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All Are Involved: The Art Of Martin Carter

Written by Dannabang Kuwabong for Sargasso, No. 10 on Thursday, October 22, 2015

All are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter is a new book of essays edited by Stewart Brown to celebrate the late Martin Carter’s contribution to the development of Caribbean literature. This book of essays should have come before Carter’s death. It would then have been a more fitting tribute to a man who has done so much for Caribbean literature, but has yet today not been considered worthy of serious academic study by the literary gurus of Caribbean literatures. Carter deserved better than this, but thanks to the untiring efforts of Stewart Brown, what he has brought out is still worthy of the creativity and excellence of Carter as a poet, cultural activist, and politician.

The essays are of a very mixed blend. There are new and old literary pieces, political assessments of Carter’s political role in both the pro-independence movement and the post-independent period. Added to these are a significant number of insightful eulogies and interviews. Stewart’s introduction to the volume states unequivocally Carter’s unstated prominence in Caribbean literature: Carter, he writes is regarded as one of the 'great poets who have chronicled the journey from colonialism to independence, alongside such figures as Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott, Nicolás Gullén and Kamau Brathwaite' (7). In spite of this historical and literary importance, and the brilliance of Carter’s craft, which rises above mere anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial rhetoric, his work has suffered a mournful neglect in the study of Caribbean literature.

The articles are arranged to reflect the historical path of Carter’s literary and political developments. First, we read of Carter as a poet of socialist realism, whose poetry is informed by his political vision at the dawn of Guyana’s independence. This is then followed by essays detailing the periods of his silent disillusion, to the period of his reawakened, but sober anger and near despair at the casual brutality of Guyana’s politicians.

Clem Seecharan’s article opens the volume. It basically sets the tone of the rest of the book. He reviews Carter’s role in the independence movement together with Burnham and Jagan, both of whom later ruled Guyana with iron fists to the disillusionment of Carter. Clem’s chapter does well to read Carter’s early Marxists leanings, his political convictions, and how these were wrought into revolutionary classics. Clem proves very clearly how the political history of Guyana, its interracial and class tensions, and the economic and social thuggery of the leadership, can all be gathered from the revolutionary and visionary poetics of Carter. Carter’s politics at the time is explored in Rupert Roopnaraine’s chapter. Unlike Seecharan, Roopnaraine does not look into Carter’s poetry to unveil the horrors of Guyana’s history of the time. His piece does a socio-historical analysis of the times. He examines the search for a Caribbean cultural identity by persons such as Carter, a middle-class mulatto Marxist, and shows how that search influenced the political rhetoric of the time. In his concluding remarks, Roopnaraine writes, 'Martin Carter contributed not only to the quantity of the national movement but to its quality. He educated us into the habit of thinking and proposed for our consideration a politics of decency rooted in the moral sense' (55). For Roopnaraine, Carter was more of a moral philosopher of Guyana’s politics. Roopnaraine’s second article in the volume then does a more sustained reading of Carter’s literary contributions to the development of Guyana’s culture.

The section on 'The Literary Context' follows basically the same arrangements as we have in the first section. Ivan Van Sertima’s essay links up thematically with Seecharan’s, in its exploration of the politics in the poetry and the poetry in the politics of Carter. Unlike, Seecharan’s article, however, Sertima spends a lot of energy discussing politician Cheddi Jagan and novelist Wilson Harris, as the most influential personae of Guyana of the 1950s and 1960s. From that position, he then kind of thrusts Carter in between the two as a third, but less influential factor in the shaping of Guyana’s political and cultural landscape. Sertima expresses disillusion with Carter’s poetic because he believes Carter allowed his political views to dominate his poetic potential and talent. However, in writing about the vigor and reclamatory poetic of Carter, Louis James sees Carter as the Guyanese representative of the protest poetry that engaged the discourse of Negritude and the sinewy toughness of an anti-racist, anti-colonial poetry.

James’ review betrays a predilection towards assembling and giving more room to non-Caribbean poets, as if that was needed to legitimate and validate Carter’s voice, unless it is to register Carter’s voice as part of universal mien. But in doing so, James fails to explore the individuality of Carter’s own development and the concentrated focus of his passion. Asein’s piece is a general assessment of the tradition of protest poetry in the Caribbean. In this assessment, Asein then locates Carter’s place firmly as a pioneer in the development of that tradition. Jefferey Robinson introduces us to Carter’s engagement of Caribbean demotic, as a literary device. But his conclusion sounds very patronizingly dismissive of the literariness of the Caribbean demotic. He states that Carter’s engagement of dialect in his later poetry demonstrates a deprivation of language to reflect a disillusion with the political climate of his time. Carter would have sounded hollow to use 'high English' in order to appeal directly to the people through their own language and mode of cultural resistance. In a latter essay, 'The Root and the Stone: The Rhetoric of Martin Carter’s Poems of Succession,' Jefferey comes down from his high linguistic chair. Here, he distinguishes clearly between Carter’s use of the linguistic continuum as a demonstration of his literary ingenuity and complexity, from the lame rhetoric of the disillusioned Carter as a political pundit. Frank Birbalsingh, Sydney King, Neville Dawes, A. J. Seymour, Barbara Lalla, all make very incisive interpretations of individual poems, but more particularly the classic poem, 'The University of Hunger.' Again, unlike studies of Walcott or Brathwaite, which always tend to be long and exhaustive, these brilliant little pieces on Carter always read more like book reviews, and never go beyond the politics into an examination of the discursiveness of his poetry. Nonetheless, Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s two evaluations of Carter’s voice of authentic resistance try to give a detailed stylistic analysis of Carter’s work. But Brathwaite’s articles seem a bit shredded because he quotes excessively from the poems in order to validate very broad postulations.

Eusi Kwayana’s 'The Politics of the Heart,' Gordon Rohlehr’s 'Assasins of the Voice: Martin Carter’s Poems of Affinity 1978-1980,' and Al Creighton’s 'The Poet is Speaking: Carter’s Politics of Communication' are for me the best essays in the whole collection. They give an in-depth analysis of Carter’s work. They critically examine the socio-political and cultural landscapes that shaped the history of his consciousness, and which enabled him to shape the consciousness of other Guyanese writers and cultural activists. One would have thought that these articles that appeared in the 1980s would propel other Caribbeanists to look seriously at Carter’s poetry. This never happened. The problem, Creighton writes, is because almost all critics came/come to Carter looking for confirmation of their own political ideals, or for evidence to condemn political poetry. Critics of Caribbean poetry, therefore, almost always and invariably then privileged Carter the politician over Carter the artist. But as Kwayana says, it is now time to look at Carter more from a literary reader-response position, and also from multiple angles.

As Stewart has remarked in his introduction, the rest of the collection are memoirs about Carter. They are tributes and dedications to a hero who passed away in silence, but leaving a body of work wailing with a loud voice. In these memoirs, David Dabydeen’s confession best encapsulates the trend that prevented the study of Carter’s poetry. He reveals the fate of Caribbean poets who decide to publish their works locally in order to satisfy a local demand. These poets are then hardly known in the international market, and subsequently are understudied by their own people trekking the corridors of academies in the intellectual emporiums of Europe and North America. On a different note, but as an expansion of Dabydeen’s piece, Sasenaraine [sic] Persaud reveals how the racial tensions between African Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese, fostered by Cheddi Jagan and Burnham Forbes, which Carter fights against in his poetry and politics, prevented [him] from trying to read Carter. To read Carter in [his] youth would have meant a sell out to the Blacks, and [he] was not black. [His] article is a necessary reading for those who must understand the frustration, the humanity, and the tenderness of Carter’s heart, which gave birth to the passionate anger of his voice. Out of this chaos could come a terrible voice of beauty, as the tributes and the articles all suggest, that points to Carter’s belief that if the tensions between the two races could be harmonized, Guyana will yet sing songs of glory.

Stewart has done a brilliant job, and the book is worth its name and price. It is a text all departments of English with programs on Caribbean and Postcolonial literatures should put in their reserve libraries. Because the book was put together in a hurry to celebrate Carter’s passing, not enough new perceptions on Carter’s work are included in the text. Nonetheless, the balance of articles, the praise commentaries, and confessions, give the work a taste of what should be done to the surviving writers of the Caribbean, who like Carter, bleed in poetry for their countries. It has been done for Derek Walcott, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, and Wilson Harris. Maybe Stewart should begin a series to celebrate these other poets.

This is a review of All Are Involved: The Art Of Martin Carter

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