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Poetry, power, prayer: Part 2

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So what is it that is so special about poetry? I’m not going to suggest that poetry is superior to prose. Poetry, like prose, can be dreadfully badly-written: hence the classic collection of rotten poems titled Verse and Worse. But poetry does behave and function in a different way from prose.

Let me give two examples (you see, oh lucky readers, how bounteous is this column. You don’t just get Dunton banging on, you get poems as well, and at no extra charge). The first is a dirge (funeral song) from a little-known play by Shakespeare titled Cymbeline:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Or the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.

The second is from the poem sequence Synapse by Antjie Krog, whom I consider to be South Africa’s finest living poet:
feeling her way the snail dilates her foot shies back then yearns
open drags prods lubricates an epithelial surge pushes her over
the first scurf the scent delirium her slender dendrites
sob slime plumes her tentacle eyes punch upwards she is
ecstatic

Now, at first glance these two texts seem worlds apart. Yet, obviously, neither is prose—the sort of language you expect when you read articles in thepost. What is distinctive to both is the way the words lean upon each other, depend on each other, resonate with each other, to create meaning and feeling through a very concentrated kind of language organization.

Shakespeare, for example, uses rhyme to organize his thought (sun / done / gone; rages / wages); Krog uses sounds that mirror each other (drags / prods; sob / slime / plumes). And the way they do this gives us pleasure. Prose doesn’t normally behave like this; it doesn’t have time to do so.

There are other ways of looking at this matter. The UK government has recently proposed to downgrade the teaching of poetry in schools, confirming what we already suspected, that they have cloth ears. The Guardian newspaper commented on the decision as follows: “the unresolved, open-minded nature of so much poetry, where meaning has to be extracted from language, is all too appropriate for our present age of uncertainty” (or, as the poet W.H. Auden put it, this “age of anxiety”).

It’s not all doom and gloom for the world’s poets. Following the triumphant performance by 22 year-old African-American Amanda Gorman of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, op-eds have been appearing in US newspapers calling for an expansion of poetry education in schools. But the UK government’s decision is a big step in the wrong direction.

Numerous British writers protested the government’s decision (and I shall get on to the relationship between poetry and power / politics next week). Michael Rosen reminded us that “poetry offers a view on the world that is playful, contemplative, mysterious, questioning, and one that is often interested in giving readers the chance to hold several different ideas at the same time.” In other words, poetry reaches spots that other forms of discourse may not, using language in ways that, characteristically, they do not.

The other British writer I wish to quote is Melvyn Bragg, who argued that “while paintings fade and sculptures crumble, poetry endures in the collective memory. Indeed, when Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his famous sonnet “Ozymandias”, about a statue to a great king that had crumbled into the desert sands, he was nodding to this.”
Hold on to that idea, because next week we set out for ancient Egypt and “Ozymandias.”
To be continued

Chris Dunton

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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