Between a howl and a whine

Letter to South Africa: Poets Calling the State to Order. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011.

South African poets calling the republic to account… reads the back cover blurb of this new collection from Umuzi: Venting their frustration…Howling in anguish…Confessing their loyalty.  The book is in part the result of the Afrikaans and Dutch department's colloquium during the 2010 Versindaba poetry festival in Stellenbosch, at which Marlene van Niekerk asked participants to rework Allen Ginsberg's 1956 poem “America” in order to “speak to” contemporary South Africa. “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?” asked Ginsberg in Berkeley.  “When can I go grocery shopping with my white guilt?” asks Willen Anker in Stellenbosch (and in translation).  “Two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956” becomes “die car guard se R5 in my gatsak, hier op die 17de September / in die jaar van ons Here, sokker, sekswerkers en Jackie Selebi, 2010” (Marius Swart). “You should have seen me reading Marx” becomes “Jy moes my gesien Disgrace lees het” (64).  The famous line “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” is transmuted to “Go fuck yourself –” (respectively) “without a condom” (Erns Grundling), “with your child grant” (Sindiwe Magona) and, in a particularly inspired moment from Anker, “tot die kranse antwoord gee”.

The whole premise is, it must be said, a tough one.  With a little bit of help from his friends Blake, Whitman, Cassady, Kerouac, reefer and Benzedrine, Ginsberg made himself famous via that wondrous outpouring of 1955-56, Howl – the near million-copy-selling, all-time heavy-weight Beat poetry showstopper – following which “America”, and so many of his later notations seem like mere footnotes and afterthoughts.  A howl, I would suggest, is a difficult thing to sustain, whether across the span of a career, or within a single poem.  Your basic howl is animal-like and non-verbal; in the human world, the word is normally linked to pain and anguish, but its semantic range also takes in derision, laughter and even a kind of fierce joy – the ecstatic release which bent Ginsberg's language into passionate new shapes.  When readers complained that the poem was dark and despairing, its creator would insist that although its surface was littered with “rusty machinery and suicides”, at a deeper level it was “energetic & healthy & rather affirmative & compassionate” (American Scream, 23).

Any poetic howling which does not get this balance right is likely to be hard going.  Because, (as anyone who tries, week in, week out, to wade through the first ten pages of the Mail & Guardian will know) straight-up outrage can be a very draining thing.  Unalloyed outrage is hardly basis for any kind of lasting artistic project, and a howl can very quickly become a whine.  The kind of middle-class, white whine that Stellenbosch and other mountainous areas of the Western Cape are known for, and which have in recent decades proved such a major export to Europe, Australia and, increasingly, TEFL-hungry Asia. “Ek sien myself stylvol depressief in 'n Hong Kong woonstel,” writes Tertius Kapp, “’n Nag in Berlin Ostbanhof, my passport in my onderbroek” (“I see myself stylishly depressed in a Hong Kong apartment. / A night in Berlin Ostbanhof, my passport in my underpants” (88, 91).  Indeed.

Whereas (the paradox of contemporary South African political culture) contributions like Natalia Molebatsi's “Trying…”, Tumelo Khoza's “Mr President” or Makhosazana Xaba's “The President's Promise” maintain a far more respectful, even deferential mode of address as they take on HIV/AIDS and 40% unemployment: the real factors that have for years prevented South Africa's ripped social fabric from healing and mending: “The president's women and men must now undertake / To never ape empty promises, insulting our collective intelligence” (174).  Neither mode, however, the stylishly depressed nor the burningly sincere, makes for particularly enjoyable poetry on the page.

“On the page” is an important qualifier here, since many of these were obviously written as performance pieces, and might have succeeded brilliantly in this mode. But they arrive in book format largely shorn of any context – the pauses, emphases, accents, code-switching, shifts of pace and sheer mouthy enjoyment that accompany a skilled live rendition.  Some of the poems manage to encode a bit of their original verbal energy on the page: the short, spat-out refrain of Leon de Kock”s “Vat Dit” (“Take It”); or the relentlessly outpoured lines of Marlene van Niekerk's “Suid-Afrika” which, like Ginsberg on a good day, voraciously appropriate whatever is to hand.  To select almost at random from an eight page tirade:

Suid-Afrika, jou kerke is aerobics arenas,
en jou erfenis is wors, is 'n gebraai in agterplase…
jy weet nie meer hoe klink JC Bach se passies nie,
jy breek Zim Ngqawana se klavier,
jy maak nie meer poeding van ou brood nie,
jy moer dit weg, net jou diewe benut jou skroot…
Ai Suid-Afrika, jy kort uitstraling.
Suid-Afrika, ek is nie Sjinees nie, read my lips…

English translations follow the pieces that were originally composed in Afrikaans, bringing into relief another major difficulty in trying to assess the force of this work:

South Africa, your churches are aerobics arenas,
and your legacy wors, backyard braais…
you'e forgotten what JC Bach’s passions sound like,
you break Zim Ngqawana’s piano,
you don't use stale bread to make pudding anymore,
you fuck it away, only thieves find a use for your rubbish…
Oh South Africa, you need radiance.
South Africa, I’m not Chinese, read my lips… (161)

One could write a whole review simply on the major losses, minor gains and complex politics of such translation in all its senses. The English version loses the tautness of the original rhythm, as well as the chiming insistence of the Afrikaans double negative; it can no longer signify the hybrid quality of South African speech via phrases which are deliberately left “untranslated” in the original (“aerobics arenas”, “read my lips”).  The phatic monosyllables, those non-semantic particles which pepper our talk, point most strongly to what has been lost: how differently “Ai” signifies to “Oh”; how far removed, as De Kock writes in his account of translating from one kind of Afrikaans to another, is “sies” from the more beskaafde “sis”.

And who would deny, in the days of Die Antwoord and potty-mouthed Yolandi Vi$$er, that Afrikaans vloeking packs a much greater punch than SAE (South African English) swearing ever will? The fucks so liberally sprinkled around the stanzas – being English in a place where English is the flattened argot of global finance – simply do not have the same weight behind them as “fok”, that bastardised word which so unnerved the young John of Coetzee's Boyhood (1997):

How are they written? Until he can write them he has no way of taming them in his mind. Is fok spelled with a v, which would make it more venerable, or with an f, which would make it a truly wild word, primeval, without ancestry?” (57)

Thinking about the particular quality of “spokenness” in some of my favourite poetry from South Africa (that of Wopko Jensma, for one), a quality which is still largely passed over by literary scholarship, I found myself recalling the strange case of Jeremy Cronin.  The fact that this lyrical Marxist who smuggled poems past his apartheid jailers has gone on (as Deputy General-Secretary General of the SA Communist Party) to oversee the “recapitalisation” of the minibus taxi industry and, more recently, to defend the thinking behind the ANC’s proposed Media Tribunal, only serves to reveal the kind of vexing situation that the poets here are speaking to (“When will you turn around and gag Jeremy Cronin?” asks Van Niekerk in her jeremiad).  But back in 1988, amid many polemics about “committed” versus “formalist” art, he took the debate in new directions by penning one of the best evocations of how protest poetry, or as he put it “insurgent” South African poetry, achieved its fullest range of meanings.

Describing a 300 page dossier compiled by the state prosecutor for the trial of accused UDF leaders – a document detailing slogans chanted or printed on T-shirts, banners and pamphlets, church singing and improvised speech-making, as well as a few poems “taped and lovingly transcribed from the same events” – he remarked that the apartheid government had “unwittingly anthologised the poetry more accurately than is commonly the case in academic appraisal” (12). The context, in other words, the sense of occasion, was inseparable from the larger meanings of the poetry. This was a form of creativity that had to take its chances in terrible acoustic situations, amid megaphones, militant speeches, four-part harmony, faulty PA systems, children crying, security police radios bleeping and perhaps even a helicopter rattling overhead.  The poets were pitching to a crowd “generally very different from the quiet, reverential salon audience”, a crowd that often warmly acclaimed them, but nevertheless, had to be won over, and did not sit “tightly in respectful silence” (22).

I would suggest that “spoken word” poetry that has not come through similar kinds of tough apprenticeship risks not being sufficiently arresting, muscular and playful when reproduced in print, why it can look so slack and crashingly earnest on the page (“the karos of ubuntu” (24) is a particularly bad offender).  Performance contexts differ dramatically, in other words, and those differences make all the difference. This is why I enjoy the MC’s and beat-boxers who congregate outside my study window each Wednesday lunch time, but why I dread politely staged “spoken word” colloquia. In the first situation, the audience members come and go, drifting along University Avenue, and so the performer has to keep raising his or her game to win them over, increasing the level of verbal pyrotechnics to make the punters stay a little longer.  In the second context, you can find yourself wedged into a small community centre, at the mercy of someone (probably an American grad student, with a headwrap) who knows you can’t get away and is going to harangue you for long minutes about neo-imperialism and African womanism.  Someone in the audience will probably be saying “yeah” after particularly radical lines.   A long exercise, in other words, of preaching to the converted.

The best poems in the collection, then, are those which break out of the self-satisfied seminar room and manage to be both hate mail and love letters at the same time. It is the kind of ambivalence which makes a work like Mongane Wally Serote’s “City Johannesburg” a great South African poem, its mode of address poised uncomfortably between protest and grudging praise; its repeated salute both ironic and sincere, servile and self-affirming, all at the same time (see Rustum Kozain's GIPCA lecture on this,

The less successful ones read like a William Burroughs cut-and-paste experiment with the M&G's Letters page – Disgruntled of Doornfontien…Disappointed of Dainfern – and even the book cover seems to be using a very newsprintish font, as if to underline the connection.

Loftus Marais's “Suid-Afrika, Dankie vir Jou Love Letters!” is in fact dedicated “aan my land se koerante” (“to my country's newspapers”) which the speaker shakes open “almost like a seventeenth-century ship's sail – flap!” and scans for the horny classifieds – “BLONDE BOEREMEISIE 27 jaar oud. Kaapstad kafoefel…AFRICAN Brandy makes you randy” – before conceding (as a particularly sexist kind of outrage kicks in) that the phrases “overspending” and “media tribunal” “wys watter slet jy régtig is” (“show what kind of a slut you really are”).

Part of the impact of Ginsberg’s 1950s work was, no doubt, its jokey attention to the pop culture that was normally shut out of the rarefied realms of Poetry. Time Magazine and Tom Mooney, anarchists Sacco & Vanzetti all get a mention in “America”.  At first, there is also this kind of pleasure of recognition in some of these South African pieces: Omo, the Toyota Tazz and Verimark infomercials are all given their due.  Grundling offers a lengthy excursus on YOU magazine, the publication where you always know what you’re in for (“like Wimpy’s Mega Coffee”), and which the speaker always carries on his person, “like pepper spray”.  In Allan Kolski Horwitz's “Mzansi, My Beginning; Mzansi, My End” we read of:

your generosity   your pyramid schemes
your muti murders   your circumcision deaths…
your benoni Hollywood meisie   your bollywood cricket spectacles
your security fetish   your cash-in-transit heists
your schools without playing fields   your white elephant stadiums
your transgendered athletes… (72)

After pages and pages of such catalogues, though, one begins to wonder.  Is this poetry the record of a mind pressing back against reality (as Wallace Stevens said it should be)? Or just a reshuffling of those tired, mass media-produced ideas that are assumed to make up the national imaginary, but which may be entirely inadequate to the density and difficulty of day-to-day lives in Africa South. “Thank God it’s not that simple…”, as Leonard Cohen sang when looking at the papers made him want to cry, “in my secret life”.

If I were to probe my deeper misgivings about the cultural matrix that produces some of this writing, I might confess that, even though all us literary types should defend freedom of expression tooth and nail, there was at least part of me that could understand, or thought it could, the kind of grievance which lay behind the proposed Media Tribunal. It is related again to that single, unchanged, outraged setting of so much (white) public discourse; and also, an unease about the “South Africa” that is being addressed here.  Sometimes it is popular culture (fine); sometimes it is the tired narratives of “rainbow nationhood” (easy targets, but fair enough); but overwhelmingly it is the ANC, and the ANC conceived of only as Jacob “Showerkop” Zuma and Julius “Breitling” Malema, rather than as a structure of belief, history and identity that informs the lives of most South Africans.

Cronin once suggested that his prison contemporary Breytenbach desist from self-indulgent Oedipal struggles against the stern Afrikaner father and get on with the process of building a democratic South Africa: to stop pissing on the Taalmonument, in other words, and learn another African language instead.  Reading these poems, there is perhaps the sense that this whole self-involved, hot-housed tradition of intra-Afrikaner rebellion – lojale verset, Sestigers, albino terrorists etc – has simply been, at the flick of a switch, rerouted towards the ANC as represented by the new, inscrutable African patriarchs, and in a way which hardly seems to have been, (how can one put this?), historically earned.

Not that many of the poets aren’t aware of these problems: “Mzansi how do I tame this tirade?” asks Grundling:  “This poem is falling apart like a Peter de Villiers press conference / Mzansi your writers and poets are unemployed fiction is fucked. / Nobody’s imagination can keep up with your gruesomeness.” “Mzansi”, he carries on, in one of my favourite off-the-cuff moments, “I’ll take my broken stanzas to Cash Crusaders” (69).

For a regte, egte South African literary howl though, I would go back to Van Niekerk”s Triomf (1994): a truly wild, filthy but joyful, almost feral ambuscade of language.  In the opening scenes, as cruel Treppie and inbred Lambert spur on the dogs of Triomf, the dogs left over from bulldozed Sofiatown, to huil into the Joburg night, we see a howl being transmitted from a uniquely damaged human society back to the animal world and onward through the changing suburbs:

As hulle hard en lank genoeg aanhou, dan huil al die honde later: Marthastraat s'n en al die strate s'n tot oorkant Ontdekkers. (16)

If they carry on long and hard enough, then all the dogs will eventually join them. Martha Street's dogs and the other streets' dogs, until the dogs are crying all the way to Ontdekkers and beyond. (17)

Works cited

Coetzee, J. M. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life [1997].  London: Vintage, 1998.

Cronin, Jeremy. “Even under the Rine of Terror…”: Insurgent South African Poetry. Research in African Literatures, 19:1, (1988), 12-23.

Cronin, Jeremy. “Towards a National Culture: Oedipus, an Albino, & Others.” Stet 3:2 (June 1985), 16-17.

De Kock, Leon. “Cracking the Code: Translation as Transgression in Triomf”, Journal of Literary Studies 25:3, (2009), 16-38.

Ginsberg, Allen.  Selected Poems 1947-1995.  London: Penguin, 1996.

Raskin, John.  American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.

Van Niekerk, Marlene.  Triomf. Kaapstad; Pretoria: Queillerie, 1994. Trans. Leon de Kock. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1999.

Leonard Cohen, “In My Secret Life” from Ten New Songs (2001).

Looked through the paper.
Makes you want to cry.
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die.
And the dealer wants you thinking
That it's either black or white.
Thank God it's not that simple
In my secret life
(In my Secret life).

I bite my lip.
I buy what I'm told:
From the latest hit,
To the wisdom of old.
But I'm always alone.
And my heart is like ice.
And it's crowded and cold
In my secret life
(in my secret life).


Rustum says:

Great review. I wrote a short one for Die Burger, too short to raise some of the issues you raise. But you’ve also raised some that never occurred to me; or, rather, articulated some things that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.