Lloyd Searwar, address at the launch of A.J. Seymour's Collected Poems on 12 January, 2001, published in the Stabroek News, 4 March, 2001
I want to begin by reading a poem. It is one of Seymour's perhaps lesser known poems and I will tell you in a while why I will read it now. It is called "Grief" and it's to be found on page 68 of the book of the Collected Poems which we are launching this evening. Here is the poem:
A man wraps grief in his heart
Until it becomes a stone.
Unless the tears can fall
Grief hardens and stops the heart.
A stone is massive in suffering.
Let rivers run for years
They only polish the stone
And rough it--that is all.
But winnow grief from tears
And, Prometheus on the rock
Or Christ upon the cross
Man hangs with grief, alone.
In 1951 I had the good luck to be in Britain at the Festival of Britain as a British Council Visitor.
In the autumn of that year I had gone to see T.S. Eliot at the office of the publisher Faber and Faber, off Russell Square. Seymour had seen Eliot in London in 1946 and had been in correspondence with him. Duly introduced by a letter from Seymour, I had gone to visit Eliot to see if Faber, of which Eliot was a director, could be persuaded to publish an anthology of West Indian poetry. His secretary had cautioned me not to stay for more than half an hour. I was there much longer. The great poet wanted to talk. He said I reminded him of the Sri Lankan Tambimuthu, who had founded and edited Poetry London during the war years. He explained that his fellow directors had warned him that there was already too much poetry in the Faber list and that poetry didn't sell well. Eliot was not to be persuaded. But at the end of the interview he spoke about his continuing interest in Seymour's poetry. He said that he would have been proud to have written the poem which I have just read.
I will not attempt to speak about Seymour's poetry, which spans a lifetime, some 52 years. Ian McDonald and others will do this. I wish to speak about Seymour's overarching role in Guyana's cultural development and how he helped massively to shape not only a Guyanese identity but contributed to the emergence of a West Indian identity and consciousness.
Remember those were the war years which in a quite remarkable way had deepened consciousness of ourselves. We had to grow most of our own food as the German U-boats prevented ships from bringing supplies from overseas, a major reversal of the colonial economic structure. And there were many groups who had come to live here, US servicemen and Canadian veterans, who wore their shirts outside, not tucked in, avoided ties and preferred hamburgers. Thus there was the impact of new lifestyles. Moreover, it was the period marking the beginning of the end of colonial rule, in the wake of the region-wide strikes and riots of the late 30s and the early war years.
In this context of change, Seymour undertook several major tasks, each of which would have been sufficient for one lifetime. First, in his poetry he brought into the Guyanese mind and imagination the sense of places and history and legend and the recollection of great figures in our history of which we had until then but little awareness. The colonial school textbooks spoke not of Guyana but of faraway times and places.
There are in the collection such well known poems as the "Name Poem", or "Stabroek" or "Gravesande".
Second, Seymour made easily available the work of long forgotten earlier writers which he retrieved and collected in anthologies. But this was only a small part of Seymour's work.
Third, he was soon recognized as a critic and arbiter of taste. He had a profound interest in the techniques of criticism and had been deeply influenced by the work of I.A. Richards, the English scholar. Great critics are even rarer than great poets.
In English literature there are but a few: Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Dryden, Matthew Arnold and, in more recent times, T.S. Eliot. Seymour became and remains our foremost critic, evaluating what was relevant and useable from the past. So we find him publishing An Introduction to Guyanese Writing, The Making of Guyanese Literature, and The Study of Ten Guyanese Poems.
Although creative writing was his main preoccupation he was interested in the development of all the arts. In Georgetown at that time in the 40s there were more than thirty cultural groups, all active, ranging from the Young Men's Guild which had persisted for some fifty years to newer groups like the BG Dramatic Society, the Georgetown Dramatic Club, and the Free Library Discussion Circle, and a number of choral groups and youth and religious groups. There was little government interest in cultural development and no assistance was forthcoming.
Seymour saw the great potential for coordinated action among these groups, especially in the utlization of scarce resources and in the representation of their interests.
With the encouragement of two leading figures, E.A.Q. Potter, an Income Tax Commissioner and a profoundly self-educated man, and N.E. Cameron, a Cambridge scholar who had written a history, The Evolution of the Negro and was in addition a dramatist of note, Seymour took the initiative to establish the BG Union of Cultural Clubs (the BGUCC) and was its Secretary for almost the entire period of its existence. (I have in part relied on the Annual Report of the BGUCC for 1947, published in Kyk-over-al, June 1948, pp. 51-54.)
The membership of the BGUCC even in the earliest years was wide in range. It included the Children's Dorcas Club, the BG Writers Association, the Catholic Youth Organisation, the African Welfare Convention, the Muslim Youth Organisation, the Comenius Youth Movement and so on.
The range of activities was equally wide. In one year, 1947, the BGUCC advised the visiting principal of the proposed West Indian University College on what the structure of that institution might be; sponsored a symposium on the Guyanese woman; helped to initiate the Government's literacy campaign; arranged a public discussion on whether British Guiana should be in the West Indian Federation; organised a debating competition, the Dargan Debating Competition; and promoted interchanges between the membership of the clubs. That was not all.
On June 2, 1947, in the YMCA Hall, the BGUCC presented the feature "An Evening with the 17th Century in Europe". The object, we are told, was to present, "the intellectual life of a European century and to examine its legacy for modern times, both in one evening".
There was a historical summary of the century and lectures were given on musical trends by Mr H.V. Taitt; the science of the age by Mr J.H. Bevis; the century's art by Mr E.R. Burrowes; the drama by Mr D.A. Smith; the great books by A.J. Seymour himself. The Georgetown Dramatic Club sang two choruses, Lully's Lonely Woods and Purcell's Nymphs and Shepherds, Miss Joyce Fung played Scarlatti's Sonata in F Major, and there was incidental music provided by gramaphone recordings lent by the British Council. The Council also lent its epidiascope to illustrate the talk on art and on the books. A short summary of the century by Miss Margaret Lee, it is reported, brought the meeting to a close.
It would be easy to sneer at this activity as reflecting the colonial mentality, but a symposium of that kind would be a major intellectual achievement anywhere. It is to be noted that most of the contributors had been self-educated.
Seymour's presence and contributions were pivotal to all those activities of the BGUCC.
A government History and Arts Department was not to be established until long into the future and no one had yet thought about a Ministry of Culture. The BG Union of Cultural Clubs provided the framework of support for the quickening of cultural life which so characterised that time and which is so lacking now.
An Englishman, Harold Stannard, who came to Guyana and the West Indies as cultural adviser to the British Council described Georgetown as the "Athens of the South" and remarked on the passionate intellectual curiosity of the people he had met. We had no thought of affecting such a high role but as we walked and talked and educated ourselves and while Seymour, a humble man, would not have fancied himself as a Socrates, he was everywhere the key figure in the process.
The foundation of the BG Union of Cultural Clubs was the fourth of Seymour's major contributions. And there were many other sides to Seymour. He was a kind of conduit through which the creative ideas which were abroad in the world could reach the Guyanese writer and artist. I recalled that he wrote a series of essays (I hope that they survive in his papers in the UG collection) which were for people like myself an introduction to the work of new writers such as Joyce and Yeats and T.S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson and the French Symbolists. He was a kind of one man aggiornamento, breaking windows to let in the fresh air after the intellectual confinement of the war years in which few books had come to Guyana.
That role was enhanced after his visit to London as guest of the British Council.
Arthur James Seymour was, however, not just a Guyanese intellectual and writer.
Long before he was able to visit other parts of the West Indies, he had made contact with the creative figures in Jamaica and Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere. He was in touch with J.E McFarlane, the Jamaican poet and critic, and Phillip Sherlock and Vic Reid and the rest; in Barbados there was Collymore and in Trinidad the now forgotten Telemaque. All these encounters were to be reflected in his poetry. Thus there are, in the Collected Poems, poems to Roger Mais and Collymore.
Seymour was much ahead of his time in perceiving that there was a shared identity with the wider Caribbean. This, too, was to be reflected in his poems to Nicolas Guillen, the Cuban poet, and on the death of Robin Dobru, the Surinamese poet, and Pablo Neruda, the Chilean writer.
It was through his friendship with Seymour that Eric Williams, not yet thinking of a political career, was to make several visits to Guyana. When Eric Williams's first and most famous book Capitalism and Slavery was to be published, it was Seymour who arranged with Williams for a hundred copies to be made available in Guyana on a subscription basis at the much reduced price of $2.00 a book.
This book was to have a powerful liberating influence on our political thinkers.
A quiet man, who eschewed political action or identification, many thought of Seymour as a conformist, as compared with the revolutionary vision of Martin Carter. This is a mistake. It was Seymour, remember, always a public servant and subject to all those constraints, who could write in the 1980s a poem:
The New Demerara Martyrs
Avenge, O lord, thy slaughtered saints whose bones
Rattle as dice upon the table and now
In their stark postures spell a hidden vow
To meet thy people's deep and heart-felt groans
Against a bankrupt regime despising moans
For anguished bread--its regulations show.
The nation's human rights lie here below
Scattered amid the rubble of broken stones
Or again in the poem:
I sing of suffering people
Silent with the print of fear and violence
In a quotient of heavy hunger
Not knowing what will satisfy.
Breath in their bodies
Apathy in their hearts.
They walk the domain of despair
Lifting leaden feet
To follow the random seller's cry.
I sing of anguish
Torn between the past and the dead present
Bereft of sign posts.
With the permissive as the imperative
With the arbitrary as morality.
I sing of the people
In their silent fear
But I must make an ending. Let me go back to old Georgetown and recall the great creative figures. E.R. Burrowes who had established the Working People's Art Class; the Dolphins, the sisters Lynette and Celeste; the Pilgrims, Phillip who died untimely and Cicely and Frank, the playwright and journalist, and Billy who is still with us; in the field of drama, Bertie Martin and Ramjas Tiwari. They have had few successors. And sometimes these major talents came together, as when Philip Pilgrim put to music Seymour's "Legend of Kaiteur". The performance in the Old Assembly Rooms marked a special high place in the artistic flowering of that time.
And it was not an easy time. One recalls with sadness and amazement E.R. Burrowes buying paints for the class out of his own tiny income or Seymour on the modest income of a civil servant endlessly negotiating to bring out Kyk-over-al, as there was no money for advances and the major advertisers had no interest.
Seymour's contributions cover an enormous range in all the arts and in all activities of the spirit. There is such richness. He could write about Diocletian as easily as he could write about the West Indian dance. In a single poem the poetic imagination could invoke the memory of Yeats, the example of King Lear and our legendary Kaie.
Seymour, like most of his generation, derived his vast erudition from self-education. In the later years the UWI was to confer on him a doctorate. We will not easily see his like again.