20101003artsonsunday  The Guyanese Alphabet

A             for the great Arapaima

River fish that’s as tall as a man,

B             for the bauxite that’s later

As bright as a pot or a pan.

 

C             for the swimming camoudi

That can sleep in a coil in a tree,

 

D             for the brown Demerara

That tumbles its way to the sea,

 

E              for the famed El Dorado,

A place, or a King, as you care,

 

F              for the well-beloved Foo-Foo

A dish that’s an Emperor’s fare.

 

G             is for greenheart, the hard wood

Defying both ocean and time,

 

H             for the rare bird Hoatzin

The Canje Pheasant in rhyme.

 

I               for the darting Iguana

As green as a coconut tree,

 

J              for jamoon, purple berry

As acidly sweet as can be.

 

K             is for koker, the doors of canals

To let down and keep out the tide,

 

L              is labba, that brings again strangers

To eat this dish by our side.

 

M            for Manatee, grass-eating mermaid

She swims up when you whistle to her,

 

N             for Nibi that grows in the country

You can turn it to fine furniture.

 

O             we put aside obeah, ol’higue,

And selected the useful ochroe.

 

P             is the ragged old-time porkknocker

Where the gold is, or diamonds, he’ll go.

 

Q             for queh-queh, the songs and the dances

They sing when a marriage is soon,

 

R             Roraima, our boundary mountain

For three nations under the moon.

 

S              for stelling, Dutch name for wharf

Where ships come alongside for trade,

 

T              for Trade-wind, the North East blowing,

A cool blessing for sun or shade.

 

U             for Utshi, a waterfall sighted

So long and wide, they say,

 

V             the wide Victoria Regia

That awakes with the change of the day.

 

W            the Warraus are a nation of hunters

There are many tales of these men

 

X             in Buxton, the premier village

They excel both with tongue and with pen.

 

Y              is yam, satisfying our hunger

To be grown in our gardens at home

 

Z              for Zeb grass, whose lovely blue flower

Brings back our minds, where e’re we roam.

A J Seymour

The poem “The Guyanese Alphabet” appears in A Treasury of Guyanese Poetry (1980) edited by A J Seymour. It is a poem of uncertain date, written by Seymour, although oral accounts place it in the 1960s and definitely identify it as a poem that was in circulation in 1966 at Independence time in Guyana. Those accounts say the poem was used in schools and recited in choral speaking performances.

No doubt teachers would have found it useful for that performance purpose because of its oral qualities. But its patriotic subject and sense of national pride would also have greatly increased its appeal as an independence poem.

Guyana’s Independence Anniversary is now very topical and has prompted the excavation of this forgotten but significant poem. It can be placed as a song of Independence for Guyana and one that can draw some pertinent commentary. It may be placed in the category of a number of national verses that may be held up at this time as flag bearers – as Independence verses at the time of the nation’s Golden Jubilee.

In this category, Dave Martins’ “Not A Blade of Grass” may be invoked alongside “The Guyanese Alphabet”. The two belong to the same category as “love of country songs” (a description used by Dave Martins), but they are not in the same class. The Martins song is evergreen, eloquently remembered and often waved as a second unofficial national anthem, while the Seymour poem has been forgotten and while it belongs to that “treasury of Guyanese poetry” it is not such an outstanding gem as a poem.

Other verses will include “O Beautiful Guyana” by Walter McLawrence along with a host of other songs of Guyana like “Song of Guyana’s Children” and verses written by Cyril (RCG) Potter, author of the words for the national anthem. Other songs like Hilton Hemerding’s “Beautiful Guyana” tell of the natural assets, minerals, landscape, the romanticism and experiences that make the country beautiful, just as “The Guyanese Alphabet” does. Beside that one may place “O Kamarang Swift Flowing Kamarang” which was written in the style of the Guyanese pork-knockers songs, but trumpeting the natural beauty of the waterfalls.

“The Guyanese Alphabet” merits unearthing and remembering as one of those kinds of poems – patriotic, descriptive, landscape lauding and nationalistic. But in the larger scheme of national literature it is worth mentioning for the place it holds when one looks over the literature of nationalism and nationhood that was important in 1966 and which was a part of a long march of the nation’s poetry from colonial times to a movement that progressed for several years after 1966.

AJ (Arthur James) Seymour was very much central to that. He was a prime mover in Guyanese poetry from the time it was acquiring its own national quality and identity in the 1940s.

There was a pre-Independence nationalist movement as strongly reflected in the poetry as it was in the political affairs of the colony. Seymour’s cultural activism, his criticisms and accounts of a developing West Indian literature, and his proposals of what may constitute national/Caribbean literature were all more important and impactful than his poems. This is supported by the attention given to him by Edward Baugh in West Indian Poetry 1900 – 1970. Baugh obviously recognised his efforts as a contribution to the many attempts to try to define West Indian poetry even though his conclusions did not meet Baugh’s approval.

Seymour was certainly exceedingly prolific in writing accounts of the developing Guianese literature, in anthologising, editing and publishing. But his truly great contribution was in the founding and editing of Kyk-Over-Al starting in 1945. Seymour and that journal (or little magazine) certainly provided a companion for the growing authors such as Wilson Harris and Martin Carter. After earlier movements such as the still imitative Walter McA Lawrence, Peter and Joseph Ruhomon, a number of other poets were a part of those who were achieving a recognisable national identity.

 

Modern Guyanese literature started with Leo (Egbert Martin) in 1890, but there was still a long imitative period before the advance of the 1950s of the force of nationalist pre-Independence verse. Clearly outstripping them all at that time was Carter who was already a voice of his own, but that national element in the poetry was sustained by the work of Seymour.

As a poet himself, the Kyk-Over-Al editor and commentator would have felt a duty to provide poems that also drove the independence spirit and proclaimed the nation. “The Guyanese Alphabet” was clearly one of those. We have already compared it with a number of songs, foremost among them being McLawrence’s “O Beautiful Guyana”. With a good deal of humour, one can recall the comments by literary critic Jeffery Robinson about the McLawrence lyrics. He found it very ironic that a poem extolling the beauty of the country has the poet standing on the beach totally backing the beloved land and gazing out into the sea.

 

“Thy sea washed sun-kissed strand

Or down upon the borders

Looking out upon the deep

The great Atlantic blown into a fury, or asleep.

At morn, at noon – or better,

In the crimson sunset’s glow

I love thee, Oh I love thee.”

 

Indeed, McLawrence professes love for the land’s beauty while not looking at it at all, but gazing far out into the Atlantic Ocean. But that is a piece of humour.

Trying to trace “The Guyanese Alphabet” turned up a few interesting things. Seymour anthologised it in A Treasury of Guyanese Poetry but not very much elsewhere. The major standing authenticated collection of Seymour’s work is A. J. Seymour Collected Poems 1937 – 1989 edited by Ian McDonald and Jacqueline de Weever. It does not appear in that collection as it seems the editors could find no place for it even in the large expanse of its 300 pages. Another similar type poem is “Name Poem” by Seymour, which lists a number of different kinds of names found in Guyana – another kind of place promotion. “Name Poem” is included in the definitive Collected Poems.

Within “The Alphabet” itself, there is some interest. It, of course, lists several things that make Guyana unique, or for which the country is famous or valued. These include items of folklore.  But note how the poet says, “We put aside obeah, ol higue” these are two elements of the traditional spiritual beliefs of the people of the country. Obviously they do not win the poet’s approval, as while other elements are promoted and boasted about, these are to be “put aside”.

It might betray some class position, it might have been considered dispensable when the editors were struggling with what to leave out, and it might be among the less profound, but it is very relevant to the thinking of Seymour at the time it was written.  It is very relevant to Guyana’s Independence literature.

The poet found it very fitting in the scheme of things to produce a patriotic “love of country” poem at the time of political freedom. It is fitting in the scheme of things to remember it now in the country’s 50th year of nationhood.