I SUPPOSE SOMETHING IN ME ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A POET

I suppose something in me always wanted to be a poet. But I am not sure that I am one, one in the sense that someone would readily attach that label to me. I seem now to have wont personal battle with words: things flow better than they used to, and I am aghast at some of the poems I wrote 20, even 10 years ago and which I thought really good at the time. Some were good though, and had to be included in Zero Gravity (and that most had been published in magazines and journals tipped the scales in their favour). What I have convinced myself of — whether it is true or not, I leave to the poetry readers — is that I am a late developing poet, a Yeats that gets sharper, clearer and more incisive, with every advancing month, let alone year. As opposed to those poets who found their voice and made the grade early, but are now sinking into a poetically dull old age, rehashing and regurgitating without a flash of the old fire (though there also may not have been as much of that as they had assumed around in their heyday). The problem with poetry in South Africa, is that there is the rambling-on generation of old Wordsworth’s who have so much accumulated kudos that no poetry editor could ever turn them down, and a generation of young, spoken-verse performance poets who are distant from the conventions of written poetry. My poem in the collection “Cafe Lite” explores the not so happy implications of the movement towards performance poetry — and (worse) to the idea that poetry is essentially a spoken thing. Don’t get me wrong, I am an extrovert — narrowly, but officially, in terms of the Myers-Briggs test and I like the adrenaline rush of speaking/performing in front of a live audience (or live on radio or TV) but slam poet am I not, I can turn out a reasonable, even good poem out on paper in a couple of minutes — but not in my head ready for instant delivery. Of course, some performance poets are superb — take a bow, Benjamin Zepheniah, — but those so-called performance poets who read what they scrawled on a piece of paper are missing the essential point of oral cultural expression: it comes out of your head. “Perform” what you wrote down on paper and you will be killing us.

When I was at school in the Northern, Afrikaans-speaking suburbs of Cape Town (1965-1970), a time when most whites were not aware of the rising discontent and anger against apartheid that would explode in 1976, I had this (at the time it seemed pretty forlorn) that I could go and study (maybe even something like Classics and Philosophy) at the University of Cape Town and actually leave with a degree and become a teacher. The University of Cape Town was recently adjudged the second most beautiful University in the world (Oxford being in first place, if I remember correctly). It is truly imposing, nestling on the back slopes of Devil’s Peak, it surveys the entire Cape Flats and Southern Suburbs. In the early 70s when I started as the callowest of undergraduate students, it was also a major site of white, English-speaking, liberal opposition to Afrikaner Nationalism. It was heady days, and I was terrified of letting myself and my family down by failing. Many years later, I was back at the University, terrified of failing and letting my family down, and not getting my Ph D in English.

My relationship with the University of Cape Town is a complicated one. On the one hand, it is a place of academic snootiness, and socially-speaking I never ever felt accepted (always the white lower middle class boy from Parow who travelled to campus on two trains), on the other, it is my intellectual home, where I learnt everything valuable and really important, and whose deepest values and significance I think I carry with me more than any of its other alumni. (Oh yes, I did study at Manchester University, where I also acquired valuable knowledge, but nothing like what I learned at the UCT. But at Manchester I was much, much happier and better adjusted.

So, I am a poet who cannot seem to avoid intellectual content and philosophical ideas — and for this one can blame the University of Cape Town. It was as a third year student that I met someone who was to have a huge impact on my life — which still continues even though he no longer lives in South Africa and though I haven’t seen him for a long time. He was my third year English tutor, and led me to believe that I might just be special, even a star. Right from my first tutorial I decided that this was a person of incredible intellect and sensitivity to literature. I don’t believe that I have met or could meet anyone remotely in his league, but (must be something a bit Oedipal in this) have lately ventured forth to take issue with him over things like the transformation of Higher Education bringing the end to academic freedom and the possibility of resistance to this within the University (which happened in the pages of the Mail and Guardian) and now with a paper I have been commissioned to work upon, on the role of “figuring” in his Nobel Prize Lecture (the enigmatic, heavily coded piece entitled “He and his Man”). Oh, yes, and there is the poem in the collection “If J. M. Coetzee had Written the Iliad” which is part of a series (though not crafted as a series) in which I imagine Homer’s Iliad written by Coetzee. And there is the poem “J”.

I first read the Iliad and the Odyssey when I was 11: my family were visiting a relative and they fell down from the top of a cupboard, almost hitting me on the head. I immediately asked if I could read them (of course, I was angling to get them as a gift) but my Mother pointed out they were “too old for me” (a couple of years earlier I had appropriated a book by Voltaire from my Mother’s secret hiding place –along with D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover — the book that had been the subject of the most significant censorship court case in British History). The relative (my Mother’s aunt) decided to let me take both Homers and they have always lain at the heart of what I think literature is and does (a key part of its mythology).

And now I have taken the initiative to get my collection of poems published, and to see what people think and feel about them. To decide what worth they have, if they have anything to say or communicate at all.

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