Ethics knot leaves poetry at sea

“I only have problems,” said Antjie Krog, going against the current of metaphysical optimism about the transcendent possibilities of poetic language at the Spier Dancing in other words festival of poets and poetry last weekend.

Krog was speaking during a panel discussion directly after Chinese poet Yang Lian, struggling to express his evident poetic passion through the ­narrow funnel of second-­language English, had recalled Breyten Breytenbach’s statement to him years ago in ­Berlin that “poetry is our only mother tongue”.

Yang likened the “beautiful landscape [of the Western Cape]” — the poets had been on a poetry “caravan” in the week leading up to the event — to “a great ocean, ever with storms; never calm”.

Yang worked the oceanic image, suggesting that “if the whole reality is an ocean, culture is the boat, and poetry is the ballast; the stone in the bottom of the boat keeping it balanced, and keeping it stable through the storm; through the storm!”

Krog had little sympathy with Yang’s oceanic optimism. “If we use the boat image, then I feel I see 100 boats on a stormy sea in South Africa, and they’re all going in different directions.”

The panel discussion on which Krog, Yang and Albie Sachs appeared was entitled “What has ethics got to do with it?”

“To talk ethics, you have to talk to someone,” Krog pleaded. “You have to engage with someone about exactly what the ethics are about. I thought I knew. I grew up thinking I knew. Since 1990 I’ve been at a loss. I feel I’m in a country that has a fractured morality; a country that is deeply confused about what its ­ethics could and should be, even what ethics is.

“The ethics in which I was raised proved to be a failure. Now you have to relearn. But there are barriers that prevent this engagement. We agreed on a constitution, an anthem, et cetera, and yet below it there’s turmoil.”

Speaking in tongues

One of the biggest problems for her remained the fact that, in the midst of so many languages, “we don’t know what we’re saying. We don’t know what words we use in our own languages when we use the expression ‘human rights’. What is the Zulu for that? What exactly is the Afrikaans for that? How do we contextualise that specific term?

“If you’re a writer or a poet, in what language do you utter these ethical thoughts that you have? Things have been written and performed in this country that are severely critical of current events in the country, but they are in Afrikaans, or they are in Zulu, and you don’t know how it helps us and influences us all to reach this ethical ‘agreement’.

“Because we don’t translate,” she declared. “We have a discussion about translation, but translation is not respected, it’s not a job, no one can get a bursary here for translation. No one cares about what people in indigenous languages are saying.”

Krog recalled that Nelson Mandela had two imbongis (a composer and orator of poems praising a chief or other figurehead) at his inauguration, but none of that poetic input for the ceremony — what the imbongis had said about and to the new president — was translated.

“We have different styles of being poets, and it’s like two separate pages. You have the performers, and then you have what they call us, the poets on the page.

“So if we have a reading here tonight, and profound things are being said, how far do they go, how far can they reverberate?

“I don’t know how to see a road where we can meet to form an ethical concept of this country.”

Crossed wires

Krog was unmoved by Yang’s repeated asseveration that poets working in isolation — “lonely, on the page” — found their greatest moments of truth when they began asking questions, regardless of how long it might take for this to have an effect on society.

She was more taken with Sachs’s expression of his discomfort with Zapiro’s Rape of Justice cartoon, despite his own unambiguous championing of freedom of expression.

“There are more or less two ontologies working in this country,” insisted Krog. “One is recognised and is regarded as international. Then there’s another one — and that’s what made Albie uncomfortable — and if you satirise politicians viciously, if you write scathingly about a politician or what is wrong here, something becomes uncomfortable because you’re busy with another ontology that sees itself as linked. So now you’re not only actually satirising Zuma; you are now satirising African men, black men.

“For me it’s an unfathomable problem. There’s something we need to learn, as a minority, as settlers — and that is how to live within a black majority. We’re not doing that.

“The literature that comes out here is adrift. It’s not rooted in what is happening here. It’s rooted in what is happening on specific levels; the same kinds of levels are being formulated over and over again, and that’s the problem.

“What is really happening in this country is being said in other languages. It’s being grieved over in houses, and it’s not coming out. So where are we? What are we doing?”

Moderator Dele Olojede suggested that it was the “rule of the poets” to help to “find this potential common ground”, but Krog was having none of it.

“But for whom? Everyone sitting here feels it. They all know it already,” she said, looking over the heads of audience and gesturing at the benign Spier landscape outside.

Kole Omotoso, speaking from the audience, agreed with Krog — all over Africa, each poet is speaking to him or herself. We need a “language industry” in Africa. Krog’s problem was also present elsewhere in Africa, “in Senegal, Egypt, anywhere you care to mention”.

Krog’s unassuageable sense of discomfort haunted this event, despite the festive optimism of any number of other poets. Nothing could quite dispel it — not Caroline Forché’s upbeat activist solidarity speech, her insistence that everyone’s problems were the same now, and that “we” should fight together, nor Petra ­Müller’s poised and deliberately uncertain mystic certainties (on a panel called “Is there a South African way to the great nowhere?”), nor Breytenbach’s endorsement of a certain set of shared and hard-won values, à la Sachs, a lappieskom-bers (patchwork blanket) with many senses of “us”, shared values that we must still interpret differently.

Breytenbach emphasised that there was a “texture of diversity” that should not be smoothed over, “neither for the minority nor the majority”. He was hinting at the danger of a certain essentialism in Krog’s “two ontologies” supposition.

“But,” exclaimed Krog, “we are an illiterate country. Bad English is our main language.” How far was this “bad English” ever going to get us, in the absence of real linguistic exchange? This was indeed a problem of essentialist “poverty”. Talking (bad or good) English evermore just wasn’t going to help.

There was, in the end, simply no satisfying answer to the problem Krog so uncomfortably set up for examination, except, to some extent, in the poetry performances at the end of both of these very long days. Krog’s Afrikaans poems, particularly, soared to heights of irreducible lyricism, despite the feeling, evident perhaps in her delivery, of a certain terrible loneliness for the long-distance South African poet.

- First appeared in the Mail & Guardian

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