The larger lesson of the Guyana Prize For Literature

It is an honour to have received in the awards for 2012 a Guyana Prize for Literature for my latest book of poetry, The Comfort of All Things, published by the Moray House Trust. This Prize is shared with a young poet Cassia Alphonso who received her award for an as yet unpublished collection of poems, Black Cake Mix. These poems are a delight to read and the promise of this young poet’s work is one of the highlights of these Guyana Prize awards – as is the extraordinary talent of Mosa Mathifa Telford who won the Drama Prize for her play Sauda.

And Ruel Johnson, who won the Prize for Fiction for his collection fictions, has followed up most satisfyingly the Guyana Prize he won earlier in his career for a First Book of Fiction. On being interviewed after that earlier award for his book Ariadne I remember him saying memorably, “I intend to write. I can’t see 20130922ianmyself doing anything other than writing; it’s impossible ….” Congratulations to this fine and innovative writer. He has continued in his quest to master the art of writing well. Long may he continue.

As for me, I could not be more honoured, and at 80 a little surprised, to get this distinguished award. A source of special pleasure for me is that I very much associate The Comfort of All Things with my wife, Mary – her love and support and interest in the book – so that I look upon this award as a joint prize between us. Her garden, which the book in part celebrates, is itself a collection of poems at least as well made as the book. In the book I try to capture a sense of the wonders and beauty of life which pass so quickly but nevertheless are not lost because memory retains them and then enables literature to relive and rejoice in them. A poem in the book seeks to tell of this fleeting eternity:

What It Was Like Once Forever

 

The perfect day is upon me.

I wake to see the gleaming salmon

spring in the dark river of the morning,

the wind full of sea-salt and garden-flower,

the trees brimming slowly with green.

Mongoose, snake-catcher, sleek as a seal,

darts out of sight: I give him a sharp salute

I give life a salute, the beauty it provides.

The day progresses well, people are well-disposed,

what is owed to business is efficiently transacted.

At home I leap heavenwards as high as I can,

not far but bravely done: my wife smiles,

she shakes her head, after all I am close to seventy-five.

There is no limit to our love,

even death will set no limit.

Our sons are content, healthy as snorting horses,

they will be coming soon.

I write this absurdly happy verse

to tell what it was like once forever.

 

The Guyana Prize for Literature has become an important national institution. In 1987 President Desmond Hoyte launched the Prize with these memorable words:

 

“It is not only good literature for its own sake that I feel we should celebrate – though that is important – but also recognition of good literature as a spur to making society as a whole aware of the importance of good writing and the effective use of language. We must give stature and status to our makers of words as we do to our makers of things.”

 

And then in 1992 the newly elected President Cheddi Jagan most emphatically reaffirmed the importance and continuation of the Prize – as indeed President Ramotar did in his speech at this year’s Awards ceremony.

 

The larger lesson of the Guyana Prize for Literature is not so much the rewarding of individual talent – though that certainly matters – as it is the encouragement of the habit of reading and understanding the English language and how to use it. What the Prize signals is that we have to improve the teaching of English in the schools, we have to renew a strong reading habit in the children, we have to get thousands of new books into the libraries and bookstores, we have to spread the realization that the ability to communicate clearly and comprehend without muddle is absolutely essential to the health and progress of any society.

 

Let us be clear what is at stake. It is not the production of great literature, though that can be a marvellous offshoot. The widespread ability to communicate clearly and concisely and to comprehend clear and concise communication is vital in the daily working lives of the farmer, the businessman, the engineer, the administrator, the chemist, the accountant, the agronomist, the banker and the thousand and one other movers and doers in society. In addition, the ordinary citizen simply functions better as a citizen if he has ingrained in him the fundamentals of good language. All men and women without exception benefit in the ordinary course of their lives from the ability to understand a logical argument, comprehend the exact meaning of words, and use language clearly in explaining things, describing events, and discussing his or her or the nation’s affairs.

 

There can be no doubt that the inability to use and understand language properly handicaps a person for life. Such a disability is far more serious than a deformed hand or leg or spine for instance. Hundreds of thousands of crippled, blind, and deaf people have made outstanding contributions to mankind. Not one person unable to comprehend clearly what is communicated or use language forcefully has ever made a mark in the world.

 

In Guyana today it is vital that this should be appreciated and action taken. Expenditure for the purpose would be repaid to the nation and our society a thousand times in the coming generations. In the end there is a Guyana Prize that everyone can aim at winning – it is literacy and the love of literature.

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