‘Breathing to stay alive?...?writing to feel alive’

2012-08-01 00:00

THE title of Clive Lawrance’s latest collection of poems, Whimsical Notions and Darker Waters is very apt. This attractively produced little book is divided into three sections, and in the first, says Lawrance, are the whimsical notions — “whatever that means”.

What it does mean is that the poems are mainly about nature and the creatures in Lawrance’s gloriously untamed garden, but nature seen with a quirky eye. “I have a tendency to make nature part of my own consciousness,” he says, explaining that from his childhood, in what was then the village of Irene, through his life in Pietermaritzburg, England, New York, the Karoo and back to Pietermaritzburg, he has always had nature within him.

In these latest poems, the reader is struck by Lawrance’s clarity; the almost scientific accuracy of his observation (a chameleon rocking back and forth like a sprinter in his starting blocks); his off-beat humour and, perhaps most importantly, the absence of sentimentality. Lawrance, who says he can’t stand sentimental poems, admits, nonetheless, to having a streak of sentimentality in himself.

“I cry if I see a film in which a dog is hurt. So when I write, I look at the poem and ask myself if there is any sentiment there. I try to eradicate it, without spoiling the poetry.”

All the poems in the collection give a sense of having been carefully crafted. There is nothing hurried. “A poem starts with observation,” Lawrance says, going on to say that he will remember something he has seen and start with a first draft of his poem. “There’s a great danger for a poet to get a sense of euphoria with that first draft, but I have learnt to leave it aside and not go back to it until it comes back to me. It can take years.”

Fortunately for Lawrance, after a working life spent as a journalist with two long stints at the then Natal Witness, poetry has no deadlines. And he says that when he is writing, he doesn’t think about future readers, only about the incident that triggers the idea, and the words he will use. “After I’ve written it, I will say — ‘does this entertain?’ — a tricky word. But it must entertain. And if it also gives insight, then it’s a good poem.” He quotes a line from Seamus Heaney’s St Francis and the Birds: “his argument true, his tone light.” It is an apt description of Lawrence’s own work.

In the second section, however, where Lawrance deals with his own childhood and memories, the tone is more sombre, as the “darker waters” of the title come to the fore. I ask if this is something to do with getting older, how we all think more about the past. “Maybe,” says Lawrance. “But I’d never written about childhood, or love, until I read American poet Ted Kooser. He opened up something for me. I had a happy childhood, but I was always a sad child — and I’m a sad bloke, melancholic.”

The final section are poems of the Karoo, the landscape that first inspired Lawrance to write. “At school, I was hopeless at everything, except art. But when I went off to the Naval Gymnasium at Saldanha for my military service, I travelled by train through the Karoo. It was a revelation — I had never seen anything like it before, and I began to find words to express it. And I got a love of turning experience into words. Some people want to turn experience into paint, or into form if they sculpt [which Lawrance has also done — his garden is full of pieces he has created]. I breathe to stay alive; I write to feel alive.”

It is tempting to quote some of the images from Lawrance’s poetry, but that would be unfair to the whole, crafted piece. I ask him if he has a favourite in the book, and am delighted when he says one of them is The Stoning — quoted in full below. I too had marked the page in my copy of the book.

The Stoning


They thought it was a wild rabbit,

and they were poor people, said

my father; so I should let them have

the rabbit, now dead.


I watched him walk to the five men

and talk to them in Zulu. One turned

to look at me, and I saw

in his old face the recognition of grief.

• Whimsical Notions and Darker Waters by Clive Lawrance is published by Jive Media — 033 342 9380 or www.jivemedia. co.za It is also available from Bookworld at Cascades, the Tatham Art Gallery shop, Macs House in Haldane Road and Rosehurst in Boom Street.

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