Martin Carter Biography - Developed Early Passion for Poetry, Published First Poems of Protest, Found Fame with Prison Poetry
One of the most important poets to come out of the Caribbean, Martin Carter has been compared to literary lions such as W.B. Yeats and Pablo Neruda. His most famous work was fueled by the political turmoil that gripped his native Guyana in the 1950s and 1960s. He told fellow Guyanese writer Bill Carr in an interview for the Guyanese magazine Release that politics and poetry were inseparable. "[If] politics is a part of life, we shall become involved in politics, if death is a part of life we shall become involved with death, like the butterfly who is not afraid to be ephemeral." Unfortunately, because of the fame of his politically-charged poems Carter was often pigeon-holed as a revolutionary poet. But as Guyana's Stabroek News wrote, "there were other voices in Martin Carter, strains of tenderness, love poems of moving fervour, agonies expressed that have nothing to do with politics, insights into all of human nature."
During his life, Carter received limited recognition outside of Guyana, mainly because he refused to abandon his country. A friend of his told the Guyana Chronicle, "Exile for him was not going overseas like so many of the Caribbean's best writers, but exiled within his own country; in his own way, and fighting the fight at home." As he fought that fight, he wrought words of defiance, beauty, pain, and hope, leaving a literary legacy that, finally, in the 21st century is receiving worldwide critical respect.
Developed Early Passion for Poetry
Martin Wylde Carter was born on June 7, 1927 in Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guiana) to Victor and Violet Carter. His parents were of African, Indian, and European ancestry and held secure positions in Guyana's middle class, thanks both to their mixed blood and to Victor's civil service job. They were also avid readers and instilled in Carter a love of literature and letters. In 1944, after graduating from Queen's College, a prestigious boys school in Georgetown, Carter also took a job with the civil service. He worked first for the post office, and then as the secretary to the superintendent of prisons. In 1953 he married his childhood friend Phyllis. "We knew each other for a long time," Mrs. Carter told the Guyana Chronicle. "We were married when I was about 21, he was about 26." Their marriage lasted 47 years and produced four children.
Even as he held down his daytime job, Carter was passionate about producing poetry. Mrs. Carter re-called to the Guyana Chronicle that Carter would wake in the middle of the night and go to his desk. When she called out after him, he would reply, "I just got a word I wanted. I coming back." He was also known to spend long car journeys scribbling on the insides of cigarette packs, leaving the driving to his wife.
In the 1950s, Guyana was still a British colony. Though Carter was a product of British education and worked for the colonial government, he was not sympathetic to their rule. Like many Guyanese at the time, he longed for self-governance. He joined the anti-colonialist People's Progressive Party (PPP) and in 1950 published his first poems in the party's magazine, Thunder. However, in order to protect his civil service job, he published the most politically radical of his work under the pseudonym M. Black.
Published First Poems of Protest
Carter's first collection of poetry, The Hill of Fire Glows Red, was published in 1951 in Guyana. Literary critic Selwyn R. Cudjoe in Dictionary of Literary Biography wrote of the collection, "readers begin to see his characteristic preoccupation with the freedom of his country, his use of certain potent symbols of resistance, and a hint of the kind of consciousness with which his poetry has come to be associated." In 1952 Carter published two more volumes of work in Guyana, The Kind Eagle (Poems of Prison) and The Hidden Man (Other Poems of Prison). Again the poems dealt with dreams of freedom. A line from "The Kind Eagle" reads, "I dance on the wall of prison! // It is not easy to be free and bold!" The Literary Encyclopedia noted that with the poems, Carter also "cultivates a poetics of social realism, meticulously documenting the concrete details of oppression." Despite his middle-class background, Carter related to the oppression and despair his hard-working countrymen dealt with daily as they toiled under the Caribbean sun and the dark shadow of colonialism.
In 1953 the British allowed Guyana to hold elections for self-governance. The PPP won and set about building a post-colonial society. However, inauguration ceremonies were barely over when the British, alarmed by the PPP's leftist leanings, sent in troops to re-assume control of Guyana. Demonstrations against the British broke out over the country and Carter was arrested for his involvement. "The soldiers came and they were outside the house," Mrs. Carter recalled to the Guyana Chronicle, "they were lined up all at the gate." Carter was interred at a local air base for three months. He was arrested and briefly held a second time in 1954.
Found Fame with Prison Poetry
Carter's time in prison was a turning point in his life. It not only influenced his poetry, but also cemented his international reputation as a poet. In 1954 Carter's Poems of Resistance from British Guiana was published by a socialist press in London to critical acclaim. In Release, critic Paul Singh wrote that Carter was "jailed into poetic eminence" as a result of the collection. The poems brimmed with the anxiety of the times—oppression, fear, bloodshed. In one of his most famous poems, "This Is the Dark Time My Love," Carter wrote, "It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears. // It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery. // Everywhere the faces of men are strained and anxious." Yet, in "I Come From the Nigger Yard," he revealed an optimistic belief in the future, writing "From the nigger yard of yesterday I come with my burden. // To the world of tomorrow I turn with my strength."
Not only did Poems of Resistance reflect the tragedy and hope of 1950s Guyana, but it also revealed Carter's skill as a poet. "I Come From the Nigger Yard" in particular has been hailed as one of his most emblematic works. Cudjoe wrote that through the poem, "readers discover Carter's capacity for sustaining and developing a complex emotional response in poetry. The subtle blend of aesthetic control and political content embodies the best of his work."
After the release of Poems of Resistance, Carter worked as a teacher for several years. In 1959 he joined the British sugar manufacturing giant Booker as their chief information officer. He also edited the company's newsletter. Meanwhile Guyana continued to struggle fitfully towards independence. In 1955 the PPP had split into two parties, with the PPP being led by a Guyanese of Indian descent and the People's National Congress (PNC) by a Guyanese of African descent. Carter shifted his loyalties to the PNC partly because of the racism he felt the PPP was promoting. The island had long been divided by two racial groups—East Indians and Africans. Though the PPP had formed as a multi-racial party, by the mid-1950s it was promoting its own interests by emphasizing racial divisions. In reaction to this Carter wrote the pessimistic series Poems of Shape and Motion.
Disillusioned by Guyana's
In 1961 the PPP once again assumed power in Guyana. The following year, they instituted a series of harsh economic reforms that led to nationwide strikes. Carter participated, his fists held high in defiance, fueled again by a hope for change. The strikes turned into violent clashes, often racially based. British troops were called in to restore order. Carter reacted by writing Jail Me Quickly, a series of five poems. The poems did not shy from the brutality of what he had seen, yet with characteristic optimism they also shivered with hope. In "Black Friday 1962" he wrote, "And I have seen some creatures rise from holes, // and claw a triumph like a citizen, // and reign until the tide!"
Guyana received full independence from Britain in 1966 and the PNC won the new country's first elections. Carter joined the government as a representative to the United Nations from 1966 to 1967. He next became the nation's Minister of Information. During this time, Martin's poetry became less defiant, less hopeful, less alive. Many critics have contributed this change to the disillusionment he felt with Guyana's new government. He saw racism, hypocrisy, and corruption flourish where he had once hoped for equality, truth, and freedom. In 1970 he published a poem with the lines, "the mouth is muzzled // by the food it eats to live." To keep his role in the government, he would have to turn his back on the corruption he saw. As a chronicler of Guyanese life and a true believer in the human spirit, he would not do it. He resigned from his government post that same year.
Became the Poems Man of the People
Carter began to give literary readings and hold informal rap sessions with writers and intellectuals in Georgetown. In 1975 England's University of Essex hired him to be a writer-in-residence for a year. It was his longest period away from Guyana. When he returned home he became writer-in-residence at the University of Guyana. In 1977 Poems of Succession was published. Three years later, Poems of Affinity appeared. The Literary Encyclopedia wrote that both volumes, "express world-weariness and disillusionment at the nation's growing racial tensions and rampant political corruption." That made sense as in the 1970s, Carter's political ideals had been shattered yet again. In 1978 he had joined the Working People's Alliance (WPA), a socialist party formed in response to the corrupt authoritarianism of the PNC. Soon after he took to the streets in protest against the PNC and was beaten up by thugs on the PNC payroll. The following year he was at another WPA-led march when he witnessed the stabbing of Father Drake, a Catholic priest and political activist. The leader of the WPA was also eventually murdered.
Carter found refuge from the bitter disappointment of his political hopes by doing the things he loved best—writing poetry and being with friends. "He liked his drink and he always had friends because of that," his wife told Guyana Chronicle. "Anybody, anywhere, anytime, he would bring them here." Carter was a poet of the people, a fact he relished. He often joyfully recounted an encounter he had had with a 12-year-old girl deep in the interior of the country. Carter was walking towards a bridge when the girl came running towards him calling out 'Look! Look! The poems man!' He was touched that someone so young, in a place so remote, knew who he was. "That says something for the kind of popularity he enjoyed; that he related to the people and they to him," wrote the Guyana Chronicle.
Carter died on December 13, 1997. He was buried in the Place of Heroes, a site previously reserved for heads of state. He belonged there more than any politician ever did. It was he who had given words to the Guyanese people. He provided them a voice when they had been rendered mute by political manipulations from both the British and Guyanese governments. As the Guyana Chronicle wrote, "His words echo over and over again both within our private lives and our unfolding history."
The Hill of Fire Glows Red, Miniature Poets, 1951.
The Kind Eagle, privately printed, 1952.
The Hidden Man, privately printed, 1952.
Poems of Resistance from British Guiana, Lawrence and Gishart, 1954.
Poems of Shape and Motion, privately printed, 1955.
Jail Me Quickly, privately printed, 1963.
Poems of Succession, New Beacon, 1977.
Poems of Affinity, Release, 1980.
Selected Poems, Demerara, 1989.
Cudjoe, Selwyn R., "Martin Wylde Carter," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, First Series, The Gale Group, 1992.
Release, First Quarter 1978; First Quarter 1979.
World Literature Today, Winter 2001.
"Anniversary of Martin Carter's Death," Stabroek News, www.landofsixpeoples.com/gynewsjs.htm (October 27, 2004).
Johnson, Ruel, "Phyllis Carter Recalls Life with 'the poems man,'" Guyana Chronicle, www.landofsixpeoples.com/gynewsjs.htm (October 27, 2004).
"Martin Wylde Carter," Peepal Tree Press, www.peepaltreepress.com/author_display.asp?au_id=11 (October 27, 2004).
Patterson, Anita, "Carter, Martin Wylde (1927 1997)," The Literary Encyclopedia, www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=762 (October 27, 2004).
Rutherford, Linda, "Honouring 'The Poems Man,'" Guyana Chronicle, www.landofsixpeoples.com/gynewsjs.htm (October 27, 2004).
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