Caribbean Beat Magazine

Martin Carter: The Poems Man

Guyana's great poet Martin Carter has been a political prisoner and a government minister. Bruce Paddington tells his story

  • Last October, Martin Carter received the Order of Roraima from President Cheddi Jagan. Photograph by Ken Moore
  • Martin Carter being sworn in as Guyana’s Minister of Information. Photograph courtesy Nigel Westmaas
  • Receiving a book from aspiring poet Ernest Perry. Photograph courtesy Mirror Achives, Georgetown
  • Martin Carter in 1994. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Carter takes his ride in a prison van with fellow detainees Cheddi Jagan (now Gayana’s President) and Rory Westmaas 1954. Photograph courtesy Mirror Achives, Georgetown
  • Martin Carter was Guyana's Information Minister in the late sixties, leaving the post in 1971. Photograph courtesy Nigel Westmaas

Martin Carter never left Guyana. He is one of the few Caribbean artists to endure the decay of a beloved society without seeking exile. He has not received the recognition of Naipaul or Walcott, and his body of work is comparatively small. But the esteem in which he is held makes literary fame irrelevant. For Carter has probed the darkness and confusion of post-colonial Guyana more searchingly than anyone else; despite alienation and even bitterness, he has bequeathed a priceless legacy to his society.

In a foreword to Carter’s Selected Poems in 1989, the poet and novelist Ian McDonald wrote: “He is, without reservation, one of the finest poets to have emerged in the Caribbean region. And the varied subtlety and strength of his poetry carries him without any doubt into the front rank of world poets. Long after the politics which prompted a number of his poems has been forgotten, and long after the society which he so scathingly indicted has been “hanged utterly’, the poetry will continue to strike a chord among new generations.”

When I asked Carter if he was concerned about lack of recognition, he replied: “It depends on who is doing the recognising. ”

Carter is a tall, powerful man, with a soft voice and kind, alert eyes, suffering now the damage of a recent stroke. The writer and critic Michael Gilkes described him as “a man of letters brought up in a culture of decency”. But when his anecdotal fury rekindles he is irresistible.

He was born in 1927 to a civil servant in Georgetown, part of the mixed-race middle class – he has African, Portuguese and Amerindian ancestry. “We are all mixed up with everything else, every possible thing. You have in the same family a brother as white as white can be, and the other brother comparatively brown. And we had more than one example in Guyana of this type of thing.”

He was raised in a home familiar with poetry and philosophy, and went to Queen’s College, then Guyana’s leading school, where the majority of teachers were English expatriates. There he was encouraged to read extensively. His first piece of published prose was written for the school magazine when he was president of the college’s Beekeeping Society. After school, the grim banality of life as a clerk in the civil service drove him to poetry.

“People never used to write poetry at all,” Carter explains. “People felt that if you wrote poetry, something must be the matter with you. You really should be looked at. You have Wilson Harris, myself, A.J. Seymour and a few other people who were looked upon as not really sane. Something must be wrong with them. You have to remember that in Guyana, in the colonial days the highest ambition was for a person to get a profession.”

He began writing for the literary magazine Kyk-Over-Al, edited by A. J. Seymour. This brought him into a literary circle which included writers like the novelist Wilson Harris and the Trinidadian poet Eric Roach. He published his first selection of poems, The Hill of Fire Glows Red, in 1951: it was a warning of his growing poetic skill and political consciousness.

And so
if you see me
looking at your hands
listening when you speak
marching in your ranks
you must know
I do not sleep to dream,
but dream to change the world.

Carter’s brother Keith, and his close friend Rory Westmaas, were both drawn into the anti-colonial struggle in post-war England, and kept Martin in touch through their correspondence. Back in British Guiana there was growing nationalist feeling, and Martin was soon involved in the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) which was launched in 1950 with Forbes Burnham as Chairman and Cheddi Jagan as Political Leader. “Everybody in Guyana was left-wing, everybody was aware of what was going on,” he recalls. “The only people who weren’t members in the real sense of the word were the professionals, the lawyers and the doctors, who felt they would compromise their positions if they got into politics.”

Carter became very active in the new party; he was an executive committee member and stood as a candidate for the New Amsterdam seat in the 1953 elections (he lost badly and never stood for election again). The party won and Jagan was elected Premier: his PPP Government lasted 133 days in office before the British sent in troops and suspended the Constitution, claiming that the country was in the hands of communists.

Carter, on his way back from a conference in Romania, was arrested in Trinidad and declared a prohibited immigrant. By the time he reached home, British warships and soldiers had taken control of his city. His poetry took on a new power and intensity.

This is the dark time, my love
it is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears,
it is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.
Everywhere the faces of men are strained and anxious
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.

“We became very active, and very angry indeed,” Carter says. “They had no right doing it at all, that was absurd. Imagine thinking that Guyana could start anything in the world. A place like Guyana, a place really backward.”

But Carter’s crusade was about to take a violent turn. He went with Rory Westmaas, Sydney King (later Eusi Kwayana) and two others to New Amsterdam to help organise the opposition; they were arrested by British soldiers and taken to Atkinson Field, a detention camp later renamed Timehri, now the site of Guyana’s international airport. There they were detained under the state of emergency regulations for 90 days.

This is what they do with me
Put me in prison, hide me away
cut off the world, cut out the sun
darken the land, blacken the flower
stifle my breath and hope that I die!

The poems of this period brood on the presence of the British with their “warships terrible with death”, “when the tramp of a soldier marches in your brain” and “you point your gun straight at my heart”. Shaped and sharpened in this political fire, Carter’s poetry urged its readers towards an independence of spirit, like Mandela’s, in which self-pity and self-loathing are discarded in favour of intellectual freedom. It refuses to accept repression.

If l do not live to see that day
My son will see it.
If he does not see that day
His son will see it.
And it will come circling the world like fire
It will come to this land and every land
And when it comes I’ll come alive again
and laugh again and walk out of this prison.

Forty years later, Carter recalls his detention without anger. The camp at Atkinson Field had been a staging camp for British soldiers after the war; he and his colleagues were placed in the barracks rather than the cells. “In there we were very well treated, no doubt about that at all. And the chap that was in charge, Captain Anderson, was a very decent fellow. It was detention in a very civilised way. We could stay together and discuss things. My wife was allowed to see me and allowed to write.”

After his release he continued organising for the PPP. “We came out and continued agitating and talking to the people and sharing the material we had printed ourselves.” The British Government established a commission under Sir George Robertson to investigate the disturbances; its report claimed that Carter (along with Dr Cheddi Jagan, now Guyana’s president, and Mrs Jagan) was one of the leaders of the extreme communist wing of the PPP who accepted “unreservedly the ‘classical’ communist doctrines of Marx and Lenin.”

In 1955 the Forbes Burnham wing split from the Jagan camp to form the People’s National Congress (PNC). Soon after this, Carter left the party, having been criticised by Dr Jagan for being part of an “ultra left” group. He taught for a while and then in 1959 joined the multinational Booker group of companies as an Information Officer.

Carter smiles at the incongruity. “The point is that there was continuity … My poems were not different from what I was doing before.” In fact Carter had close personal friendships with Anthony Tasker, Booker’s local chairman, and the chairman of the group, Sir Jock Campbell. As with his detention camp officers, it was typical of Carter to separate the man from the public role. “The human aspect of their lives was the most important thing to me.”

The Burnham/Jagan rivalry dominated Guyana’s politics for the next thirty years, and led the country through much turbulence and violence. Guyana endured a long stay in the political wilderness. Looking at the country now – after the economic turnaround which began in the late 1980s – it is hard to imagine the drama of the earlier disturbances.

But Dr Jagan, re-elected two years ago, has written about the terror of the time. “Indians going peacefully about their business were attacked in Georgetown, and were mercilessly and savagely beaten … Unruly mobs invaded the law courts while in session, and a campaign began to dynamite and blow up government offices and other public buildings”. There was a general strike; Jagan had to call on British troops to restore peace.

After a number of serious disturbances, Burnham’s PNC – beaten by Jagan’s PPP in the 1964 general election — capitalised on the new system of proportional representation by forming a coalition with Peter D’Aguiar’s United Force, which allowed it to take control of the government. Surprisingly, Carter became Minister of Information. He explains: “The whole situation has to be carefully looked at. You had the racial conflict, very serious, this was the time of the riots, and your whole attitude was one of bringing about a sort of reconciliation between the races, between the Indian and the Negro … It was a touch-and-go situation at that time. I thought that anything that could bring about a diffusion of tension was worth fighting for, because no one who had not lived out here could have imagined what was going on at that time. Then the very trees almost failed to sprout.”

Describing the surreal feeling of the time of independence in 1996, Carter wrote that “grass is dry, and heat is cinder, and rain falls upward and away.”

were some who ran one way
were some who ran another way
were some who did not run at all
were some who will not run again.
And I was with them all,
when the sun and streets exploded.

AIthough Carter was never a member of Burnham’s PNC, he felt optimistic about being a part of a new society. But he only lasted three years as a minister in Burnham’s Co-operative Republic. He returned to Booker, and then went on to lecture in the Creative Arts Department at the University of Guyana. He has remained there ever since, even after his retirement, apart from a year spent in England as Poet in Residence at the University of Essex.

Poems of Succession was published in 1977. One of the short pieces in it, On a child killed by a motor car, was described as “near perfect” by the writer and critic Michael Gilkes:

Child, a moment of love ago
you danced in the eye of the woman
who made you. Within another moment
like the innocent wheat that made the loaf
of bread she sent you for
in this field of the heart’s ploughed land
you were threshed!

It was a time when tension was rising again in Guyana. Carter had experienced at first hand the violence of the 1950s and 60s, and had written about it with great power; now came more civil unrest in the late 1970s, as mounting opposition to Burnham’s regime resulted in the murder of the Jesuit priest Father Bernard Darke and the charismatic leader of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), Walter Rodney. The poetry became bitter and angry again.

I have at last started
to understand the origin
of our vileness

Carter could not be accused of political cowardice. In an address to the University of Guyana, he spoke of the Guyanese being “an aggregation of begging, tricking, bluffing, cheating, subsistence seekers and assorted hustlers”. After Rodney’s death he described the murderers and the society that tolerated them as “assassins of conversation”. Carter likes unexpected juxtapositions like that: “when you bring assassins and conversation together you find something hidden in them, which you cannot elicit, you cannot speak about but it is resident in the mind all the time.”

Carter’s poems of the 1950s spoke as strongly to a new generation as they did to their original readers. They were being read again by the youthful followers of Walter Rodney: Carter did not join the WPA, but was sympathetic to its cause. Despite its lack of electoral success, “the WPA made a change in this country,” he argues. “It made people aware that the world is a much bigger place than it seemed from the vantage point of Guyana. The WPA did very great work in this country.” Rodney, Carter insists, “has to be respected for the courage to say what he had to say and continue doing what he did until he was eventually killed.”

Carter himself went through many years of despair. In the collection Poems of Affinity he wrote:

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

In his poems, Carter favours a spare, stark style. He admits that it is often more difficult to write simple poems than lengthy complicated ones. Rightness is vital. “It is not a question of right for this or right for that, it is just right. Sometimes you find a book of poems and one poem may be perfectly correct for something the man is saying, something he doesn’t even know he is saying.”

In 1989 he was awarded the Guyana Prize for Literature, soon after the publication of the Selected Poems by Demerara Publishers. His new-found political tranquillity seems more hopeful than at any other point since the 60s; he seems to have made some peace with the world, though he harbours mixed feelings about the future of Guyana.

Martin Carter’s stature as a poet is still little appreciated, even in the Caribbean. The writer Ian McDonald sees him as a kind of internal exile, a survivor of detention and hostility who fell victim to public apathy. “The indifference, not to say hostility, of the society to literature, to the life of the mind, to so much of what must seem most valuable to him, may account for the long silence which descended too soon on Martin Carter. Literary exiles fleeing society’s indifference are many and well-known. What is less publicised is the incidence of internal exile arising from cultural indifference.”

McDonald also worries about Carter’s image as a poet of dissent. “Meeting the man, reading his poems over again, a worry comes upon one that there is something wrong in the established image of this poet. Through the years the stereotype of this poet as revolutionary and firebrand, the poet as angry protester against the horrors of society, the poet of Poems of Resistance and Jail me Quickly, has become absolutely dominant. The image is much too clear-cut to be the truth. Martin Carter is a poet also of the quiet lyric and the tender moods of love. For that too his poetry needs to be remembered and read again and again.” It’s a quality to be found in many of his poems, such as No Easy Thing.

I must repeat that which I have declared
even to hide it from your urgent heart:
No easy thing is it to speak of love
Nor to be silent when it all consumes!
You do not know how everywhere I go
You go with me clas~ed in my memory:
One night I dreamed we walked beside the sea
And tasted freedom underneath the moon.
Do not be late needed and wanted love
What’s withheld blights both love itself and us:
As well as blame your hair for blowing wind
As me for breathing, living, loving you.

When, at the Cultural Centre in Georgetown, a visiting Barbadian poet spoke of Martin Carter as “Guyana’s poet laureate”, there was spontaneous applause. Not just for a great poet, but for a man who always had the courage of his beliefs, a man who above all represents the culture of decency.

I come to the world with scars upon my soul
wounds on my body, fury in my hands
I turn to the histories of men and the lives of the peoples,
I examine the shower of sparks the wealth of the dreams
I am pleased with the glories and sad with the sorrows
rich with the riches, poor with the loss.
From the nigger yard of yesterday I come with my burden.
To the world of tomorrow I turn with my strength.