Saturday, 21 December 2019

Against an automatic cringe

In a recent review of Finuala Dowling's latest poetry collection, Pretend you don't know me, published by Kwela, Reg Rumney writes:

"In an age of self-obsession and poetry as therapy, poet and novelist Finuala Dowling’s work is outward oriented. She makes it her business to have an audience. Her poems talk about what is most painful to us, publicly and privately without inviting voyeurism and she’s not afraid of politics beyond slogans. And she enjoys performing her poems. They are not internal monologues."

Rumney's point is valid and I completely chime with his praise of Finuala Dowling's work. I agree with him that any reader would benefit from possessing a copy of Pretend you don't know me.

However, I would like to invite you to rewind to his words, "In an age of self-obsession and poetry as therapy", going on to imply that, in this 'age', much poetry amounts to no more than "voyeurism" of "internal monologues".

I do not question Rumney's feelings about selfie-type poems. These feelings are perfectly understandable.

Nevertheless, I would like to invite you to look again. 

Yes, there is much preoccupation with the self in recent poetry - the self both in its psychological as well as physical manifestations - during this year, and the last, and perhaps the previous ten to twenty; a trend that was arguably begun by William Wordsworth more than two hundred years ago. To offer my own eye on this trend, I would say there is far more going on than can be simply dismissed as an irritating literary aberration, due to a lack of education among emerging poets as to proper poetic attitudes and style.

Yes, it is exhausting and enervating to plough through hundreds upon hundreds of poems, often imaged as memes by (frequently) young, often love-struck, more often love-starved, psychologically struggling folk, who may be on medication or not, using words as a way to keep themselves from drowning in loneliness, despair, and social neglect. I am not even mentioning the environmental and political crises shadowing the globe. 

And yes, it behoves a critic and reviewer to remind readers and writers of modes of expression that would take them beyond themselves and outside their anguish, no matter how desperate they might be. For example:

"I have sweated metals and fused quicksilver to moonlight.
Equations have haunted my walls in a race against time." - from The Alchemy of you by Jessica Denyschen, in The Magic, The Madness and the Loss, Poetree Publications, 2018 

Even out of context, these "self-obsessed" lines are potent, reaching deeply into self in a formidable and rhythmically utterly convincing way. 

Overall, I would caution protectively against an automatic cringe in response to the search for self in an age that requires and facilitates the individual's search for their own soul more than ever before. I think it was Pearl S. Buck who said that the human soul was the least developed area on earth. If our young writers are searching so, who are we to dismiss the awful - and it is by definition awful - struggle?

Dowling is not a part of the new generation; she is older and wiser and it shows in her writing.

Please do not condemn the young who are going through struggles we oldies will never even taste. I daresay Nuala - yes, I do know her a little bit, well enough to call her so - would be highly unlikely to dismiss emerging poets grappling with their human selves by means of trying to make poems. However poorly for now.

I would go so far as to say that a true poet does not put their craft before their soul. Even if critics and reviewers may at times wish that we do.

For the full review by Rumney, see  Reg Rumney Review of Finuala Dowling  

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Review of Staying Hungry by Marike Beyers

Staying Hungry by the ECCA Poets
Hogsback: Ecca, 2019

Staying Hungry is the 2019 anthology published by the ECCA Poets – a group of mainly Eastern Cape writers who put forward the first of these in July 1989, a good 30 years ago! Originating from an art and writers’ group at Fort Hare, Alice, the group has since lost members, but also expanded, including more voices from further afield. Each poet is given a generous portion of the book and, broadly speaking, shares a sense of keen observation of the world and their own responses within it and a concern with expression, mostly in the form of writing itself.

Brian Walter, who recently published a new collection Allegories of the Everyday, opens the anthology. These poems convey a reflective and somewhat mournful tone. Walter subtly interchanges free verse elements with formal structures such as stanzas that echo each other and a quiet rhyme and rhythm, slipping into the concern with poetry-making within the poems: In ‘Marching’ the speaker smiles fondly at children’s choices between the simple rhythm of a school drill and “our fine irony” in poetry. Music and writing poetry are the subject of other poems too; I am particularly fond of ‘Paganini in Helenvale’, a poem in couplets where the rough world of the young people waits on rain and words “hanging in the air / like a fresh sadness” to settle
dripping as the violin bows,

along the gangster pavements
each child here knows.
The poet also thinks about other forms of representing the world and one’s perceptions – ‘Enfolding’ is a longer poem full of the colours of painting. The everyday world of the speaker concerns children trying to find their way in the “gun streets, up and down streets / the old-young men listless streets”, reflections on the past “leaving long shadows”, visiting his mother, feeling wordless with a stranger singing his loss at a bar. “I have no easy words”, the poet says, but shapes his to encounters with others in a dry and gangster world, to bring them “in the sight / of the poetry eye”.

Olwethu Mxoli brings a fresh and direct voice to the page. Her poems speak with immediacy about difficult dimensions of experience. Among these are grief, described as a limb that “just hangs there” and depression. The latter is particularly vivid in the poems ‘Today’ and ‘Being okay’, setting up a self-judgment against an expectation of how one should be. In ‘Being okay’ she uses the line spacing effectively to mimic what is contained emotionally against slipping into spillage when she describes preparing to face the world in dressing with
… a scrupulous headwrap
tied tightly and high to keep all the darkness
out of my
and tainting the sky.
Violence against women is addressed in, among others, ‘Exhibit A’, a poem that presents a trial as an orgy, thereby demonstrating the position of the victim as display case, and ‘Live feed’ that forwards the presence of social media. There is a rage and helplessness in writing about being young and black, an awareness of the precariousness of identity in a world where education goes with a different kind of cultural immersion. In ‘Mother tongue’ she writes about no longer being fluent enough in isiXhosa to relate comfortably with her parents, repeating the unease stanza by stanza, until “I don’t say much anymore”. The poem ‘Blackness’ presents itself as an answer to “You ask me what blackness means”. It is not a comfortable poem, partly because the speaker turns it to interrogate her own position:
At night, in the quiet comfort of suburbia
in my perfect accent
I wonder how black I am
without suffering.
Blackness is also guilt.
It is also apologizing
for not starving.
It is a hard thing to hear, to listen into pain so bound into time and others and self and us as South Africans.

Ed Burle’s contributions are mostly bite-sized observations. There are a few poems where he works his precise observations into a narrative, such as ‘Tren a Barcelona’ about two passengers falling asleep together on a train and ‘Held’, where a moment is stretched into a memory from repeating the opening line “A man leaning in a doorway” stanza by stanza. The short poems sometimes take as subject memory or observations of nature. In my opinion, some of them are so short as to present an image unconnected, almost like seeing a photo from a stranger’s album without context, some even appear to be grammatically incomplete. To me it feels as if they could be starting points to something else, perhaps counter-intuitively given their brevity, to story. ‘Excerpts from a writer’s museum’ seems to bring together some of the concern with memory, the given, and gestures to reach out into an eerie narrative – almost a ghost story. The short poems, close to haikus, work best when they become aphorisms in their succinct wisdom, for example:
Smiling cashier –
no trace of the visions
that bleed through her dreams.

The everyday presented in Silke Heiss’ poems spring from meetings with family, friends, chance encounters, for example a conversation with a cashier at Pick n Pay, and where she finds herself. Her world is filled with people and creatures, all presented as selves – blue cranes “disappeared / their blue selves into the sky”; recovering her health, her mother finds new dignity in the mirror – “the image now / of her lovely old / self” and, finding herself in a home with a boomslang, the poet considers “a space replete with hideouts / for sleek selves”. To me ‘Lessons in hand’ represents the lively interest in the natural world and spontaneous creation of meaning from everyday occurrences prevalent in her poems. Moving around carefully, minding the snake at home, the poet finds the boomslang on a shutter, from where “he turns, leaps / like a graph of himself”. This turning the snake into an image of something drawn, written, continues in her reflections:
Let me read this event
as if I were blind.
Let me like him be feeling
my entire length
a sole – the body one extended foot,
feeding on the Braille
of surfaces.
Heiss, too, recently published a book – Greater Matter, reading meaning and her experiences in the wake of the illness and death of her husband, the poet Norman Morrissey.

Lara Kirsten’s poetry has grown in depth since my previous encounters with her work. She mainly writes in Afrikaans, but there are two English poems among her contributions in Staying Hungry. Of these, ‘stridulate’ offers the English reader a taste of her offerings in Afrikaans, as it also plays a great deal with the visceral experience of sound in writing and performing poetry. The poem introduces a newly learnt word – relating to insects producing sounds by rubbing their wings together –  and with this the poet flies “with its sizzling syllables / right into/ the dusky corner of this poem”. She then expands it into an extended image for the writing of poetry, including onomatopoeia:
with resonant surety
the verses begin to rub against each other
and a soft vibration begins to spark the silence
Her poems in this anthology are preoccupied with the need and techniques of writing poetry. She seems to take joy in in-line rhymes and alliterative lines of stacked words rushing forward with an energetic sense of ‘do this!’ Describing her mouth as her tools, her place of industry to make poems, she states her joy as unmatched:
geen groter digtersjolyt!
met net hierdie enkele mond
maak ek my wêreld rond en bont
However, poems like ‘oëverblindery’ and ‘trekkrag’ also question the sources and techniques of poetry – as tricks, on the one hand, and struggle, on the other. Art, Kirsten reflects, does not come from harmony, as people seem to think, but from resistance. Creativity, she insists “moet trekkrag hê / vassuigend, vasstekend / vas geanker in `n hittige halsstarrigheid.”

Jacques Coetzee uses his poetry to reflect on his life, make “accessible at a moment’s notice” memories and moments of selfhood. The poems ask questions about the emotional and personal legacy we inherit from our parents. There are several poems on the deathbed of his father and one can hear the father in the poet’s recall: “One of the last things you said was: ‘Give that boy a chair, he’s in his own way.’” The poet probes his own sense of being in the world in relation to his father:
I can never be quite sure
if it’s me who says yes or no,
who keeps faith or breaks it,
trying always to learn
what it means to call you father in this world,
to call myself your son.
Coetzee’s poems are all in a direct first-person speaker, telling and thinking about incidents in his life – hospital visits, attending a class, listening to the experience of a student, remembering going down a water-slide as a child, facing his graceless response to the man who let him go for free, commemorating love and friendship. The poet often conflates writing poetry and music or song to reach for an inner truth and harmony through art. For example, he holds on to lines from Ingeborg Bachman “as if / they can coax / my timid, over-educated words / into wildness; can hinge me into song” and ends his tribute to a friend with this echo – “because of the songs / that still have to be sung”. The poem ‘Narrow songs’ uses the image of singing to speak about the value of what making art is about (perhaps one can call it getting out of one’s own way):
I bring you these long, narrow songs –
a ladder going inwards and down
the steep, narrow ladder of words and music
leading down
into the loneliness and courage
of the body each day.

John van Wyngaard provides a dash of satire, making fun of his ailments in ‘Geriatric rap’ and putting several twists in the oh-so-sincere sphere of poetry events in ‘At the poetry reading group’. The poem ‘Addo’ starts out with a comment on game farm fences – “tall posts, steel cables, electrified / - built to keep the orchards out”, but takes the subject of elephants with a gracious beauty: “They’re a dark shadow breathing together / in all the hard light of this moment” and a respectful acknowledgement of their otherness in the world:
No. Put down your bag
of words and images, and witness this.
They simply are, here.
Elephants, leaning together.
Living the absolute of their own company.
Other poems on making are ‘On writing a poem’ and ‘Making dress’, seeing the person making it “full of imagining / how this flattened nothing will come to fill out” – visualizing the act of creation. There is a sense of connection with people in Van Wyngaard’s work – the amused presentation of the speaker’s endeavors, the tender ‘To Caro, far away’ on missing his absent beloved in the small details of a day, such as sharing fruit for their muesli and ‘Skin’, dedicated to Norman [Morrissey] on the vulnerability of being alive.

Something of that sense of community between the poets in Staying Hungry is also conveyed in that Heiss gives a poem – ‘Did not blot’ – on the death of Cathal Lagan’s son. “I could hurt // with you, and jot this / down”. Lagan’s poem on this death, ‘You died’, speaks about the presence of the experience of absence:
You died
but the clock still ticks,
mail for you is still delivered
and we half expect
you’re still around
the next corner.
Ending the line on “still around” allows one to read the absence in this renewed sense of loss, as if there was some hide-and-seek going on. Lagan’s other poem ‘Quae est ista?’ uses a liturgical text on Mary to meditate on mystery, on what remains hidden, sealed. Perhaps much of making, poetry, dresses, art and observation is to reach past what remains hidden, sealed and perhaps it is a particular quiet that can also hold what remains sealed before one.

Staying Hungry provides quite a range of poems. Each poet is in effect given about 15 pages of contributions. It occurred to me that this is almost a chapbook of poems per poet published annually and I wondered about the different kinds of affirmation or readings that arise from this mode of publication. Choosing to share work in an anthology requires more cooperation in the production side of it and perhaps remains a supportive platform for the poets who then write and publish as a community. Some of this is suggested by Van Wyngaard’s poem on the mystery (the waiting and wrestling) of engaging with a poem,  serving as a conclusion:
Neither of you can know what you want to say,
Or be, or become, or whether you ever will,
Until it says itself, so some dialogue can play
And conversation begins, and goes on…

Reviewer: Marike Beyers
Curator: Amazwi South African Museum of Literature
The opinions expressed in this review are the reviewer’s and should not be taken to represent Amazwi.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Good and perhaps famous

In response to my blogpost yesterday on the joy of reviews, one reader responded by saying:

"A reviewer needs to have the critical capacity to tell the difference between, as Coleridge puts it, "an intense desire for poetic reputation" and "a natural poetic genius".

Today, Seth Godin's blog is titled 'The gap between good and famous', and ends with the observation that, "While it's a convenient shortcut, the signal of 'famous' is no longer closely related to the desire for 'good'."

My response to these statements is, first - if you look at the list of writers, artists and great thinkers in the course of history, who were unacknowledged during their lifetimes, posthumously to be praised as 'good' - Godin's implication that 'good' and 'famous' were once upon a time closely related is historically inaccurate. Mozart, Franz Schubert, Van Gogh and, more contemporarily, Nick Drake, are but a few examples of deeply lonely and, in their lifetimes, largely unrewarded geniuses.

Secondly, good and famous are not necessarily mutually exclusive - take as example the creative forces of Bach, Beethoven, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Seamus Heaney, Leonard Cohen - all of whom enjoyed, and endured, the comforts and obligations of recognition during their lifetimes. And what about the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler? Nobody can deny they are both good and famous and, to top it all, they've lived for decades and look on track to be carrying on with their business for a while yet.

Thirdly - while we can, perhaps, agree more or less on a standard for 'good' (music, poetry, art, etc.), what on earth is 'famous'? Getting likes on Facebook? Getting hits on your blog? Getting applause during a performance? Getting articles written about you? Getting invited to give talks on tv? Actually, unvelievably, getting paid to live by the creative thing you do?

Whatever your criteria, 'famous' definitely has to do with 'getting'. Unfortunately, fame can happen even when you don't ask for it. Getting attention is not nice when you are busy creating and have to make an effort to be left alone to get on with your work.

'Good', on the other hand, has to do with the quality of what you give. It has, I think, to do with your self-respect, your decision to give the best you are capable of. It has to do with love - your love of life, of yourself, and of your fellow man and woman, with whom you wish to share what you have to give.

A "natural poetic genius" is a man or woman or child whose language is so original and fresh that it will travel across tongues far beyond the boundaries of space and time. Many natural poetic geniuses are anonymous. Some, right now, may be making use of the social media in an attempt to reach their kind, without caring in the least about whether they are acknowledged or named.

People who are concerned primarily with their name being known, with being or becoming famous, are probably not focused on creating something of quality to give to humanity.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

The joy of reviews

I have periodically reviewed volumes of poetry and, at times, novels, too. It is an honour and a responsibility. The more experience one gains, the greater both the honour and the responsibility become.

The reviewer has to be an aunt or uncle to the child that is the book. He or she has to detect and point out things the parent (author) could not perceive. She or he has to nudge or even lead the book towards a friendly and supportive environment (the right readers). A reviewer needs to flag room for improvement, partly in case there may be future offspring, and partly to demonstrate the delicacies of readerly discretion - that beautiful relationship between the thinking self and somebody else's text.

This week I had the joy on one and the same day to receive two reviews that have been produced by two praiseworthy people. Both reviewers show awareness of the job they are tasked with. Both reviews are humble, knowledgeable, sincerely concerned with poetic detail, and balanced in judgment.

Troy Camplin's review is of Norman Morrissey's and my love books (Tryst, 2012;  Learn the Dance, 2013; Hogsback Hiku, 2013; Simply in Love, 2014; To The Far Horizon, 2015; Love Letters To The Earth, 2016; A Shell Held To The Ear, 2017. It excludes The Only Altar, 2018, as I sent him the books prior to that book's being produced.)

Camplin's appreciation is substantial, of the technical details in two of Norman's and my poems, with reference to his own experience as a poet. His receptiveness, furthermore, to the nuances of voice is enlightening beyond the purely technical - it provides readers with the possibilities of reflecting on gender differences as well as relationship dynamics. It is a joy to me to share with you the link to his review, in the hope that you will treat yourself to a full read

Marike Beyers' review of the latest Ecca book, Staying Hungry, too, models the illuminations, which close reading can bring. Her efforts to communicate these illuminations provide both writers as well as readers with her unique thinking feelings - yes: thinking feelings - whereby you are invited to access the varied poems in the collection. Marike's review is not in the public domain just yet, but I will post it on this blog in the next day or two.