The Writer and His People: Martin Carter’s Political Poetry

Writing poetry has always been a source of comfort for me. I’ve found solace in being able to say exactly what I feel in the most concise and precise way possible. However, being a poet in the Caribbean (or anywhere for that matter) has always meant so much more than being able to put pretty words together. The biggest question is; how is a poet to remain useful to their society? Since poetry and passion are so closely related, it’s not surprising that most mainstream poets have also become activists in their respective communities. But when the line between poet and activist becomes blurred, how does that society affect the poet’s craft? How does close interaction with society change the poet’s perspective? Examining the succession of Martin Carter’s poetry could be useful in showing how the writer is affected by his people. 

According to Edward Baugh, in his article, ‘Locating Carter’, the late Martin Carter was “a model of high seriousness and unswerving commitment to craft and quest, despite the constraints of a milieu hardly equal to the needs and capacity of a burning, voracious intellect” (Brown, 247). Martin Carter undoubtedly lived the life of a poet and activist, “exiled within his own country; in his own way, and fighting the fight at home.”  An in-depth analysis of the succession of his poetry may, therefore, reveal the harsh truths about the battles between love and scorn, hope and despair, courage, and uncertainty, which have and will continue to characterize West Indian progress. It will also reveal much about the effect that authoritarian injustice – catalyzed by a masses’ willing and ignorant indifference – may have on the wide and brilliant, truth-seeking minds of Caribbean intellectuals who feel morally obligated, to set the record straight for their people.

Carter’s Poems of Resistance was first published in 1954 by a socialist press in London. From this collection of poems comes my first muse; the amazingly defiant piece, ‘I Clench My Fist.’ On October 9th, 1953, one hundred and thirty-three days after the leftist People’s Progressive Party had won Guyana’s election, when self-governance had finally become a reality for the young post-colonial nation, the constitution was suspended and the British deployed their troops to reclaim power. Janet Jagan, in a 1997 memoir which was featured in Stewart Brown’s All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, recounts that “Martin and others were detained at the airport (then under US military) known as Atkinson Field.” (Brown, 303). This poem is, therefore, an account of that clash between citizens and the British armed forces after the re-invasion.

Like most of his early publications, ‘I Clench My Fist’ exhibits Carter’s keen awareness of and great preoccupation with the interconnectivity of global political happenings. He demonstrates his knowledge of the global context quite subtly, very early in the poem. The second line, “I know your hands are red with Korean blood” is a reference to Britain having been involved in the Korean War since 1950. With such a small reference the young poet was able to assert the active presence of a community of politically conscious Guyanese intellectuals like himself. These were people who had taken the responsibility to be the guardians of Guyanese freedom through knowledge. This particular line may be considered a symbolic ‘marking of territory’ on Carter’s behalf. It indicated that he was aware of what the soldiers and their ‘warships’ represented, as well as what they were capable of doing to the young nation, but he was letting them know that they would not be able to advance without a fight.

In the poem, the determinedly defiant persona “curses the ‘British soldier, man in Khaki’ and invokes the spirits of freedom fighting slave ancestors, Accabreh and Quamina.” (Brown, 245). This is much like what we saw previously in Goodison’s “Inna Calabash.” As mentioned before, calling on the ancestors has been a way for West Indian poets to assert their identity, power and intention. The ancestors have become totems of victory and symbols of resistance and resilience in literature. Carter personifies in a few lines the zealous fighting spirit which had inhabited Guyana ever since the days of slavery. They were now being reawakened to a Guyana that was on the brink of real independence and being unjustly subdued. Referring to the slavery experience is a tradition and technique that is common among West Indian poets. This particular poem, however, may be read as a warning to the incoming Colonial and Imperial powers of the persistence of the people and their impending victory. Even in the face of direct injustice, Guyana was willing to clench its fist above its head and sing its song of freedom (Carter, 41). Even before contextual analysis, ‘I Clench My Fist’ walks the thin line between the past (slavery) and the present and epitomizes the West Indian fight against colonial rule.

Another masterpiece within Carter’s Poems of Resistance is ‘Let Freedom Wake Him’. This poem may be an account of Carter’s second arrest in 1953. In an online Biography which was written by Candace LaBalle, Mrs Carter noted the Guyana Chronicle (during an interview about her husband) that “The soldiers came and they were outside the house, they were lined up all at the gate.” Perhaps it’s this occasion that the second stanza references: ‘If you see a smile of bitterness on my mouth/You must not think some joke amuses me./ It is only the fury of my heart changing to scorn/At the sight of a soldier searching for me.’

In the closing stanza of the poem, however, the symbolic ‘song of freedom’ is again mentioned, just as in ‘I Clench My Fist.’ The song follows the infuriating image of a bayonet pointing at the persona’s sleeping son. An undeniable symbol of how Carter viewed Britain’s treatment of his people’s newly birthed self-governance. The image of violated innocence seems to contrast starkly against the notoriously Marxist image of “the scarlet banner [that] flies aloft.” Linking together three ideas to create a prospect that encompasses what could be considered blasphemy against the democratic West: the ideals of Communism, intermingled with innocence, and the death of the future generation at the hands of British soldiers. This poem is, therefore, one of those which may cause the reader – especially those within territories which have inherited both a legacy of democracy and an ingrained apathy toward communism from their former Western colonizers – to sympathize with the champions of Marxism and to see them, for once, as well-meaning and as victims of democratic powers rather than as offenders.

In 1966 The People’s National Congress had won their first general election and Carter was instated as Minister of Information. During his time in office, however, he became disillusioned by the corruption and racism of the government. This was when the tone of his poetry changed. His poem, ‘In A Small City at Dusk’ was a part of The When Time collection which was first published in 1972.  It is one of the poems composed out of his discouragement. Carter tackles deception and feeling betrayed by his comrades during the ‘dark’ or ‘dusk’ time of the struggle for independence. During that time, he had been unable to distinguish between those ‘birds’ who had genuinely shared the passion, integrity and comfort of his vision and those ‘bats’ who were opportunists, eager to use their new position of power to access the ‘feast’ in the branches of government and to oppress the unassuming masses. Now that the sun was rising on the new political plain of The People’s Republic of Guyana, his colleagues’ true forms and motives had become much clearer. This made him uncomfortable. Furthermore, he realized that the public had become aware of the greed of their new government and that from their limited or ‘dark’ perspectives, Carter’s involvement with them could cause his own motives to be misunderstood. After all,

In a small city at dusk 
it is difficult to distinguish
bird from bat.
Both fly fast:
one away from the dark
and one toward the dark.

There was no way of telling which was which except by the direction each was flying. He quickly realised that his comrades, under the guise of going forward, actually had very backward intentions to misuse their positions for selfish gain. As a result, he stepped down from office and his poetry from then onward assumed a more passive, philosophical tone. According to John LaRose “the pristine hope and assurance, now dented, slowly vanished. Absolute confidence in the future was replaced by growing racial distrust, recrimination, and ideological dissatisfactions” (Brown, 321)

Martin Carter’s Poems of Succession, therefore, testifies to the erosive effects that corruption, greed, and ignorance may have on the optimism and heady outlooks of spirited but well-meaning artists and activists. Carter was one of a long line of West Indian poets, inclusive of Eric Roach and Derek Walcott, who had found themselves exhausted from constant battle and their spirits dulled by the small-mindedness of their people.

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