Breakout poets and the advancement of Guyanese literature

For Me – The Back-Yard

Play your Carnival, play your masque,

Dance with your Country Club set,

Hop, jump at your midnight fete;

For these things I’ll never ask –

Take them all and leave for me

The back-yard scene at dusk:

The haze of blue wood-smoke,

Morning mist amid mango leaves

And the nancy-story fantasies

That the cries of kiskadees

From long, long ago evoke.


Keep your calypso and your steel-bands!

Wiggle your hips and waggle your hands!

For me the good soft tingling dew

And mottled shadows beneath a guava tree,

The glimmer, the dim mysterious hue,

Of coconut fronds – spider hands

Immobile, immeshed in the filigree,

The plaited pattern of star-apple and plum,

Breadfruit and mango – and the perpetual hum

Of all the insects hidden in jumbie-lands:

The magic a waning moon can weave; set free.


Keep your serge suit, collar and tie!

Asparagus, lentils, your high-falutin’ apple-pie!

Keep your respectability;  I don’t care!

. . . why should I even spurn

These little ragged clumps of fern

And the rickety latrine standing near . . .

Assured for me the naïve back-yard

Where bajak ants, without hypocrisy, troop by

And no gentleman politely smile and lie.                                                                                                                                                                               

Edgar Mittelholzer (1946)

Savannah Lands

Lands open

To sunshine and sky

And to the endless winds

Passing their eternal rounds.

Lands that hold in their bosom

Space like a benediction.

Lands smoky with their dreams

That drift across the world

Like memories of ancient beauty dimly recalled.

Lands full of the music of birds

Crying softly a vague and formless meditation

To the measureless skies; when the listening cattle

Lift their quiet heads

Dreaming their dream, so solitary and wise.

Wilson Harris (1946) from Ode to Kaieteur

And falling in splendor sheer down from the height

that should gladden the heart of an eagle to scan. –

That lend to the towering forest beside thee

the semblance of shrubs trimmed and tended by man, –

That viewed from the brink where the vast amber volume

that once was a stream cataracts into thee,

Imparts to the foothills surrounding the maelstrom

beneath thee that rage as the troublous sea,

The aspect of boulders that border a pool

in the scheme of a rare ornamentalist’s plan,

Where, where is the man that before thee is thrilled not –

that scorneth the impulse to humble the knee,

With the sense of thy majesty resting upon him,

and conscious of flouting some terrible ban?


Walter McArthur Lawrence

The 1940s marked a period when the most significant advancement took place in Guyanese poetry in the twentieth century. This was an important period of development when major writers emerged, and the poetry was gaining independence, weaning itself from a long period of imitation and colonial influence with a strong developing sense of nationalism. This nationalism helped to define the pre-independence poetry, ran commensurate with the political moves towards independence and intensified in the immediate post-independence era.

The works of three poets – Walter McArthur Lawrence, Wilson Harris and Edgar Mittelholzer – are excerpted here to give an indication of the poetry of the time, while illustrating interesting characteristics of both poetry and individual poets. The selections also point to important observations about the growth of Guyanese literature – particularly poetry and fiction.

The birth of Guyanese literature as a body of work that may be given an identity, may be dated at 1880 – 1890. That was the time of the published work in poetry and prose of Leo, whose real name was Egbert Martin and who was the founder of modern Guyanese literature. Leo was the first to emphatically announce a change from colonial to Guyanese poetry.

After Leo, a number of significant poets emerged in that long period up to 1945 including many who belonged to the Romantic-Victorian school of imitation. During this time, the most prominent Guyanese poet was Lawrence, (known and published as ‘Walter McA’), who wrote between 1920 and 1942.

He was recognized and singled out by contemporary critics. P H Daly wrote that in 1932 he was “acclaimed the first poet of the land” and was “the Leader of the Aesthetic Movement in Guianese poetry”.  Norman E Cameron wrote: “It would not surprise me if in time he should be deemed fit to wear Leo’s mantle”. That was high praise. In addition, Cameron saw in him “a craving for originality of expression and a departure from the simple iambic”.

Lawrence thus dominated the period immediately before 1946, and led the growing nationalistic verse. As can be seen in “Ode to Kaieteur” he was not free of Victorian versification, but certainly had a local sense of British Guiana and sought to glorify it and write poetry defined by his native land such as “O Beautiful Guyana”.

Leading poets in the 1940s included A J Seymour, James W Smith, W Chinapen, C E J Ramcharitar Lalla, Harris and Mittelholzer.

Harris and Mittelholzer are particularly interesting because both went on to develop outstanding careers as novelists and fiction writers, Harris also as a literary theorist. But at the time (until 1960) he was a poet. In “Savannah Lands” his language and versification are free of the Victorian, and while landscape still prevails the poem has other interests that transcend the delineation of the land.

Mittelholzer takes the poetic independence further in his ideological statement. “For me – The Back-yard” loudly articulates his proletarian position. This is not strange for Mittelholzer, as it reappears in novels later on, as does the kind of sarcasm he expresses in the poem, “Meditations of A Man Slightly Drunk”. He was a radical with quite a critical skepticism about his middle class, colour and class-conscious environment in New Amsterdam. In this, some of his central characters speak for him, like Milton the artist in My Bones and My Flute, or even Sylvia’s father in Life and Death of Sylvia.

The persona in this poem turns the landscape preoccupation of the time into a ploy to describe the poverty-stricken environment of the less privileged: “the rickety latrine” and “the ragged clumps of fern” that he declares he will not “spurn”. He blatantly accuses the middle class of “hypocrisy”, denouncing “gentlemen” who “politely smile and lie”.

It is telling, the imposition of the lively mind of the two great novelists onto the poetic conventions of the times. The greatest among the emerging poets was to come later – Martin Carter made his entry in 1951 – but in these examples we can see how Harris and Mittelholzer, as superior artists, shattered conventions and demonstrated originality to break out of the poetic confines of 1946, the way they took the Guyanese novel to commanding heights in the succeeding years.

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