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So what is this poetry anyway?

Eugéne Ashton

You feel the sting all the time. Sometimes from those odd beings that publish, sometimes from those beings that stoke the turrets of bookstores: “We don’t want it.” Having said this I must admit that oft-times I read the garbage that some delinquent spews and I too have to admit that it is unbearable … So I ask myself: What is this poetry anyway?

We must point here to the most obvious and ignored fact that much of the stuff that makes it into the hands of publishers in the form of manuscripts, or crosses the internet lines — this way, that way, up, down, DELETED — is unreadable trash composed by someone who moments before wrote their first poem and now think that they must get published. I point to this and then move on and assume that something is brought to bear by the remaining, often silent snails, sometimes violent street poets and composed statesmen of the genre, in their systematic development of style and technique and the construction of verse.

Poets have a particular skill. Good poets are able to extract from the reader a core of sympathy or anger. Able to construct and defuse, destruct and abuse and yet still illuminate. The merits of this can be argued ad infinitum, but simply it is that the great moments in literature, the movements of great plays, the metre, the rhyme and rhythm and rhythmic seduction, move souls to duty or tears. Descriptive — in this disease-torn sub-continent — that “Now is the winter of our discontent.” And that there is hope, yet.

Tasked, they will capture this. The spontaneous outpourings of the poetic or artistic condition, the Homer and Joyce and Plomer, the Livingston and Campbell, have added to this world and the latter to this country. There are moments, “City Johannesburg” — “Expressions that have tears like furrows of soil erosion” … “you are dry like death.” And we wonder what they do for us.

Now comes the point … So there’s this questions and answers session on the box with President Mbeki. And he says — not far from the mark, I suppose — that someone who studies “poetry” should not expect a job. It is not the mention of poetry that got to me, it was this idea of expecting a line of employment because you have studied in that direction. Professional degrees aside, do we employ degrees or people? Is it not lateral and incisive thinking, application and dedication, focus and delivery? Are the elements that make up an employee composed of the degrees they have? I know many who have none and as many who have half a dozen, the collectors of debt or wealth, spread equally over the degreed and the undegreed. Perhaps it is fair to expect employment in the direction that you have studied — that is not the issue, for somehow those that study poetry and the like seldom expect employment of any sort.

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