Place of birth
National identity

Milton Williams

Short biography
Milton Williams was born on Plantation Lusignan on East Coast Demerara, Guyana, in 1936. His mother, who named him after the seventeenth century poet, was an avid reader and great lover and quoter of poetry. He remembers watching the occasional performance of a Shakespeare play at the local church school in Buxton, performed by the pupils of Queens Royal College and recalled how workers in the sugar factory, where his father was an engineer, were able to quote Shakespeare and used that skill in wooing the village girls. The Williams family were staunch church-going people, deeply versed in the Bible, though Milton recalls an occasion when the family home was visited by an obeah man dressed from head to foot in white. Milton Williams’ own more idiosyncratic education began courtesy of Georgetown Public Library. Tolstoy and Walt Whitman were but two of the writers he read.

His family’s orientation towards an European style of life is reflected in his poems where Africa is a past to which there are few connections. As an estate dweller and then migrant to the UK in the 1950s, it is perhaps not surprising that the experience of being black in a white world is frequently portrayed as a source of pain. Milton Williams’s relationship to the Indian culture of the estates is less ambivalent. In his youth, before the racial conflicts of the early l960s, Africans and Indians lived side by side on the estates, amicably if without close contact. Whilst even today many Afro-Guyanese remain ignorant of all but the superficialities of Indo-Guyanese culture, Milton Williams was different. Although not specifically aware at the time of his own part-Indian ancestry (his maternal grandfather was an Indian carter called Prince) he had a keen interest in the festivals and ceremonies of the Indians on the estates, the source of one of his most luminous poems, ‘0 Prahalad Dedicated Day’. In later life Milton Williams added the name Vishnu to honour that grandfather, and he has read widely in the classics of Indian religion and philosophy.

What propelled both the development of his poetry and his exile was the political situation in Guyana in the 1950s. Until the election in 1953 of the People’s Progressive Party led by Dr. Cheddi Jagan, British Guiana had been ruled by a repressive oligarchy of expatriate Government officials, the Sugar Producers’ Association and a few representatives of the local middle class. Poems such as ‘The Dancers’ and ‘Sometimes A Man’ respond to those facts of colonial life. Industrial action by workers, particularly on the sugar estates, frequently ended in the armed and bloody intervention of the police. ‘Sent Away And Asked To Keep Quiet’ records one such incident. However, it was not so much the politics of the P.P.P. which attracted Milton Williams, but the fact that amongst its leaders was the poet Martin Carter, one of those detained by the British, after Jagan’s Government was dismissed and the constitution suspended. Williams sent some of his poems to Carter and was invited to meet the remarkable circle of writers and artists which included Carter and his brother Keith, Ivan Van Sertima, Wilson Harris, and Sidney Singh, a profound critic. This group was unlike any other in the English-speaking Caribbean. Elsewhere the spirit of writing was, though radical and anti-colonial, empirical in sensibility and conventional in aesthetics. The circle Williams joined combined an appetite for Hegel and Marx, European metaphysical speculation, modernist writers such as Thomas Mann and Rilke, a symbolist rather than a realist aesthetic, but also a continuing contact with the folk-culture of the African and Indian villagers. Milton Williams’s poetry reveals a metaphysical yoking of heterogeneous voices, a bringing together of the transcendent and the mundane, which probably has its roots in his individual response to the juxtaposition of diverse elements in Guyanese culture and the presence of the vast uninhabited regions of the interior which reminds always of what is elusive, unknown and of tantalising but unachieved possibility.

Although Milton Williams was able to find some outlets for his poetry in the pioneering Guyanese journal, Kyk-Over-Al, edited by A.J.Seymour (and now happily revived), to broadcast some poems on the Caribbean Voices programme and to publish a small collection, Pray For Rain in 1958, he, like Harris and Van Sertima, found Guyana too restrictive an environment. By 1957, political hopes were dead as the nationalist movement split on ideological and racial lines. Poems such as ‘Roots’, the Tristram sequence and ‘Icarus’ explore the years of disillusion and the decision to go into exile.

By 1960, Williams was in Britain, living at first in London and then moving by a strange process of chance to Newcastle where he lived until 1984. More than most migrants from the Caribbean, he came to Britain with the innocent belief that his blackness would be as irrelevant to the British as it was to him. It was too generous and trusting an approach to the world which brought him face to face with new sources of agony: to an awareness of cultural loss, the complexities of mixed ancestry, racial hurts and the sense of failing to achieve in the eyes of the world. For much of his life in the UK the great possibilities inherent in his talent and his intellectual curiosity were lost in periods of mental turmoil, of delusions, of being sectioned in psychiatric hospitals. However, in the periods of lucidity Williams continued to write poems of self-insight and, in particular, love poetry of crystalline beauty. In 1979, he published a small collection, Sources of Agony, and in 1986, Peepal Tree collected his poems in Years of Fighting Exile: Collected Poems 1955-1985.