Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Saint du Barrys and poetry people

Before we moved to Clanwilliam and Saint du Barrys, I was professor of English at the NWU, on the beautiful green banks of the Vaal in Vanderbijlpark. It was a growing campus, and the tasks were many and varied. One of the teaching tasks I enjoyed was that of poetry and poetics. A bit of Chaucer, but that petered out: it wasn't even related to English, as far as the students were concerned. The Metaphysical poets, the Romantics: Wordsworth, Keats and more, and then towards and into the twentieth century, through the war poets, modernists and post-modernists. We included protest, rap, hip-hop and whatever could be relevant to students to establish a sense of verbalized awareness of their time and place. But for most, the sense of poetry had been damaged at school by boredom, irrelevance, tedium and testing. Wondering how poetry could link more directly with personal meaning, I discovered the National Association for Poetry Therapy, based in New York, and under the mentorship of Deborah Grayson and the supervisory umbrella of my faculty dean, I completed the course and became a registered poetry therapist.

In the USA, poetry therapy is often included in clinical medicine curricula as an elective, the purpose being to evoke awareness of the subjectivity of patients, so that they do not become merely defective tissue in the eyes of clinicism, to coin a word. When I'm asked what poetry therapy is my standard answer is that you must take the thickest book of poetry you can find and hit your enemy over the head with it. 

Poetry is as individual as the person who produces it, extremely versatile and probably the most direct path to that no-man's land between experience and language. 

Some people have just about no awareness of poetry and do not realize that humanity and poetics are indivisible, since poetics centres on the art of making meaning through uttered and unuttered verbalization. I wouldn't discuss this topic while bringing the bacon and egg. On the other hand, there are plenty of poetry people, and if they stay for more than twelve hours, we often find each other, especially over a glass of wine, and then discussion can flourish. For example, four ladies, all friends with each other for a long time, came to stay for three nights, and they were pleasant, sociable, literate and, moreover, they drank wine. I challenged them to write the poetry they wanted to write, and offered the first line: "The heart has three corners...:"
Two of these poems were put to writing and emerged at breakfast the next morning.

Emotions make odd friends and in these two short pieces, fun and deeply felt things rub shoulders, and that's how it often turns out, when you free up the language of your soul  in contrast to the langauge of your rationality. 

I enjoy this kind of encounter with poetry people, especially those who aren't gurus of grandiosity, but are simply willing to give one glimpses of their private words. 

Of course, if one wants to read works that are way out there in terms of achievement and beauty, here are two precious gifts that came my way:

Much of my development as a poet comes from Louis MacNiece, Rainer Maria Rilke and Rumi. And my life's teacher is Cathal Lagan, who taught me to write Irish poetry. To be Irish is to die laughing even though you're scared spitless. We'll see when the time comes. 

So if you're one of the poetry people, I'd be delighted to know. But please not when I'm bringing the bacon and egg, otherwise the others would never get served.

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