New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Remembering Martin Carter, a feature by Gideon Cecil

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Gideon Cecil is from Guyana. He is a prolific poet, fiction writer and freelance journalist. He holds a bachelor and a master’s degree in divinity also a degree in freelance journalism. He has won several literary awards at home and abroad.






Martin Wylde Carter was the greatest poet Guyana has produced. He was one of the Caribbean’s greatest intellects, whose creative imagination left an indelible mark on the English-speaking world. He ranks among such literary exponents as Derek Walcott, VS Naipaul, Wilson Harris, Ian McDonald, AJ 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 May 26, 1966. He lived until the mature age of 70, and devoted 40 years of his life to his country and literary pursuits. His works are now being studied at Caribbean and British universities and in the wider world.

One of the delights of Carter’s poetry is its rendering of profound philosophical thoughts locked in magnificent imagery. As we study his work again we will see Carter the Guyanese national poet, the revolutionary poet, the political poet, the disillusioned poet, the metaphysical poet and the spiritual and theological poet. His poems range from those that express moral anger and outrage at corruption to poems that are deeply introspective and metaphysical.

On October 22, 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 was fulfilled in our nation because very few read poetry, and many are not equipped with a background in literature to comprehend poetry. Many may ask these questions: Who was Martin Carter? What was his role in the history of Guyana? Why was his poetry important to this nation?

Dr. Gemma Robinson from the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England wrote her PhD 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 possessed some very profound and complex imagery.

The classic selection of his poems ranges from those that express moral anger and outrage at corruption to poems that are 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, 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 clamouring for political unity in the poem ‘You Are Involved’. These are the most quoted lines in Guyana, and have been quoted time and time again: “All are involved/all are consumed…”.

From his poem ‘Looking At Your Hands’, he can be widely remembered for 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…”

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 a 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 this modern age see it.

We shall never know how deep a Christian Carter was, 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”.

Because Carter knew the soul and spirit in 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 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.

In life Carter was a man of great wisdom and wit, a gracious and divine personality, a unique and fascinating figure. The quality of his poetry will be remembered.


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