The Arts: Martin Carter: Enigma of Poetry and Transmission of Memory

Several weeks ago, I was invited to meet some students who had volunteered to serve as tutors for the recently established writing centre at the Belmopan campus of the University of Belize. It was an opportunity to engage intellectually with students at the University in a way that I have not done since being appointed its President in 2011. During the ensuing conversation I suggested to the student-tutors that it is important to think about the complexity of writing as a craft and as a vocation.

As the conversation evolved, I encouraged the students to explore the multiple images recorded in the line – and hair was a mass of fire! – from Martin Carter’s powerfully evocative poem Black Friday 1962. That poem captures the emotional intensity of a riot that has proven to be a watershed in modern Guyanese and Caribbean political life. It was the day that the demons unleashed by the mobilization of race and ideology among political leaders shattered – for more than a generation – the ability of Guyana to forge a vision of a social contract that could encompass the broad range of intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity that had shaped the history of the British colony prior to February 1962.

The students grappled with the religious, political and artistic dimensions of that cryptic line and the discussion helped them to explore the power of creative writing as a prism for social analysis. We discussed the use of “hair” as a play on the word “here” – meaning Georgetown – as a city dominated by wooden structures, many of which were consumed by fire as the riot erupted and spread. However, it also conveys the image of flames shooting into the sky and creating the impression of an unkempt mass of hair against the backdrop of rising smoke. Further, it can be interpreted as a metaphor for the inflamed passions that drove “hotheads” into a pitch of unprecedented violence in Guyana’s political life.

The use of the term “mass” captured both the image of unruly crowds surging through the streets and was an allusion to the political and religious fervour that drove the country into an era of violent political struggle. The riots exposed the deep cleavages between the Hindu and Muslim communities of “Indian” origin that supported the People’s Progressive Party and the primarily Christian dominated communities of African and European (Portuguese/Catholic) origin that populated the ranks of its opponents – the People’s National Congress and the United Force.

Finally, “fire” represented the destructive power unleashed in 1962 – a metaphoric descent into the political inferno for the entire society. However, the fire may also represent Carter’s effort to convey the image of a ritual of political cleansing that sought to push the People’s Progressive Party out of office – a party with which he had been associated for several years. These multiple layers within a single line of the poem speak to the need to encourage our students to grapple with the complexity of Caribbean life and the ambiguities to which we are all heirs.

Martin Carter was a very complex poet and essayist and his death on December 13, 1997 marked the passing of an intellectual giant among creative writers of the nationalist era in the English-speaking Caribbean. In exploring that remarkable line from his poem with young University students in Belize, I was constrained to acknowledge anew his creative genius. Carter was a poet whose work encapsulates history, sociology, and politics. He left us a legacy of creative complexity and as we approach the 17th anniversary of his passing from among us, we should recognize the enigma of his poetry was a reflection of his clarity of vision and insight into the psyche of the Caribbean.


Cary Fraser

 Reprinted from The Caribbean Review – Lloyd Best Institute, November 22, 2013

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