The truth of craft

Stewart Brown on the art and legacy of Martin Carter

A poet cannot write for those who ask
Hardly himself even, except he lies:
Poems are written either for the dying
Or the unborn, no matter what we say.

(“They Say I Am”)

Across the Caribbean, Martin Carter is regarded as one of the great poets of the region, one of those revered voices who have chronicled the journey from colonialism to independence, alongside such figures as Nicolás Guillén, Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite. That his work is hardly known outside the Caribbean is largely because of his early reputation as a “political poet”: he was interned by the British colonial authorities in the early 1950s for his involvement in the supposedly subversive actions of the first democratically elected, non-racial, and idealistically socialist government in the Caribbean.

His poems of that period were published as Poems of Resistance from British Guiana in 1954 by the London socialist press Lawrence and Wishart. While a few of those early poems — “I Come from the Nigger Yard”, “University of Hunger”, “This Is the Dark Time My Love”, and “On the Fourth Night of a Hunger Strike” — have become classics of socialist literature‚ translated into several Eastern European and Asian languages‚ and are among the foundation stones of Caribbean poetry, his work has hardly been acknowledged in more general accounts of poetry in English. It was too easy for a lazy critic to settle for a version of Carter as the anti-colonial radical who swore to use his shirt “as a banner for the revolution,” and who consequently wrote “plain bad verse” — as one commentator asserted — putting his cause before the necessary craft of making poetry.

Such a view of Carter’s poetry could not have been sustained by anyone even halfway seriously examining his work, even if they were restricted to the early pieces collected in Poems of Resistance. The linguistic cunning and rhythmical measure underpinning a poem such as “University of Hunger”, for example, contribute as much to its mesmeric power as poem, as do the ideas that drive it and the imagery that so haunts anyone who reads it:

is they who rose early in the morning
watching the moon die in the dawn.
is they who heard the shell blow and the iron clang.
is they who had no voice in the emptiness
in the unbelievable
in the shadowless.
O long is the march of men and long is the life
and wide is the span.

One quality of that poetic language is its subtle use of a Guyanese creole construction — “is they . . .” — a device which opens the poem up to all sorts of echoes and resonances. And while the written language of the poems never ventures far from standard English, that same cast and inflection of voice is evident in many of the later poems, helping to establish a verbal connection between the philosophical musings of “the poems man” — as one small girl dubs him — and the life of the society he speaks to and from. Indeed, looking at his work overall, it is hard to think of a contemporary poet who showed more concern for craft, who measured his utterance with greater care, who thought more about the intricacies of the relationship between art and society, than Martin Carter. As he put it in his poem “Words”, written in 1957,

These poet words, nuggets out of corruption
or jewels dug from dung or speech from flesh.

Like many poets across the world writing in the teeth of political oppression and cultural disintegration, Carter knew the real value of words, knew that they might be both weapon and the means of spiritual survival; “the bread that lasts”, as Walcott has put it. But Carter also had a profound belief in the power of poetry to work at all sorts of levels and in all sorts of circumstances. Those famous poems-of-resistance — smuggled out of prison to be read aloud at political rallies, at trade union strike meetings, recited by crowds at popular demonstrations of dissent against colonial oppression — those poems acknowledged that particular context in their language and their form. Carter wrote them with a simplicity and directness that is not at all typical of his poetry as a whole, and, while they remain crafted literary artefacts, they were liberated from the constraints of the library or the elite literary soirée — as he knew they would be — by their appropriation as orature, as a public poetry-of-resistance. Those poems — “University of Hunger”, “I Come from the Nigger Yard”, “This Is the Dark Time My Love”, and the others that have been so often anthologised — not only bound Carter to his local audience — his comrades in struggle, transcending issues of class and race in that period of national crisis and outrage — but also established Carter as a figure of especial respect among Caribbean intellectuals generally, wherever they might have found themselves.

In 1991 Carter came to the United Kingdom to take part in an Arts Council–sponsored reading tour with other Guyanese writers based in Britain. At a packed reading in central London, he read to an audience that included many exiled Guyanese — few of them, I’d guess, regular attendees of literary events. As he read from those poems, that audience began to recite them with him — not to read them from a book, but to recite them from memory; they were there etched in the memory banks, a part of their being, fundamental to their identity as Guyanese people. And just as Carter seems to have moved easily among the whole spectrum of the Guyanese people, from the most desperate to the most distinguished, so his poetry seems to speak across the race and class divisions that have so scarred Guyanese society. Few poets in our time, and fewer still writing in English, have made such an impact on the consciousness of a people.

And yet, as I say, in English his work is hardly acknowledged beyond the Caribbean. To be fair, access to Carter’s poetry has always been a problem for would-be readers outside Guyana, for, unlike so many colonial writers of his generation, Carter didn’t migrate to the metropolis to pursue a literary career; he stayed in the Caribbean, in Guyana. As time went by he came to understand the full implications of the choice that had to be made, between leaving the region in order to find publishers, an audience, the possibility of commercial success — but at the cost of that sense of exile and alienation so many Caribbean writers of that period expressed — or to stay and feel his ambitions frustrated by the narrowness of life in a post-colony, the parochialism, the lack of a developed literary culture, the sense of being, as he puts it in one of his essays, “a displaced person” in the very society he has stayed to serve. So when he writes (in a 1993 essay) that “The artist cannot change the nature of his fate: all he can do is endure it,” we cannot but be conscious of the personal pain in that assertion. But to stay and write was to make a statement of commitment and integrity as a poet of — rather than simply from — Guyana.

Martin Carter was active in Guyanese politics one way and another throughout the forty years following his release from detention in 1954; disowned by and disowning in turn the two charismatic figures who dominated Guyanese politics in that period, Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham. He served for a while as minister of information in a Burnham government in the late 1960s, at a moment when it seemed possible that a new, multicultural politics might be forged out of the old divisions — but that prospect proved illusory and he soon resigned, publishing a snarling poem which announced both his departure and his reasons:

And would shout it out differently
if it could be sounded plain;
But a mouth is always muzzled
by the food it eats to live.

(“A Mouth Is Always Muzzled”)

Carter’s natural position seemed to be on the margins of formal politics; an outspoken agitator, his poems spoke to — and for — the conscience of the nation. It was a dangerous position to fill: he was a friend of Walter Rodney, the Guyanese historian and radical activist murdered in 1980, and Carter was himself badly beaten when he joined a demonstration against the then-government’s attempts to manipulate the constitution to try and keep themselves in power. After those and other, similar, events, Carter seemed to stand back somewhat from the public struggle. As Rupert Roopnaraine, the Guyanese scholar and political analyst, puts it, Carter “embraced the pure practice of poetry as the only available practice for a seeker of truth in an era of degradation. He turned inwards and so did the poems. In the end, the truth of craft was all.”

All his writing life, Carter published primarily in local journals and newspapers, and for many years his work was available only in fugitive, limited-circulation collections. As George Lamming has observed, Carter wasn’t interested in self-promotion or fame; indeed, he seemed philosophical about the success or otherwise of his poetry in those terms, to the point of complete indifference, trusting rather that time would sort the “true poems” from the rest soon enough. The 1989 edition of his Selected Poems, again published in Guyana, quickly sold out, and a revised second edition was published by the Red Thread Women’s Press in Georgetown just a few months before Carter’s death in 1998. It is a beautifully made book, illuminated by two leading Guyanese artists, but even this is a hard book to lay hands on outside of Guyana.

In many ways, his early fame or notoriety set a misleading burden on Carter’s reputation. His later work‚ while it never lost its political edge‚ was more oblique and cerebral than the overtly political poems of his youth, seeming to have more in common with the — so-called — magical realism of many of his fellow South American poets than with the naturalism of much socially committed African-American and Caribbean poetry of the second half of the century. Carter’s work represents a sustained poetic and philosophical process; the individual poems are part of a much more ambitious intellectual undertaking that went on throughout the poet’s life. Consequently, his later poetry didn’t really “fit” in terms of the prevailing orthodoxies, and has not been read with the attention it deserves, has not found the kind of publishers and audience that might have followed it if it had been translated from the Spanish, say, with Vallejo, Neruda, and Paz. They are his contemporaries in every sense; his work is of that originality, force and stature.

At one level, it is possible to read Carter’s poetry as a kind of testimony of despair, tracing a movement from the optimism and assertion of his early poems towards the world-weary meditations of his later years, when that dream had been shattered by the intrigues and disappointments of Guyana’s post-colonial and post-independence struggles for survival as a nation. Faced with such a situation, it is perhaps not surprising that a poet of Carter’s sensitivity should resort to a kind of personal code in shaping his responses — hence, perhaps, the perception that Carter’s poems shift, over the course of his career, from the heart-on-sleeve accessibility of the early, optimistic poems to a more closed, cryptic kind of verse. There is no doubting Carter’s despair over the betrayal of the possibilities that the end of colonial rule offered, or of his bitterness at the way Guyanese politics has been reduced to the self-mutilation of ethnic rivalry — the old colonial tactic of “divide and rule” internalised and exaggerated for perceived short-term advantage.

Carter understood, perhaps more profoundly than any of his literary contemporaries, the real depths of desperation and despair that were the lot of so many Guyanese people through the twentieth century. And that bitterness is certainly apparent in many of the later poems.

keep working for a storm, some
kind of fury to write new dates
in our vile calendar and book

(“Some Kind of Fury”)

But, on reflection, and in the light of more attentive re-reading, it is clear that such a view of Carter’s achievement is too simple, leaves too much out of account. Rather, Carter’s poetry offers its readers the chronicle of a life — in its many facets — committed to being, in Guyana, and traces the evolution of his commitment to the notion of social justice, beyond the contagions of racial politics, through the tumultuous period his seventy or so years spanned. The poems witness to the fundamental integrity that characterised so much of his practice as both a man-in-society and a writer. They provide a kind of record of that fiercely intelligent, sternly poetic sensibility responding not only to the political turmoil but also to the personal and domestic claims on his emotions and energy — he wrote several beautiful love poems through his career — as well as to the spiritual and the elemental dimensions of life in Guyana.

It is clear too that, beyond the despair and bitterness, there is an emphasis on the possibility of redemption through creativity. But that possibility of redemption depends, the poet insists, on the people taking responsibility for their own society, for their own futures. The later poems bear the evidence of that intense self-scrutiny in their pared-down compression, in the pithy density of their language, in their lack of unnecessary ornament or dramatic pause. His poem “Rice”, for example, is much more than simply a complaint about rural poverty and exploitation.

What is rain for, if not rice
for an empty pot; and pot for
in a hungry village? The son
succeeds his father in a line
to count as he did, waiting,
adding the latest to the first
of his losses; his harvests
of quick wind padi . . .

Rather, the poem is a meditation on the cycle of life and death and the futility of that necessary struggle in the context of an elemental time-scale. Guyana is a place of immense natural forces — the sea, the rain forest, the rivers, the distant mountains, even the power of the rain when it falls — and like most Guyanese writers Carter was ever conscious of that contrast between the cruel grandeur of those elemental forces and the puny self-aggrandisement of mankind’s ego. Carter was a great poet, one who “dreamed to change the world,” but came to accept, as he put it in one of his last poems,

Here is where
I am, in a great geometry, between
a raft of ants and the green sight
of the freedom of a tree, made
of that same bitter wood.

(“Bitter Wood”)

A longer version of this essay will appear as the introduction to Poems by Martin Carter, a new selected edition forthcoming from Macmillan Caribbean.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2006

Stewart Brown is reader in Caribbean literature and director of the Centre of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham. He has published four collections of poems and edited or co-edited several anthologies of African and Caribbean writing, including The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories (1999) and The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (2005). He has also edited critical studies of Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, and the volume All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter.