is infinitely celebratable and outstanding as an individual and as a writer.