Martin Wylde Carter was born in 1927 in Georgetown, British Guiana. His family, of mixed African, Indian and European ancestry, was part of the coloured middle class. His father was a civil servant, a reader and discusser of philosophy and mother also a lover of books and reciting verse. Martin Carter attended the prestigious Queen’s College between 1939 and 1945. In that year he got a job in the civil service, first in the Post Office, then as secretary to the superintendent of prisons. By 1945, it seems likely that he had come into contact with the Marxist ideas of the Political Affairs Committee (the Jagans, Cheddi and Janet, and HJM Hubbard). A friendship with the Jagans began, with access to their extensive, radical library.
His first poems began to appear in Thunder in 1950 and in Kyk-over-Al in the following year. He was also writing political pieces in Thunder under the pseudonym of M. Black (to protect his civil service post). In 1951, his first short collection, The Hill of Fire Glows Red, appeared in A.J. Seymour’s Miniature Poet Series, followed by The Kind Eagle (Poems of Prison), 1952 and The Hidden Man (Other Poems of Prison) - at this stage the prison was still metaphorical. In 1954 came the collection that established Carter’s international reputation, Poems of Resistance from British Guiana, published in London by the Communist publishers Lawrence and Wishart.
By this time, the constitution had been suspended after 133 days of PPP government and Carter was one of those who were detained. The prison became actual. By 1955, the beginnings of Martin Carter’s breach with the PPP was evident. He had been criticised by Cheddi Jagan as an ultra-leftist, and he was dismayed by the way in which race had become the chief recruiter to the Jagan/Burnham divide. He wrote the deeply pessimistic ‘Poems of Shape and Motion’ in this year.
From 1954-1959 Carter worked as a school teacher and published no poems until 1961. In 1959 he joined the multinational firm of Bookers (then owner of Guyana’s sugar estates as information officer, editing Bookers News between 1965 and 1966. The riots of 1962 brought him onto the streets on the side of the strikers against the Jagan government. The sequence of poems, ‘Jail Me Quickly’ come from this period. In 1967 he served under the Burnham government as a delegate to the UN, and in 1968 joined that government as Minister of Information, a post he held until 1970, when he resigned, publishing the poem, ‘...the mouth is muzzled/by the food it eats to live’. By this stage the incipient corruption, authoritarianism and racism of the Burnham government was more than a man of integrity could stand.
During the 1970s, Carter’s poems took on a more personal and reflective cast. His Poems of Succession was published by New Beacon in 1978. In that same year, Carter re-entered the political struggle as the Working Peoples Alliance, under the leadership of Walter Rodney began a political and physical struggle against the attempts of Burnham and the PNC to install their corrupt clique in permanent political power. Carter, beloved national poet, was beaten up by PNC thugs in 1978 in protests against the PNC’s refusal to hold elections; he was present at the 1979 demonstration when a Fr Darke, photographer for the Catholic Herald, was murdered in broad daylight (see Carter’s ‘Bastille Day - Georgetown’). His ‘Open Letter to the people of Guyana’ was a brave public attempt to draw attention to the depraved depths to which the PNC was taking Guyanese society - brave because of the killing at this time of a number of WPA activists, including of course Walter Rodney. Carter’s poetic response came in the brief, gnomic, densely multi-layered poems in Poems of Affinity 1978-80 (Release Publishers, 1980) which will provide an eloquent statement of how the artist can anatomise the dark heart of bleak times, which will be remembered long after the misdeeds of the Burnham regime are forgotten.
Whilst essays by critics such as Kamau Brathwaite and Gordon Rohlehr had made it very clear that Carter was to be regarded as in the very front rank of Caribbean poets, with the exception of other poets, his reputation did not extend much beyond Guyana, and there was a tendency to see him merely as a poet of protest. A number of publications have begun to change that situation. The publication of Rupert Roopnaraine’s brilliant essay Web of October: Rereading Martin Carter (Peepal Tree, 1987) showed how completely the personal and philosophical interpenetrated the political, and vice-versa, in his poetry. His Selected Poems came out in 1989 (Demerara Publishers) and again, enlarged and corrected, in 1997 (Red Thread Press) and it became possible for the first time to see just how considerable a body there was of Carter’s poetry, of the highest quality; while Poesias Escogidas (Peepal Tree, 1999), a dual English/Spanish translation of selected poems, reminded readers that Carter was a world poet who had to be seen in the highest company of the great Latin American poets, Neruda, Guillen and Cesar Vallejo.
In 2000, Peepal Tree published All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, ed. Stewart Brown, which with essays from virtually all significant Caribbean critics, Carter’s contemporaries, including Lamming and Walcott, and younger writers who recorded their debt to Carter’s poetic and human example, provided all the means that were needed to make sense of Carter’s giant achievement.
Carter himself was suffering from failing health in the 1990s, and it is sad but symptomatic that much of this recognition came at the end, or indeed, after his death in 1997. He never sought fame, was never a self-promoter of his work. He had to write the poems that he did. All Are Involved demonstrates the immense regard with which he was held by his fellow writers. Beyond them were the countless numbers of Guyanese people who carry Carter’s poetry in their hearts.
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