Simon Barber
Simon Barber

A response to Breytenbach

Just read Breyten Breytenbach’s piece in Harpers. If you don’t have anything nice to say, shut up, is not a piece of advice I’ve generally taken. But this time I’ll make an exception and talk about another poet, the American Carl Sandburg, and his ode to Chicago, where he worked as a reporter. If you have ever heard Chicago called “hog butcher for the world” or “city of the big shoulders”, it’s because of Sandburg’s poem.

But here’s the real meat of the piece and the bit that always gets me thinking about South Africa and about how we could use a Sandburg.

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

They tell us a lot of terrible things about South Africa, and a lot of them are true, but come show me another country “with lifted head singing so proud to be alive … set vivid against the little soft” countries. We may not yet be “piling job on job” like Sandburg’s Chicago, but this is one vivid place.