Thursday, January 24, 2013

Letter to South Africa. Poets calling the state to order (2011)

Letter to South Africa. Poets calling the state to order. Umuzi, 2011. ISBN 978 1 4152 0125 1.

Reviewer: Joan Hambidge

The idea of this book originated at the 2010 poetry festival, Versindaba. Marlene van Niekerk chaired a colloquium at the University of Stellenbosch and various poets were invited to take part. The idea was to write variations or parodies of Allen Ginsberg famous poem “America”. Please google the poet on youtube and listen to his unique critique of America during the Vietnam war.

Allen Ginsberg is an outstanding poet. A Beat poet who wrote verse with references to Blake and oral poetry.

We all know the Ginsberg myths, for instance, reading poetry in Central Park high as a kite to an audience of groupies. I am an unashamed Ginsberg-fan and Johann de Lange’s translation of “Howl” in Afrikaans is potent and enduring.

Which brings me to this volume. Firstly, I was invited but declined due to my respect for Ginsberg as an outstanding poet. Secondly, I attended a conference in Seoul last year and heard a daunting lecture on the structures in his poetry which very few of the contributors in the anthology Letter to South Africa seem to grasp. All the pitfalls of the pastiche can be found in these rather fleshed out and over the top poems. Please don’t yell, I am not deaf.

Ginsberg does not yell. He accuses. And he applies poetic techniques to his “long letter” to America, for instance, the refrain, repetition, irregular meter, the long dancing lines in a harrowing poem.

Afrikaans poems are translated into English. Marlene van Niekerk, the originator of this letter home, writes a provocative poem “Suid-Afrika”, albeit too long. Tertius Kapp applies strong metaphors and Loftus Marais equals with camp references. We have original English poems and English poems in translation. We have black voices, for instance Natalia Molebatsi (in “Trying…”).

Unfortunately “geleentheidsbundels word verleentheidsbundels”.

What does a poet mean with the following:

Like the prostitute who is actually a sex slave?


it’s not because I don’t give a fuck
that this salutation dies behind my teeth,
my attempt to let you fall is
hampered by a speck on the horizon

The problem with this volume is probably that the brief was misunderstood. To write or copy Ginsberg is a daunting task. If you’re a Ginsberg-reader the volume will be a volume of poets calling the state to order. If not, you might admire the strong and direct attact:”spike with Molotov cocktails the crystal goblets out of which gatekeepers drink let the message be hurled across streets in a burning arch”.
Poets calling the state to order? Rather, poets should call a tradition to order.
Read Ginsberg. Or Milosz.

Or listen and watch Ginsberg on youtube.

That’s poetry.

[This review has previously been published in The Cape Argus.]