Poems of Succession (1977)

Poems of Succession was the first “almost complete” (backcover) collected volume of poetry by the Guyanese poet and political activist, Martin Carter. It included unpublished poems and a selection of poems from earlier anthologies. The book’s blurb introduces the particularity of Carter’s poetic voice:
The poetry trails down to us from the early 50s to the present with fire, with hope, with disillusion, with anguish. In some senses, it is an American voice in the tradition of Whitman or Neruda; in others, it comes close to the European tradition of a Mayakovsky. The parallels must end there. For there is something more – a tradition of public poetry and an uncomfortable private anguish.” (Poems of Succession blurb).
 
John La Rose was a life-long reader of Carter’s poetry and often quoted lines, not least “I do not sleep to dream, but dream to change the world” (“Looking at your hands”) which provided the title for Horace Ové’s 2003 documentary about La Rose’s work.
 
Born in Georgetown in 1927, Martin Carter worked as a civil servant then as a radical political activist in the early 1950s. He was imprisoned in 1953 and during his detention wrote his ground-breaking collection, Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1954). He subsequently worked as a teacher and was appointed Minister of Information and Culture in the government of Forbes Burnham from 1968 to his resignation in 1970. In 1978, the year of his New Beacon publication, Carter returned to radical political activity. He died in 1997.
 
 
Poems of Succession (1977) by Martin Carter. 119pp.

Content

 
Martin Carter’s politically committed poetry was an early influence on John La Rose. He was similarly inspired by Carter’s work in the circle of Guyanese intellectuals surrounding the Kyk-over-al journal. Carter was admired as a poet of resistance, through a finely crafted poetic voice and technical attention to style and language. Lennox Pierre wrote in his preface to an early pamphlet of Carter’s poems issued by the West Indian Independence Party: “Here is genuine revolutionary proletarian poetry. Here is poetry that is intended not to be read in the drawing room but to be declaimed from the platform, in Trade Union Halls, at public meetings” (LRA/01/0195).
 
Poems of Succession included poems from several different collections published between 1951 and 1975. Their content ranges from meditations on voice and change (“Proem”), protest and solidarity (“Looking at Your Hands”) and Carter’s best-known poems, “I Come From The Nigger Yard” and “Poems Of Shape And Motion”. As readers have noted, Carter cannot be thought of as a straightforward “protest poet”: the stature and lyrical elegance of his work is matched by its vital sense of human urgency sustained across the breadth of historical time. Elsewhere, a poem such as “Proem” explores seemingly more abstract, less situated, ideas concerning the relationship between voice, time, and meaning:
Not in the saying of you, are you
said. Baffled and like a root
stopped by a stone you turn back questioning
the tree you feed. But what the leaves hear
is not what the roots ask. Inexhaustibly,
being at one time what was to be said
and at another time what has been said
the saying of you remains the living of you
never to be said. But, enduring,
you change with the change that changes
and yet are not the changing of any of you.
Ever yourself, you are always about
To be yourself in something else ever with me.
 
 

Production

 
The first letter in the archived correspondence suggests that Carter approached La Rose via Aubrey Williams while in Georgetown (30.9.70, LRA/01/0195). Williams passed on the poems and a prefatory note stating the importance of their ordering in the book:
Some of these are individuals and some are groups of individuals. They are arranged as such. And the order in which they are set out is not the chronological order in which they were made. Just the opposite. Thus, in going from the beginning to the end the reader will proceed from the more recent to the less recent.
 
La Rose wrote to Carter in November 1970 confirming that New Beacon would publish the collection and offering an advance of £20 plus a ten percent royalty. At the time Carter had recently resigned as Minister of Information and Culture. La Rose apparently received no response to this letter and wrote again in January 1972 (via Phyllis Carter) repeating the offer and stating his desire to get the book out in time for the Carifesta festival. While the archive sometimes shows New Beacon authors chasing their editor for a response, the situation is reversed in this case. La Rose wrote again in July 1974, reiterating the terms of the offer and increasing the advance, which was accepted.
 
Carter wrote to La Rose in December 1975 concerning the cover: “You mention about asking Aubrey to design a cover. Perhaps a plain self-colour – rust red with the title in small black print might be best” (MC to JLR, 1.12.75, NBB/1/16).
 
Letter from Martin Carter to John La Rose, dated 1 December 1975. Archive Ref: GB2904 NBB/1/16 (uncatalogued)
 
The simple rust-red evoked the Guyanese earth in which Carter’s work is rooted, with simple black and white lettering and a photograph of Carter on the backcover. The archive also contains a bound file with poems glued in, showing the manual process of cutting and pasting.
 
Cut and pasted manuscript. Archive Ref: GB2904 (uncatalogued)
 
In March 1976 La Rose sent the galley proofs (the stage before the page proofs). This was the last opportunity for Carter to make any changes to his manuscript and the poems now appeared chronologically, despite the initial instruction.
 
 

Reception

 
The book was printed in a run of 3000 copies, including 350 hardback. A publication date was to be fixed six weeks after the shipment of books from the UK to Guyana where publicity was to be organised through the Guyana National Trading Corporation (28.2.77 JLR to MC, NBB/1/16). The collection was well-received in the New Beacon circle, and signalled New Beacon’s continued dedication to publishing Caribbean poetry. Kamau Brathwaite’s congratulatory letter was tinged with a sense of disappointment with the ongoing lack of recognition for poetry in other Caribbean cultural institutions:
Congratulations on Poems of Succession – “Your best looking publication so far. No doubt about it! ... As so as it came, I rushed one to Caribbean Quarterly to tell the editor about it. She: Who is Martin Carter? I just couldn’t take it.” (15.6.76, EKB to JLR, LRA/01/143/2)
 
Andrew Salkey also wrote congratulating New Beacon, stating that it “matters enormously” that it was New Beacon Books “re-presenting Martin to his old and new publics” (AS to JLR, 24.5.77, LRA/01/0698/1 pt1). Carter’s work has only recently begun to receive the critical attention it deserves, with volumes edited by Stewart Brown and Gemma Robinson.
 
 

Further reading

 
Brown, Stewart. All Are Involved: the Art of Martin Carter, Leeds: Peepal Tree,
2000.
Carter, Martin. University of hunger: collected poems & selected prose, Ed. Gemma
Robinson, Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2006.
Roopnaraine, Rupert. Web of October: Rereading Martin Carter, Leeds: Peepal
Tree, 1987.
 
Film: “The Terror and the Time” dir. Rupert Roonaraine. 1979. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMMN2T3NaXw [consulted November 20 2013].