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All Are Involved: The Art Of Martin Carter

Written by Philip Nanton for The Caribbean Writer, Vol. 16 on Thursday, October 22, 2015

One of the things which gave him the most solace was that he was once walking somewhere and there was a little girl, who must have been maybe six years old or something like that, who saw him and called out to her mother, 'Mummy Mummy look, that look like the poems man there.' (George Lamming in conversation with Stewart Brown, p.316)

In London, in the 1960s, I remember a conversation with Guyana’s then High Commissioner in which he was promoting Guyana as a land of opportunity. One way in which this opportunity could be realized, he suggested, was by the recruitment of pioneers from neighboring Caribbean islands, who, because of land shortages, would found settler opportunities in Guyana’s vast interior. The reality, however, was substantial migration from Guyana and the growth of enclaves of Guyanese migrants not only in the centers of traditional Caribbean migration, such as New York, Toronto and London, but also in many of the same islands from where the putative pioneers were expected.
The paradox of Guyana runs deep, and this collection of essays on Guyana’s foremost poet of the second half of the twentieth century, Martin Carter, is a good way into a number of paradoxes that the country reveals. Martin Carter, 1927-1997, is well known as a poet of protest, a poet of the left who was committed to Guyana’s independence struggle. A one-time stalwart of the People’s Political Party, he was imprisoned for a short time by the British colonial authorities. Later, he served briefly in Forbes Burnham’s administration and found employment with Bookers, the dominant multi-national company in the Guyana of his time. A creative artist, he found himself out of tune with the philistinism of colonial Guyanese society and the sham post-colonial Burnham era. As this collection of essays and interviews makes clear, Carter’s poetry went well beyond mere protest, serving almost as the conscience of a nation.

The collection goes further and makes a case for regarding Martin Carter as 'without question one of the major poets of the English language in our time' (7). But Carter is little known outside his native Guyana, though examples of his searing political poetry have been widely anthologized and translated. His writing is held in high esteem by Caribbean writers, a number of whom have had much greater international acclaim than he ever achieved.

But is there more to this collection than a sense of duty done to honor an important national poet of the twentieth century? Why should we want to read about Carter’s poetry in the twenty-first century? Don’t we now live in a time in which all nationalisms are looking increasingly awkward? This large collection of essays, reminiscences, and obituaries which Stewart Brown has edited suggests three reasons why we should reconsider Carter’s importance and return to his poetry.

First, the largest section called 'Reading the Poems,' offers a range of critical essays that indicates the depth and subtlety of Carter’s poetry. Many of the essays are reprinted from limited circulation literary magazines and deserve a wider readership. They debate where and how to locate the balance in the relationship between the political, the personal, and the universal themes of his poetry. Contrast, for example, the essays by Bill Carr, Eusi Kwayana and al crighton. Two new essays in this section focus on land and landscape in Carter’s poetry (Stanley Greaves) and on what Gemma Robinson calls Carter’s 'poetic essays in community.'

The second reason to value this collection is that it contains a wide range of contributions by established Guyanese and Caribbean writers. The willingness of some 30 writers to offer personal recollections or interviews is a statement of their commitment to the value of Carter and his work (and probably a sign of the editor’s patient persistence). The long list of contributors is divided between many of Carter’s contemporaries as well as those whom the editor, perhaps generously, calls 'younger writers.'

Another source of interest in reading many of the contributions is that they reveal as much about the writers’ temperaments and tastes as they do about their perspectives on Carter. For example, a question which, by implication, periodically reappears throughout the collection is to what extent can Carter be identified as a 'Caribbean' poet or is he perhaps more a 'Latin American' poet who writes in English? Many of the contributors simply claim him for the Caribbean.

However, some of the more thoughtful pieces draw out revealing and important distinctions. Bill Carr is the most direct when he observes, '[Carter’s] work is quite unlike the work of Walcott, E. R. Brathwaite or Mervyn Morris. What relates his work to theirs is a shared and serious concern for craft. But the sensibility his craft expresses has no obvious meeting place with theirs' (157). Interviewed by David Dabydeen, Derek Walcott expresses what he thinks distinguishes a Guyanese sensibility from a Caribbean one in the following way: '[B]ehind my back there is infinity and I carried the weight of that infinity in terms of horizon, the savannahs of Guyana, and I felt that sense of width would tend to make a writer like Carter, as it does other writers. And that sense of space was pretty close to the idea of a Russia...' (308). George Lamming suggests that Carter’s engagement with politics as a poet 'was more a feature of his Hispanic writing within the region... that sweep, that freedom of line, so one tended to think of him as a poet of the Americas rather than of the islands' (311).

Finally, this collection is an important source book for scholars and students who might wish to delve more directly into Carter’s work. The collection provides a useful bibliography of Carter’s collections of poems, his anthologized pieces, his poems in periodicals and newspapers as well as his prose and interviews. The book offers not only a critical retrospective account of Martin Carter’s work, but also in its own way continues the debate about the boundaries of Caribbean and Latin American identity.

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

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