A few years ago I listened to poet Kgafela oa Magogodi as he rendered his seminal poem Varara from his no-holds-barred first poetry anthology 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 cocaine I was going to snort until I did the Maradona. It has an addictive, almost a fiend effect that invites the listener to stick right there to the end. Its content makes for a medium that would trespass every barrier, including in retrospect, The Berlin Wall.
It peeled a fresh scab on the old debate about poetry being a means of communication as opposed to it being a platform of expression. Now, here is the point of departure, because the purpose of communication is to send information from A to B while expression is just a giant vomit aimed at ridding the body of toxins. Poet Ingrid Jonker vomited a lot using her favourite theme, disillusionment.
It was the late Sipho Sepamla, a poet not a politician, who conscientised many to the effects 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"
As South Africa became a teenager two months ago it only makes sense to check the literary diary entries of country's prophets. Is their poetry taking over where Bra Sipho's tutorials left and celebrate the twelve years? Or are poets so obsessed with their own feelings that they left the role of tutoring to politicians and secular teachers? Is poetry really a form of communication or just mere expression?
Okay; "Gather ye Rosebuds while ye may, / Old time is still a-flying/ and this same flower that smiles today/ to-morrow will be dying". Robert Herrick must have been suffering from midlife crisis when he penned To the Virgins, to make much of time. By its very content the poem must have made sense and contributed to the recklessness of Herrick's era. He went on to take a tutorial tune, "and while ye may, go marry/ for having lost but once your prime/ you may forever tarry"
John Donne went further by flirting with being abstract while at the same time communicational. "Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so". This is an engaging style very few poets today ever come close to emulating. They rather write from a divorced, yet not grieving angle than to be caught dead next to their own writings. Donne closed his war-talk with these lines, "one short sleep past, we wake eternally/ and death shall be no more; death thou shalt die". Observe that he writes we, showing that he's addressing it to an audience that he himself is part of.
Donne and Herrick's works exposes them as writing for an audience. They were not on an ego trip but a tutorial-communication journey, not for self, but for mankind. Today's poets are obsessed with being abstract since being abstract is associated with being complicated which in art circles is considered a sign of high IQ. They need not abuse the bottle or pop pills to be considered genius but just to vomit a lot of words qualifies them. Take one of Botsotso editors Siphiwe ka Ngwenya (pictured right) and his poem Killjoy, "I rave until I kiss my grave/ I rant till I run out of wealthy words/ like a river gone dry/ I sigh at the blooming lie of flowers/ I appreciate/retaliate/dedicate". Now, this is an ego trip. Siphiwe can do better than he did on this signature poem. The question is, why is he telling us this?
Then peruse to page 115 of Timbila 2003 and let Wisani Nghalaluma propose to you. "Dear Man; love me/ I was made for that/ because I love you deeply/ with an understanding that is beyond my own…love, woman". Wisani's proposition is unadulterated and is meant to make a man blush. It takes a leap year to another level. It is expression laced with invitation. It's sincere and warm, begging to be engaged further. It is far from an ego trip and before you say, "I do" she teases, "desire me/ I was made for that/ that is why I was sculptured/ with meandering curves". Mo' fire my sista!
Another poet who pushes the boundaries of communication if ever he gets close to them is Bra Ike Mboneni Muila (pictured right). Sometimes I think he creates a further barrier with his scamtho style. "buddy scamtho…first and foremost I accept and thank you for your invitation/ with my most humble beginnings/ I am into creative writing as a poet and artist/ my narrative oral mix is in the eleven languages spoken/ in south africa". This is a beautiful narrative, but some of his scamtho verses defeats their purpose.
The paradox of poetry's inertia can be best found in its contemporary and alternative streams. The contemporary stream is a narrow peri-elite camp that only accommodate a few Chris van Wyks, Mathews Phosas, Jeremy Cronins, Don Matteras, Mzwakhe Mbulis, Masoja Msizas, Duma ka Ndlovus etcetera. The now defunct Feel a Sistah ensemble was also in the same box. The alternative is full of mostly leftists and liberals amongst them Righteous The Common Man, Dennis Brutus (pictured below) Vonani Bila, Zwelethemba Twalo, Mbongeni Khumalo, Duduzile Mabaso etcetera, including their fellow revolutionaries. How poetry ever allowed money to divide its practitioners is itself a paradox. It's no longer about urban and rural, but politically connected or disillusioned. One group gets invited to presidential inaugurations while the other is being denied something as theirs as funding to publish books which are going to become part of the country's literary catalogue.
The Botsotso crew has been running a literary project for many years. Veteran artist Isabella Motadinyane passed on a few years ago without ceremony or a state funeral from the Gauteng government. She worked hard to keep the arts alive but nobody recognises or rewards people like her. In her prophetic poem, Nonhlanhla is Gone, she says, "tears pearls laughter/ dreads survey my toes/ touch of anguish/ pat my mind/ the target is found/ nonhlanhla is gone". If you can relate to the pain, such teachers deserve to earn government salaries.
Afrikaans poet Breyten Breytenbach, whose 1984 anthology Buffalo Bill arguably influenced Phosa's Deur die Oog van n Naald had this tongueless lines which were out to exorcise his poetic Afrikaans, yet English colonised demon. "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 vomit 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 dumb. Any reviewer of Buffalo Bill would have been forgiven had hey called it "a fart in the face of art", which it's not. If he was deliberately strangling the Queen's language then Boer ancestors were smiling in their graves.
What is really interesting is what one publisher said. He says that when he gave an influential book reviewer a copy of 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 as a contemporary poetry book.
"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.
I share my life with you makes a failed attempt at becoming vomit. And while the deliberations are underway and we await the verdict on what poetry is supposed to be, dip a verse in a glass of orange juice and take a bite. Then close your eyes and say how it tastes. Share that feeling with an audience.