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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A.J. Seymour

A few of A.J. Seymour’s poems still gild the anthologies, and in Guyana he is better served by public memory, but in the rest of the Caribbean, when his name is recognised, Seymour is remembered chiefly as the founder of the literary journal Kyk-Over-Al. In Kyk’s heyday, for about fifteen years mid-century, Seymour was perhaps the pre-eminent literary figure in the British West Indies. But it seems we’d long forgotten Seymour the poet, and forgotten also, if we ever truly realised it, his crucial place in the history of West Indian poetry. So say thanks to his niece, Jacqueline de Weever, and to Ian McDonald (Seymour’s successor at Kyk-Over-Al), for giving us these Collected Poems and the chance to correct our errors of appreciation.

Seymour’s first two books, Verse (1937) and More Poems (1940), are clearly apprentice work. Like most West Indian poetry of the time, they are slightly naïve, slightly artificial efforts at imitation of misconceived models, though deeply felt, with the occasional awkward attempt at local colour. Brilliant phrases flash out, but mostly the poems lie helpless on the pages (squashed, one fears, by the stolid titles of the collections).

Then in 1944, something extraordinary happens: the poem “Over Guiana, Clouds”, in the volume of the same name (four years before young Walcott’s 25 Poems, a decade before Carter’s Poems of Resistance, more than two decades before Brathwaite’s Rights of Passage). It’s not just a shift into a new mode for Seymour, but a tectonic break with everything his peers had so far achieved. It’s the first major West Indian poem, maybe even the first poem we can proudly describe as “West Indian”: not just written by a citizen of the region, but rooted — subject, images, themes — in West Indian soil, sprouting from a complex, commanding idea of what “West Indian” could mean.*

“Over Guiana, Clouds” starts gently: “Little curled feathers on the back of the sky, / — White, chicken-downy on the soft sweet blue”. But the sky these clouds traverse — “In their own time, their bowels full of rain” — is an enormous sky, the mirror of the enormous land beneath. It stretches also across vast scapes of time; in its eleven sections the poem presents Guyana’s prehistoric Amerindians, the first Spanish explorers, the Dutch, the English, the coming and overcoming of African slavery and Indian indentureship, this multitude of voices rushing under the momentum of history to the present day, when “the races fade into a brown-stained people”. Human ambition and human foible churn out new triumphs, new sorrows, new sins; human nature does not change, and “earth was not yet heaven”. The clouds’ constant, oblivious passage must remind mankind below of its place in the order of things.

…on their pilgrimage they go
And weave themselves strange pagan
Or subtle unimaginable shapes
Before they pass on to another land.
High symbols, that behind the brown of
Dim objects brood and huge hands shape
From here, a little actuated dust
And there, the blind collisions of the stars.

Seymour achieves, in four hundred lines, a sense of scale not known before in West Indian poetry. It’s as though he looked up from his desk and suddenly saw for the first time the hugeness of his country — 83,000 square miles of jungle, river, mountain and savannah; then turned to face the Trades and was surprised again by the sweep of the archipelago, two thousand miles between Trinidad and Cuba’s Cabo San Antonio. Poetry of epic intent was required to match the historical and spiritual scope of this territory. “Over Guiana, Clouds” is the first West Indian poem to intend quite so much. It is the first monument in a new West Indian tradition, worthy of the world’s keenest scrutiny, not divorced but triumphantly derived from the larger tradition of English poetry. Tradition is not inherited, T.S. Eliot insisted; it must be earned, “by great labour”. Seymour’s labour, in “Over Guiana, Clouds”, “Sun Is a Shapely Fire”, “The Legend of Kaieteur”, “For Christopher Columbus”, the great poems of his great “middle” period, thrust wide open the range of what was possible for a poet of the West Indies.

Their historical significance assures these poems space in the archives, but the vigorous pleasure they offer is what should win them the freedom of our familiar armchairs, our bedside tables, our ears and vocal cords.

Sun is a shapely fire turning in air
Fed by white springs
and earth’s a powerless sun.

I have the sun today deep in my bones.
Sun’s in my blood, light heaps beneath my
Sun is a badge of power pouring in,
A darkening star that rains its glory down.

At his best, Seymour wrote a shapely, determined verse (sometimes shivering a little with an Eliotic melancholy), observant of the frailties of the world, capable of sudden lift with a phrase to psalmodic height.

But let’s admit he wasn’t always near his best. Seymour was an often uneven poet, his craft not always reliable. Ian McDonald, in his introduction, admits, “he never quite had the time left over in a very full (and satisfying) life to explore the outer limits or the innermost reaches of language as he himself … would have wished.” But again and again, a stumbling line is immediately followed by a redeeming insight, and maybe we should think this fitting. Seymour was a thoroughly religious poet, in the most expansive sense. His world is necessarily imperfect; we don’t remember the nature of our original sin, but its consequences are visited upon us daily. Yet in the unfailing order of seasons and tides, in the beauty of landscapes and bodies, he glimpsed the genius of God. A sense of possible good is the realest presence in his poems, and when Seymour stumbles poetically his recoveries are accesses to grace (which some prefer to name inspiration, or luck).

In the 1970s, after nearly twenty years of having little time for writing, Seymour experienced what he called his second creative phase, a renaissance of energy and enthusiasm in which his visionary mind flew further than ever — see his poems on Lincoln, José Martí, Tagore, Neruda, Mandelstam, poems based on incidents from Shakespeare, poems commemorating his physical travels — but returned always to the beacon of his beloved Guyana. He had come to terms with writing English poetry as a West Indian, so that he could write West Indian poetry; he finally achieved that magnanimity of imagination which made him a poet of the world.

Fortunate poets write their own epitaphs. I don’t know if Seymour ever tried, but his poems are full of passages suitably celebrating the goodness and affirming the transience of earthly being.

Man is a flung stone and his trajectory
Lifts its slim curve before it comes to earth.
Within that dome he shapes his bright
Although no final beauty be achieved.

Seymour’s body “came to earth” on Christmas Day, 1989; I hope his soul is now where he expected it to be. But the final and permanent beauty of his poems survives. If we do not delight in the gracious shelter of these bright pavilions, it is not his fault, but our own for not seeking them out.

* It’s generally accepted that “West Indian” refers to the English-speaking Caribbean nations, including Guyana and Belize; I suppose “Antillean” covers all the islands, Greater and Lesser, regardless of language, but not the mainland territories; and “Caribbean” of course is the catch-all for everyone from Bahamians to French Guianese, Cubans to Arubans, and maybe Venezuelans, Mexicans and Floridians as well. There are strong arguments that the culture of the Caribbean should be considered as a whole and not broken down into linguistic parts, and perhaps there are some specialists who can do so convincingly, but I don’t claim to be one of them. The divisions are not arbitrary, especially when we turn to literature. The Spanish Caribbean’s literary tradition was firmly founded in the nineteenth century; the Guadeloupean Saint-John Perse wrote his Antillean elegies in the first decade of the twentieth. But the Spanish, French, Dutch and English writers of the Caribbean have owed more to the heritages of their respective languages than to each other. Nowadays, with more meaningful regional awareness and more available translations, we perhaps are evolving a truly Caribbean literature, but it doesn’t seem to have been so for the writers of the British West Indies in the 1930s and 40s.

(Courtesy -

Posted by jebratt :: Tuesday, September 27, 2005 :: 0 comments

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