Wilson Harris as a poet: confronting conventions

Wilson Harris

Studies in Realism


The Tragic Muse

O God

This is my meditation now, before I pray.

I think of Mozart,

in the heart of his civilization,

deserted, not even accorded the dignity

of decent burial.

I think of Christ crucified

Dying in agony, crying aloud to his God –

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

I think of the others,

the others who are also the sons of God,

contemptuous of their divinity,

living and dying today in the slums.

I think of the strange and moving spectacle of man overcome

by the inanimate earth that covers him

or the deep waters in which he drowns

or the bullet that comes unerringly

travelling through eternity to its ultimate destination.

The voices of the living pray to God.

The voices of the dead

treasured in the beautiful books in the libraries

pray to God.

Men suffer and pray to God

and thereby acquire stature

like Jesus Christ and like Mozart.

They wait for the ultimate mockery

or the ultimate justification,

in the meantime piling up new and unlearned accents of tragedy

upon their human story, while they wait on God.

Wilson Harris, 1947

The invaluable reprint of the early volumes of Kyk-Over-Al in the Guyana Classics Series, edited by David Dabydeen and published by the Caribbean Press (2013) allows a good, convenient survey of Guyanese literature during its crucial period of growth between 1945 and 1951. It also underlines the important role of the young Kyk-Over-Al in the shaping of West Indian literature.  Of equal force is the introduction to the reprinted volumes by Michael Niblett and the contributing editorial work of Lynne Macedo. Additionally, Ian McDonald is associated with the series.

The great advantage of these reprints is that the whole spectrum of the poetry, short stories, the contemporary sketches, historical vignettes and short critical contributions are all available at a glance within easy reach of the researcher as well as those who read for pleasure. One recalls the amazing fact that Edward Baugh paid considerable attention to Arthur James Seymour’s several discussions on “what is West Indian poetry”, and in studying these old volumes of the “little magazine” he edited, one can easily see why. Seymour made numerous interventions not only with his poems, but with his unending commentary on literature and culture. These all helped tremendously in demonstrating the state of the literature at the time.

Among the many things made possible by all this is the excellent measure of the place of writers like Wilson Harris as a poet at the time. We can see that he was among the foremost Guyanese poets in the pre-independence period, in addition to the short stories he also had published in Kyk. But it was as a poet that he was important, and his commanding significance may be seen when placed beside others such as Seymour, James W Smith, Cleveland Hamilton, and Edgar Mittelholzer. Useful comparisons are afforded with Walter Mc A Lawrence who went just before them, as well as Peter and Joseph Ruhomon, Ramcharitar Lalla, and RW Chinapen.

A previous focus here was the surprisingly independent and mature poetic talent of Helen Taitt, an artist who also wrote a significant play, but whose major focus was in dance. She was Guyana’s greatest classical dancer and built an international career. Similar paths were taken by two of the leading poets – Mittelholzer and Harris, whose major focus was fiction writing, and who were Guyana’s greatest novelists.

As poets they were succeeded by the legendary Martin Carter (starting in 1951) after which they changed currents and sailed off to be navigators of prose. Yet their poetry in early career were strong enough to be the best of the 1940s, charting independent courses and extending the frontiers of contemporary conventions.

Observe Harris, for instance, in “Studies of Realism”. His spotlight is on realism, the social agonies of mankind. But his interest in the classics looms large as he calls upon the tragic Muse.  He presents a tragic study with a consciousness of the epic invocation of the Muse. These classical preoccupations were to serve him later.

The poem demonstrates the poet’s independence in the way it strides out boldly in confrontation of the conventions of the time. The outburst is anti-Christian, questioning God with a suggestion of harsh treatment of his own son – the passion of Christ, extending it to the suffering of mankind, the “other sons of God”, a cruel God who does not hear their cries, heed their prayers.

The poem is a furious assault on faith. There is continual “praying to God” in vain, mankind will “wait on God” and get no response. The “human story” is a tragedy as “men suffer and pray to God”, but it seems on vain they will “wait for the ultimate response to their prayer”.

In later years, Harris was to explore tragic cycles in the “human story” repeatedly in his novels in which he goes even further in pushing back the frontiers of fictive conventions. But before that he gives a hint of his deep interest in the classics.

Not long after his poems in Kyk-over-Al, Harris published his first work of note in Eternity to Season (1953). It is poetry and drama. The volume includes a play of the same title in which he explores themes, style and metaphors that were to return many years later in novels, more specifically The Carnival Trilogy.

The play is set in a village at the mouth of the Canje River in Berbice, an area in which Harris actually worked tracing the course of the river as a government hydraulic surveyor. He draws on that experience in Eternity to Season, as he also does a decade later in The Secret Ladder, a novel in The Guyana Quartet.

The play centres around a fishing village on the bank of the Canje with a plot involving the dramatic reappearance of a fisherman who everyone thought had drowned at sea. He returns in disguise, recalling the story of Ulysses (or Odysseus) the great Greek hero who returns home after the Trojan war disguised as a beggar. Everyone at home, with the exception, perhaps, of his wife Penelope, thought he was dead and would never return. Harris takes the theme of “the beggar is king” from Homer’s Odyssey.

Eternity to Season is thus a definite forerunner to Harris’ great novels, particularly The Four Banks of the River of Space (1991) – the last book in The Carnival Trilogy. It seems to be Harris’s point of departure from his early career as a poet before he branched off into novels, although his first (ground-breaking) novel did not appear until 1960 after his travel to England in 1959. Not much is heard of him as a poet after 1953, but the profound poetic quality of his novels is one of the deep characteristics of Harrisian fiction that revolutionised the form of the English novel.

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