Gideon Cecil: In the Memory of Guyana’s National Poet, Martin Carter

As we contemplate to commemorate the twentieth-first death anniversary of our late National Poet Martin Carter, I believe his poetry should be taught in our schools and private education institutions in our country as well as the Caribbean and schools abroad.

He was born on the 7th of June 1927 in Georgetown and died on December 13, 1997. It is my firm conviction that the poetry of Martin Carter and many of our literary greats should be taught in our schools today. I give a thesis of our late eminent poet Martin Carter which I believe would be of great interest to our country and education institutions around our nation and the Caribbean.

For our younger generation, Martin Carter may be just another name listed among one of our National heroes in Guyana. Since literature died a long time ago in our poor system of education, it’s about time our educators re-introduce the poetry of Martin Carter into the education system as well as many other Guyanese writers.

On the 22nd of October 1963, Carter made a very mind-boggling prediction about the publishing of poetry in Guyana which is as follows:

‘’Publishing poetry in this country is like lending books to corpses. Few read and those who do are not equipped either by curiosity or sensibility to understand what is confronting them.’’

This prophetic statement came to pass in our Nation because very few read poetry, and many are not equipped with a background in literature to comprehend poetry. Many may ask the questions: Who was Martin Carter? What was his role in the history of Guyana? Many may ask why his poetry was important to this Nation.

Martin Wylde Carter was the greatest poet Guyana has produced. He was one of the Caribbean’s greatest intellects and a distinguished literary personality, whose creative imagination left an indelible mark on the English-speaking Caribbean and the Western Hemisphere. He ranked among literary exponents like Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, Wilson Harris, Ian McDonald, A. J. Seymour and Kamau Braithwaite.

He was an important figure in the National Independence Movement and very active in liberating Guyana from British Colonialism until we gained Independence on the 26th of May 1966. He lived a matured life of 70 years, devoted 40 years of his life to his country and literary pursuits that will remain in the annals of Guyana’s history and the wider Caribbean. His literary works are now being studied at Caribbean and British Universities and the wider world.

Dr. Gemma Robinson from the University of New Castle Upon Tyne in England wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the life and writings of Carter.

Carter’s poems can be compared to those of Tagore, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats. He was a great teacher of mankind and an ardent seeker of truth. His poems are rich in symbolism, philosophy, theology and some very profound and complex imagery.

From his poem: “Looking at Your Hands’’, he can be widely remembered from the verse below:

“And so, if you see me looking at your hands/listening when you speak/marching in your ranks you must know/I do not sleep to dream but dream to change the world…’’

One of the delights of Carter’s poetry is its rendering of profound philosophical thoughts locked in magnificent imagery.

Here we see the poet present his vision of optimism as a dream to change the world. As we study his work, we will see Carter as the Guyanese National Poet, the revolutionary poet, the political poet, the disillusioned poet, the metaphysical poet and the spiritual and theological poet.

The classic selection of his poems ranges from those that express moral anger and outrage at corruption, to poems, deeply introspective and metaphysical.

His political poems of resistance registered social and political protest engendered by British colonialism and they speak out against the stark poverty, injustice, the dehumanization and degradation of human existence among the masses.

From his poem the: ‘’University of Hunger’’ he cried out:

“Is the University of hunger the wide waste?

Is the pilgrimage of man the long march?

The print of hunger wanders in the land.

The green tree bends above the long forgotten…….’’

Here we see the poet explore the relationship between himself and an individual in a land of poverty, oppression, and corruption – he gave Guyana and the world a new sense of hope and promise of change through his poems.

We see him again clamoring for political unity in the poem: ‘’You Are Involved’’ these are the most quoted lines in Guyana that have been quoted time and time again:

“All are involved/all are consumed….’’

We have seen an ever-widening philosophy in this line calling for political unity like a Gandhi trying to bring political stability in Guyana. This prolific line is not only applicable to Guyanese but to the wider world because here is poet alive and well in his immortal words dreaming to change the natural world from the spiritual world.

We can see his autobiography in most of the poems he has written because he writes from personal experience not only from creative imagination.

In Carter’s best known theological or metaphysical poem: ‘’Death of a Comrade’’, he sees death as eternal and not something that is just a natural phenomenon like most poets and philosophers in the modern age.

How deep a Christian Carter was; we shall never know, but his religion can be seen in many lines of his writings like Dante and Shakespeare informing us that death is not the end.

In the last stanza of “Death of a Comrade,’’ he writes:

“Now from the mourning vanguard moving on dear comrade I salute you and say Death shall not find us thinking that we die.’’

We may ask the question, “How can a dead man think after he has been dead? If a man dies, will he live again? Job asked this question in the Bible. Jesus answered Carter and Job by saying:

“He who believes in me shall never die’’. Because Carter knew the Soul and Spirit of man shall never die, he was able to inform us that we must prepare to die in this life by living a God-fearing life.

He is like Tagore when Tagore writes: “On the day when death shall knock at my door what will I offer to him’’. For many critics, his eternal line “death shall not find us thinking that we die’’ means very little to them. For the spiritual mind, that’s a very profound statement because we must not die in regret when we enter into hell; it’s like Dante in the “Divine Comedy’’ teaching us the way of heaven and hell.

In Carter’s lifetime, he was a man of wisdom and wit, a gracious and elegant personality, a unique and fascinating figure. The quality of his poetry will be remembered. As we contemplate to remember him, let us now see him as the poet-philosopher from his intricate lines below:

“Wanting to write another poem for you, I searched the world for something beautiful/The green crown of a tree offered itself/Because its leaves were combed just like your hair.’"

Let’s comb through his words of truth and life and remember his words ringing in our ears like the rains singing in the wind in the placid night.

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