Apart from ER Braithwaite, June is also the month in which another Guyanese writer was born. In this case it is a poet and a major writer who, although he has held other jobs and played other roles at a national level, his career was emphatically focused on poetry. As an artist he was the essential poet whose thought, intellect, social, political and human concerns were as much defined by poetry as they were defining influences upon it.
Martin Wylde Carter (1927-1997) is acknowledged as Guyana’s greatest poet to date, and one of the major and most important writers of the Caribbean. He was born in Georgetown on June 7, and during this month the Department of Culture in Guyana is celebrating his 85th anniversary with The Martin Carter Memorial Lecture Series. On Thursday June 28 at 5.30 pm in the Umana Yana the 2012 Martin Carter Lecture will be delivered by Dr Rupert Roopnaraine on the subject “From The Terror and the Time (1976) to the Poetry Notebooks (2002): Encountering Martin Carter.” The reference in the topic to The Terror and the Time is linked to a film with that name produced by The Victor Jara Collective in 1976 commenting on the human condition in Guyana placed in and arising from the political history of the Guyanese labouring people. It highlights the struggles and focuses on 1953.
The film itself borrows its title from Carter. It is taken from a line in University of Hunger – “they come treading in the hoofmarks of the mule / passing the ancient bridge / the grave of pride / the sudden flight / the terror and the time.” The poem draws from the experiences and suffering of the proletariat embodied in the long “march of men” on ardurous journeys through the poem’s harsh and searing imagery. It draws a tragic picture of “they who rose early in the morning / watching the moon die in the dawn.” This moon “dying” at dayclean to make way for the day which only brings further torturous labour for those in the university of hunger and want links this poem to another with similar references.
That poem is Cartman of Dayclean which focuses on the labours of a cartman travelling in his daily work from very early in the morning. The film begins with this cart on its journey against a soundtrack of Carter reading the poem, playing on images suggested by the poem and explored by the camera. Prominent among those images is the recurrent symbol of the wheels of the draycart turning their slow revolutions. The poem’s title is significant because it reflects Carter’s well known use of Guyanese creole syntax in deceptive looking Standard English poems like University of Hunger. The word ‘dayclean’ is Guyanese English for the first light of dawn. It is at that punishingly early hour that workers like the cartman have to be out and about, and both poem and film project him as a symbol of proletarian toil. The use of dayclean rather than an English equivalent is in keeping with the language of the people on whom the poem dwells.
Carter’s poetry treats a wide range of varying subjects but he is known for his “profoundly humanist standpoint” and his proletarian consciousness. His career as a poet in the 1950s was closely allied to his political work, which many have used to label and limit him. But the poet himself was able to translate that into a universal concern for humanity and the tragic world that is man’s strangled environment. He lived the struggle and lived his poetry so that the meaning in his declaration “I am this poem like a sacrifice” rings true of his life with the relevant applicability of poems which are “the question[s] asking what is the way to live.”
To say that poetry was his life or his life was poetry is not the usual cliché; it is true. This is illustrated not only in the way he integrated it into his political activity but in his thought processes and cosmic outlook. He explained the difference between poetry and prose to students at the University of Guyana where he was Writer in Residence (1976-1979) and Senior Research Fellow (1980-1997) thus: “prose begins to continue, but poetry continues to begin.” The meaning of this cryptic definition is profoundly articulated in his poetry of which Proem is among the best examples. “Not in the saying of you are you / said.”; “the saying of you remains the living of you / never to be said.”; and “ever yourself, you are always about / to be yourself in something else ever with me.”
Those express the infinite rehearsals of the writing and reading of poetry; the several dynamic relationships between the poet and his audience, between the poet and his verse, and between the poetry and the audience. It is about language. Poetry uses a language described in stylistics as the most advanced and complex use of language. It is not linear (like expository prose often is) it engages the intellect and it is not always easy to tell where it begins and ends. One finds this statement about poetry in WH Auden, in WB Yeats as in Mark McWatt.
There are two other elements of Carter’s poetry associated with his approach to poetry and his public activities which have never been separated throughout his life. These are (again) his concept of poetry and his politics. Carter explained that he does not like to publish single poems since he always feels poems are better surrounded by other poems. He practised this consistently, and the way he released poems in groups and miniature collections may often be linked to the context of his relation to public life.
The University of Guyana Library has compiled a document setting out all Carter’s very early poems published in different issues of Kyk-Over-Al stretching from the entire decade of the fifties to the final set published in his lifetime including ‘Bitter Wood’ and ‘A Conjunction’ which appear in the Red Thread edition of Selected Poems (1997) to the final group published after his death in Kyk 49/50 in 2000. These are documented as well by Stewart Brown and Ian McDonald in Poems by Martin Carter (Macmillan Caribbean, 2006) and include the known collections that he published since the launch of his career in 1951. By that time he was active in political life having associated himself with the PAC and later the PPP. He released the groups: The Hill of Fire Glows Red (Miniature Poets Series, 1951); The Kind Eagle (Poems of Prison) (1952); The Hidden Man (Other Poems of Prison) (1952); Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1954); Three Poems of Shape and Motion: a sequence (Kyk-Over-Al, no. 20, 1955); Conversations (Kyk-Over-Al, no. 28, 1961); Jail Me Quickly: five poems (1966); Poems of Succession (New Beacon Books, London, 1977); Poems of Resistance (University of Guyana, 1966); Poems of Resistance (Release Publications, 1979); Poems of Affinity 1978-80 (Release Publications, 1980); Selected Poems (Demerara Publishers, 1989, winner of The Guyana Prize); Selected Poems (Red Thread Women’s Press, 1997); poems first published in Kyk-Over-Al, no. 49/50, 2000); Martin Carter Poems (Caribbean Press); University of Hunger (Bloodaxe Books, London).
During the period when he was most active in the political and public arena throughout the 1950s Carter also published most of his prose pieces in the PPP theoretical organ Thunder at most times edited by Janet Jagan, but in which Carter did quite a bit of editorial work. These were mainly analytical on subjects of politics, public affairs and culture. Included in this collection are two short stories, the only ones known to have been written by Carter. There was even a touch of humour as he published a piece titled Wanted – A Political Obeahman. Following the appearance of this Carter relates that a man walked into his office one afternoon, introduced himself and said “I is the man that you want.”
After he parted company with the PPP Carter took a job as Public Relations Officer and editor of the newsletter for the Bookers Company. This meant he could no longer be associated with Thunder. But he did not cease writing articles for some time after since he still made his contributions under the pseudonym ‘M. Black.’ Outside of Thunder, the only publication of Carter’s prose is Kyk-Over-Al no 44, 1993 – The Martin Carter Prose Sampler edited by Nigel Westmaas.
One of Martin Carter’s legacies not popularly known is his association with the founding of Carifesta. While he was Minister of Information in the PNC government, he presided over the series of meetings attended by several of the leading artists, musicians, writers and theatre personalities from around the Caribbean who were invited for a conference in Georgetown. Carifesta was planned during those discussions in 1970. But it was his last act in government since he resigned soon after. It was assumed that he had published the poem ‘A Mouth Is Always Muzzled‘ in order to explain why he had to resign. Carter said that was not accurate. He had written the poem some time before, and given a copy to journalist Rickey Singh.
It was Singh who published the poem. Carter never published single poems; he only released poems in groups.