“Every poem is incomplete”

Selections from the previously unpublished poetry notebooks of Martin Carter, introduced by their editor, Rupert Roopnaraine

This is a good time to reach for Martin Carter. Eleven years after his death, he is more with us than ever. Which is a way of saying that his words continue to reverberate among us, and his images to haunt us. When words come to life in this way, fresh and bright with last night’s dew, we are in the presence of a kind of magic of renewal.

This is a good time to reach for Martin. The poems certainly, but not only the poems. Reach for the old Thunder editorials of the 1950s, the newspaper articles of the 60s, or the speech he gave at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico in 1964, at the height of the strife, on the “Race Crisis”. He concludes his sociological and political analysis on this human note: “Today, in British Guiana, every man looks at you from the corners of his eyes. When he speaks to you, he listens very carefully to what you say because he wants to know where you are coming from. This sort of thing leads to nightmares, nightmares that do not necessarily occur only in the night, but which haunt you even in the brightest glare of noon. A nightmare that becomes actual in a pool of blood in a street in the city.” More than forty years on, and the nightmares are more actual than ever, descending with every new pool of blood in the streets of the city and beyond.

We in Guyana have always understood the importance of keeping Martin within arm’s reach. A small critical industry is growing up around his work. There is more to do, more archival excavations to locate and capture the fugitive publications, written in the heat; perhaps more drafts and unpublished poems to be discovered.

Hoping to add to this body of work, and with the kind assistance of a six-month fellowship from UNESCO, I spent part of 2002 working my way through some of the papers Martin left behind in Lamaha Street, intending a publication of his key writings on language and poetics. Most of this writing is unknown, though people have long known of his almost monastic devotion to the workings of language and the practice of poetry. From the evidence of the poetry notebooks, it was a fascination that persisted throughout Martin’s creative life, leading him over the years into the most studied considerations of language and all its complex workings in a variety of cultural contexts.

In addition to the poetry notebooks, the Carter papers consist of correspondence with friends, colleagues, publishers, and editors as well as official documents, including memoranda and other government publications. No attempt to understand Guyana’s modern political and intellectual history will be complete without a careful study of this material.

I have chosen to call them notebooks, though except for two old diaries he entitled “Brown Notebook One” and “Brown Notebook Two” most of the writings on poetry exist in old ledgers, on the inside and outside covers of file folders, on sheets of unused examination stock, the backs of greeting cards, and in all available space in the margins and pages of certain of the books he read, making them unreadable for future readers. Many pages are sequential; others follow each other in a kind of abandon. These latter are diagrammatic notes, a favourite method for organising the pursuit of an argument. The material amounts to 1,700-odd foolscap pages, some numbered, some not. All but a dozen are closely handwritten.

Mercifully, Martin Carter belonged to a generation of children who were taught to write. His handwriting is always legible, even when thoughts are sprinting ahead; then the pen flies across the page and it becomes looser, as dishevelled as his person, hair in the wind. Unscrambling what is at times a highly personalised code, especially the deciphering of the arguments by diagram, is to follow the tortuous logic of a riddle, a subject that excited his curiosity on several occasions over the years.

It has been nourishing, this journey deep into Martin’s thoughts on the things that mattered so deeply to him. I am thankful that he is so close at hand in this brutish season. It is a good time to reach for Martin.

Rupert Roopnaraine


From Martin Carter’s poetry notebooks


Preferred representation, as opposed to necessary representation, is the vice of verbalism.

Preferred service, as opposed to available service, the provenance of the abuse of verbal art. In both cases, opposition is between what is preferred and what is both necessary and possible; that is, between the virtual and the self-evident, that is, the hypothetical normative.

Art has many functions, but perhaps one can answer that possibly the ultimate function of art to an artist, is that it is the way one makes one’s self available in the way one wants oneself to be available. But why should one want to? What, if not self-replacement? Yes, but by what? What, if not an idea of one’s self?

Which must mean that at least one central function of art is to render conception. Here presumably, is where narcissism comes in.

If philosophy creates its creator as an artist; art its creator as philosopher; then the unit of philosophy and art creates its creator as a poet.

Question of forbidden analogies. In astronomy, the concept of forbidden radiations emerged as a result of observational capability, which revealed them in opposition to permitted radiations, which were those available before the advent of that observational capability of which the “forbidden radiations” were the captive.

Clearly, the crux of the matter is observational capability and the question of intuition, that is, availability of intuition.


The fact is that one finds oneself a poet, and later understands properly that the real thing is the unity of a kind of epistemological mechanism and a kind of temperamental aptitude.

The poet is to be distinguished from the artist in that where the prime category of POETIC is adequacy, as determined in opposition to debasement; the prime category of AESTHETIC is beauty, as determined in opposition to ugliness.

Where in artistic production, expression represents in expression, in poetic production, representation expresses in representation.

The function of the Poet as Artist is to comprehend. The function of the Poet as Poet is to initiate. Thus the Poet’s function is to initiate comprehension.

The question the poet is always asking himself is: why am I here as I am here? Quest for orientation.

Poetry and delight

The material of poetry is language’s medium: thought, which is rendered in that which it is the medium of: language. (19.11.79)

The delight that attends the triumphant exertion of poetic power (the self’s power over itself) is the poet’s pay.

And so to a maximum extent the poet’s life can be described as a pursuit of delight no matter how small the pay.

Thus the poet is a creature with an exceptional capacity for delight.


Every poet has his own poetics which change in accord with the principle of the mutuality of simulability. This is why it is quite impossible for a poet to tell anyone in specific terms what his poetics is. Because he can only know what of his poetics was involved after he has made a poem. He cannot begin by thinking that he will employ such and such elements of his poetics in the making of the poem. Instead, the process of making itself makes necessary the employment of certain elements of his poetics. This means that in the poem making process he is operating at for him a unique level of organisation. This unique level is not unconnected with the way he feels himself in the world. If I feel myself a victim and a vehicle, that is, a victim who, in exploiting his consciousness of status as victim, is transformed into a vehicle, then my poetics, in accord with the principle of the mutuality of simulability, is an eventuation, something that happens every time for the first and last time. The most that can be said therefore of my poetic, is that it is a succession of evaluations. What is important is the adequacy of these eventuations. Nor must the concept of succession be understood as a movement from lower to higher. There is no lower or higher here. What comes after is not a consequence of that which came before. Succession is not sequence. It is a mosaic of possibility. And what really happens is that in the enduring of everyday life there comes unsought a lift in which my “I” becomes “it” and before I am really aware of what is going on I have already done something of which I had not the slightest expectancy, save for a floating or swaying lightness, a state devoid of excitement but yet a compelling concentration, where a great many things are going on at the same time; each of them seemingly independent and autonomous, and each demanding attention simultaneously, and so powerfully, that they alone seem to have being and other things nothing. So it is that even within the eventuations themselves there is a mosaic of succession. Hence that succession of eventuations which itself is succession inside the eventuations.

The poetics of a poet is the means whereby he accomplishes insight. Thus it may be said following upon the argument that a poet’s own poetics is an eventuation, that the poet’s employment of his poetics is in every case an employment of only a part of his possible poetics, and therefore that each poem is an intimation of a whole poem which can never be made. My basis, the everyday and poetic as contrasted with the academic or scientific and didactic or pragmatic. The everyday includes the academic and scientific as part of its wholeness and the end of the poetic is insight. It is in this sense that every poem is incomplete, and also that its completion at every proper reading is also incomplete in relation to the whole poem which can never be written.

What is a Poem

Among other things, and perhaps chief among these, a poem is a thing which sponsors something beyond that which it literally and symbolically says. This something is a quality of human presence, manifested as a voice. (2.2.79)

The poet’s lifelong occupation and preoccupation and work lies in the production of a voice, not his voice but voice.

“A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.” — Coleridge

“. . . if the definition sought for be that of a legitimate poem . . . it must be one, the parts of which mutually support and explain each other . . .”
— Coleridge

[Note: Both quotations are from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817).]

A poem should be a simultaneous commentary upon itself. (7.2.79)

A poem is a product of poetic power and poetic power is a fundamental faculty of mind: it is a mental process common to all men, but readier of access and employment to those men we call poets. But whence this readiness of access? (8.2.79)

Either less obstacles or a stronger mental process due to openness.

Versive and cursive forms are really thought forms and both exist simultaneously in the same mind. Poetry is the product of a mind in which the versive form of thought is dominant. The difference between the poet and the non-poet is that in the former, the versive form of thinking dominates the cursive form to such a degree that the domination itself is the identifying and therefore the differentiating characteristic between poet and non-poet.

Cursive: the man is hungry.

Versive: that stomach is empty.


Unity in the poem lies in its tension, in its tone. This tension organises the elements of the poem and it is the quality of the relation between the tension and the organisation which determines the power of the poem. (22.9.79)

A poem is a resolution of a tension. It may be said that the poet invests language with tension. What is the provenance of this tension? Imagination? If so, then imagination in this context is a kind of perception, perception of the possibility of tension.

This arises out of the conflict between the actual and the possible. Extrapolations of actual and possible:

Denotation — connotation
Real — ideal

The poet’s role is pre-eminently one of illumination: the poet illuminates his time. (4.10.79)

What some call “subject matter” is not at all the same as THEME. My THEME is FEELING and SUBJECT MATTER has the same kind of relation to THEME that DESIGN has to FORM. It is IMAGINATION, the medium of FEELING, which selects SUBJECT MATTER in accordance with the dictates of FEELING. Subject matter, really, is a matter of concern only when it is inappropriate. And the chief reason why it can be inappropriate is related to INSPIRATION, something that has to do with INTUITION. So if inspiration is a matter of intuition, then execution is a matter of the space or curve of attention and is of the highest importance.

So inspiration = quality of attention, and execution = quantity of attention.

The space or curve of attention is the basis of the syntactical imagination, the principle of which is at work in execution. (29.10.79)

No one writes poetry. Poems, which are about poetry, are presented by poets. What is known about poetry is known through the medium of poems. And since there will always remain poems yet to be presented, what can be known about poetry will always remain incomplete. Of the things known about poetry, one of the chief things is that it is an unspecifiable proceeding, an unspecifiable way. The practice of this unspecifiable proceeding, this unspecifiable way is what makes a poet of anyone. And poems are functions, specific to this practice.

Poetry makes the reader or listener poetic to the extent of the reader’s or listener’s capacity to be so. And to be poetic is to have the capacity to experience certain states of mind. When such experiencing passes beyond a certain point the reader or listener is in danger of becoming a poet. Very few reach this point. And of those that do nearly all lack the courage to take the risk.


A longer version of Roopnaraine’s introduction was originally published in the Stabroek News.

The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Martin Carter was a Guyanese poet, born in 1927, and one of the major Caribbean writers of the twentieth century. He died in 1997. University of Hunger, his Collected Poems and Selected Prose, edited by Gemma Robinson, was published in 2006.

Rupert Roopnaraine is a Guyanese writer and filmmaker. He has published a collection of poems and a book-length study of Martin Carter, and Primacy of the Eye: The Art of Stanley Greaves (2005).