Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Poetry and diversity

Usually, when the term, ‘diversity’ is mentioned anywhere in South Africa, it denotes racial and/or cultural diversity, and it carries strong overtones of obligatory political correctness. This is also true elsewhere, if ‘diversity’ is a reference to multiculturalism, one of the most powerful ideologies of the current era (as demonstrated and critiqued by Slavoj Žižek in Living in the End Times). Hence, when the Port Elizabeth Branch of that wonderful organisation, the Alliance Francaise, invited me to participate in their Poetry Festival again – having done so very enjoyably several times before, but not on this particular theme – I decided it was my chance to strike a blow against political orthodoxy or correctness (one of the most invidious phenomena of our time).

By this I don’t mean that I have anything against cultural and racial diversity; on the contrary, I believe it is one of the things that makes life interesting, certainly, compared to a dull, homogeneous cultural situation of sameness. What I mean by striking a blow against political correctness – in the context of ‘diversity’ – is that the vast majority of people don’t take diversity far enough; the idea must be radicalised philosophically, and I propose doing this in relation to the capacity of poetry to approximate true ontological diversity through the poetic use of language, just as film and painting do this in (audio-)visual terms, and music in auditory form.

This is what I mean by radicalising the idea of diversity: don’t stop with races and cultures; recognise the diversity of individuals (and at a further remove, of other living beings like animals, fishes and trees), the fact that each and every one of us is radically, unrepeatably different, that every experience we have as singular individuals is uniquely, unrepeatably different, or diverse. It is this, arguably, which is the task of the arts, including poetry, to capture, and an understanding of the way poetry functions explains how it is possible.

In the 18th century the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten distinguished between the function, or ‘cultural task’ of philosophy and poetry (or more broadly literature) by means of the metaphorical distinction between surface richness of particularity or detail, and depth universality or inclusivity of perspective. Philosophy focuses on the relationship of a wide spatial expanse by tracing it to an underlying (or subterranean) point from the perspective of which the entire surface is encapsulated (imagine an equilateral triangle positioned like an upside-down pyramid, where the sharp point at the bottom represents the ‘conceptual’ or universalising philosophical point of view).

Poetry (or literature), by contrast, focuses on every minute detail of the richly variegated surface area, and insofar as language has a conceptual aspect ( the ‘dogness’ of a specific ‘dog’ named as such in language, for instance), it reverses the direction of the philosophical perspective of the upside-down triangle: instead of looking at the diversity of surface points from one, underlying (conceptual) point of view, reducing their meaning to the concept, it adopts as its perspective the very diversity of particular ‘surface’ points themselves, refusing to return to the conceptual level. On the contrary, poetry/literature exacerbates the differences and singularities. In other words, whereas philosophy (and the same goes for science, by the way) universalises, poetry particularises.

What this means is a kind of division of labour between literature or poetry and philosophy (as well as science) – the former explores, and in a sense, celebrates diversity, while the latter reduces, or relates, diversity to an underlying conceptual universality. A poem on a cat, by Paul Gallico, for instance, might celebrate its feline ‘personality’ by exploring the differences between itself and a human being, while a philosophical or scientific elaboration on a specific cat would tend to ignore the differences in favour of what all cats have in common – this is what Plato’s archetypal Forms do.

Another way of characterising poetry can be gauged from the German literary and philosophical personality, Friedrich Schiller, who famously – in a series of philosophical letters on the ‘aesthetic education’ of humankind – linked labouring or working (for survival), science (including philosophy), and art (including poetry) to three distinctive ‘drives’ (Trieben, in German). Labouring for our physical survival, he pointed out, is dependent upon, and driven by, the ‘material drive’ (Stofftrieb) on the part of humans; gathering philosophical or scientific knowledge of the world is the expression of the ‘formal drive’ (Formtrieb, which is reminiscent, again, of Plato’s universal Forms) in humans; and the ‘play drive’ (Spieltrieb) in our human makeup is responsible for, and creates the possibility of, engaging in artistic, including literary activity.

The striking thing about Schiller is his claim that human beings cannot act in a mature and responsible manner in areas like the political unless they have discovered the many political possibilities open to us through art, including literature and poetry – this is because in poetry or art, being the realm of play, one is free to experiment with as many different options as one likes, before seriously implementing these at the level where the formal drive intersects with the material drive – that is, where matters of labour and economic ‘knowledge’ intersect.

So what does all of this have to do with poetry and diversity? In a nutshell, that by ‘playing’ with language, or, in Baumgarten’s terms, exacerbating the sheer richness and diversity of experiential phenomena in language, this diversity is not merely emphasised and foregrounded, but celebrated in the process – and importantly, not in the narrow, politically correct sense of cultural or racial diversity (although this could also comprise the theme of highly original poetry), but ultimately in the sense of attempting to capture, in language, the virtually inexpressible, or ineffable, uniqueness of phenomena and experiences. The scholastics had a word for this: haecceitas, or ‘this-ness’ (significantly, from the feminine form [haec] of the Latin for ‘this’ [‘hic’]). Figure that one out.

How do we put this all together? Here is an example – a poem I wrote for the woman in my life on Valentine’s Day (instead of buying expensive merchandise, which is not unique, like this poem):

All I want…

All I want on Valentine’s Day
is you
and more you
and even more you
in every respect
at every conceivable level
and delicious angle…

All I want on Valentine’s Day
is you
in a room somewhere
far away from
interruptions by other people
and the telephone
including your mobile…

All I want on Valentine’s Day
is you
talking to you
laughing with you
dancing with you
lying with you
and playing footsie with you…

All I want on Valentine’s Day
is you
with all your feminine warmth
and feminine curves
and your inimitable caresses
and dexterous hands
intertwined with mine…

All I want on Valentine’s Day
is you
all of you
and you of all
to remind me over and over
in person, please
of indispensable, irreplaceable…


Note that the title resonates with a song that Audrey Hepburn sang in the role of the Cockney flower-seller, Eliza Doolittle, in the film, My Fair Lady, which was based on Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (itself based on a Greek myth about a sculptor by that name falling in love with his sculpture of a woman, who was then brought to life by the gods for the sake of love fulfilled). But being my poem, it immediately, despite the association, distinguishes itself as unique, despite the resonance.

Furthermore, the first stanza elaborates on the multifaceted nature of the object of my love through the exacerbation of ‘more’ and its differentiation – different levels and angles, words themselves carrying an erotic charge. Then, the second stanza again evokes the song in My Fair Lady, but instead of a room in a Victorian house, it is a distinctly 21st century room, given the plea, not to be interrupted by ubiquitous, pesky mobile phones. Stanza 3 excavates the uniqueness of my relationship with this person through different activities, again with Eros in attendance, and the next one intensifies this process by giving it the tangible sensory charge of two bodies intertwining, before the last stanza imparts a temporal dimension to this through the addition of repetition of diverse moments of pleasure, finally subsumed under the aegis of a unique, irreplaceable person signalled by the word ‘YOU…’

This is what poetry does, and we should never allow the gross, rude invasions of electronic apparatuses, or of demands of political correctness, to rob us of this, perhaps most humanising human practice of them all: writing and reading, singing and celebrating POETRY.

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