Defend Truth


Poetry matters (even when you don’t like it)

Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.

The poetry generated by South African urban life and its creative protagonists is frequently attacked by literature professors and others of tertiary Alpha rank. But their cries, although backed by a degree of technical merit, reveal their own weaknesses more than anything else.

Last week David Tyfield published an ode to recently passed poet, Stephen Watson, on the Stellenbosch Literary Project website. The piece, entitled Rembering Stephen Watson: A Legacy at Risk views Watson’s legacy via a quick and unflattering portrait of the “current” South African poetry scene.

In summary:

Tyfield hopes that Watson’s work and reputation will not be lost within the messy milieu that is 21st-century South African poetry. Watson’s work is innately sensitive to the nuances of silence within poetry, and the troubles with ideology and dogma that invariably infect the form. Local performance poets have little intellectual subtlety and are easily captured by the sound of their own simplistic, ideologically rooted voices.

Tyfield delivers his ode by quickly citing a few lines from poet Aryan Kaganof, which appeared in an anthology (published by Penguin and edited by Natalia Molebatsi) called We Are. Kaganof’s verse provides the shoddy reflected light within which Watson’s full worth takes shape.

One hopes that, were Tyfield to hand this kind of thing in to his PhD advisor, he would be stomped – not only for a brazen lack of intellectual balance, but also for employing a critical device so littered with normative assumptions it would shame most BA first years.

Anyone can be shown as “significant” via the Opinionista 101 springboard:

1. Cite the work of your master. For our example, let’s use Saul Williams’s piece Release, recorded with hip hop band Blackalicious – a classic of the hip hop/spoken word genre.

2. Cite credible sources as to greatness. Choose a strong analytical quote from the author, or simply a snippet from a critic or media outlet. For Saul Williams we’ll just use good old CNN, which said “[Williams’s work] drew critical acclaim for its raw emotion, political visceral (sic), and crushing beats.”

3. Now cite a sample (never the full piece… just a sample, and make sure it’s devoid of context) from the work of the inadequate reflection. Let’s use Watson’s The Sun Still Shines (which I pulled at random off the net, without even reading):

The girl whose dreams / As pure as ice; / Her journey just begun. / The white rose lights / Her path of life / And shadows are undone.

4. Bring out the hatchet. There is no raw emotion in Watson’s lines. The work is not overtly political/visceral and it is devoid of crushing beats. Ergo, according to the wisdom of CNN, Saul Williams is a leading 21st-century poet and Watson is a relic from another era.

Not only is this kind of critical stunt crass (what after all, do I really know of Watson’s life and work? Nothing. I’m a Saul Williams fan), it is also sure, should anyone wish to compose a rebuttal, to reduce the argument to an intellectual pissing contest. I have worked with Natalia Molebatsi, so now is the time for me to start citing other work from her that meets the Tyfield critical standard (set by Watson).

For the sake of our collective dignity, I’ll keep my pants zipped.

What’s truly interesting about Tyfield’s article is not the hatchet he employs, but the repetition of a familiar trope that bemoans the state of literary things today. There is much angst in the text as to whether the likes of Watson will make it into the South African literary cannon. The biggest fear is that Molebatsi might be there, implicitly at Watson’s expense.

But Tyfield’s concern with the literary cannon and Watson’s place in it is over reach. History will do the hard work, as it always does. Our input (whether professor or rapper) is not required. As Nassim Taleb pointed out so beautifully in his economics tract, The Black Swan, most of the thinkers and writers who are acclaimed in their day fade to nothingness over the course of a hundred years, and much of the work that shines through history is ignored during the author’s own lifetime.

After a couple of hundred years of written dominance, poetry has spread its popular, oral wings once again. Poetry is everywhere within our current pop culture milieu, and within our broader lives, like it or not. When our offspring are sitting in their ivory towers a few millennia from now, it is naïve to think that they will simply be lining JM Coetzee up against Lesego Rampolokeng. The competition will be stiff, and from this pre-emptive distance the winners are impossible to call. Justin Beiber could be in the mix. So might Josh Ritter, Mike Skinner, Immortal Technique, Antjie Krog, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Don Mattera, Seamus Heaney, Thumi, Lou Reed, Proverb, Christopher Hitchens, Amu, Saul Williams and the collected tweets of Professor Jansen. By failing to give any credence to the heated realm of popular culture, Tyfield speaks with the spirit of someone who wants the things around him he doesn’t like to go away. This is not just a matter of bias or literary aesthetics. In doing so, he fails to recognise the vital social role poetry currently plays in our society.

The failure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is common cause in South Africa, a country where violence, racism, corruption and sexual abuse are just a few of the social curses our youth must broach on a daily basis. Not in theory, mind, but in their lives. In my experience, the urban spoken word/hip hop/performance poetry scene is one of the very few platforms for genuine discussion of these issues currently available to our youth. Naturally, the urban scene throws up a great deal of generic, noisy thinking. But this, surely, is to be welcomed. These angry bombastic shouts are, indeed, the complex noise we chose not to hear in 1994. If our young creatives were not brave enough to be politically and ideologically bombastic (and honest, of course, let’s not forget honest) on stage and in their writing today, where exactly would the inherent conflict within our society find expression?

A typical city spoken word session will involve healthy doses of misogyny, crazy feminism, outright racism, cultural blindness of all types, mlungu bashing, illogical references to colonial mythology and so on. And yet, despite all the competing forces at play, the spirit is positive and welcoming. People share their contrasting ideas happily and make an effort to take on board thoughts from a dimension that is in binary opposition to theirs. Mlungus are always welcome, even though they don’t understand half the language and much of the cultural context of the content being performed. And, as much second rate content as there is, every session will deliver – at the very least – a flash of breathtaking thought and delivery. That moment that defines the power of poetry.

It is in these spaces that our youth are carrying out their own political and social reckoning – with past and future. The process frequently involves extended excursions to the land of rhyming political dogma and self expression – the “histrionics and bombast” that alarm Tyfield so. But that, in my view, is exactly as it should be. Technically, philosophically, spiritually, professionally, Tyfield requires room in the text for “language to breathe”. He seems unable to process the notion, however, that his poetry is not the only poetry out there. That the genre is rightfully owned by others, who have their own views and opinions and desires and technical constructs to consider. If you live in the hood, maybe a sense of crushing repetition and noise is more relevant to your life context than easy breathing. If you’re born into an oral tradition that stretches back far further than the written tradition, maybe a primary focus on the performance of poetry is not only valid, but natural.

Having been sporadically in and around the Jozi spoken word scene for the last decade I can attest to many of the issues Tyfield raises. (It’s easy, of course, to criticise young poets. Identifying and working on one’s own weaknesses is far trickier). Simplistic rhyming ideology often trumps more nuanced verse in the performance game, no doubt. I can also attest, however, to the paucity of university professors and literary PhD students within this urban scene (bar one or two notable exceptions). General BA students are ubiquitous, of course, but when literature professors and others of tertiary Alpha rank do deign to attend a cypher or spoken word session, they will seldom, if ever, participate. Sitting in the back quietly and seriously. Tick. Taking analytical notes back to class. Tick. Standing up and delivering a piece on stage that challenges the curse of rhyming dogma through its own form. Uh… maybe not.

My view is that as much as our popular urban poets could do with several long sessions with a technically skilled professor, our professors and literature teachers are equally in need of time on the stage (the performing stage, the one where you can’t bring your book or your notes with you). Indeed, I would favour an approach similar to community service for doctors. All literature students at honours level and above should be forced to perform their own work, on stage, ekasi, before they are allowed to teach. Such practical experience will, hopefully, engender much needed critical balance.

Poetry is a vital mechanism in our society, through which important conversations are held. Those working within the broad realm of development and education use it all the time, because it’s one of the most effective tools at our disposal. Whether you’re running a business skills workshop, a tertiary class on sexual violence or you’re simply working within the more conventional structure of the classroom, poetry is frequently a crucial tool of philosophical engagement. Kids latch onto it so easily, so practically, because it is threaded into their genes and their jeans; into the norms, nuances and modes of urban life.

Poetry works where other devices fail precisely because it evokes the metaphorical power of creativity, while also harnessing the seldom utilised power of empathy.

If you’re generous, you can read Tyfield’s tribute to Watson in this light. You can skip over the troublesome bits and see his attempt to highlight these very characteristics in Watson’s life and work. What a pity, then, that a neutral reading of his own text shows such a lack of the intellectual traits he ostensibly values.

I’ll leave it to Josh Ritter, a rock/country singer songwriter from the United States, who may or may not be studied at UCT, to conclude:

How many times is the truth that you take to be true

just truth falling apart at the same speed as you

until it all comes away at a million degrees

and you’re just a few pieces of falling debris.

– Josh Ritter, Hopeful (2013) DM


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