Two months before that, the 30th Annual West Indian Literature Conference was held at UWI St Augustine in Trinidad under the theme I Dream to Change the World: Literature and Social Transformation, taking its title from one of Carter’s many famous lines, “
I do not sleep to dream, but dream to change the world” from the poem ‘Looking At Your Hands‘ (1950s). That is the foremost international conference on West Indian literature, and the Carter line easily allowed papers on social transformation and the literature of the Caribbean. Not only is the man often described as Guyana’s “National Poet” associated with social transformation in his many works, but the world has found his poetry to be very quotable, and there are several lines that have been quoted and sloganeered for diverse causes.
His work was featured in performances attached to the conference, and many past editions of the meeting have had papers read by various scholars on Carter. Very appropriately, the definitive book on Carter in which Stewart Brown collected and edited the major critical publications on him, was launched at the 20th meeting of this same Annual Conference at the University of Guyana in 2000. This authoritative text, All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter (Peepal Tree, 2000) took as its title one of those oft quoted Carter phrases from the poem ‘You Are Involved‘ (“all are involved / all are consumed”). Both literary and political interests have found this particular line very attractive because of its reference to popular involvement in a political or social process; the concept of belonging to a community and accepting responsibility for its fate. Involvement means commitment, and participation suggests belonging and inseparability from the outcome. The notion of ‘consumption’ is Carter’s characteristic concern for the inevitable. Brown attaches the line to the volume as a typical Carterian concept as well as the fact that several different critics have contributed and are therefore involved in the publication, as much as they are in the making and completion of Carter’s poetry.
This I have learnt:
today a speck
tomorrow a hero
hero or monster
you are consumed!
Like a jig
shakes the loom;
like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!
Intertextual engagement with Carter has resulted in many other uses of his famous lines from which other titles have been framed because of this quotable quality and wide applicability. To all of those may be added the fact that the lines are striking poetic ways of expressing so many ideas relevant to human existence. They are profound, but also seem to speak for many political causes. Critic Gordon Rohlehr used ‘A Carrion Time‘ as his title in an article first published in Tapia (now known as Trinidad and Tobago Review) in the early 1970s as a response to the initial negative reaction to the rise of new unconventional and radical poetic forms in the Caribbean. Rohlehr turned to Carter again for the title of his collection of essays My Strangled City (Longman, 1992). The film by Rupert Roopnaraine, The Terror and the Time, was inspired by ‘The University of Hunger‘ (“the grave of pride / the sudden flight / the terror and the time”); and Grace Nichols looked to ‘Black Friday 1962‘ when naming her novel Whole of A Morning Sky (1986). Both novel and poem reflect on the violence and riots of 1962 in Georgetown which Carter expresses in one of his subtle uses of Creole syntax.
Was a day that had to come,
ever since the whole of a morning sky,
glowed red liker glory,
over the tops of houses.
Nichols draws on that haunting image of a “strangled city” on fire with its tragic scarlet reflection on the wide arch of the firmament painted in Carter’s grim lines. Endlessly have other lines been borrowed and repeated like proverbs: “but a mouth is always muzzled by the food it eats to live”; and “death must not find us thinking that we die” (from ‘Death of A Comrade‘).
The Moray House Trust is as much a dedication to the memory and work of David de Caires as its launching was dedicated to Martin Carter. de Caires probably loved the arts and culture more than law, and published, edited, read, studied and promoted poetry. Carter was among his chief comrades in arms, a poet whom he deeply admired, and together they were among the usual conspiratorial suspects in many years of poetry readings and literary discussions. Doreen de Caires, a trustee of Moray House, read from her husband’s notes which included a tribute to Carter. Actually, the notes contain the same material either published or orally presented by de Caires about the now legendary readings and discussions of poetry in sessions sanctified by the libations of gallons of Demerara’s finest rum. Both the spirit(s) and the quality of this rum have been famously confirmed by good authority. Such sessions must have been going on for many decades since Edgar Mittelholzer has immortalised them in poetry since the 1930s; and they continued in contemporary times since Stewart Brown has canonised them with similar immortality in Tourist, Traveler, Troublemaker (Peepal Tree, 2008).
Carter’s involvement in the discussions may be regarded as a part of his contribution to the national literary development. There is evidence that that kind of activity had its part to play and continued with the involvement of other poets – Donald Trotman, AJ Seymour, the PEN Club and Syble Douglas. The Irish, and indeed international, poet WB Yeats has been repeatedly mentioned as an inspiration to Carter and Wilson Harris, who was also a member of the discussion groups, and has written of the importance of Yeats to Carter. de Caires’ accounts have named him as Carter’s favourite poet and his ‘Among School Children‘ as, according to Carter, the best ever written. That claim is dubious, but it is not difficult to recognise the quality in Yeats that would have appealed to Carter, and this quality with its startling Yeatsian images and phrases is contained in the closing lines from the poem.
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
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?
(WB Yeats, Among School Children)
This kind of spiritual involvement ponders the inseparability of leaf, blossom and tree, which define each other. The same interdependent symbiosis is transferred to the dancer’s body and the music; the dancer and the dance. The last line contains a pun: how can we tell the difference between the dancer and the dance; but also, how can we know anything about the dancer by looking at the dance? Carter’s poetry is much involved in this kind of integral questioning. The sentiments of the 60-year-old Yeats as he moves among the children recall Carter’s on his encounter with a 12-year-old girl on a road in rural Guyana in ‘The Poems Man,‘ a poem that has now become so very popular that Carter is known by the name.
Look, look, she cried, the poems man,
running across the frail bridge
of her innocence. Into what house
will she go? Into what guilt will
that bridge lead? I
the man she called out at
and she, hardly twelve
meet in the middle, she going
her way; I coming from mine:
The middle where we meet
is not the place to stop.
The poem contains something of Carter’s subtle use of the syntax of the Creole language in the girl’s use of “poems man” for “poet” and Carter’s own “I the man she called out at”; “I coming from mine” and “the place to stop,” which includes the Guyanese usage of “stop.” There is that proletarian quality in the poem, which includes the poet’s surprise at being recognised in these unlikely circumstances. But there is also the concerns which the poem shares with Yeats: the meeting of age and youth on a symbolic bridge with suggestions of distance, links, time and continuity.
The other Yeatsian connections include the work of both poets in national developments in their own times and places. Yeats was in sympathy with and had friends among the rebels in Ireland’s war for independence against the British in the first two decades of the twentieth century. He was also a statesman, serving as a Senator in the Irish government. Carter’s history in Guyanese politics is well known as a rebel imprisoned for his war against the British occupation in 1953, as a member of the PPP in the fifties, as a Minister in Burnham’s cabinet 1967-1970; his resignation from that post and his demonstrations against the PNC which led to him being beaten in the streets.
But an important part of that history is the contributions he made to cultural and political consciousness while working closely with Janet Jagan and his prose writings in Thunder. When he was later employed by Bookers, he secretly continued under the pseudonym ‘M Black.‘ In these writings may be found some of Carter’s profound thoughts on culture and nationhood, two short stories and (separately) his contemplations on poetry, form and metaphysics in the group Poems of Shape and Motion (1955).
His contribution to nation-building is deep and varied in public, private and artistic capacities. It has often been said that a poet of this depth and quality should have had wider international acclaim, and for several years his books were out of print and access to his work limited. Included in the tributes paid to him since is the way this work has been several times reprinted and spread abroad. Among these re-publications have been Selected Poems (1989) by Demerara Publishers, reprinted by Red Thread in 1997; collections edited and republished by the University of Warwick with Spanish translations, edited by Gemma Robinson and published by Bloodaxe; with yet another edition by Stewart Brown and Ian McDonald, published by Macmillan Caribbean in 2006.