Quick links: my home page my blog Choosing My Confessions

University of Hunger: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, by Martin Carter, ed. Gemma Robinson (Bloodaxe Books, ISBN 1-85224-710-X, 320 pp)

Review by Nicholas Laughlin

First published in Caribbean Beat, July/August 2006

For the individual reader, poetry’s true avoirdupois is known only to the heart’s shivering scales. But how do we measure a poet’s enduring worth to a society, a nation, a people? One way is to count his phrases and lines that have entered the common language, that ordinary men and women have come to think of as their own, that seem, as all true poetry seems, to have found a way to express something crucial and otherwise inexpressible. By this standard there is no West Indian poet, not even Derek Walcott, whose poems have been so vitally important to so many as Martin Carter’s.

The British literary scholar Stewart Brown tells the story of a reading Carter gave in London in 1991. Many in the audience were Guyanese expatriates of no particularly literary bent. “As he read from those poems,” Brown remembers, “that audience began to recite them with him — not to read them from a book, but to recite them from memory.” For to read Carter’s poems is to encounter a sequence of lines that have become the everyday possessions of many ordinary people in Guyana and elsewhere in the Caribbean, possessions no less everyday for being lyrics of rare power and rhythm: “is the university of hunger the wide waste”; “Death must not find us thinking that we die”; “I come from the nigger yard of yesterday”.

After his death in 1997, Carter’s work fell not entirely but nearly out of print. It is a pleasing coincidence that 2006 brings two separate new editions of his poems. Ian McDonald and Stewart Brown’s Poems by Martin Carter, based on the text of the 1997 Selected Poems, will shortly arrive from Macmillan; and University of Hunger: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, edited by the young British Carter scholar Gemma Robinson, appeared a few months ago on the list of the eminent poetry publishers Bloodaxe.

University of Hunger is the most comprehensive Carter edition yet, collecting 169 poems, including every one of his published poems and some previously unpublished. It is scrupulously annotated, providing for each poem information about surviving manuscripts or typescripts, place and circumstances of first publication, explication of puzzling references, and major variant readings, so that the reader can follow a poem’s revisions between successive appearances in print. Few Caribbean writers have enjoyed such careful editorial attention, and University of Hunger will be the definitive Carter for the foreseeable future. It is usefully fleshed out with a selection of fifteen essays on anti-colonialism, race, the meaning of nationhood, and art and literature, and Robinson has written a lively introduction combining biography with thoughtful literary analysis.

For longtime readers of Carter, this is a chance to engage with the poems afresh, to see at once the whole shape of the arc of his poetic career. Carter’s earliest work is still his best known: the flag-waving poems written in the 1950s around the time of the first electoral victory of the People’s Progressive Party (of which Carter was then a member), the short experiment in self-government in pre-independence British Guiana, the state of emergency of 1953 (when Carter was arrested) and the occupation of Georgetown by British troops when the colonial authorities decided the PPP was a Communist threat. The poems of The Hill of Fire Glows Red (1951) and Poems of Resistance (1954) express better than any politician’s speeches the hunger for freedom that drove the independence activists of British Guiana — and, for that matter, the rest of the British West Indies. But they also express a more subtle but no less visceral hunger for self-understanding — self as human being, as citizen, as poet.

Poems of Resistance from British Guiana — the full title of the book’s original edition — was published by Lawrence and Wishart, a prominent firm of left-wing London publishers, and eventually translated into Russian and Chinese. It won Carter the reputation of a “political poet”. It’s true that Carter’s was always, in Gemma Robinson’s phrase, “a poetry of involvement”, but the “political” badge, attracting some readers and repelling others, also obscured his real lyrical gifts and the keen spiritual curiosity that always animated his poems. Early protest poems like “Not I with This Torn Shirt” and “A Banner for the Revolution” hammered hard at the bells of social change. Later, quieter poems, like “Our Time”, which opens his Poems of Affinity (1980), show us that Carter’s delicate, fine ear was inseparable from his delicate, fine moral sensibility.

These poems are often angry, often inspiring; just as often they are puzzling and melancholy. Robinson reminds us that Walcott found in Carter’s poems a quality he called “tenderness”. It is a good word for a poet who could describe how “a sweet child smiling with innocence / still wonders why a frown is not so ugly”. But these poems are never comforting. The urgency of Carter’s drive to understand the imperfect world left no room for comfort.