Martin Carter
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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Carter, Martin Wylde (1927-1997)

Poet, Activist, Essayist.
Active 1947-1997 in Guyana, Caribbean, South America

Martin Wylde Carter has long been regarded in the Caribbean as an important political poet and activist whose works painstakingly trace the volatile transition from colonialism to independence in Guyana. Imprisoned during the early 1950s by the British colonial authorities for his involvement in allegedly subversive activity by Guyana’s first democratically elected government, Carter wrote many poems that were inspired by his role in the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the nationalist anti-colonial movement. Although three volumes of Carter’s verse - The Hill of Fire Glows Red (1951), The Hidden Man (1952), and The Kind Eagle (1952) - were all published locally, he is best known for Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (1954), which was published by a socialist press in London. “University of Hunger”, “This is the Dark Time My Love”, “I Come from the Nigger Yard”, and “On the Fourth Night of a Hunger Strike” are considered to be central works in the canon of socialist and Caribbean literature. In contrast with the directness and optimistic stance of his earlier, more overtly political lyrics, Carter’s later work is more stylistically complex, cryptic, and inaccessible to readers. Poems of Succession (1977) and Poems of Affinity (1980) express world-weariness and disillusionment at the nation’s growing racial tensions and rampant political corruption. With the publication of Selected Poems (1989, with a revised edition in 1997), a growing number of readers outside of the Caribbean will come to recognize Carter’s achievement, and critics will come to see that his artistry and range as a poet have been underestimated. Carter’s work is not limited to political themes. He also delves deeply into the exigencies of life in Guyana during a formative period in that nation’s history. Despite, or perhaps because of the intensity of his social commitments, Carter’s poetry is memorable for its artful treatment of family life, love, spirituality, consciousness, and the shaping forces of nature.

Carter was born on June 7th, 1927, in Georgetown, British Guiana. His parents were both of mixed race (or “coloured”, as they are called in the region), and therefore had a comparatively high status within the colonial polity. Carter’s father, Victor Emmanuel, was a civil servant, and both he and Carter’s mother, Violet Eugene Wylde, loved books and made sure that their son had ready access to literature, the Bible, and the local library. Carter was educated at Queen’s College, a prestigious boy’s school, graduating in 1944, after which he also secured a job in the civil service - first at the Post office, then as secretary to the Superintendent of Prisons. Dissatisfied by the limited opportunities of government bureaucracy, Carter soon turned his attention to poetry and politics. Growing up as part of the mixed race middle-class in a British Caribbean colony, Carter would not have been expected to identify so strongly with the struggles of working class people. But the poems he wrote during the early 1950s are marked by a sense of outrage against the injustices of colonial rule. In his 1951 volume, The Hill of Fire Glows Red, Carter closely observes ethnic and class divisions, and calls for liberation through unity and revolutionary action; and in The Hidden Man, published the following year, he cultivates a poetics of social realism, meticulously documenting the concrete details of oppression.

Despite the fact that many of Carter’s early poems express strong political views, it is important to note how he consistently works within a subtle but essential dialectic, forging a voice that simultaneously private and public. There are quietly meditative lyrics, such as “Listening to the Land” from The Hill of Fire Glows Red, which summons up an unspoken history of slavery - “tongueless whispering / as if some buried slave wanted to speak again” - inscribed in the vast continental landscape. In The Kind Eagle, another volume published during this period, Carter’s protest idiom also moves dialectically, mediating between elements that are universal or transnational and those that are particular to his own locality. Like Whitman, Carter seeks to inspire and exhort the people to action by using figures of speech such as apostrophe, anaphora, and other syntactical patterns of repetition. But in “The Kind Eagle”, the title poem of the collection, Carter effectively mediates between a public mode of Whitmanian declamation and a far more privately local Creole cadence and syntax, drawing on images (such as the river collapsing to an estuary) that are distinctly Guyanese.

I dance on the wall of prison!
It is not easy to be free and bold!
It is not easy to be poised and bound!
It is not easy to endure the spike!
So river flood, drown not my pillar feet!
So river flood, collapse to estuary!
Only the heart’s life, the kind eagle, soars
and wheels in flight.

Too often, critics have emphasized Carter’s reference to political contexts, as well as the simplicity and accessibility of his style. As a result, his skills as a craftsman have been relatively neglected. In the brief lyric “Till I Collect”, from Poems of Resistance from British Guiana, we find polished blank verse stanzas that cohere through internal, perfect and imperfect rhyme. Carter’s speaker self-reflexively figures his lyric as a craft - with a “mast of love” and a “rudder tempered out of anguish” - sailing over an ocean illuminated by blood-red moonlight. The dwindling length of each successive stanza dramatizes the poet-speaker’s self-diminishing hesitancy and doubt, and the elliptical, open form of the concluding stanza suggests that the poet writes for a better, future society whose ideals have yet to be realized.

Over the shining mud the moon is blood
falling on ocean at the fence of lights.
My mast of love will sail and come to port
leaving a trail beneath the world, a track
cut by my rudder tempered out of anguish.

The fisherman will set his tray of hooks
And ease them one by one into the flood.
His net of twine will strain the liquid billow
And take the silver fishes from the deep.

But my own hand I dare not plunge too far
lest only sand and shells I bring to air
lest only bones I resurrect to light.

Over the shining mud the moon is blood
falling on ocean at the fence of lights -
My course I set, I give my sail the wind
to navigate the islands of the stars
till I collect my scattered skeleton
till I collect…

As a prominent figure in the PPP, and member of the editorial board for their publication, Thunder, Carter’s hopeful sense of his party’s prospects did not seriously wane until a drastic “split” occurred in February 1955, when L.F.S. Burnham, an Afro-Guyanese leader and chairman in the party, and several others, left the party which was then under the leadership of an Indian, Cheddi Jagan. Burnham’s departure portended the growing racial tensions between people of African and Indian descent, and sectional conflicts within the polity as a whole. Eventually, Carter fell out of favor with Jagan, and subsequently endured a long period of political disillusionment. Unlike many other Guyanese intellectuals of his era, Carter did not migrate to the metropole; he chose instead to remain active in local politics, serving briefly as Minister of Information for the PNC government under Burnham in the late 1960s. But he suddenly resigned his post in 1969, when he saw that the racial and ethnic strife in the region was worsening. Despite his continued commitment to national unity and the ideal of racial reconciliation in Guyana, he for the most part withdrew from formal politics. After leaving public life, he continued to write and speak publicly on the dangers posed to society, and especially to young people, by violence and corruption.

Carter’s shift away from poetics of political commitment meant that this phase of his career has been neglected. Taken together, the lyrics in Poems of Succession offer a sustained, skeptical inquiry into the limits of language. This same skepticism informs Carter’s style, as his taut paradoxes and difficult syntax question the efficacy of public speech, moving the mind ever forward, never allowing the reader to rest on easy rhetorical formulae. In one of his best known lyrics written during this period, Carter’s disappointment with public life are distilled into three-stress, memorably aphoristic lines:

In the premises of the tongue
dwells the anarchy of the ear;
In the chaos of the vision
resolution of the purpose.

And would should 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”)

Like Poems of Succession, Poems of Affinity also exhibits paradoxical, and often densely chiastic verbal structures that delineate the depth and difficulty of Carter’s response to political events. Consider, for example, his evocation of horror at the murder of a Roman Catholic priest in ‘Bastille Day - Georgetown”: “Not wanting to deny, I/believed it. Not wanting/to believe it, I denied/our Bastille day.” But most poems in this volume chart the endless flux of an inner life encountering despair, and seeking significance in the smallest details of nature and local culture. Here, as in his earlier work, Carter demonstrates that for the poet, “being” entails craft - that is, the hard earned technique of arranging the often chaotic and bewildering reciprocal entailments of private and public; meditation and declamation; mind and world:

Being, always to arrange
myself in the world, and the world
in myself, I try to do both. How
both are done is difficult.

Carter died in December 1997, and was buried at the Place of Heroes, which had previously been reserved for Heads of State. For his artistry, wisdom, and commitment to the future of Guyana and the region as a whole, we have good reason to be thankful.

Anita Patterson, Boston University
First published 21 October 2004

(Courtesy of
Anonymous Anonymous said...
where can i find an online copy of i come from the nigger yard

Blogger jebratt said...
Thanks for the comment as I always love hearing feedback... In answer to your question, I do not think there exists a copy of his poem "I Come From the Nigger Yard" online as I had tried to find one recently to no avail... As a result, I had to copy the one hear from a book...
Thanks again !!

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