By David wa Maahlamela
How I wish I could, like many, pretend that the ethics of poetry are engraved on a rock somewhere at the centre of the global village — an assumption that downplays the fact that one’s domicile, environment and experience directly informs his literary outlook. The poetry landscape in South Africa is diversely ever-changing, rendering the question of ethics indefinite and extremely complex in its simplicity. Ethics of poetry in a particular place are inseparably influenced by the social dynamics of that place, yet they are never a one-way road.
In South Africa, a country whose identity has been shattered and remoulded by the successive evil-trinity of colonial politics, apartheid and mass culture, poetry cannot in its honest sense afford to distance itself from the quest of reclaiming that which is lost, or guard that which is under threat. Realising limitations and unfitness of language in its raw form, the politician relied on poetry’s ability to objectify subjective experience in contextualising abstract ideologies such as black consciousness and the African renaissance. As a matter of fact many prominent politicians have, at one point of their lives, tried a hand in writing poetry, if not to strengthen their speeches with it.
In times of crisis, poetry has a special and crucial function completely unmatched. It doesn’t, therefore, come as a surprise when Charles Bukowski refers to poetry as “what happens when nothing else can”. Poetry is, at its best, the highest literary form of intense imaginative identity with the subject, and in South Africa it has given breath and pulse to socio-political concepts and ideologies that gave birth to the current country. As if to assert my point, Mbulelo Mzamane says James Matthews’ poetry was not influenced by black consciousness, but it has, in fact, influenced black consciousness. Lesego Rampolokeng declares that he was introduced to black consciousness not by Steve Biko or Franz Fanon, rather through the poetry of Mafika Gwala — a sentiment echoed by Mxolisi Nyezwa about Ingoapele Madingoane’s poetry.
Not even the politician can ignore or surpass poetry’s impact in the anti-apartheid struggle. The current president, Jacob Zuma, recently acknowledged the role played by poets such as James Matthews and Mafika Gwala in inspiring young people “to surge forward and keep the flame of the anti-apartheid struggle burning”. He, however, missed an opportunity to locate and reassert today’s poet — something former statesman Thabo Mbeki attempted to do when he identified the poetry of Mazisi Kunene as fundamental in the voyage of reclaiming the African renaissance in the current day.
Two decades into the democratic experiment, central beliefs that the new political dispensation claimed to stand for — that is equality, diversity and free expression — are arguably under threat. Numbers of citizens who register to vote are gradually dropping, revealing that young people have lost hope in politics. The yawning cleavage between our highly-rated constitution and its implementation — or lack thereof — reminds us that laws and legal processes are never self-executive. Without accountable human agency and an institution to activate them, they will remain nothing beyond a piece of paper. Ethnic intolerance and xenophobic attacks strongly suggest that humanity is somewhat out of balance. Heart-sagging corruption and the mismanagement of government institutions also turn liberation into a mirage before billions and billions of hungry and caged citizens. Poetry can, surely, claim a better function in the current times than ever before.
It will be absurd for me, or anyone else, to prescriptively dictate what and how individual poets must write, especially the elitist clique who are taught to prematurely censure and reject poetry on the basis of its political relevance. Imposed obligations overweigh poetry, putting creativity in danger of a possible fatigue. That said, my conscious does not allow me to write about flowers, stars and pets while unjust and inhumane forces slaughter the innocent. I write about anything, in whatsoever way, as long as that anything doesn’t hinder or obscure my reality or reality of my environment and times. There is absolutely no way that poetry, for me, can promenade in luxury of mumbling while humanity is at stake. It is from this angle WB Yeats can get my nod in his rejection of the aestheticism of “art for art’s sake”, as he argues that literature must be the expression of conviction.
The poet’s voice was, indeed, always able to come out strongest when things seemed to go wrong. At this age whereby poetry in most parts of the world is under pressure of justifying its importance and relevance, in South Africa it is clear that poetry has been, and continues to be the soul of the nation. Needless to say, poetry ignorant of its reality is not only corruption of feelings, but an indecent assault of the craft itself. No matter how much duende one’s poetry has, if its conviction fails to convince us that it belongs to our time even though what it tells is really old, such can be deemed a blatant waste of trees and ink.
No theme is unpoetic. Furthermore, there are times when one cannot afford to be apolitical. In spite of the self-appointed poetry gurus’ rigid and crude monolithic views, poetry remains the uncontainable, the untameable, and the ungovernable at its best. Poetry rationalises the irrational, proving that scientists and philosophers have their own limitations. And that language is technically incapable to break down abstract emotions to explain how, for instance, one joy differs from the other. Most importantly, it publicly strips rules, exposes their incapability to rule themselves.
Judging a poem on the basis of its message or theme perfectly exposes the judge’s lack of poetic backbone. Poetry is not limited to words or message. At his best the poet is a jazzman, he makes wordless sound carry and convey dense feelings no raw language could. But still, not all poems are, or should be purely perceptible forms that embody some sort of feeling. Poetry, at its best, proves that if a picture tells a million words, then a poem portrays a million pictures. A rounded poet treats words like they were melody, colour, shape and movement, which they are, if you think poetically. Poetry can be about anything and everything, including socio-political aspects of life. Poetry does not even have to be an intellectual pursuit, albeit it shapes intellectuality. Sometimes good poetry can be a masterpiece of nonsense, such that in its topsy-turvy world the craziest things might seem ordinary, and the most common thing might seem out of place.
When Ezra Pound referred to poetry as “news that stays news”, he surely did not mean sheer reporting. A poet’s main obligation, if I may call it, is to write. Write poetry which will, without any form of censorship or favour, look at the storm of our time straight in the eye and say: I too can, with my soulful tunes, command clouds to gather, agitate the Atlantic with wind of conviction to whirl and swirl you apart. Poetry of engagement does not have to disengage itself from artistic beauty.
Writing poetry on socio-political issues does not necessarily suggest that one should surrender to the entanglement of the political octopus. Party politics can, and has tamed many poets with the red tape of “political correctness”. Many poets were forced by party affiliation to trade-in their conviction for a slice of bread, encaging their lips to speak only in parables, ululating and exulting when kings and queens fart in the face of the nation.
Government should know that the censoring of the outspoken and radical does not only paints the wrong picture about the state of poetry in the country, but it idolises the mediocre with monopoly of imbongis and ungrounded poets who in turn become models to unexposed aspiring poets. Promotion of arts, culture and heritage, as Eduardo Galeano puts it, should not take place in a limbo of pretentiousness, peripheral to the real social and political problems. Truth hurts. But truth heals. A true leader will have courage to face it still.
Conservativeness of a poet is tantamount to silence. As I page through one of the most radical and poetic holy books, I noticed that albeit poetry is not religion but it shapes it too. What would the world be if all poets were to decide to keep quiet? Luke (19: 40) swiftly responds: If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out. The South African poet, in conclusion, should reassert his position within the society, pay urgent attention to the new and drastic reality of the country’s socio-political milieu and other realities of our times. Poetry is an all-weapons-in-one. Whether the poet choses to use it as a rubber bullet or as a missile, he has to bear in mind that the majority of his compatriots are not privileged with such a weapon.
At this age whereby the worst are full of passionate intensity, it would be detrimental for the best to lack all conviction. The South African poet needs to whisper in Nelson Mandela’s ear that: 20 years into the democratic republic, apartheid continues to live with us in the leaking roofs and corrugated walls of shacks, in the bulging stomachs of hungry children, in the darkness of homes without electricity and in the heavy pails of dirty water that rural women carry for long distances to cook and quench their thirst.
Ke tlhaba thedi thobela. Mošate!
David wa Maahlamela is a poet, writer and literary scholar. He is a council member of the National English Literary Museum and a literary adviser to the National Arts Council. He is currently a PhD candidate at Rhodes University’s School of Languages. This article is written in his personal capacity.