By KELWYN SOL
Liberation in South Africa and the first free elections, in 1994, unleashed a social and cultural energy and sense of possibility. In the two decades since then, there has been an explosion of innovation in South African poetry, with a number of poets experimenting with fresh perspectives and themes. In a society still bearing the effects of deep division—most obviously, but not only, racial—poetry has become one of the cultural media through which individuals from previously antagonistic groups can share and explore their feelings and emotions, thereby, at times, creating bonds of mutual sympathy. At the same time, the social and political foci of pre-liberation poetry have remained but have been transformed and augmented by a number of fresh areas of concern.
While some poets believed that their primary intention should be to maintain support of particular political parties and their goals, others saw their purpose as now antagonistic to the (as they saw it) cant of politicians. Post-liberation, poets have worked in other directions as well, and poetry has been variously seen as a means of remembering the past, an expression to promote healing, and a font of creativity for themes that had been downgraded during the years of political struggle. Poems appeared which focused on the contradictory, “everyday” lives of people; examined issues pertaining to gender and sexuality; highlighted the HIV/AIDS crisis; and criticized the wave of consumerism that was engulfing the country. As the upsurge of optimism brought about by liberation became a yardstick against which the continuing social and economic disparities of the country were measured, many, though not all, prominent poems exhibited an emotion and anger reminiscent of the past. In addition, formal and linguistic innovation was in the air. The lyric was made to serve a variety of newfound purposes, as well as reflecting complex and fluctuating states of consciousness. Other forms—such as the elegy, the narrative, and the traditional African praise poem—were transformed and utilized in new tasks. Forms of “street” English (borrowing words and phrases from the country’s other ten languages) effloresced. Increasingly, South African poets are producing work showing a wealth of different poetic influences, both local and international.
By the end of the 1990s, a number of anthologies of poetry that included post-liberation utterances had emerged. However, the trend of anthologizing and giving prominence to poetry was already on the wane. Few, if any, general selections of South African poetry have been published for over a decade, despite the fact that the production of new work shows no signs of ceasing. Book publication has become noticeably more difficult. During the struggle against apartheid, literature with an anti-apartheid resonance was subsidized by organisations outside of the country, and poets were among the artists who benefited. After liberation, not only were a number of South African publishers bought by multinational firms, but those that remained locally based faced the prospect of making ends meet in a global market. As it comes nowhere near satisfying publishers’ desired profit margins, poetry on the page seems to be well on the way to becoming the neglected child of South African literature, the genre’s profound potential misunderstood or forgotten.
While individual collections have continued to appear, very few are forthcoming from mainstream publishers. Poetry is being kept alive mainly on websites, through “spoken-word” performances, and—especially as far as innovative or “difficult” poetry is concerned—by a number of small, independent publishers, who generally lack resources. Nevertheless, the quality of the poetry remains high. In this new century, as you will see, poetry continues to bear witness to changing social circumstances and to give expression to people’s hopes and fears, materializing in a burgeoning profusion of forms and themes.
Therefore, when John Hennessy approached me last year and suggested a compilation of South African poetry in English for The Common, this seemed an opportune time. We decided to keep the selection as contemporaneous as possible, choosing only from poetry published in the last five years (after 2007) or as yet unpublished. We did not look at “performance poetry,” as it is practised these days in the country, unless the performance poets also produced work of quality on the page. Moreover, while a number of poets with international reputations will be found in these pages, there are others who are still in the formative stages of promising careers. A handful either have left South Africa or are only intermittently domiciled within the country. Finally, although South Africa and its concerns are, of course, the main theme, we thought it was high time to include some poems that look outwards towards, and comment on, the wider world.
Keeping this in mind, I looked through relevant publications, in addition approaching a number of poets and asking them to send along their new and unpublished material. The response was warm and heartening and, while six poets herein have published new collections this year subsequent to our selections, others are seeing their first publications in these pages. Therefore, this selection strives to “make it new” in the best sense and gives as up-to-date an idea of what is happening in South African poetry as possible. The poems vary from humorous to angry, from lyrical to prophetic, from the self-referential to realistic depictions of wider natural and social landscapes. We hope they will prove as compelling to read as they were to search out and compile. We hope, too, that this selection will allow readers to gain at least a first insight into contemporary poetry in South Africa, in its abundance of forms, concerns, and attitudes.
Cape Town, South Africa
Kelwyn Sole is professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town and guest-editor for Issue 04.