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20 years of poetry - a comparative study

14 July 2014, 14:57

Some years ago I listened to poet/academic Kgafela oa Magogodi as he recited his famous poem Varara from his no-holds-barred installment Thy Condom Come. I listened with intensity as he hammered in every word with the precision of a coffin-maker. I swear if that poem was the Messiah I would have blindly Simoned it to the torture stake. It has an attraction, almost a halo that invites the listener to follow it to Gehenna. Its content makes for a medium that would cross every barrier, including the one dividing the hetero and homosexual orientations.

It opened another front for debate about poetry being a means of communication as opposed to it being a platform of expression. Here lies the rub; because the purpose of communication is to make sense to A and B while expression is just a relief, very often orgasmic nonsense. Poet Mzwakhe Mbuli did quite both with his works.

Remember it was him who conscientised many people to the hardships of apartheid. It was also Mbuli who came with all empty chants of being innocent while he was doing time. As South Africa celebrates twenty years of democracy it makes perfect sense to check the pulse of the country's thinkers. 

 Ten years ago Sandile Ngidi wrote in his birthday tribute to the late poet-laureate Mazisi Kunene that, "Kunene is largely forgotten in South Africa- a country that too often reduces greatness to political heroes. Surely the toyi-toyi was not the only response in creative self-expression when we were oppressed?"

 It was struggle poet, the late Bra Sipho Sepamla, not a politician, who satirised the brutality of apartheid with these lines, "the blues is the shadow of a cop/ dancing the Immorality Act jitterbug/ the blues is the Group Areas Act and all its jive/ the blues is the Bantu Education Act and its improvisations/ the blues is you in me/ I never knew the blues/ until I met you"

 Is today's poetry making any sense or just nonsense? Or are poets so obsessed with their own feelings that they left the role of mass communication to social media, journalists and indeed post liberation toyi-toying unionists? Is poetry really a form of communication or just mere expression? Can EFF's Julius Malema and NUMSA's Irvin Jim make for brilliant poets?

English poet John Donne used a format that flirted with being nonsense while at the same time it made sense. "Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so". This is a confrontational style very few poets today ever come close to emulating. They rather write from an estranged, yet not grieving position than to be caught dead next to their own lines. Donne closed his confrontation, "one short sleep past, we wake eternally/ and death shall be no more; death thou shalt die". Note that he writes we, indicating that he's writing for himself and other people.

Donne's poem obviously shows he was writing for an audience. It is not on a senseless ego trip but on an intellectual-educational journey; for all mankind. Wordsmiths today are infatuated with being abstract since being abstract is associated with being complicated which in some circles is considered a sign of high IQ. Poets today need not be drunks or junkies to be considered genius, but just to shout a lot of nonsense qualifies them. Take actor Masello Motana and her poem Anoracia, "identity oppressed/ BLK girl Dpressed/ Blonde hair obsessed/ Suicide thoughts Xpressed/ Nobody impressed/ with her, her life, her X/ a number 2 B tipXd/ With the rest/ of the less/ seen race yet blessed". Now, this is as trivial as Motana can get. Maybe if this poem could be touched or molded into an object it would look like the hairstyle she used to spot many years ago while she still presented junk on TV. The question is, who is her audience?

 Then peruse to page 69 of Timbila 2002 and let Buhle Khumalo annoy you. "Disgusting/ it stinks, shit stench/ what type of people are they; / people that shit and stay in it," Now, hers is straight talk, the one that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. Khumalo' speaks for all the people of Orange Farm Extension II in her poem of the same title. It is a love it or hate it report. She's unashamedly a messenger of bad news, the one who does not deserve death. It's also indictive of society, "I wonder if they think normally/ do they have a brain between their so-called ears/ they whine and complain…/ we are deserted". Aluta Continua. And two years ago the government slaughtered miners at Marikana. Trivial hey?

 "Gather ye Rosebuds while ye may, / Old time is still a-flying/ and this same flower that smiles today/ to-morrow will be dying". Another English, Robert Herrick must have been disillusioned by the youth of his era when he wrote, To the Virgins, to make much of time. By its very content the poem must have made sense and contributed to the moral degeneration of Herrick's era. He went on to make sense, "and while ye may, go marry/ for having lost but once your prime/ you may forever tarry"

 Mzi Mahola does not come out to make things better or add a new understanding to the already tense situation. I tend to think he risks bad reviews, "countrymen! / Elect me your president/ and you'll learn/ the art of groveling/ make me your president". This sounds like self-proclamation, but Bra Mzi should know better as he is the author of two poetry anthologies. But do his lines here make any sense? These lines could have been uttered by President Jacob Zuma since his presidency has been characterised by groveling.

 Swedish poet Mauritz Tistelo once asked, "if poetry is about love, jelousy (sic), anger… all our feelings- can we with words and rhythm face our structures and smash them (and in longer distance the capitalistic system) so that we can grow like flowers with ten eyes and fourhundred (sic) hands. What is our interest- to catch and build beautiful jails or deliberate and go into an unknown space?"

 The paradox of poetry's inertia can be best fathomed in its demarcated two streams; commercial-by-prescription and disgruntled-activists. The commercial-by-prescription stream is a narrow peri-elite camp that only accommodates a few poet-politicians and their close associates who can be invited to exclusive functions and award ceremonies to recite for SASOL and powerbrokers. While the disgruntled-activist is populated by mostly outspoken leftists and liberals who don't find ceremony in having a four course meal while people of Limpopo and Eastern Cape still worry about where their next batch of textbooks will come from. How poets, who occupied the same trenches during the liberation war ever allowed money to divide them is itself a paradox. It's no longer about urban and rural, spoken and written but whom do you know. Contemporary poets deliberately ignore the rot in their communities for the benefit of an opportunity to recite about how intelligent the South African president is and how the SABC COO is a model for corporate governance.

 Afrikaans poet Breytenbach, whose 1984 anthology Buffalo Bill arguably influenced Matthew Phosa's Deur die Oog van n Naald had this gagged lines which if they were not out to make him enemies, were out to de/create his poetic Afrikaans, yet English colonised spirit. "I wish I kent the physical basis/ o' a' life's seemin' airs and graces/ it's queer the thochts a kitted cull/ can lowse or splairgin' glit annul". Breytenbach's rant defeats the whole point of using words. If a well-shot picture can speak Arabic to Zulu without uttering a word, then his poem comes gagged. If one had to review Buffalo Bill, he would be forgiven for calling it "a fart in the face of art", which it's not. If he was deliberately throttling the Queen's language then Paul Kruger was smiling in his grave.

 Actress Magi Nozinzi Williams, who most will remember as Khensani's mother in Generations once wrote this simple, straight forward and senseful poem titled Bring Back my Calabash, "I want to seize it -/ I want to claim it -/ it is mine -/ it belongs to me, the children, the mothers and/ the fathers of Africa…/ please bring back my calabash". How much sense can Willians make before she gets her creds? I think this poem deserves an award.

 Jo'burg based poet-activist and now filmmaker Righteous The Common Man (Motho-feela), whose poem Remember me was accused of condoning crime and criminality has this silent lines in They Have Landed, "the landless have landed/ where/ in the land of the landless/ except for those who have stacks/ of cash in their pockets". Common Man's poetry has always had an element of activism, same as this one is indicted of giving support to the Landless People's Movement and the occupation of a white farm as happened in Bredell many years ago.

 Now imagine an icon and veteran like Lesego Rampolokeng going all out to lose his audience. Methinks it is futile to be a blind Pied Piper. "high art low fart you blow me apart/ wiley crows Abrahams' sons of sam/ you pork me ham why're you eating me/ not about melody ill-rhythm/ these maladies diss-harmony". This sounds like gibberish, but New Coin editor Alan Finlay saw beyond the obvious.

 Also interesting is what one publisher said. He says that when he gave an influential book reviewer a copy of Mbongeni Khumalo's anthology Apocrypha to review, the critic said, "let's see if I'll find a book between these pages". Well, that was the shortest verbal obituary for Apocrypha. Or was it its last rites? But Apocrypha made lots of sense.

 "I share my life with you…/1995, I de-sided to be a poet/ that is why I'm telling/ this story to you/ I share my life…/ with you/ 1996, Moulin Rouge International Hotel/ a prostitute broke my virginity/ yes, I share/ my life with you", Khumalo writes in his ongoing journey to the dark end of the cave. He says it's a confession. His confession makes a serious but failed attempt at being abstract.

 "You/ my love, my beginning my end/ I have nothing/ I can offer at this moment/ this you must know…/ I was born of so little/ with ordinary love, / chasing for tomorrow/ my distant future", Ayanda Billie wrote in his painful heartwarming poem, Someday - My Love.

 His whining makes for an excellent read primarily because it speaks to every person who has loved and been loved. They often say that don't cry over a relationship that ended, focus on the future, because "there's always something left to love".

 Zimbabwean author and poet Memory Chirere had this formula to writing poetry. "Poetry comes from calculated, cultivated, measured and allowed 'habits of a poet'. The habits of writing poems (bad or good ones) is human and if you do not have them, there could be a thread you are missing in your fast waning writing career"

 Maybe after all the loss what is left is a poem dying to be written, not just for you but for mankind as well.

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