This year the first lecture of English Literary Studies 1 at the University of Cape Town coincided with Valentine’s Day and President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address – the usual helicopters overhead and government motorcades along the M3. (Not to mention the Steenkamp-Pistorius affair ... but the news hadn’t quite broken by 9am).
As convenor of this big first year undergraduate course, I put it to the students that both domains – ceremonious speechifying and mass-marketed romance – were areas of linguistic deadness and predictability. “Mainstreaming job creation”, “For a very special person” – in both party political discourse and glossy Hallmark cards, you are likely to find long chains of words that have been used together often before. During the development of printing, there was a technical name for this: the “stereotype” was the term for a block that came ready-made with commonly combined words – or in French, the cliché.
“It is a cliché that most clichés are true”, writes Stephen Fry in his autobiography, “but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue”. Such epigrams point towards the real master of the epigram, Oscar Wilde, who remarked that “Work is the curse of the drinking classes”. Just a brief inversion is able to lay bare the violence inherent in our received ideas, in the logic of generalisation on which so much of our social understanding rests.
All language, wrote Nietzsche, tends towards lifelessness and dead metaphor. The world is full of riverbeds and chairlegs, mousepads and Windows™ – concepts we no longer even recognise as metaphorical. Anticipating the insights of structural linguistics, he goes on to describe words as old, worn coins, their surfaces rubbed smooth, mattering not in themselves but only as tokens to be exchanged.
This was one of two critical essays that I found startling as an undergraduate, and which I thought back to when planning our course with colleagues and tutors and the invited APA annotated bibliography maker. The second was Viktor Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique” (1917), which speaks of the “algebrisation” of modern existence: the over-automatisation of that “permits the greatest economy of perceptive effort”. Such processes of habit and habitualisation “devour work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war”. But the artwork, he suggests, is charged with disrupting this process. It should make objects unfamiliar, should draw out the length and difficulty of our mental processes, so as to make us aware of objects “as they are perceived and not as they are known”. Art exists, he writes in a famous line, “to make the stone stony”.
To show this process of “estrangement” in action, we read two poems. The first was “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, which considers its subject in thirteen disconnected, haiku-like stanzas – from different angles and dimensions of experience, almost like a Cubist painting:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
The second was Craig Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home”, in which an extra-terrestrial reports on modern human society in ways that make it seem by turns odd, disturbing, marvellous. “Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings”, it begins, “and some are treasured for their markings”. The last stanza gives a vision of human couples in sleep: at night “they hide in pairs / and read about themselves – / in colour, with their eyelids shut.”
These materials were then worked into an undergraduate poetry competition. Students were asked to select an ordinary object, and then to write a poem about it in thirteen short stanzas – but not to disclose the riddle too quickly. These were the winners:
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Clown
Among twenty grey streets
The only sound
Was the laughter of the clown.
I was of three faces,
Like a circus
In which there are three clowns.
The clown’s cigarette smoke whirled in the autumn winds
It was a small part of the pollution.
A politician and a prostitute
A politician and a prostitute and a clown
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of the pie
Or the beauty of the pie soaring through the air,
The pie smashing into the clown’s face
Or just before.
The scent of McDonalds filled the children
With barbaric hunger.
The poster of the clown
Grinning, faded into the wall,
Etched on the faces
Of each underpaid, overworked employee.
O thin workers of Manor Farm
Why do you imagine golden men?
Do you not see how the clown
Sits in the suits
Of the men about you?
I know circus tricks and sleights of hand,
Business deals and campaign promises,
I know mellifluous words and sweet, bewitching promises
And I know too that the clown is involved
In what I know
When the clown vanished from the news
It marked the end
Of one of many freedoms
At the sight of clowns
Driving in their tiny clown car
The stomach of the man
Overflowed with mirth
She sashayed along William Nicol,
In tight jeans,
Once, a fear pierced her,
In that she mistook
The shadow of her customer,
For the shadow of a clown.
The children are crying.
The clown must be juggling.
Bodies lay on the ground.
It was dark
And it was going to get darker.
The clown sat
On his grimy throne.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Salt
Loosen sleep from eyelids
It melts on the tongue like flakes of salty snow.
Pushed around, pants pulled down
Infinite tears and infinite snot
Smothered – breathless – by warm, wet salt.
Stand before an ocean,
Beat the waves with tiny fists.
It beats back:
Spat out and spluttering,
Stinging eyes and salt-scratched knees.
The puppy whistles in his sleep
His breath is milk and salt
Driving with grandmother-and-talc
Cowlick and carsick days
She calls the other drivers Sods
I think a sod’s a sort of fish
Rough flakes of stone
Fall soft and dissolve
You are not stone at all
Brave hand to velvet-muzzle
Tongue to sweat-softened palm
From a jar, eat small cubes of briny flesh.
The label reads, “Pickled New Zealanders”
Wake up uneasy
Turned to pterodactyls
By vinegar and salt
Sucking the soft blades
Of the artichoke
Lick the salt off shiny fingers
Your wet mouth allures and appals me
Cormorant with tangled string – distorted feet
And salt so ancient
Sits the same in the sea
As it sits in me,
Sits the same
On the tongues of Lot, and god
See how it runs
Matted and free flowing
hung loosely, at-ease,
from a patient chin.
Rule-lined and pressed
of a buzzing-restless-impatient blade.
A bright theme and variations on light,
of a bygone, by-going era
- yet, to be gone by again – in another time,
in another place
By another race of sunburnt hearts.
(For they so loved the world…)
Traditions of traditions:
of young men in blazers and dress-ties.
In 1969, thousands of Xhosa initiates
under the garb and comforting cover
of homogenous heavy blankets
made their way to “the mountain”,
the lighting way-up is truly incredible sometimes
– on clearer crisper days,
as they made their way up,
like any other year.
The Summer of Love found thousands marching
in uniform drips-and-drabs
wearing the coats Nature gave them
under the cover of stars
It rained a bit – stopped – rained some more
An exceptional year – 1969.
Pluralists preachers pulpiteer in unison
(in) their knowledge of all that matters.
(Voices pretending to know everything)
wax on to the gathered
of nothing but love and the lack thereof.
(Voices pretending to know nothing)
of those loathsome-lovable
proprietors of sin. (To be disrobed:
rung-out and clean-pressed. On tuesday evenings
and sunday afternoon limbo, and other long dark
tea-times and come-downs of the soul.)
of saluting shiny buttons
and doubly-sewn weighty badges.
(In every on-going field of war and on every street corner
big brothers, anywhere and everywhere,
To be watched by us.)
three more rungs on the ladder
two more mouths to feed
one tennis-shoe-in-a-tumble-dryer heartbeat
one pair of open eyes at 3AM
one very constricting neck-tie
ten reasons to buy a new ’82 Pontiac and have an affair with an air-hostess.
one moderately-priced “sports car”
one world illuminating idea
one pillow to help stop snoring
fourteen oversized and drafty dress-shirts with virgin top-buttons
any number of meaningless numbers in a phonebook.
These self-defined and self-defining threads
–thirteen to one –
comfort and encase
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Van Gogh’s Ear
A shelled pea,
An enthusiastic outpouring of adoration:
A famous ear.
An ear that the sea
White-washed into through a clasped conch shell.
Did this ear transgress,
Or was it pierced
For our iniquities?
Some said it sought
Summer slumber –
Shy, snail-like ear.
This is the season of cauliflower ears
Bound in bandage.
The hammer and anvil,
Deafening hammer and anvil,
Forged fire ear.
Rippling, wrapped in brown paper,
Ashamed of what it had heard,
Of whole-faced jeering.
Deaf to the left of the world.
So that the wind is no longer madding.
There is no such thing as a bearded ear.
Could not make up for
A missing ear.
“Here is a rag of my existence,
A prayer flag blown out to the wind,
A mournful ear
That is a sign of rapture.”
The crickets have stopped singing,
The ear must be gone.
In an ear of wheat
That we find at harvest
And it undulates
In the late afternoon.
What the judges said:
3rd place (tied)
The best poetry, in my mind, expertly juggles the abstract and the particular, which is what this weird and wonderful poem does. There is something visually and semantically satisfying about the final image of the clown sitting on his grimy throne. Throughout, Reinecke captures the menace and beauty of clowns, with a dash of humour (intended or not) to make it all work. She gets what Stevens was trying to do with perspective, but she makes it her own, as well.
3rd place (tied)
The end of this poem by Evans really succeeds; the final two stanzas are brilliant and evocative, especially this notion that salt sat on the tongues of Lot, of god, and the poet.
Sometimes a little cryptic but the sections that work – Xhosa initiates and the Summer of Love – are remarkable.
The imagery in this poem seems to undulate in the way that Van Gogh’s paintings do.