Martin Carter
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Sunday, March 26, 2006
December 19, 1997
I believe we can fly - goodbye to Martin Carter

On Sunday last, I had one of those rare experiences, which I suppose, all flesh is heir to. From about 9.00 a.m. friends had dropped in and we had talked matters literary, matters political, matters Caribbean, matters of life-styles, in an unstructured way which created its own structure of thought and feeling. It had gone on until 10.00 p.m. For more than 12 hours. It was what I call a Soul Food Sunday. I suppose it has become a feature of my life these past 30 years. So much so, that in playing a part in the design of our house, Jennifer had it so designed that she could be in the kitchen and take part fully in what she calls "the conversations." The flow of food and the flow of talk are vital to these unscheduled Soul food days.

Then at 11.30 p.m. my youngest son by Arah, Amilcar, returned from University. Going to the airport to meet any of my children I always remember that past time when I had to go to meet them after their mother was murdered. They were all abroad at the time. Try as I might that dreadful occasion always returns to churn up the mind. I was abroad at the time too. Returning on the long trek from England I had to keep fighting myself to get some lines from Bishop King out of my head.

    But hark, my pulse like a soft drum
    Beats my approach, tells Thee I come;
    And slow however my marches be,
    I shall at last sit down by thee.

It was written I know on the death of King's young wife, and the analogy was obvious, but its metaphysical character was the frame of mind I did not want to be in. Later when the boys came in I wondered what fixation must have bothered them on the long flight from California and from Cuba. All three sons and myself were away when Arah was set upon and done in. I had failed her and them. The thought overwhelmed. And every time I go now to the airport to meet anyone of them that sense returns. Last Sunday it was the same, but it was a moment of triumph. Amilcar had finished and he announced, with characteristic aplomb and nonchalance, that he was going back to grad school. I felt ten feet tall. It was of his own choosing. I had a sense of a debt outstanding paid to Arah. I had seen the last one through, as she would have wanted.

But as high as I had mounted in my delight in my dejection did I sink as low. On coming home, I opened the papers to find that Martin Carter, the great Caribbean poet was dead. I let out a spontaneous howl.

On Monday I turned on the radio hoping to hear something of Martin Carter. Nothing. Just nothing. Foolishly, and in a frenzy, I went to the TV hoping to find some appreciation of Martin Carter. I forgot completely that TV was not about us at all! I usually boast that I am incapable of depression. Grief yes, but depression, No. My own optimistic cast of mind does not allow of such. I wanted to call my brother friend Lukie. but he and I have commiserated about so many deaths that I did not wish to impose on him. In fact, he called about a student I had taught, who died suddenly that very Monday. Pain is sometimes heaped upon pain. One steels oneself and reaches for greater humanity.

But why was there nothing of Martin Carter on Radio and TV, about the most Caribbean of Caribbean poets? Why? Why? We lay-waste our own substance.

And, of all things, V.S. Naipaul's caustic comment came to mind. I have not looked it up in his The Middle Passage, I never learnt it. But it came to mind with great force: "History is built around achievement and creation and nothing was created in the West Indies." What a categorical judgement!

I found it difficult now, as I had in the past, to categorise this and dismiss it as purely the Eurocentric Naipaul. I juxtaposed this against his other comment that we in the West Indies, reserve our admiration "for scholarship winners gone mad and failed cricketers". It was largely true I said, still defensive. Then I reconciled myself with: It is still true.

But then I counter-attacked. Martin Carter, as poet, was indeed a West Indian achievement in his own creations as poet. And perhaps moreso as a man - a man of the rarest integrity. The integrity shone through in his person, in his love of good talk, good company and the good times which these two add up to make. And above all in the love of his wife. It was a rare pleasure to be at their house, and you knew in the profoundest way, that he and his wife had created a home and a habitation, with little or no models to go by. It was their own creation. In its own right, a West Indian creation. There was no affected stylisation about the relation between Martin and his wife. Each day it was spontaneous, natural, entirely free of imitation, with its own intimations of a love deep and abiding. And, he did not pretend to be Heathcliffe of Wuthering Heights or she Elizabeth of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice. They were themselves.

    It was not a case of
    By all of Him thou hast in thee;
    Leave nothing of myself in me
    Let one so read thy life, that I
    Unto all life of mine may die

Each was her or his person in union, each helping the other to realise their personality in their spheres of existence - in union. Martin Carter's marriage was to me, in itself, a work of art, with all the disingenuous ingenuity so essential to great art.

Every time I hear modern people, in their wisdom, tell me that marriage cannot work, I think of the Carter marriage, the Black, Indian and White races they represent, and say, here the impossible union is made manifest and dwells - more correctly - dwelt among us.

After being in Martin Carter's house his immortal lines - This is the dark time, my love. - took on new meaning. I knew that the terror of the time was contrasted with "my love" and the "my love" was not a salutation as the casual reader may guess, but the illumination that would follow the dark time, as embodied in his love.

I am incapable at the moment at looking at Martin Carter's poetry. I would weep, and weeping I could not write. But I can look at his poetics, that is, the theory of art that informed his imagination and his particular structure of feeling. To do this I am going to have to quote at length from an interview he did with Bill Carr, a Professor of English at the University of Guyana, and a personal friend of Martin's. Here is an excerpt from most remarkable interview.

Bill: Any poem presumably is an adventure, something which is totally unknown and in terms of your craftsmanship how do your readers respond to what you say? Do you think of them? Do you bother with the readers when you write a poem?

Martin: No one knows - you write. You imagine an audience - an imaginary audience, and the imaginary audience is God, who is everybody.

Bill: Well yes, God has the supreme copyright, but I am sure that you do not think of God all the time when you are writing a poem.

Martin: I don't think of God, he thinks of me.

Bill: That's an aspiration or a conviction?

Martin: Arrogance.

Bill: No it is not arrogance at all - an aspiration or conviction?

Martin: Faith, F-A-I-T-H.

Bill: How would you describe faith?

Martin: Faith is a belief that - the sun rises in the morning. Hemingway wrote a book. The Sun Also rises. I also rise.

Bill: What you said a moment ago, when you are writing poetry your firm conviction is in the existence of, is it God? I mean it could well be God or a God, it could be a Hindu God, or a Muslim God, a Christian God, they all seem to boil down to the same thing.

Martin: It boils down to love.

Bill: This conditions not your sensibility which is your own personal thing but your feeling when you are writing a poem.

Martin: Nobody writes a poem upon feeling. Feeling invents a man.

I warrant you, there are some profound nuggets in this exchange about God - as everybody; about faith, as more than the evidence of things unseen, and art as the province of everybody in his imaginary audience.

It reminds of Belinsky's unmatched comment redefining art, in which Belinsky stated:

"To take away from art the right to serve the public interest is not to elevate it but to debase it because it means to deprive it of its most vital force - of thought - to transform it into the object of some kind of sybaritic movement, the plaything of lazy idlers. It even means to kill it, as the sorry condition of painting in our time bears witness. This art, as if it did not notice the life that is seething around it, has closed its eyes to everything that is alive, contemporary, actual, and looks for inspiration only to the lifeless past, seeks ready-made ideals from it, ideals to which people long ago became indifferent, which interest no one any longer, which do not warm, do not inspire living sympathy in any one.

Art must serve to illuminate social questions. It was, in my view, Martin Carter's credo. That is just as social arrangements impose certain conditions upon the writer, so the writer must use imagination to change those impositions and make the readers, or the audience, see the need not to sleep to dream, but to dream to change the world. The work is its creator. Be it the fruit of conscious organisation or dark instinct, it is the expression of an individual nature. What alone matters is what the work expresses. So that Shakespeare, Milton Puskin, Goethe, Raphael, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Walcott, Lamming, Wilson Harris, Minshall, are to him their works; their private lives do not directly concern him, only the vision of life that they carry, their depth, their validity, their relation to the central problems that have agonised women and men of their time, as imaginary audience. Maybe, Martin Carter projected beyond Schiller's point of the artist as the avenger of insulted nature, the restorer of the integral human being whom convention, and in Martin's case, imperial domination, has distorted or destroyed. And this work of restoring or leading out his imaginary audience - everybody - to strive to become the integral human being, to whom nothing truly human is alien, he calls simply and profoundly an act of love.

But this aesthetic of Martin Carter, is all the more important. He is probably the only West Indian writer who did not live abroad, except for a brief stay at the University of England as a writer in residence. In other words, Martin's theory of art is in and of itself West Indian. Mark you he was a voracious reader, an autodidact of high quality. But it is Martin Carter as artist, up against his own reality, natural and social, mediated by the great writers and critics he had read, who through the patient labour of the negative worked out his own theory of art, and practised it. In him there is a unity of theory and practice that is indivisible. And unlike Naipaul the theory is rooted in the Caribbean. Those who saw him as some sort of ideological poet missed the point by a mile. He was no social realist a la Soviet Union. Not even like Pablo Neruda whom he greatly admired. He was a poet. A poet whose feeling invented the man, and who hoped, by faith, that truly human history would begin "Ah yes, tomorrow", but who looked for the regenerative protons and neutrons, in the current "carnival of misery".

And as Martin himself said "If life is the coin itself the one side of the coin is love, and the other side is death. So poets talk about these things - life, love and death." But the distinguishing feature of Martin Carter, as man, as husband, above all as poet, was the belief, the f-a-i-t-h, that we can fly - soar above the impositions of history.

Martin Carter was confident in his own aesthetics that he refuted the commonly accepted notion that the artist is a rebel. "This idea" wrote Martin Carter in 1958 "about the artist being a rebel seems a romantic notion to me, a notion the philistines love". Later he continued with words which Naipaul and another need ponder. Wrote Carter to Kyk-Over-Al in May 1958 "You say" part of the repressive atmosphere of the Colonial scheme is its intellectual poverty". May I extend this condition of poverty to everything? And may I say that the job of the artist and intellectual in the West Indies is no different from the job of the artist and intellectual in every part of the world. We are concerned always with the human condition and the establishment of value. Everything is to be taken in hand and given meaning."

There is perhaps no shorter and few better definitions of the artist in society than this one. It is the job of the artist in the context of the particular human condition to establish value, by taking everything in hand, and giving it meaning for his imaginary audience. Not an audience of the elite, but an imaginary audience of everybody. The artist establishes value for everybody.

I have gone a long way to prove that Martin Carter is in himself, as man, as poet, as husband, a West Indian achievement. But it remains true, that he is an achievement that is not yet part of our reservoir, from whose well-spring our being West Indian springs. Martin Carter awaits a Caribbean homecoming, when we acknowledge our own achievements and creations, be they the work of the architect, poet, the sculptor, the farmer, the fisherman, the scientist.

And how best to end this, but with a poem of Martin Carter's, the only one I can completely remember at this time.

This is the dark time, my love,
All round the land brown beetles crawl about
The shining sun is hidden in the sky
Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow
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 stranger invader
Watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.

Check the remarkable phrase, "the carnival of misery." It sums up our post-independence, structurally-adjusted condition under globalisation. And we are reminded that "the stranger invader" does not only come in the explicit and literal "festival of guns" but in WTO rulings as he watches "you sleep and aiming at your dream." If however you awake in time, my love, "Red flowers" will unbend their heads", in affirmation that however struck down, however marginalised, however defrauded by wretched corruption - the sun also rises. Martin rises. Rises because he believed we could fly - fly on the wings of our achievements and creations - in the fullness of time. That time when "all are involved" in creating and renewing as we "awake and full of good life." "Ah yes, tomorrow," was Martin's undying vision.

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