Martin Carter
(1927-1997)
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Monday, February 20, 2006

Watch My Language: From Cheddi Jagan to Martin Carter


By Sasenarine Persaud

"All of a man is heart is hope"...................................................................Martin Carter

At a certain time when I was growing up, it seemed that there were always references to a person who wrote and recited his poetry publicly. I say seemed because at a certain age one is never certain of some things but has snatches of impressions. One knew that it was an important and momentous time - that there were upheavals, tension and great sweet victories. And then things some things got clearer. Out of that stabilizing centre of home, family and relatives, pujas and kathas and the recitals from the great poetic epics of India in mandirs came a calm and an euphoria. And then those disturbances one never forgets, no matter how long one lives: the roving gangs of black men on bicycles, and the men, the Indian men in our little cul-de-sac street
of all Indians, on the edge of Kitty bordering Campbellville where we lived with my great-grandmother, keeping an armed, around the clock vigil. If these roving packs of black men, who pounced on and beat up solitary Indian men in the city trying to go about their daily chores, should decide that our enclave of Indians was easy picking, then let them come.

Things were never quite the same again though all of that ended and things seemed to revert to normal. And it was left to "the Babulall", as Rohan Kanhai was known to Indians, and his batting genius, to take up where Jagan left off, let us down. Every ball Kanhai lashed, every run, every boundary was a salvaging of lost Indian pride - of defiance. We moved - a thing I sort of dealt with in my first novel, Dear Death - my mother died, another thing I sort of dealt with in that novel too, and I changed schools. I remember a huge celebration, and waving of flags, the learning of songs, an anthem and an exhortation in school that we must be happy, should be happy. Something like independence. We, the people of this young country were free at last - but at school, but only at school - not at home.

Through all of this I knew that this person who once wrote great poetry, and read them was fashionable again; that that devious black man, the enemy of Indians, who now ruled quoted this man who wrote these quotable verses. And this quotable man had sold out to this quoting man - he too was no good. I didn't know then that Carter was Minister of Information in Burnham's government. And much later, I would ask that same vexing question; how could Carter have been taken in by that man? And much later still be as frustrated and unsatisfied as I first was with the answer. Race and human emotions are complex things.

So too that Osmosis of opinions and hang-ups one sucks in while growing up. Those things, like the great race divide, which seeps into ones consciousness without one fully comprehending them. I grew into a greater consciousness hearing teachers at school fawn over Carter, and those black leaders, the enemy, at every turn spouting, "I come from the nigger yard of yesterday/leaping from the oppressors' hate/and scorn of myself...".

I was no "nigger". And I hated the word, as I hated being lumped together with people of African descent as "we black people" - involved in the struggle of black peoples the world over. I felt, like my relatives, that I was being made invisible. In my boy's mind I rebelled and resented that I should celebrate a blackness which wasn't mine. But if my relatives resented this celebration of blackness which made then invisible, they also resented and blamed Jagan for his sitting back, for his non-violence stance and our predicament as second class citizens. Why did he hold us back? If the blacks wanted a fight let us fight, carve up the country, set up our own state - they would only respect us in strength!

Race is a thing which nobody in our time and space could escape - well not even in this time and one only has to look at the Naipaul saga, or many of the critics' responses to my own work: that I am too Indocentric, Hinducentric - when what they really mean is that they find it difficult to deal with Hinducentred, outspoken - and often fearless Indians. And labelling is often the most convenient tool in the strategy of dismissal. The EuroAmerican pushed aura of Gandhi's PASSIVE-resistance was the stereotype expected of Indians and the Jagan non-violence approach strengthened the stereotype.

But I was learning from Martin Carter. If Carter could affirm and celebrate and find strength and acceptance in his "niggerness" in his poetry and do the same for black people, why couldn't I do the same thing in poetry with my Hinduness for myself and my community? I still get critics, including Indian ones, who are leery of my outspoken Indiangroundedness - a positioning from Carter's - but who can sing and celebrate his, "I Come From the Nigger Yard". But I am racing ahead.

I came late to Carter - and to Jagan. Or rather I should reverse that in the correct sequence, I came late to Jagan and then to Carter. Their lives intertwined in our history of a certain time and place: Carter served the kabaka, and Jagan kept us down, did not let us carve out a state for ourselves when we had the guns and the arms and the anger and the will. The "wisdom" of elders which follows kids into adolescence, and often much later into life could be a stifling thing!

Later, directly exposed to the machinations of Burnham and the PNC, and the attendant racism, I would rebel and resist Carter - and Jagan - much more consciously and independently of my parents and relatives. I throw in Jagan because in many ways my revision of my appraisal of Carter was dependent on my reappraisal of Cheddi Jagan - and visa versa.

In the sixth form at Queen's College, I was lucky in having the late N.A. Robinson as my literature teacher: write write all that poetry if you must Sase - but also read all the fine poetry around too - Carter, Walcott...well after exams, he would urge. That too dealt with somewhere else in my writing. But reasoning-thinking-analyzing is a slower process than the reflexive emotional.

We were in the late seventies and switching from the London G.C.E. to the CXC examinations and Carter's poetry was in one of the books on the soon-to-be-introduced syllabus...

But I have jumped ahead again. I was teaching at the Central High School and the CXC History syllabus was being phased in first and Jagan's classic West on Trial was on the syllabus. George Moore, the acting deputy principal who was teaching history, in an extraordinary act of courage for those tenuous times did not hide his copy of West on Trial, with which he walked to classes and back openly - like a badge of honour. George Moore, a man of African ancestry, was one of the nicest, most agreeable persons on our staff, a respected but approachable elder, and we had never seen him angry until that day we good naturedly teased him, as we had done so many times before: what was this "Jagan history" he was teaching the kids in class? He slammed down West On Trial on a table in the staff room and glared at us, a young largely Indian staff: What do you really know of Cheddi Jagan? What do you really know of Dr. Cheddi Bharat Jagan that is not propaganda? Have you read his classic? Why don't you read this book of this extraordinary Guyanese first before passing half-scalded judgement? Or words close to those boomed across the room like a cannon. There was a long silence. It was one of those extraordinary and rare moments in one's life. George Moore put his book in his locker and quietly left the room.

I hunted down that copy of West on Trial I had bought at the GNTC Bookstore - subsequently destroyed by fire - a book which I had breezed through before and read it again, carefully, slowly - if one can read such a fascinating book slowly. That, now battered, copy has the date scrawled across the title page: 86.09.29. It turned out to be a most extraordinary book - a book, which alone, I knew would guarantee Jagan a place in the history of Guyana, as one of its most outstanding writers and historians.

This was a watershed moment in my life. How could my relatives be so wrong about this man? And what of Carter? Many of the things I had imbibed from my society I was finally ready to reexamine, and throw out if need be. And so it was that I could finally go to Carter, read his work - put aside that certain conditioning as with Jagan - and let the work and one's subjective reason speak. Yes, subjective reasoning. Objectivity is a myth. Carter again, "Watch my Language".

This was at a time when I was awash in poetry. I wrote, read, slept, dreamt, poetry. A throwback to high school and especially my time at Queen's College and the prescribed poetry - Chaucer, Shakespeare, T.S. Elliot, Graves, Yeats, Auden, Owen, a host of others and the so called Metaphysical Poets - who were influenced by the European poets, in turn influenced by Indian mysticism and epic poetry, then novel in Europe.

I had found Tagore at Queens too. An odd a place? Not really. Remember Marvell's, "...Thou by the Indian Ganges side/Should'st Rubies find..." And there was the Hindu Society and the deliberate immersion in the Indian world; The Hindu Society and the voluntary immersion in celebrating things Indian were, in many ways, our tools in defying the Burnham regime and the racism of that time.

So there I was, teaching and politicking and poetrying. I lived for poetry, writing a poem a day for almost a year before slacking off into a poem every four days or so for another few years, and reading as much as I could from both sides of the Atlantic and further afield. From the Public Free Library as it was then - Burnham's National Library! came later - there were the contemporary British, and occasional European poets in the Encounter, London Magazine, Poetry Review and other journals while from the John F. Kennedy Library, a greater slew of contemporary magazines; Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, The Literary Review, The New Yorker, Paris Review, others... and a rich poetry book section: Pound, Dickenson, Merrill, Wallace Stevens, Hollander, McLeish, Mark Strand, Langston Huges... the collected/selected of Auden, Frost, Eliot...and too many others from elsewhere, including that of Lawrence and Hardy. I must have made an unconscious effort not to have a favourite poet because while there were many great poems in the lot, I could never remember names of poets.

Into all of this now came Carter. I was immediately spellbound by Carter's poetry, and I felt then that he was unquestionably the greatest poet in the English Language this half of the twentieth century. Here was a poet whose lyricism effortlessly bridged that gap between the written and spoken, academic and non-academic in a way done more consistently in this century only by Rabindranauth Tagore. Afterwards I would go on to read Walcott and Brathwaite and other West Indian poets. But their work only served to confirm and strengthen my original assessment of Carter. Only at their best they came close to what Carter had accomplished in all his poetry, well all his poetry which I had read at the time.

Of course, there was that gap where Carter left them all behind - those poems of resistance and defiance and mourning and sadness, poems like; "Weroon Weroon", "University of Hunger", "Death of a Comrade", "Letter 1", "Letter 2", "This is the Dark Time My Love" - which aptly described the time again before our eyes. Only this time the foreign invaders were the Guyana Defence Force soldiers marching through all those Indian villages, intending to cower the Indians; particularly that village I knew on the West Demerara - and which I sort of dealt with in my recently published "Jagan" long poem and an unpublished novel The Kinder Lake - in the aftermath of the baldfaced, brutally rigged 1973 elections. And then there were the People's Militia and The Guyana National Service putting on all those military parades on every least excuse of a 'National' occasion around Georgetown.

Perhaps Walter Rodney and the WPA, and Carter's somewhat redeeming association with them, his turning against the regime - the "roughing-up" he received from the regime's thugs helped. It was not a time for lollipop poetry. And I think the students knew that. I would read a Carter poem once, and then analyze it, go over the history and the politics - show how the poem was relevant to the time it was born of and to our own time and the students would want to hear the poem read again and again. There would be a hush and full silence, and then questions and comments. And when the bell went for the end of a period everyone would want to stay longer and do more poetry. That was what Carter's poetry did in a time when students tended to shy away from poetry.

But nothing stands by itself, not even poetry, and one only has to look at Walcott and Brathwaite and their university connections which supported their poetry and reputations. It is one of those quirks, that brahminism of literature, where once a writer is a lecturer or professor, has a Ph.D. (never mind if it is a Ph.D. in physics) or graduated from a particular university, or from university period, that his work is automatically held to be more complex, more wrought, more crafted by all those editors and publishers and critics who themselves have a claim to the caste of the university and academia. If Sam Selvon suffered for not really belonging to this brahminism, to be sure so too did Martin Carter. I only saw this clearly when I came to Canada. But I am again jumping ahead.

Close encounters with Carter were few. Once or twice I visited his house on Lamaha Street to drop off copies of poetry collections by friends - P.D. Sharma's The New Caribbean Man, for instance, which Sharma had just published in Los Angeles and wanted me to take to Carter. Very brief meetings. I would pass Carter on my bicycle or on my motorcycle on Vlissengen Road as we both headed for the seawall - his long, brisk striding walk unmistakeable - for the calm and rage of the Atlantic, and the sea breeze, that seemingly endless expanse of water.

Another day it was at Bill Carr's house, a roaring discussion and drinking party in session, I was dropping off another copy of Sharma's book and, as Carr had suggested, one of my first poetry manuscripts for a Carr demolition. I had earlier had the privilege of listening to Carr present a brilliant paper at the University of Guyana titled, "Stewards of their Excellence" on the work of Carter, Walcott and Brathwaite, and that presentation had impressed me.

I had heard and seen Carter on other occasions. But the indirect encounter which stuck with me was that time we drank rum in the same rum shop. He with his few friends and I with mine. It was a rumshop in Alberttown, at the corner of fifth and Light Streets. There was cricket on and we were off work early, headed for Bourda. I can't remember if there might have been rain, or the match being over earlier than expected, or simply that good old Guyana excuse - the existence of a convenient rum shop - but we were stopped off there for a drink. It was the first time in my life that I got really plastered, and it was my last. The next day, listening to accounts of my exploits and language, I decided I didn't like being drunk and the best way of avoiding drunkenness was by avoiding drink - a resolve I have not broken since.

What I also recalled thinking before I ceased recalling anything else on that afternoon was this: here was a great poet who walked about his city, lived in it, drank in it without putting on any great airs - and he was neglected for it and for his truth seeking which did not always coincide with other people's. I also recalled feeling sorry for him, wondering if in his disillusionment with the rampant corruption of the Burnham regime and the near total breakdown of morality in our society, he wasn't simply drinking himself out and wasting this great gift of his - conscious of the gap in the publication of his poetry. I felt that if I continued on this way that could happen to me too, and I didn't want that to happen to me. Perhaps this may have had something to do with my own resolve the next day to give up drinking.

There are gaps. I left Guyana in 1988. To be sure Carter came to Canada - at least in his work. In a paper "The Indian Presence as a Caribbean Reality" presented at York University during the conference celebrating 150 years since the arrival of Indians to the West Indies, George Lamming would read from another of Carter's masterpieces, "Looking at Your Hands" and posit that the political dynamism and racial unity of the Indians and Africans of Guyana of the early 1950's - for which Cheddi Jagan more than any other person was responsible - was the fertile soil for the early genius of Carter [and for Jan Carew and Wilson Harris] - and that Carter was never to write like that again. This was an intriguing opinion with which a few writers present agreed.

But what struck me was that here was another of those twists and intertwining of journeys; Jagan's and Carter's. It was Jagan in a way who led me to Carter and Jagan was leading me back again. Jagan was himself at that conference at York University and I remembered after his presentation he stayed around to hear me read my poetry - having, earlier in the year in Guyana, agreed in principle that I could write his biography.

And then that next year (1989) Ian McDonald and Demerara Publishers would bring out Carter's Selected Poems. Nothing of its calibre had been published from within the region before - or after - and it was a pleasure to receive a copy from Ian McDonald. There are not many books I inscribe dates in on receiving. Carter's Selected Poems is one of those few: August 15/89. I walked around Toronto with my copy in my bag, reading in my lunch breaks at work, on the earlymorning subway, in the quiet of night.

Then it dawned on me why I admired Carter's poems so much - particularly his early poems up to 1966 - it was the seeming simplicity and directness of language, which I had found and loved in Tagore. And going back to Tagore and reading them side by side, the parallels were uncanny. I am browsing though my copy of Selected Poems now and seeing all those poems of Carter, alongside which I had written in Devnagri script - Tagore: "Shines The Beauty of My Darling" (The Hills of Fire Glows Red, 1951), "I Stretch my Hand" (The Hidden Man, 1952), "Let Freedom Awake Him" (Poems of Resistance, 1954) - and even in such later poems as "Rain Falls Upwards" (1966), "Before the Question" (1973), "In a Certain Time", "With That Loan" (from Poems of Affinity, 1980) and "One" (1984).

I couldn't help asking myself if there was a Tagore/Upanishadic/Indian influence; recalling mention of the British Guiana Dramatic Society's performances of Tagore's plays and work in the thirties and forties in Georgetown. Tagore was, has always been, a presence in Guyana - even in the naming of the Tagore Memorial High school on the Corentyne Coast. Was Carter aware of all this - some kind of osmosis. Tagore's famous verse 35 from the Gitanjali was/is a prayer used in the Guyana parliament. Who was responsible for that? And could Carter the politician and parliamentarian be unaware of it and its power and lyricism, of the personification of the poet as supplicant and prophet - and that personification of god much noted in Hinduism and a distinctive mark in Tagore's work, and in his own? In 1967 while Minister of Information he had met visiting Indian Swami Chinmayananda who had caused an uproar in the media by pronouncing on the stupid Guyana Pandits Council supported law, passed by the Burnham government, that only Brahmins could be pandits. There were calls for Chinmayananda to be expelled from the country for meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign county. The matter was eventually sorted out and Chinmayananda had even promised to send Carter some Indian literature after he returned to India.

Carter read widely, including of the Latin American poets, who themselves had greater contact with Indian thought and poetry through Tagore. On his well publicised South American tour Tagore had spent a few months in Argentina, reading and lecturing, and after falling sick, recuperating - guest of the well known Argentine writer, Victoria Ocampo. And Tagore came and brought all that was expected of the spirit of India.

What is again intriguing about the lives of Jagan and Carter was that there seemed to be some affinities with recent Indian history. Swami Chinmayananda, on that same trip to Guyana, after meeting Jagan had called him the, "Nehru of Guyana...". The reality is that a more accurate comparison of Jagan would be to Gandhi. Perhaps, in some ways, this is a comparison which has merit. And yet if Jagan was the, "Nehru of Guyana" in the fight for independence from Britain then Carter was The poet, The literary presence in that struggle for independence, not unlike Tagore who was The literary presence during the fight for Indian independence - at least in the eyes of the west. Was Carter conscious of this?

And did all this matter? Influences are extraordinarily quirky things. I had stopped making those "Tagore" notations alongside Carter's poems. In any event, which intellectual living his life in Guyana, or Trinidad, could not be aware of Indians and Indian culture and literature? Not event Walcott whose association with Trinidad, and its smaller percentage of Indians, was relatively short - and this comes out in his Nobel address.

Martin Carter not only deserved the Guyana Prize he won but the Nobel Prize for literature. I was amazed, but not really surprised, that other writers from Guyana in North America felt this and that, "Walcott could not even kiss the dust of Carter's feet". And interestingly almost all of those who feel this way are Indians - a throwback to ancestral aesthetics, to Tagore to the Upanishads? What is objective and not clouded by race? Not the Nobel Prize, not anything. Certainly not Brathwaite's African leaning "nation language" or even my yogic realism - but then I have never claimed that my yogic realism is the aesthetic of ALL West Indians.

Guyana is different, distinct from the rest of the West Indies and that difference has not only to do with the landscape but with the Indian population and its culture, and speech patterns and literature.

It was good to see Carter note the distinctiveness of Guyana from the Caribbean in his interview with Frank Birbalsingh in Kyk-over-al, and also the positive quirkiness which sets the writings apart. This interview, published in 1995, shows vintage Carter. Birbalsingh couldn't trip him up while he was making that distinction and pointing out the greater affinity of Guyana to Latin America than is normally assumed.

History is everything and yet it is nothing. It is instructive that all during those tough Burnham years, it was finally the smuggling (the most widespread and profitable industry at the time) of foodstuff and all manner of other things, through Guyana's South American neighbours; Surinam, Brazil and Venezuela which made life bearable. And even those of us who were Customs Officers knew this. Guyana is after all on the South American continent.

And Birbalsingh couldn't trip him up as he clinically took on Brathwaithe's "nation language". The proponents of "creole" - including Birbalsingh himself, who always in reviewing some of our works lament the lack of usage of "creole" and judge our works and our "originality" by the amount of creole used - must have cringed. Martin Carter had lost none of his sharpness and clarity and eloquence - not even in an interview. Carter continues to be as important a voice, for a certain community, as he was in the 1950's and early 1960's. And he is right. Language is indeed a personal thing and those of us who write largely in a standard English do so because it is the form of expression we are most comfortable in. And we are original and universal in it. We are direct in it. We achieve clarity in it. We communicate effectively in it, and as evidenced by Carter's own poetry, produce works of genius in it.

Martin Carter is unquestionably Guyana's first world class poet, and if one includes Guyana in the English Speaking West Indies, he is also the first and foremost world class poet from that region - nobody had achieved the sustainable poetic excellence and genius he achieved in the early 1950's - not even Walcott. And, perhaps, he is the only genuine poet - no playwright-poet, or historian-poet or novelist-poet or even academic-lecturer-poet - we have. No confusion of form. Yes, there has been dabbling here and there - and who doesn't dabble here and there? But finally this is what I need to say:

forgive me, if ever I came
to stand before you
in your own worn boots
thinking I brought myself.
Today I come unshoed
and lotus my legs
and wait to watch your language.

(Sasenarine Persaud is an author, poet and literary theorist)



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