This is a good time to reach for Martin
Remembering Martin Carter

Posted December 20th. 2002 By Rupert Roopnaraine

This year we commemorate the 5th anniversary of the death of the poet Martin Carter with a piece by Dr Rupert Roopnaraine who has been engaged in research on Martin Carter's papers with a view to publishing his key writings on language and poetics.


Five years on and he is more with us than ever. Which is a way of saying that his words continue to reverberate among us, and his images to haunt us. I had reason to think on these things only very recently when we gathered, his friends and comrades, and even his foes, at the Antigua Recreation Ground to bid farewell to Tim Hector. In the soft rain of a dull Antigua afternoon, speaker after speaker reached for poems to brighten the air around Tim's mahogany coffin, draped in the flag of the Antigua he loved. Prime Minister Lester Bird, a poet of at least this occasion, read his own. Others reached for Martin. From a solemn podium across from the Richie Richardson Stand, the much loved song of defiant farewell filled the air: Dear Comrade,/If it must be/you speak no more with me/nor smile no more with me/nor march no more with me/then let me take/a patience and a calm/for even now the greener leaf explodes/sun brightens stone/and all the river burns. Sometimes, the words burn with a special brightness, as they did that Antigua afternoon. At these times they seem to have been written yesterday, for just this comrade.

That day they were written for Tim. When words come to life in this way, fresh and bright with last night's dew, we are in the presence of a kind of magic of renewal. This is a good time to reach for Martin. The poems certainly, but not only the poems. Reach for the old Thunder editorials of the fifties, the newspaper articles of the sixties, or the speech he gave at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico in 1964, at the height of the strife, on the “Race Crisis'. He concludes his analysis of the sociological and political dimensions of the crisis on this human note: In the past the people of British Guiana, between 1950, let us say, and 1953 were people with vitality, gaiety and charm of manner. Today, in British Guiana, every man looks at you from the corners of his eyes. When he speaks to you, he listens very carefully to what you say because he wants to know where you are coming from. This sort of thing leads to nightmares, nightmares that do not necessarily occur only in the night, but which haunt you even in the brightest glare of noon.

A nightmare that becomes actual in a pool of blood in a street in the city. This is the sort of life the people live in British Guiana today. Forty years on and the nightmares are more actual than ever, descending with every new pool of blood in the streets of the city and beyond. Five years ago, after he let out his śspontaneous howl'on learning of Martin's death, Tim Hector searched in vain for some mention of an event of such Caribbean importance: 'On Monday, he wrote, 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 that TV was not about us at all! ...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. Not much has fundamentally changed since that day in December 1997 when Martin took leave of us. We are as profligate as ever with what Tim called our substance. Though it is true to say that we in Guyana have always understood the importance of keeping him within arm's reach. A small critical industry is growing up around his work. The groundwork has been laid with 4 landmark publications: the 1997 Red Thread Edition of the Selected Poems, the Kyk-Over-Al memorial tribute of June 2000 (Nos.49/50), the pioneering work of Nigel Westmaas in assembling a collection of the prose writings (Kyk-Over-Al, No. 44), and the critical anthology edited by Stewart Brown, All are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter. There is more to do, more archival excavations to locate and capture the fugitive publications, written in the heat; perhaps more drafts and unpublished poems to be discovered. Hoping to add to this body of work, and with the kind assistance of a six-month Fellow-ship from UNESCO, I have been working my way through some of the papers Mar-tin left behind in Lamaha Street, intending a publication of his key writings on language and poetics. Most of this writing is unknown, though people have long known of his almost monastic devotion to the workings of language and the practice of poetry. It was Kwame Dawes who once wrote: Reading Carter talk about poetry reminds you that his fascination with the poetic process is almost an obsession.

From the evidence of the poetry notebooks, it was a fascination that persisted throughout Martin's creative life, leading him over the years into the most studied considerations of language and all its complex workings in a variety of cultural contexts, his net cast wide enough to catch the Sanskrit poem, Japanese haiku and the tonal structure of Yoruba poetry. In addition to the poetry notebooks that are the focus of my immediate attention, the Carter papers consist of correspondence with friends, colleagues, publishers and editors as well as official documents, including memoranda and other government publications. No attempt to understand our modern political and intellectual history will be complete without a careful study of this material. I have chosen to call them notebooks, though, except for 2 old diaries he entitled Brown Notebook One and Brown Notebook 2, most of the writings on poetry exist in old ledgers, on the inside and outside covers of file folders, on sheets of unused examination stock, the backs of greeting cards, and in all available space in the margins and pages of certain of the books he read, making them unreadable for future readers. Many pages are sequential; others follow each other in a kind of abandon. These latter are diagrammatic notes, a favourite method for organising the pursuit of an argument. Including the Brown Note-books, the material amounts to 1700-odd foolscap pages, some numbered, some not.

All but a dozen are closely handwritten. Mercifully, Martin Carter belonged to a generation of children who were taught to write. His handwriting is always legible, even when thoughts are sprinting ahead; then the pen flies across the page and it becomes looser, as dishevelled as his person, hair in the wind. Unscrambling what is at times a highly personalised code, especially the deciphering of the arguments by diagram, is to follow the tortuous logic of a riddle, a subject that excited his curiosity on several occasions over the years. There are three texts of sustained writing where a minimum of re-construction will be required - Lyric: a Sufficiency, Concerning Verse, and Excerpts and Commentaries on Eliot and Hough.

I began by culling the material down to 967 pages, assembling and organizing the selections into eighteen clusters or divisions. While the ordering of the divisions is at this stage somewhat arbitrary, the writings within each section cohere around particular subjects. A sample of the subjects that engaged him over the years will give some idea of the range and depth of this remarkable mind. Brown Notebook I, one of the eighteen divisions, contains 104 thematic sections. Among them, the following: On Poetics, Pluralistic logics, Tools of communication, Poetic power, Re. Autotelic & heterotelic; the model or the classic, Mental process of poetic power: function & structure & execution, On metaphor, House-slave syndrome, On criticism; what is a poem, Of mentors & models, Why time is the true critic, Caribbean art, The spiritual, Dante's circles of hell, Intersexuality, Interrupted rhythm, Expressive power, What is a great book, Form-structure—feeling-emotion, The original artist, Language & self, Imagery, Craft, Politics of poetry and epistemology, Location, Expression and arousal, Production of voices, Source of the art work, Metaphor & epistemological impasse, and so on. It has been nourishing; this journey deep into Martin's thoughts on the things that mattered so deeply to him. I am thankful that he is so close at hand in this brutish season. It is a good time to reach for Martin.