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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The collected poems of AJ Seymour

Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
Stabroek News
January 18, 2004

The publication of the collected poems of AJ Seymour is an achievement. It is ironic that this man of letters, who spent half a century launching, nurturing and developing the careers of some of the greatest writers in the Caribbean and of Caribbean literature, never published a substantial volume of his own work. This helps to make Collected Poems 1937 - 1989, edited by Ian McDonald and Jacqueline de Weever, a priceless document and its compilation an important contribution to Guyanese and West Indian literature.

Arthur James Seymour (Jan. 12, 1941 - Dec. 25, 1989) was born in George-town and grew up in colonial British Guiana (BG) at a time when West Indian Literature was in its infancy and not yet weaned from the imitative verse modelled on nineteenth century England. By the time he began to write, one or two upheavals, which helped to shake down the conservative tradition had already taken place around the region.

At the same time that the imitative poetry was still strong and the likes of Tom Redcam and H Gillis Clark were writing, a white Jamaican newspaper editor, HG de Lisser, had already ushered in the rise of social realism in West Indian fiction with popular novels first serialised in his newspaper. A group of committed nationalistic writers in Trinidad, including CLR James and Alfred Mendez, followed him with a conscious campaign against imitation and a bold, controversial insistence that West Indian literature should reflect local social realities. Claude McKay had published two collections of Jamaican Creole poems and, in Guyana, Norman E Cameron had declared that there was a need for local literature to dignify the status of local people.

Seymour started writing at a time when the nationalistic, anti-colonial spirit was generating waves in the Caribbean but as a literary figure in BG he was among the pioneers. Edward Baugh explains that as a poet in that class-conscious, colonial society Seymour felt like "an upstart". His poetry is never going to be described as radical or even bold. He did not depart from formal convention, but what a reading of Collected Poems reveals is that very early in his long career he was attempting to capture local rhythms to match local musical tones and oral qualities.

Although a very important Guyanese poet, he is not among the major writers of the Caribbean. He is not rated as a great poet and is not a brilliant craftsman; neither is his prose found among the major statements in West Indian literary criticism. But the time and climate in which he did most of his work and the overall context in which it is to be placed most definitely elevate it.

The weight and importance of this volume then, is to be measured not only by the quality of the poems alone, but by what they reveal about the mind of a poet whose value extends far beyond poetry. It is the only substantial collection of the work of an extremely prolific writer, whose work has made a great contribution to West Indian literature. The contribution and the life that it celebrates are better appreciated because of the informed introduction by McDonald, whose close association and knowledge of the man help to put a personality to the poetry.

Here is the artistic expression of a man, who was a very prolific writer, determined not only to shape poems, but to shape Guyanese and West Indian poetry. His greatest contribution to this endeavour was the founding of the literary journal Kyk-Over-Al in 1945. This journal succeeded in surviving where others did not. It has outlasted Trinidad, Beacon, Focus and Bim, all of which had similar beginnings between 1929 and 1945. It provided an outlet for many of the great Caribbean writers, publishing their first poems and early work.

Seymour was almost just as creative as a prose writer. Each edition of Kyk, as well as other volumes, had contributions from him on Guyanese literature at a time when no substantial documents of West Indian literary criticism existed. Seymour is well known for his work on Edgar Mittelholzer and his other contributions to critical writing. He was an anthologist as well as an editor, all accomplished while he held a full-time job as a civil servant.

McDonald explains that in compiling the collection, the editors went through some 550 poems, many of them unpublished, many of them unflatteringly bad, eventually deciding on 220 of them for the book. They cover an extremely wide range of subjects and interests, some of them quite personal to the author. For example, he was a devoted family man, whose wife, Elma Seymour joined with him in editing at least two anthologies of Guyanese poems and published her own autobiography in 1987. He was a devout Christian and may also be considered a religious poet. Yet, there are verses about music, dance, Guyanese heritage, the Amerindian ethos, landscape and a patriotic sensibility.

To one who previously considered his poems unremarkable, the book is a revelation. The more one reads the more one discovers new items of more than passing interest. In addition, a reading of many of them on the page suggests nothing of their effectiveness when performed. It says a lot for the innate rhythms of quite a few of them that they have this capacity to be effectively dramatized by the voice.

The volume has, perhaps, more than 30 poems that will hold their own in any company, including "There Runs A Dream", "Amalivaca", "Sun is a Shapely Fire", "Over Guyana, Clouds", "Shaman" and "The Legend of Kaieteur". Then there are those whose subjects attract interest, but whose contents seem little more than repetitive lists of items, such as "Name Poem" and "Tomorrow Belongs to the People". But these are rescued by a few strategically placed lines of compelling poetry. Others are worth keeping for the poet's keen eye for detail, his great sensitivity, his obvious emotion and his power over description.

AJ Seymour's Collected Poems is therefore more than a book of poems, it is the long delayed celebration of and tribute to a dedicated, useful life. It is a thorough study of his verse and, especially when placed in the context of his invaluable contribution to Guyanese and West Indian literature, this volume is a treasure. [AJ Seymour, Collected Poems 1937 - 1989, I McDonald and J de Weever (eds), New York: Blue Parrot Press, 2000; 303pp]

(Courtesy of

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

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