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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za


 
Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #26: Hating poetry


Beverly Rycroft - 2010-12-09

“Poetry?” said Marianne Moore, “I, too dislike it.” A little arch, perhaps, for such a consummate poet, but you get the point. The reputation of poetry as obscure, irrelevant and inaccessible deters so many from enjoying what it can provide.

The irony is, without our even being aware of it, poetry is skulking in the nooks and crannies of every part of our lives. We use it unconsciously. Think of things your mother told you, family phrases which get repeated and become entrenched. (One of my newer poems is based around the litany of my father complaining each year: “I won’t be here next Christmas. Wait. You’ll see.”) Think of the brouhaha about the song “De la Rey”; Mandela’s memorisation of the lines from Invictus; Obama’s “Yes we can”.

Poet Seamus Heaney, on being asked if there was a figure in popular culture who has aroused interest in poetry and lyrics in the way Bob Dylan and John Lennon did during the 1960s and ‘70s, responded: "There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible.”

So how do we do more to flick off the veils of elitism and obscurity around poetry?

Live readings are a good start. Recently, at a reading at Barrydale, I listened to Finuala Dowling read from Notes from the Dementia Ward  (recently awarded the Olive Schreiner prize). It struck me that even though I have heard and read the poems many times before, they are so carefully and finely crafted that each time I discover something new about structure, discipline and craft.

The Barrydale audience, however, were at the first level, that of being entertained by witty vignettes (or, as one patron called them, “vinaigrettes”). Their response was proof that a good live reading is the polar opposite of a flickering screen with evanescent images. The real flesh-and-blood-warmed words being rolled out for an attentive audience can convert even the most cynical.

But to get people to live readings, we need to do something about the perceptions that bar poetry from many who might surprise themselves by enjoying it.

We need guerrilla tactics.

How about printing a line or verse from a poem on shopping bags? The first verse of Gcina Mhlope’s “Sometimes when it rains”would fit nicely:

Sometimes when it rains
I smile to myself
And think of times when as a child
I’d sit by myself
And wonder why people need clothes.

Or, more simply, Alan Ginsberg’s “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”

How about commandeering those overhead electric noticeboards on the highways? It might improve Cape Town fatalities if, as we whizz past Newlands forest on a Saturday night we were to read: 

Two lane pile up ahead.
Do not go gentle into that goodnight.

Or in the post office queue, instead of reading about the price of stamps :

It’s so long ago since we last heard from you –
I hope this letter finds you still at the old address.
It is the only address we know.
YOUR MOTHER 

(Charles Mungoshi)

You could insert lines from poems on the scoreboards at half-time at rugby matches; at the place settings for a wedding (“incompatibility is the spice of life,/ particularly if he has income and she is pattable” – Ogden Nash); in gift packages in a maternity ward (“Love set you going like a fat gold watch” – Sylvia Plath).

Imagine driving to work in the morning and seeing, as an antidote to the horrors of newspaper banners, verses from poems stapled on the trees? What if graffiti artists could be converted to the cause?

Starting with a verse or a line, people might just get reeled in enough to look up the actual poem, to see the possibilities of poetry as being witty, profound, heartbreaking, elating, enlightening, stimulating.

They might finally realise that a good poem can squeeze the maximum out of the paltry words available to express the nigh-ineffable. It can lure you in, provoke an emotion (laughter, sorrow, courage). Then move from the speaker (“me”) to the listener (“you”) and segue into “us” – the common experience which allows us to laugh (or weep or battle on) together.

When you read a good poem you deliver it from the page’s white ocean, at first only a thin line connecting you as you draw it in. Then you  feel the scales grazing your fingers, the slippery flesh beneath them. The innards that slide from the silver envelope you slit in its belly. You place the cooked flesh in your mouth, gently dividing it from the bone to taste. Finally, the beautiful skeleton that underpinned it all lies on your plate. And can be seen and tasted and examined again. And again and again.

Particularly on those dark nights of the soul when you lie holding a pillow over your head in shame or pain or loneliness. Then you can flick with a practised thumb to the well-worn page, from Sappho to Eliot to Louise Gluck or Rita Dove, to find words, some of them carved in stone or papyrus centuries ago, that will assure you: someone else has felt this way before.

In a recent radio interview I took part in, a Johannesburg doctor spoke of her practice, one which specialises in chronic pain management. As part of her treatment she selects for each new patient a poem that comes close to describing what they feel.

What better way to dispel the terror of the material world and all the associations of a white coat, to show a person that we are all human, that the artistry of words can make us less lonely?

Words are our first way of getting some kind of grip on the world we arrive in. Crafting them into poetry is the best way I know of freeing us from it too.