Modern Poetry and Alternative Narratives

The Modern American Poetry Course (ModPo) presented by Prof. Al Filreis of Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania is a mind-altering experience. The benefits of such an excellent online course to people who function “normally” in the world, but who can’t afford high quality education is self-evident, but what is more meaningful is that Coursera has made it possible for people “paused” in life to flourish in a rich learning environment. For many people, those with chronic illnesses, with complex mental and physical difficulties, or those who are looking after seriously ill family members, leaving the house to go to university is just not an option, even if they can afford it. But the reality is that if an illness or disability makes it hard to function “normally,” then it is hard to earn a normal salary to pay for university.

What I’ve noticed now that we’re 9 weeks into a 10-week course is that so many of us who live alternative lives are flourishing in a demanding learning environment, often against all odds, and this while many “normal” people have abandoned the class. The ModPo class is life-changing and beyond value for those of us who live beside the main stream of life, but who are eager to apply ourselves in new ways.

This highlights the need for access to quality, but affordable online education for all. The ModPo course is free, as are all Coursera courses at the moment, but even if they charge a minimal amount in the future it would benefit the world at large. Like the 35 000 students enrolled in the ModPo course, the number of people worldwide who are interested in further education must be enormous, so it should be possible to adequately fund the continuation of the classes.

I must add that it would be a mistake to think that a poetry course could not benefit anyone looking to enhance their education. I only started writing in 2008, which makes me a newbie at poetry, so I’m in it for the poetry, and I still can’t get over the good fortune that made me stumble upon the ModPo course. The benefits of learning poetry from an extraordinary professor is obvious. What is not plain to see is how the course opens the mind and shifts entrenched beliefs not just about poetry but also about people and life in general. Prof. Al Filreis and his Teacher Assistants have created an online campus atmosphere where the normal things happen in the forums: people become friends, form groups, argue and exchange knowledge, and the support from the teachers and fellow students continues into the social networks like Facebook and Twitter. And YouTube is also roped in for live webcasts.

I am beyond grateful, and proud, to be part of this first ModPo group. Knowing Prof. Filreis, there are going to be many. The struggling world needs access to this kind of enrichment.

Here is the link for Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo): https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpoetry

Here is the link for Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/

Sara P. Dias (Nov 2012)

Waiting for a sign from the gods

As a very green writer, advanced in age and with no academic credibility, I recently asked a professor if he could write an article about what poetry is, what it isn’t anymore, what it has become and, most importantly, what it shouldn’t be. My questions were born out of a deep frustration with the different signals I feel I get from especially the South African literary community. Also, teaching myself writing without an academic support structure means that I’m constantly groping about:  a play by Sophocles here, a modern poet there, and a haiku over yonder. I grab what few books on poetry I can find in our local library or in bookstores.  Both lack quantity and variety in the poetry department, so my options are limited.

When Prof. replied that there were no answers to the questions I posed, but that he considered them important and felt I should write about my dilemma with SA poetry and my own sense of poetry, I thought, “Aikôna, Sir, you’ll be throwing me to the wolves.” I’ve witnessed ferocious exchanges between seasoned writers and I have no desire to be at the receiving end. I don’t speak Academic and at this stage of my self-imposed learning I don’t know enough to argue.

On reflection I realised that I asked these questions because I want to understand the essence of poetry in the hope of becoming a better writer, and, from what I’ve read so far, agonizing over ‘what is poetry’ is part of every writer’s journey. I’ve been waiting for a ping moment that would indicate that I’ve come to a deep understanding of poetry, maybe in the form of a sign from the gods of poetry.

I looked up the word “essence” in my Collins Concise English Dictionary and found the following definitions:

1. a perfect  or complete form of something

2. Philosophy. the unchanging and unchangeable inward nature of something

The immutability of this definition exposed my faulty thinking about something that in fact is never static, but always changing because human thought and language are forever adapting. There can therefore be no fixed form of poetry.

Perhaps even more importantly, poetry must happen in the context of on-going human development and achievement, else it would become predictable; and isn’t one characteristic of a poem that it makes something unexpected of the familiar? The word poetry itself is based on the Greek word for doer or creator, and creators keep on finding inspiration in the old and the new to produce something different or improved. Also, by now there must be as many definitions of poetry as there are published poets and critics.

Subjectivity and Context

I may feel that some poetry reads like prose, that it is not distilled or compressed enough, that it looks like a laundry list of emotions, or that it isn’t “turning from the literal” as Harold Bloom would say, but in the context of the information age it may be an effective way of communicating poetic thoughts to readers who don’t have the time to decipher mysteries or open a dictionary.

In a way we’ve come full circle: performance poetry is on the rise, and it relies on sound and gestures, punchiness and catchiness, which must be similar to the way the ancient poets recited poems from memory. This from the Wikipedia on the history of poetry:

In preliterate societies, these forms of poetry were composed for, and sometimes during, performance. There was a certain degree of fluidity to the exact wording of poems. The introduction of writing fixed the content of a poem to the version that happened to be written down and survive. Written composition meant poets began to compose for an absent reader. The invention of printing accelerated these trends. Poets were now writing more for the eye than for the ear.

This reminded me that poetry is meant to be spoken, not just read. In The Art of Reading Poetry, I learnt that Harold Bloom, American writer and literary critic, memorised Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and that he still recites it on those days when he has to “battle depression or adversity, or just the consequences of old age.” (Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), p. 19).

Because I can barely remember two lines of my own writing, I saw this as a challenge: if he at his age (80+) can remember the whole poem, then surely I can memorise it. I left one of my anthologies open on Ulysses and every morning I would try to retain an extra line. At some stage I managed one third of the poem without checking the book, but this quickly regressed into choppy lines once I gave up the discipline and allowed life to interfere.

Reciting bits of Ulysses out loud gave me a deeper understanding of that yearning for youthful endeavour, that stubborn clinging to ideas of adventure, courage and lively companionship, that urge to keep advancing, no matter what, and how miserable a life it is, in the end, to be confined in any way. But more than that, I became aware of how quiet and graceful the lines are even while describing strong feelings like despair:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rush unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The Quality of Inevitable Phrasing

In The Best Poems of the English Language, Harold Bloom states that “Intuitively, Tennyson understood what poetry was: argument that could not be separated from song, gesture, dance, and the rhythms of a unique but representative individual’s breath-soul.” (Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), p. 593). Having said that, he also talks about the “quality of the inevitable that is central to great poetry.” (p. 19).

I think I recognize what he means by “unavoidable wording rather than merely predictable diction” (p. 20): to exercise control over expression to such an extent that lines which are powerful and memorable seem effortless and natural. I’ll quote from the poets I’m getting to know better; first from Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

I never tire of reading the above. I’m in awe of the simplicity of a first line that contains so much. I feel the soft folds of the dressing-gown, the sedateness of the sun, and it makes me long for the smell of oranges and coffee. I imagine the cockatoo depicted on the rug in full flight in a far-off jungle. And then my thoughts darken on the concept of religion, that “ancient sacrifice”, and I think of those awful Sunday mornings when my sister and I had to walk kilometres to church, not because our parents were devout, but because it was the social norm. Easter weekends were especially depressing.

My next example of what I consider magical phrasing is from Repose of Rivers by Hart Crane:

… There beyond the dykes
I heard wind flaking sapphire, like this summer,
And willows could not hold more steady sound.

The “wind flaking sapphire” cuts me every time, and I wonder if the poet is referring to a perverse sense of companionship that he finds in a steady stream of pain. I think many of us have a familiar named Sorrow warming our necks.

The following is from The Listener by John Burnside:

… Summer now: an older mode of sleep;
and this, the running dream that follows stone
and fence wire, digging in
for what remains of snow-melt and the last
good rain, the low road
peopled with bone-white figures: not
the living, in this aftermath of grass,
and not the dead we mourn, in empty kirks
or quiet kitchens, halfway through the day,
but something like the absence of ourselves
from our own lives,
some other luck
that would not lead
to now.

(The Listener by John Burnside, The Paris Review, July 12, 2011)

These lines appeal to me because I see a universal truth in “not the dead we mourn … but something like the absence of ourselves from our own lives …” and I can think of no better way to say it.

Below is an example of a keenly observed moment captured in the amber of a haiku:

pink river
a heron pulls away
to the stars

John Barlow

(British Haiku Society)

There is effort in the pulling away from what is in all probability yet another beautiful sunset over a river. The heron might be pulling away from the mundane in order to discover the unknown.

The following haiku made me smile. There is humour in the disgust and self-disgust at being alone in a sushi bar in the middle of winter when one yearns for warmth and company.

Mid-winter evening,
alone at the sushi bar—
just me and this eel

Billy Collins

(Modern Haiku, Volume 35.3, Autumn 2004)

The few poems above represent what I feel is inevitable phrasing. I have many more to discover, especially in South Africa where we have so many languages and other forms of poetry, for example praise poetry.

Some poets write only for fellow academics and poets, others believe that poetry should be accessible to all. I’m grateful to the latter, but the Internet does make understanding difficult poetry easier.

We have podcasts and YouTube now, and maybe in the near future we will have HoloVID projections of poetry readings and performances in our living rooms and schools; and with it I have no doubt that a new kind of poem will emerge.

My conclusion is that I will wait forever for signs to descend from the gods. In the meantime I can work at crafting an inevitable phrase.

© Sara P. Dias (October 2011)

Emotional Truancy

In response to Dagga – Part Five by Rustum Kozain – http://groundwork.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/dagga-part-five/

I love your Dagga series and I look forward to it being published one day.

You must experience everything in life intensely in order to remember it so well. Life chafes at me, and I have no carapace, but I don’t have your memory. Only my body remembers, not my mind. I suspect that my sister and I should have been on antidepressants in high school already, but in those days these things were frowned upon and not talked about. I seldom talk to my mother: even today she is ashamed that I am on antidepressants and she refuses to discuss the fact that she never protected my sister and me from my depressed and alcoholic father’s abuse, and that she only cares about my brother. She is in some or other sick form of denial whereby she negates the agonies of our minds by repeating this mantra over the phone: “‘n Mens moet net vorentoe kyk. Ek wil net hê julle moet gelukkig wees.” Only she suffered being married to an arty but depressed suiplap of a policeman. And just look how she made sure that my sister and I were always neatly dressed so that nobody in her family or circle of acquaintances could say that we were neglected in any way. Unfortunately, emotional truancy is not a skanky teenager that can be glared at or reprimanded.

My memories are not in the realm of that which can be retained, but there is remembered pain nevertheless. Incidents in which either my sister or I was abused have become so mixed-up in my mind that I can’t remember whether it was my sister or me who spilled the orange juice at the dinner table and who my father slammed into the fridge with an elbow, almost casually, still seated, as my sis/I poured more juice for him from the fridge that stood right next to him.

I am aware of what could possibly be called a racist nostalgia by some: my sister and I walked long distances, even at night, to church, parties or to town. We also knew the streets of central Jozi very well: it was many blocks from the train station to the cinema near the Carlton Centre, or was it the Carlton Hotel? Also, my mother worked at Volkskas Bank in Market Street, I think, near the old City Hall. In any case, only my dad drove a car, so the rest of us, including my mother, had to walk almost everywhere. My mother never learned how to drive a car, so she still walks to nearer destinations. Now that Roodepoort town itself has become a bit of a slum, she has to get lifts from friends to shopping centres further away.

What I miss is to be able to go anywhere without anxiety or being hyper-aware of my surroundings, without the panic attacks that actually blind me instead of making me observe better.

I often give a lift to women walking long distances from our part of Durbanville to where the taxis stop in Durban Road. At first I couldn’t understand why I do it. We had to walk, catch a bus or a train to our destinations, so why would I care that others have to pound foot? I wondered whether I was doing it out of white guilt or genuine altruism. Then it hit me: I didn’t want them to be attacked as I was, twice, while living in Woodstock. Women are not safe anywhere, especially not around these huge open fields surrounding us.

My body remembers the freedoms and the hurts. I still cannot watch people falling or being smashed down or kicked on TV without getting horripilation running up my legs.

As a white woman especially, I can’t tell those who suffered under apartheid to only move forward, to not dwell on the past, because not only does the body remember, as a psychologist explained to me, but I would then be like my mother: oblivious to another’s pain and emotionally uninvested in the future well-being of others. Intellectually I know she cannot give what she does not have – unconditional love for my sister and me – but my heart aches at that absence regardless. Also, while there always was a void where my emotionally absent father resided, his death merely replaced the hole with a more substantial cavity. Nostalgia, to me, is a violently conflicted business. I push and pull constantly at what should never have been, what was, and the now. And I think that the new South Africa maybe cannot give what it does not have: an emotional investment in the safety and security of everybody’s future, including whites, and that it is as intensely ambivalent about all matters South African as I am.

© Sara P. Dias (July 2011)

An improbable candidate

In the Chicago Tribune an entry about the newly-elected president of the United States reads:

“Barack Obama was elected president on Nov. 4, 2008, becoming the first African-American to claim the highest office in the land, an improbable candidate fulfilling a once-impossible dream.”

Since the hullabaloo about the inauguration of America’s first ‘black’ president, something started gnawing at me: Not once did I hear anyone ask: “Would this fanfare about a non-white president in the White House not be more convincing if it was a Native American occupying the oval office?”

A president named Wallace Red Elk would surely have been a truly “improbable candidate” worthy of such excessive celebrations.

For years, I have been wondering, “What happened to the Native American Indians? Why do I not hear anything about them in the news?” Now and then I have to Google them just to make sure they still exist.

We are so quick, especially here in Africa, to mount a soap box while singing for our machine guns in order to berate and confront and intimidate all the racists and all those who dare criticize our leadership and our non-, er, African-democratic ways. We applaud the fact that Barack Obama visited his ‘ancestral home’ in Kenya, but we do not question his neglect to visit his forefathers’ home in England, and we don’t make too much about his white maternal heritage. Let us not open a book we do not want to read: subtext is the enemy of cocks populi, especially here in South Africa.

If we follow footnotes leading us to other marginalized indigenous people who stand as slim a chance of sitting in the highest office in South Africa,  we realise that we would probably never read in the news that “Magdalena Kruiper-Vaalbooi was elected president on April 22, 2009, becoming the first woman, and the first person from the San community, to claim the highest office in South Africa.”

© Sara P. Dias (May  2009)

Posted in POV

Good News: Atheists are Coming Out

You can now get OUT-campaign hoodies and T-shirts with the big scarlet letter “A” (hee hee) for atheist at: http://richarddawkins.net/store/


Wear your “Scarlet Letter of Atheism” proudly.

 

I’m terribly amused by all this, even while applauding frowned-upon beliefs for coming out and taking their rightful place next to the rest of humanity. I won’t go as far as wearing such garments – that would put me on the same level as the loudly and proudly religious.

It is not as if I believe in nothing; rather, it is because I believe in the possibility of everything.

Terry Pratchett expresses my philosophy best:

“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it” – Terry Pratchett

Despite my attempts to remain neutral, I do find Believers in Religion more and more offensive the older I get. I am so sick and tired of the often outright condemnation with which they treat other people, and their self-righteous smarminess while being unbelievably nasty to others. It is quite shocking, actually, that believers can unload all their evil onto one god or man, like Jesus. They crucify him every day, and on Sundays they do it with even more gusto. Expecting someone else to pay for your own awful deeds is one thing, but crucifying him and drinking his blood and eating his flesh? Aren’t there serial killers who do that kind of thing?

I know a born-again Christian who believes she is protected from Satan’s devilish deeds because she is covered in the blood of Christ. It sounds exactly like something from a horror movie about Satan worshippers …

If such beliefs are not loathsome enough, the religious have created the ultimate and most vile form of Apartheid by splitting humanity into those who go to a nice place when they die and those who suffer excruciating pain and anguish for all eternity. Wishing such immense cruelty on their fellow beings is beyond my comprehension, never mind their capacity to conjure up a hell to accommodate such monstrous imaginings. How is it possible to still believe in such frightful things after all the atrocities we have visited on one another in our brief human history?

I meant what I said in a poem: it is hell on earth because heaven is already occupied by too many gods. That is, the heaven created by the religious. When I look up at the sky I see only endless possibility and infinite potential and I hope for acts of benevolence in the universe in general. A kind act — only sentient beings are capable of being kind or unkind on purpose.

Our local Spar plays the most [god]awful Afrikaans gospel music every time I go there. We’ve complained about it; how can they possibly be so arrogant as to think all their customers share their religious views? Also, it is not as if it is uplifting music; the way the name Jeeeeeeeesusss is dragged out is downright depressing. And the unctuous ‘U’ (Thou) with which they address their god in songs just does not make for good rhythm or song writing. At least the more brilliant gospel singers in America make it all sound like a good bit of foot-stomping fun.

What I also find repulsive is the lack of compassion in the religious. You are not suffering because really bad things or people happened to you, or because genetically you come from a long line of alcoholics, schizophrenics, manic depressives, weak hearts, cancerous lungs/breasts/ovaries; your toe doesn’t hurt simply because the chair was in the way or you dropped a brick on it; and you’re not scarred for life because you were sexually molested by your god-fearing father/uncle/grandfather … oh no, you’re suffering because you don’t hammer a man to a cross every day, you don’t unburden the responsibility of your wrongdoings onto an invisible friend, you don’t blow yourself up in the presence of innocent strangers, you don’t pray, chant, prostrate or diminish yourself or judge others enough.

And how can the religious think their god is the only god when we have not even met other species from other worlds in the universe? What hubris. As for man being created in the image of his god, it seems to be the other way around: to think of a divine being with unlimited powers indulging in petty jealousies or vengeful acts towards only certain members of one species in one small star-system somewhere in the unimaginable vastness of the universe just doesn’t sound plausible. If there is a creator, he/she/it is probably nothing like the gods spawned by the dark and selfish inventiveness of man.

I do not believe that a god, gods, creator or omnipotent super-being will command a species to go forth and multiply to such an extent that children starve to death and adults kill one another because there are not enough jobs, land or mineral resources to be had. I also do not think it possible that one person’s – usually a man’s it seems – experience of an epiphany or a vision, whether it is induced by brain chemicals in flux, drugs, starvation or a sudden overload of patriarchal arrogance and testosterone, can truly explain all the wonders of the universe or come up with the one true answer.

We have simply not evolved enough as a species to understand much about anything.  And if we keep up our current self-destructive behaviour we will certainly not be around long enough to gain an understanding of It All.

And to those who find themselves offended by my opinion: I have been poked by religious pitchforks for far longer and with more baneful intent than this piece of writing will ever manage.

© Sara P. Dias (October 2008)

Good News: Atheists are Coming Out

You can now get OUT-campaign hoodies and T-shirts with the big scarlet letter “A” (hee hee) for atheist at: http://richarddawkins.net/store/

Wear your “Scarlet Letter” proudly

Wear your “Scarlet Letter of Atheism” proudly.

I’m terribly amused by all this, even while applauding frowned-upon beliefs for coming out and taking their rightful place next to the rest of humanity. I won’t go as far as wearing such garments – that would put me on the same level as the loudly and proudly religious.

It is not as if I believe in nothing; rather, it is because I believe in the possibility of everything.

Terry Pratchett expresses my philosophy best:

“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it” – Terry Pratchett

Despite my attempts to remain neutral, I do find Believers in Religion more and more offensive the older I get. I am so sick and tired of the often outright condemnation with which they treat other people, and their self-righteous smarminess while being unbelievably nasty to others. It is quite shocking, actually, that believers can unload all their evil onto one god or man, like Jesus. They crucify him every day, and on Sundays they do it with even more gusto. Expecting someone else to pay for your own awful deeds is one thing, but crucifying him and drinking his blood and eating his flesh? Aren’t there serial killers who do that kind of thing?

I know a born-again Christian who believes she is protected from Satan’s devilish deeds because she is covered in the blood of Christ. It sounds exactly like something from a horror movie about Satan worshippers …

If such beliefs are not loathsome enough, the religious have created the ultimate and most vile form of Apartheid by splitting humanity into those who go to a nice place when they die and those who suffer excruciating pain and anguish for all eternity. Wishing such immense cruelty on their fellow beings is beyond my comprehension, never mind their capacity to conjure up a hell to accommodate such monstrous imaginings. How is it possible to still believe in such frightful things after all the atrocities we have visited on one another in our brief human history?

I meant what I said in a poem: it is hell on earth because heaven is already occupied by too many gods. That is, the heaven created by the religious. When I look up at the sky I see only endless possibility and infinite potential and I hope for acts of benevolence in the universe in general. A kind act — only sentient beings are capable of being kind or unkind on purpose.

Our local Spar plays the most [god]awful Afrikaans gospel music every time I go there. We’ve complained about it; how can they possibly be so arrogant as to think all their customers share their religious views? Also, it is not as if it is uplifting music; the way the name Jeeeeeeeesusss is dragged out is downright depressing. And the unctuous ‘U’ (Thou) with which they address their god in songs just does not make for good rhythm or song writing. At least the more brilliant gospel singers in America make it all sound like a good bit of foot-stomping fun.

What I also find repulsive is the lack of compassion in the religious. You are not suffering because really bad things or people happened to you, or because genetically you come from a long line of alcoholics, schizophrenics, manic depressives, weak hearts, cancerous lungs/breasts/ovaries; your toe doesn’t hurt simply because the chair was in the way or you dropped a brick on it; and you’re not scarred for life because you were sexually molested by your god-fearing father/uncle/grandfather … oh no, you’re suffering because you don’t hammer a man to a cross every day, you don’t unburden the responsibility of your wrongdoings onto an invisible friend, you don’t blow yourself up in the presence of innocent strangers, you don’t pray, chant, prostrate or diminish yourself or judge others enough.

And how can the religious think their god is the only god when we have not even met other species from other worlds in the universe? What hubris. As for man being created in the image of his god, it seems to be the other way around: to think of a divine being with unlimited powers indulging in petty jealousies or vengeful acts towards only certain members of one species in one small star-system somewhere in the unimaginable vastness of the universe just doesn’t sound plausible. If there is a creator, he/she/it is probably nothing like the gods spawned by the dark and selfish inventiveness of man.

I do not believe that a god, gods, creator or omnipotent super-being will command a species to go forth and multiply to such an extent that children starve to death and adults kill one another because there are not enough jobs, land or mineral resources to be had. I also do not think it possible that one person’s – usually a man’s it seems – experience of an epiphany or a vision, whether it is induced by brain chemicals in flux, drugs, starvation or a sudden overload of patriarchal arrogance and testosterone, can truly explain all the wonders of the universe or come up with the one true answer.

We have simply not evolved enough as a species to understand much about anything.  And if we keep up our current self-destructive behaviour we will certainly not be around long enough to gain an understanding of It All.

And to those who find themselves offended by my opinion: I have been poked by religious pitchforks for far longer and with more baneful intent than this piece of writing will ever manage.

© Sara P. Dias (October 2008)