The choice of the name Kyk-over-al for his magazine is significant of Seymour’s approach to poetry. The name refers to a vantage point at the confluence of the Essequibo. the Cuyuni and the Mazaruni rivers in Guyana, and Seymour recurrently attempts to reach, with a Yeatsian detachment, a position overlooking both history and place. Here, for example, is a passage from ‘The First of August’.
Gather into the mind
Over a hundred years of people
Toiling against climate
Working against prejudice
Growing within an alien framework
Cramped, but stretching its limbs
And staring against the sun.
In one poem, he does indeed place himself on Kyk-over-al to gain his panoramic view. In a better-known one, Over Guiana, Clouds’, he focuses downwards from the eternally recreated clouds. (The clouds, incidentally, are a particularly appropriate vantage point from which to view Guyanese history. Continually changed yet unchanging, they are both high above the land, yet intimately bound with its fertility and seasons, responsive to soil temperatures and forest vapours).
They go rushing on across the country
Staining the land with shadow as they passed
Closer than raiment to the naked skin, that shadow,
Bringing a pause of sun, over and across
Black noiseless rivers running out to sea.
Fields, pieced and plotted, and ankle deep in rice
Or waving their multitudinous hair of cane.
The clouds move across both place and time, over the Spaniard invaders struggling with the Indians, — an effective image this —seen as ‘a cinema of rapid figures’. Thrown by wood-torches on the trees then about the invading Dutch, Portuguese and English. The panorama of time is extended by the panorama of space, toward Africa. ‘That thin old negro had beat the rhythm for years/The Ibu rhythm, learnt in African forests/From hands as proud as serpent veined as his’. The past is but the focus for the present, which is described in a meditative passage.
The flat peace of savannahs to the sea
With drifting statues of the animals
Cropping the country’s peace with it’s sweet grass;
and in the moral and social poles, of a group of prostitutes, and a service of Holy Communion. There is also a hint of the future.
The races fade into a brown stained people
And the Guiana Spirit arises, stretching
As a young giant begins to open his eyes.
How do we start to evaluate a poem like Over Guiana, Clouds? The poem seems to me pleasing, readable, but both limited in its historical view-point. (African drums are brought in, in a somewhat cliched way, but Seymour does not attempt a comprehensive and piercing study of Guiana’s racial complexity) and limited in its poetic techniques. Ordinary critical criteria, however, are insufficient. Auden spoke of a poet’s early writing as ‘imaginary’, that is, exploring a new field of experience through imagination, and this is true of the writing of a new nation. It does not exist within accepted standards, for the standards are yet to be discovered. The writer is still doing that preliminary task outlined by another pioneer writer, James Fennimore Cooper, of illustrating the land and water which is the people’s birthright.
A certain stiffness we feel when reading some of Seymour’s poetry is indeed intentional. He is aware that to grasp the pattern of life one has to free oneself from the distorting effects of human passion.
But I’m a dealer in iron. My images rise gaunt black against the sky in wireless poles,
Withered and leafless trees stiffened to steel.
And my laboratory fuses thin steel nets
That sag but crack not with the load of meaning.
[‘Dealer in Iron’]
If one subjects oneself to such discipline and objective concentration, finally, a richer vitality will break out. ‘Strip their beauty to the bone’, he writes in ‘Men Pruning Trees’ ‘Sun will bring those boughs alive’. Seymour’s precept and practice chime of course with the beliefs of T. S. Eliot, and Seymour’s attempt to approach passion through the refining fires of self-control is particularly relevant to West Indian poetry, where indulgence in the emotions — anger, pleasure, what-have-you has unbalanced many a promising poetic sensibility. And from the pruned branches, in Seymour’s most successful verse, springs life:
‘Till the bright bulbs hang frozen in the dark’.
‘Why must we wait until the blood runs slow Through the old hired house, when property of eye
And ear and brain anticipate the night.?
A more directly passionate poem, like ‘Sun is a Shapely Fire’ seems to me less satisfactory.
On the other hand, the insights of objectivity, a controlled awareness of the pattern of life, has to be complemented by the insights of other temperaments. The awareness that:
There is no room to cry regret
No room for anger beating wild, fierce fists
Against the towering stone of circumstances
can lead to evasion of the crucial needs for action and reform the age demands.
Martin Carter has written poetry in the same line as David Diop in Senegal, Dennis Brutus in South Africa, or the British Chartist poet. Thomas Cooper. Such writing is essential to any popular movement; its purpose is not to explore beneath the surface of reality to new spiritual and imaginative dimensions, it puts its back to the wall and inspires defiance.
Although you come in thousands from the sea
Although you walk like locusts in the street Although you point your gun straight at my heart
I clench my fist above my head;
I sing my song of FREEDOM!
[I Clench my fist]
The distinctive quality of the verse in his book, Poems of Resistance (London, 1954 – banned in what was then British Guiana), is its cleansing indignation, which informs his whole vision of life – even day and night are sinister.