Louise Viljoen. Of Chisels and Jackhammers: Afrikaans poetry 2000-2009

Prof Louise Viljoen, Dept. Afrikaans, US

Prof Louise Viljoen, Dept. Afrikaans, US

LOUISE VILJOEN is professor in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of Stellenbosch. She was awarded a doctorate at the University of Stellenbosch for a thesis on the poetry of Breyten Breytenbach in 1988. Together with Ronel Foster she compiled an anthology of Afrikaans poetry written after 1960, Poskaarte. Beelde van die Afrikaanse poësie sedert 1960 (1997). Her field of research is Afrikaans literature and Literary Theory with a special focus on postcolonialism, gender, identity and (auto-)biographical writing. Apart from this she serves as editorial associate for several academic journals and acts as reviewer, reader for publishers and adjudicator of literary prizes.

Of Chisels and Jackhammers:  Afrikaans poetry 2000-2009

– Prof Louise Viljoen
(Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, Stellenbosch University)

 

Afrikaans poetry 2000-2009:  devices, themes, tropes

The years around the millennium change were marked by a distinct pessimism about the continued existence and viability of Afrikaans poetry.  This was the result of several factors:  a general fin de millennium unease about the state and sustainability of (Afrikaans) culture in the twenty-first century, an uncertainty about the way in which South African politics would develop after the end of the Mandela presidency in 1999, developments in the (Afrikaans) publishing industry and the fear that an elitist genre like poetry will have difficulty in surviving in an era that favours the novel.  Adendorff (2003: 175) found that the number of debut volumes published by established Afrikaans publishers showed a marked decrease from 1990 to 2003.  In his overview of Afrikaans poetry published from 1998 to 2003 Odendaal (2006: 106-107) wrote that Afrikaans poetry was being marginalised in the Afrikaans literary system at the same time that it was becoming more popular with the general public.  On the one hand there was talk of Afrikaans poetry being in an existential crisis because of the decreasing number of volumes as well as the absence of young poets publishing debut volumes.  On the other hand Afrikaans poetry was being popularised by events like poetry slams, poetry readings at cultural festivals and the acceptance of songwriters’ lyrics into the canon of Afrikaans poetry, traditionally reserved for ‘serious’ poetry. 

Two years later Kleyn (2008) was able to come to a more positive conclusion after her survey of Afrikaans poetry published from 2004to 2007.  She found that Afrikaans poetry was not in a crisis and that it was in fact doing better than genres like the short story, the essay and drama.  Kleyn’s research showed that this period marked a renewed interest in the work of established poets with the publication of compilations of or selections from the work of Breyten Breytenbach, Sheila Cussons, Philip de Vos, Elisabeth Eybers, Ina Rousseau, Wilma Stockenström and Barend Toerien.  Poets could make use of new literary publishing houses Protea Boekhuis and LAPA as well as one-man publishers and a variety of literary journals and e-publications.  Afrikaans poetry also thrived because of reworkings into musical compositions and readings on DVD and cd, the productivity of marginalised subgenres like children’s poetry, a variety of events at which poetry could be read or performed and the existence of a variety of literary prizes, some general and some reserved for poetry.  A year later critic Andries Visagie (2009) also concluded that there is much less cause for concern than before, referring to the significant increase in the publication of important debut volumes since 2005. 

The index of volumes published in Afrikaans from 2000 to 2009 provided by the Versindaba [Poetry Indaba] website, set up to give coverage to Afrikaans poetry, bears out the renewed confidence in the genre.  It records a total of 190 publications (including reprints, selections, translations and anthologies) for this period.  The breakdown into number of publications per year indicates an increase from the number of volumes published in the first half of the decade (78 publications from 2000 to 2004) to the second half of the decade (112 publications from 2005-2009) so that both Kleyn and Visagie’s optimism about the state of Afrikaans poetry seems to be warranted. 

Although the current project is a much more modest one that Moretti’s attempt to understand trends in world literature in his article “Conjectures on World Literature”, this article will follow him in employing the “distant reading” that allows one to focus on “units that are much smaller or much larger that the text:  devices, themes, tropes – or genres and systems” (Moretti 2000: 57).  In surveying the body of Afrikaans poetry written between 1960 and 1997 Van Vuuren (1999: 245) wrote that thematic changes in literary texts are usually triggered by socio-political contexts whereas formal or aesthetic changes can be related to the tension between tradition and renewal as well as the influences of other cultures.  To a certain extent this is also true of the body of Afrikaans poetry published in the period 2000 to 2009.  Several of the most prominent themes and its accompanying tropes (identity, language, socio-political commentary, the use of indigenous cultural materials) can be traced to the socio-political context in which it was produced whereas other themes reflect universal concerns (the body, the environment, death, family matters, intertextual connections).  The formal changes or new devices (most notably the move towards a more accessible style of poetry making use of narrative elements) emerging in this period can be related to renewed pressure on cultural forms perceived to be elitist and inaccessible as well as internal reactions and counter-reactions in the Afrikaans literary system.  In the overview that follows I will first address the most prominent formal change in the past decade’s Afrikaans poetry and then focus on certain important thematic trends.  It is in the nature of an overview such as this that it can only draw bold lines and will of necessity have to ignore finer distinctions.  It will also not be possible to include references to all of the volumes published in the decade under discussion so that certain gaps and omissions are inevitable.  My reading of the volumes I do mention will also be highly selective, focusing on certain features of a volume and ignoring others for the sake of the argument. 

Formal changes:  the ‘narrative turn’

Although narrative poetry has always been an integral part of the Afrikaans literary tradition, it gained renewed prominence in the past decade after the publication of strong debut volumes by Danie Marais (2006), Carina Stander (2006), Bernard Odendaal (2007), Ronelda Kamfer (2008) and Loftus Marais (2008), all characterised to some degree by narrative features, anecdotal elements and a parlando style.  In the ensuing discussions the opposition between narrative and lyrical poetry was soon equated with, or at least compared to, the opposition between accessible and hermetic poetry.  This inevitably led to debates about what would constitute real poetry (as opposed to fake poetry) and good or interesting poetry (as opposed to bad or uninteresting poetry).  Poets Lina Spies (2007) and Marlene van Niekerk (2009) both expressed their dismay about the seemingly effortless production of reams of anecdotal, narrative poetry that show little prosodic discipline, inner tension or complexity.  In reaction to these poets Danie Marais and Charl-Pierre Naudé defended their own use of narrative elements in lyrical poems.  Marais (2009b) felt that the anecdote or narrative creates a space in which words can “echo” lyrically or poetically, while Naude (2009) argued that the narratives in his poems are expended by the symbolic meaning they evoke and become symbols themselves.

The names that most often crop up in discussions about the current revival of narrative poetry in Afrikaans are those of Danie Marais, Charl-Pierre Naudé and Ronelda Kamfer.  Danie Marais’ debut volume In die buitenste ruimte [In outer space] (2006) contains a number of long poems1 but also functions as a narrative whole that charts the break-up of its protagonist’s marriage to his German wife, his feelings of alienation in Germany (as strong as if he were in outer space) and his (not uncritical) nostalgia for South Africa and Afrikaans.  Odendaal (2009) has shown that the volume displays most of the features of narrative poetry:  it is sequentially constructed with cyclical and serial features (chronological references, recurring motifs, semantic isotopes) and the narrative is mediated through a distinctive voice, narrating from the first-person perspective.  The fact that the narrating voice in this volume coincides with that of the author reinforces the impression that Afrikaans narrative poetry tends to be autobiographical.  Marais’ second volume continued the trend but was less enthusiastically received than his first volume by critics who now felt that the long talk(ative) poems lacked inner tension (see Pieterse 2009, Crous 2009b). 

Charl-Pierre Naudé’s second volume, In die geheim van die dag [In the secret of the day] (2004), also includes several long poems (often consisting of more than 80 lines) which narrate a specific incident and are written in the parlandostyle with long prose-like lines.  These poems illustrate Naudé’s point that the narrative itself eventually becomes a symbol.  The subtitle of the lengthy poem “Hoe ek my naam gekry het (of: ‘n Beknopte relaas van kolonisasie”) [“How I got my name (or: A brief account of colonisation”)] gives an indication of what the narration it contains might symbolise.  The poet’s name Charl-Pierre evokes both a family history and the history of the colonisation of South Africa in which the French Huguenots took part (the poet refers to his hyphenated name as “gepluk uit die Hugenote-diasporabossie” [“plucked from the little bush of the Huguenot diaspora”]).  One of the shorter narrative poems, “Twee diewe” [“Two thieves”], is another example of the way in which the narrative of a man, who is robbed of his peace of mind by a woman and child who ask him for a leaf from the silvertree in his garden, becomes symbolic of xenophobic mistrust and paranoia.  Naudé’s poetry undermines established notions about the lyric poem’s structuring of sound, rhythm, image, style and its multiplication of meanings through the intensive play on words.  He himself refers to the carefully wrought “illusion of the absence of poetic craft or style” in his own and other Afrikaans poets’ narrative poems, pointing out that the craft lies in the deliberate concealment of style and the recreation of an everyday narrative voice in order to foreground the narrative which then attains its symbolic meaning (Naudé 2009). 

The same holds true for the deceptively simple poetic style of Ronelda Kamfer’s debut volume Noudat slapende honde [Now that sleeping dogs] (2008) which includes a number of narrative poems, mostly about life on the Cape Flats.  Kamfer uses a laconic, almost deadpan poetic voice to relate her stories, amongst which those about a young boy who became the victim of a bullet fired in a gang fight (“Klein Cardo” [“Little Cardo”]) and the woman who killed her husband and children (“die huisvrou” [“the housewife”]).  In his contribution to the debate about narrative poetry, Visagie (2009) contends that poets like Charl-Pierre Naudé, Danie Marais and Ronelda Kamfer exploit the power of stylistic variation by alternating narrative elements with strong poetic images which gain even more expressive power through being embedded in the looser structure of the ‘talk poem’.  He attributes the popularity of narrative poetry amongst (current Afrikaans) readers to the fact that the narrative poem presents itself as a space in which the poet can bring cohesion and meaning as well as the illusion of continuity and security to their experience of everyday life in South Africa. 

Although the ‘narrative turn’ is a strong trend in the work of recent debut poets, one can also point to poets who uphold the tradition of hermetic poetry in Afrikaans (perhaps best exemplified by Breytenbach’s complex, even obscure prison poetry published in the 1980s).  The tradition was continued in the past decade by Gilbert Gibson who made his debut in 2005 and published three volumes in quick succession:  Boomplaats (2005), Kaplyn [Cleared borderline] (2007) and Oogensiklopedie [Encyclopaedia of the eye] (2009).  His volumes are characterised by dense imagery, extensive fields of reference, innovative structures (the poems in his volume Oogensiklopedie are arranged alphabetically rather than thematically), a wide range of intertextual references and complicated word games, with the result that individual poems are often difficult to decipher. 

Themes evoked by the socio-political context

The radical political and social changes South Africa experienced in the 1990s led to the foregrounding of certain themes in Afrikaans literature, some of which were still pursued in the poetry written after 2000.  Amongst these was the concern with identity, with language, with the socio-political situation in the country and with indigenous cultural materials.  These themes often overlap and interact with each other, so that there will be some blurring of boundaries between the categories. 

Identity

As suggested above, the transformation of South African society, the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the growing impact of globalisation in the 1990s lead to Afrikaans writers’ renewed engagement with the notion of identity.  This trend was continued in the poetry written in the first decade of the new century, with new accents and nuances emerging under the pressure of unfolding events.  To give an idea of the range of views and approaches to this theme, I will contrast Antjie Krog’s work with that of Breyten Breytenbach, Diana Ferrus’ work with that of Ronelda Kamfer and Bernard Odendaal’s work with that of Andries Bezuidenhout. 

Antjie Krog and Breyten Breytenbach, two of the strongest poets currently writing in Afrikaans, both engage with the theme of identity in volumes they published in the past decade.  Although Krog (2000: 47) refers to her distaste for the devious dealings at the “barcounter of identities” in Kleur kom nooit alleen nie [Colour never comes on its own], the volume nevertheless concentrates on her attempts at redefining her own identity in a changed South Africa.  The cycle “land van genade en verdriet” (translated as “country of grief and grace” in Down to my last skin) tries to deal with the feelings of Afrikaner guilt caused by revelations at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to transcend the category of race as the most important determinant of a South African identity.  Another cycle of poems, “van litteken tot stad” [“from scar to city”], describes her attempts to define herself as an African during a journey through West Africa to a poetry festival in Timbuktu.  Krog’s sense of an identity grounded in being Afrikaans-speaking, an Afrikaner, a South African as well as an African can be compared to the way in which Breyten Breytenbach continues his ongoing reflection on identity in the volumes he published in the past decade, Die windvanger [The wind-catcher] (2007) and Oorblyfsel / Voice over (2009).  It is well-known that Breytenbach prefers to define his identity as that of an “uncitizen” of the “Middle World”, which he recently described as the space of those who have left home for good while carrying it with them and of those who feel at ease on foreign shores without ever being at home – also as the location where “the turfs of the outcast, the outsider, and the outlaw overlap” (Breytenbach 2010: 143).  The poems in Die windvanger reflects the experience of just such a luminal figure, travelling between France, Spain, New York, Goreé off the coast of Senegal and his homeland South Africa.  This figure comments on world politics and global events, but there are also references to his own country from which he has to flee because its people do not like his bitter criticism of its degeneration into chaos and destruction.  The volume Oorblyfsel / Voice over is conceptualised as a conversation with Mahmoud Darwish and his poetry.  It is therefore not surprising that the poet-narrator in this volume refers to identity as a “gesprek” [“conversation”] which enables one to imagine oneself and that the conversation with Darwish leads to the imagining of links between Afrikaner and Palestinian identity.  Because of Breytenbach’s famously ambivalent relationship with the Afrikaner nation as well as the political rulers of South Africa, these lines send a complex message about the way in which he conceives of Afrikaner and South African identity. 

The question of identity hinges on different issues in the work of black Afrikaans poet2 Diana Ferrus who gained international recognition for her poem “Vir Sara Baartman” [“For Sara Baartman”] which played a role in the French government’s decision to return the remains of Sara Baartman to South Africa.  The narrator in Ferrus’ volume Ons komvandaan [Where we come from] (2005) embraces and celebrates her descent from South Africa’s indigenous peoples and the slaves brought to the country.  The poem “Na tien jaar” [“After ten years”] shows that she accepts the possibility of a unified South African identity after ten years of democracy and that she wholeheartedly conceives of herself as a South African:  the country is seen as a house in which all South Africans have come together under one big “karos”.  In contrast with Ferrus, the younger poet Ronelda Kamfer gives a much more uncompromising view of her own identity in the volume Noudat slapende honde [Now that sleeping dogs] (2008)The sense of identity experienced by her volume’s protagonist is fed by her experience of growing up on the Cape Flats and hearing her grandmother’s stories about her life as a farm labourer (“Die baas van die plaas” [“The boss of the farm”]).  In the poem “vergewe my maar ek is Afrikaans” [“forgive me but I am Afrikaans”] she contemptuously reclaims her identity and the language Afrikaans from the white Afrikaner men who were the Boogie Men of her dreams as a coloured child.  The use of the phrase “vergeef my” [“forgive me”] in the title of the poem, the references to her “childhood fear” and a possible psychological breakdown gives the reader a sense of the moral and psychological courage it requires to take back her Afrikaans identity from the men who have come to personify the system that oppressed her.  Underlying her sense of identity is a profound resentment and unease about the way in which she has suddenly become acceptable and is expected to ignore the past (see the title poem “Noudat slapende honde”). 

Yet another take on South African identity is presented in Bernard Odendaal’s debut volume Onbedoelde land [Unintendend/Unpromised land] (2007).  It gives a rueful reflection on an identity which the poet-narrator feels has become reviled and misunderstood in post-apartheid South Africa, namely that of the Afrikaner male who knows that he lost his power but still remains passionately attached to the (farm-)land and a store of memories which he cannot deny (the title of his volume is a reference to F.A. Venter’s Bedoelde land [Promised land], a novel which describes the arrival of the nineteenth century Voortrekkers in the land ‘intended’ for them in the interior of South Africa).  The volume reflects on the elements that formed his identity:  an idyllic childhood on a farm with a benignly patriarchal father figure and a history of which diverse elements (the assassination of Verwoerd, the death of a black friend in a political march, the far-off experience of the 1976 Soweto riots and being an army conscript) form part.  The poem “Gesog” [“Sought after”] paints an ironical self-portrait of the white male responding to his victimization in the discourses of postmodernism and post colonialism:  “die ganse postkoloniale/postmoderne projek / sou van stapel kwalik loop / sonder die stukrag van my haatlikheid” [“the entire postcolonial/post-modern project / would hardly have gotten off the ground without the impetus provided by my hatefulness”], he writes (Odendaal 2007: 55).  Whereas Odendaal’s sense of identity is strongly rooted in a rural past, Andries Bezuidenhout’s debut volume Retour [Return] (2007) presents an identity rooted in Afrikaner urbanisation.  When there is a reference to a family farm it is to one that the poet-narrator has never seen (“Ons ry iewers naby Ottersfontein verby” [“We are driving past somewhere close to Ottersfontein”]).  It is therefore not surprising that the volume almost aggressively foregrounds its urban context (an Eastblock style flat-building in Pretoria, a semi in Johannesburg) and also explores the histories of the cities Pretoria and Johannesburg.  Although Bezuidenhout’s volume evokes Afrikaner history, he distances himself from Afrikaner nostalgia for the past as well as from an overt optimism about the future of South Africa in the poem “Ons” [“We”].  He states explicitly that he considers himself a citizen of the world and a child of Africa, part of a generation who has had to pay the price for the political ideals of others (Bezuidenhout 2007: 35).

Language:  the focus on Afrikaans

Reflection on the making of poetry, on the possibilities of language as a medium and on the characteristics of the genre has been a constant and unfailing theme in Afrikaans poetry.  The rage for metapoetical reflections on the medium perhaps reached a high point in the last two decades of the previous century, often under the influence of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories of language.  Almost every poet who published in the past decade has reflected in one way or another on the art of writing poetry.  Afrikaans poets of the past decade have however also used their poetry to engage with their language’s history, its present and its future.  In the past Afrikaans has been both the language of the oppressor and the oppressed.  After 1994 the language lost its privileged status as one of only two official languages in South Africa to become one of eleven official languages, so that many have doubts about the sustainability of Afrikaans in the face of English becoming both the most favoured language and the lingua franca of the country. 

Afrikaans poets of the past decade commented on the history and status of Afrikaans from a variety of perspectives.  It is also clear that the position of Afrikaans elicits a range of complex emotions from its poets.  It includes elation about the fact that the language has been liberated from its privileged past, feelings of guilt about its implication in past injustices, pleas for its continued existence and anger about its expected demise.  At the beginning of the decade Antjie Krog stated that she derived a great sense of freedom and pleasure as a poet from the fact that Afrikaans found itself vulnerable after being cut off from state power (Christiansë 2000: 16).  Krog’s optimism is shared by Diana Ferrus who speaks from the perspective of the previously oppressed.  Her volume Ons komvandaan [Where we come from] (2005) sees Afrikaans as a language of reconciliation, stressing the fact that it originated from “die buik van Afrika” [“the belly of Africa”] and that it sings in a thousand voices despite the view that it was the language of the oppressor (Ferrus 2005: 18).  The poem “Kom ons praat weer Afrikaans” [“Let us speak Afrikaans again”] makes an empassioned plea for the renewed use of Afrikaans and for multilingualism in South Africa.  Daniel Hugo also describes Afrikaans as an indigenous language, a “minerale taal” [“mineral language”], originating in and purified from the ore of South Africa (Hugo 2009: 8). 

Other poets have been less inclined to see the positive side of the language’s diminished status and its declining ‘social capital’.  Amongst those who have poetically voiced their anxieties about the continued existence of the mother tongue in which they write one can cite Breyten Breytenbach, Lina Spies, T.T. Cloete and Clinton V. du Plessis.  In earlier years Breytenbach often reacted with bitterness against Afrikaans in its official and political incarnations and more than once announced his intention to stop writing in the language, but recently he has become a staunch defender of Afrikaans language rights.  Although his dark prediction that Afrikaans will become extinct in his lifetime were regarded by many as too pessimistic,3 it is consistent with his volume Die windvanger’s metaphoric references to the poet’s mother tongue as a “verworde taal” [“degenerate language”] and “‘n dooie taal” [“a dead language”] (Breytenbach, 2007: 128 & 137).  T.T. Cloete’s appeal to the hangmen of the shoa (Hebrew for destruction, catastrophe) to take into account the accomplishments of Afrikaans before they execute their sentence in his volume Heilige nuuskierigheid [Sacred curiosity], also suggests an apocalyptic view of the fate of Afrikaans (Cloete 2007: 141).  Taking another line of argument, Lina Spies suggests that Afrikaans is endangered by the cultural and moral laxity of its own speakers as much as by external factors in her volume Duskant die einders [This side of the horizons] (2004).  Yet another perspective is given by black Afrikaans poet Clinton V. du Plessis, who publishes his own work in pamphlet form.  The poem “die taal” [“the language”] in his volume gedigte, talk show hosts & reality shows [poems, talk show hosts & reality shows] (2009) is based on the template provided by Ingrid Jonker’s famous poem “Die kind wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga” [“The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga”] and also foresees the death of Afrikaans.  In an article titled “Fokofafrikaans, ‘n swanesang” [“Fuckoffafrikaans, a swansong”] Du Plessis recently withdrew himself from the language because of the continued marginalisation of black Afrikaans writers (Du Plessis 2010). 

Younger poets who made their debut in the past decade have also participated in the debates about Afrikaans.  Marius Crous’ volume Brief uit die kolonies [Letter from the colonies] (2003) reminds readers of the language’s colonial past and asks forgiveness for the fact that it was used in the execution of inhuman policies in the poem “Vergifnis” [“Forgiveness”].  The poem predicts that it will become extinct like a prehistoric animal because it is unsuited for Africa.  In contrast with this Danie Marais sees the language Afrikaans as wonderfully wild, untamed and dangerous (the killer whale in his bathtub, the anaconda in his livingroom) when he has to face life in a depressingly over-regulated Germany in his volume In die buitenste ruimte [In outer space] (Marais 2006: 44).  In his second volume Al is die maan ‘n misverstand Danie Marais stresses the futility of writing poetry, especially in Afrikaans which is a minor language in comparison with the “King Kong” of English (Marais 2009a: 115).  In yet another perspective on the past, Loftus Marais’ debut volume Staan in die algemeen nader aan vensters [Generally stand closer to windows] (2008) recalls a time in which Afrikaans enjoyed certain privileges as an official language.  The poem “Oorgeklank” [“Dubbed”] subtly evokes the ideological subtexts of the practice of dubbing German and American television programmes into standard Afrikaans. 

Peter Snyders rejects the criticism that the non-standard variety Kaaps stereotypes coloured people in the poem “Ek is siëker Die Bruinmense” [“I must be The Brown People”] in the volume Tekens van die tye [Signs of the Times], insisting on using his own variety of Afrikaans which he calls “die moedertaal se basterkind” [“the mother tongue’s bastard child”].  Reminding the reader of prejudices against this non-standard variety of Afrikaans and its speakers, he hints at the fact that he was (maybe still is) considered a “volklose mens” [“nationless person”] because of his use of this “unofficial taal” (Snyders 2002: 19).  Loit Sôls continues to use “Goema”, a vernacular mix of Afrikaans and English, as instrument of poetic expression in his second volume Die faraway klank vanne hadeda [The faraway sounds of a hadeda] (2006).  The poem “Goema II” (Sôls 2006: 16) makes an argument for languages that are not fixed and will accommodate connection with other language groups.  In contrast with poets like Snyders and Sôls, Ronelda Kamfer, who also writes about the working class living on the Cape Flats in her debut volume Noudat slapende honde (2008), does not make use of a non-standard variety of Afrikaans.  She defiantly takes back Afrikaans from the white patriarchs who regarded it as their exclusive property in the poem “vergewe my maar ek is Afrikaans” [“forgive me but I am Afrikaans”]. 

Socio-political commentary

Unlike Crous (2009a: 200) who writes that “in the late 1980s most Afrikaans poets chose not to include the discursive elements associated with political oppression in their work”, I believe that political oppression and the fight for liberation were significant themes in Afrikaans poetry throughout the 1980s (especially in the struggle poetry produced by black Afrikaans poets like Peter Snyders, Clinton V. du Plessis, Hein Willemse, Patrick Petersen and Marius Titus as well as in the work of white poets Breytenbach, Antjie Krog, Barend Toerien and Fanie Olivier).  An overview of the poetry written in the past decade shows that the trend to reflect on socio-political issues continues, albeit with new emphases and nuances. 

Two volumes which voiced opposing ideological positions were published in 2000, the first year of the new decade:  the anthology Nuwe verset [New resistance] and Antjie Krog’s Kleur kom nooit alleen nie.  The poems in Nuwe verset (edited by Daniel Hugo, Leon Rousseau and Phil du Plessis) were contributed by a wide range of poets and painted a largely dystopic view of the new dispensation, focusing on reverse racism, renewed racial exclusion, crime, corruption, unemployment, poverty, gangsterism, the position of Afrikaans, AIDS and environmental issues.  In contrast with this Antjie Krog’s volume Kleur kom nooit alleen nie [Colour never comes on its own] directs its attention at the necessity of making amends for the apartheid past and pursuing the transformation of South African society. 

Looking back on the Afrikaans poetry written in the past decade, it appears as if the anthology Nuwe verset, rather that Krog’s volume, set the agenda for the way in which Afrikaans poets would engage with socio-political issues beyond 2000.  Political verse in this decade deals mainly with the subjects listed above:  crime (especially farm murders), urban degeneration, unemployment, environmental decline, unemployment, poverty, moral degeneration, AIDS, inverted racism and corruption.  One of the most comprehensive attempts at dealing with socio-political problems in post-apartheid South Africa can be found in Louis Esterhuizen’s volume Liefland [Beloved land] (2004).  The fourteen poems in the volume’s second section deal with topics such as the poverty that which leads to drug abuse and prostitution, rape, gangsterism, murder (in townships, suburbs and on farms), homelessness and vagrancy.  Also included in the volume is the cycle “Elegie vir ‘n vaderland” [“Elegy for a fatherland”], a lyrical lament which addresses the fatherland of all victims, whatever their race may be, and expresses a profound loss of hope.  Bernard Odendaal’s volume Onbedoelde land [Unpromised/Unintended land] (2007) also addresses corruption and crime in post-apartheid South Africa, whereas several poems in Johannes Prins’ volume Een hart [One heart] (2009) comment on the detached way in which journalists and poets deal with the phenomenon of violent crime.  The poem “verse” [“poems/heifers”] in Prins’ volume juxtaposes the poet’s attachment to his poems to that of a farmer for his heifers that were mutilated by stock thieves by playing on the ambiguity of the Afrikaans word “vers” which can refer to poems or heifers.  Barend Toerien and Hennie Aucamp write about the decaying social fabric of the city Cape Town:  several poems in Toerien’s final volume Die huisapteek [The medicine chest] (2002) describe poverty and vagrancy in Cape Town (see “Triptiek” [“Triptych”]) and Hennie Aucamp’s volume Hittegolf [Heatwave] (2002) paints an almost apocalyptic picture of a city consumed by veld fires and the heat of its own moral dissolution (see “Stad op hitte” [“City in heat”]).  Breyten Breytenbach’s volume Die windvanger (2007) also comments on the socio-political ills of post-apartheid South Africa, but his poems are less explicit, more lyrical and surreal in their references to bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption.

Poet Danie Marais (2010: 6-7) recently commented on the incapacity or unwillingness of Afrikaans poets to deal with the fears and prejudices surrounding race after 1994 in the same way that Afrikaans novels like Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat and Eben Venter’s Horrelpoot [Trencherman] do.  Marais mentions a few names, but does not really give credit to the way in which black Afrikaans poets like Peter Snyders, Julian de Wette, Loit Sôls and Clinton V. du Plessis have engaged with the issue of race in the past decade.  Snyders includes several poems on the marginalisation of certain racial groups in post-apartheid South Africa in his volume Tekens van die tye [Signs of the times], amongst others the poem “Monochrome riënboognasie” [“Monochrome rainbow nation”] which concludes with the lines:  “ons wil ‘n bietjie kleur / innie wit en swart riënboog sit” [“we want to inject some colour / into the white and black rainbow”] (Snyders 2002: 48).  Julian de Wette writes extensively about the position of South Africans of mixed racial descent in his volume Tussen duine gebore [Born amongst dunes] (2002), especially in the poems “Teeltkeuse” [“Breeding choice”] and “Boorlinge sonder etnisiteit” [“Indigenes without ethnicity”].  PJ Philander does not hesitate delving into South Africa’s painful history of racism in his volume Trialoog [Trialogue] (2002), for example in the poem “Roomhoring” [“Cream horn”] in which he gives instructions about who should receive his organs after his death (his kidneys to a nanny, his liver to a farm labourer doomed by the dopstelsel, his eyes to a white man so that he can see what the world looks like through the eyes of a man with a brown skin, etc).  In his turn Loit Sôls writes about the irony of a white man who suddenly wants to co-opt and include him in the racism directed at black people by using the word “ons” [“we”] (Sôls 2006: 62).  These examples show that black Afrikaans poets have not side-stepped the problem of race in their poetry.  The same poets have been equally vociferous in their poetic condemnation of poverty, unemployment, corruption and crime in post-postapartheid South Africa. 

The use of indigenous cultural material

A literary strategy that can be partly related to socio-political developments in the past two decades is the publication of poetic reworkings of indigenous material.  Revisiting the history and cultures of South Africa’s indigenous peoples became a general trend in South African literature and academic studies in the 1990s.  Afrikaans poetry of the past decade formed part of this interest shown by other literatures in South Africa. Poets Hans du Plessis and Thomas Deacon published the first volumes in which they use Griqua Afrikaans and Griqua themes in the 1980s and 1990s and continued to do so after 2000.  Du Plessis published three volumes in which he transposed Biblical material into Griqua Afrikaans in the past decade:  Innie skylte vannie Jirre [In the Lord’s shelter] (2001), Boegoe vannie liefde [Buchu of love] (2002) and Hie neffens my [Here next to me] (2003).  The three volumes were best-sellers, possibly because they are reworkings of the Bible’s most poetic and best-loved passages (Psalms, Song of Songs, 1 Corinthians 13) and evoke the image of the Griqua people as devoutly, almost naively, religious.  Although Du Plessis is a skilled poet, the serious reader misses an element of self-reflection in these volumes.  The poet does not give any indication that he is conscious of the implications of using or appropriating the voices of previously disadvantaged peoples and of portraying them in a one-dimensional way.4 There are no explanatory notes that frame or contextualise the project;  the glossaries mostly give the meaning of Griqua words and Griqua culture is only explained in one or two instances.  Although it has been said that Thomas Deacon is a less accomplished poet than Du Plessis (Odendaal 2006: 114), his reworking of Griqua material in the volume Maagmeisie. Griekwa-stemme [Virgin girl. Griqua voices.] (2003) is less troubling than that by Du Plessis.  Deacon presents his volume as a representation of Griqua voices and attributes the different parts of the volume to different Griqua speakers (a narrator and a variety of characters that take part in the initiation of the young girl).  The inclusion of explanatory notes helps to contextualise the volume, placing the poet in the position of an outsider sharing information with the reader, rather than posing as an insider. 

Antjie Krog is faced with the same problems in her volume Kleur kom nooit alleen nie in which she includes the voices of the indigenous inhabitants of the Richtersveld in the section “ses narratiewe uit die Richtersveld” [“six narratives from the Ricthersveld”].  Although one could argue that Krog appropriates the voices of others for her own poetic purposes in this cycle, ‘ownership’ of the voices is clearly indicated through the use of the names of those quoted in her poetry.  The voices are also set off against her own so that it remains clear where her voice ends and an indigenous voice begins.  Krog’s use of indigenous material also extended to the reworking or translation of the /Xam material, collected by Bleek and Lloyd in the nineteenth century.  Her first engagement with this material formed part of a larger project to translate verse from the indigenous languages of South Africa into Afrikaans in Met woorde soos met kerse [With words as with candles] (2002).  In 2004 Krog published further reworkings of /Xam material, both in Afrikaans (die sterre sê ‘tsau’) and English (the stars say ‘tsau’).  This proved highly controversial:  poet-academic Stephen Watson (2005) accused Krog of plagiarising his own reworking of the same material in the volume Return of the moon (1991) and for having “a tin ear” when it came to reworking the /Xam material into English.  Although one could argue that Krog’s two publications clearly acknowledge the fact that the material was originally produced by five /Xam individuals, that it was only “selected and adapted” by Krog and that Krog’s reworkings form part of a long tradition dating from the 1920s of which Watson himself forms part, it is clear that the use of the cultural material provided by indigenous and formerly oppressed peoples remains problematic.  Some argue that it constitutes an unfair appropriation of previously disadvantaged people’s cultural goods whereas others feel that these reworkings circulate cultural material that would otherwise have become lost. 

Universal themes

During the past decade Afrikaans poets did not only react to the immediate socio-political environment in which they produced their poetry.  Their poetic production was also driven by a wide range of universal concerns of which the following was thematically the most significant:  the body, the environment, death and mortality, family matters and intertextual connections.  It must be conceded that there is an element of arbitrariness in this choice of themes for discussion because a variety of other themes and issues, like gender, history, religion, travel and migration, also feature in the poetry of the past decade. 

The body:  wounded, violated, erotic, ageing, dead

Although it is by no means a new theme in Afrikaans literature, the poetry written in the past decade shows an ever more candid focus on the body, whether it be the wounded, violated, erotic, ageing or dead body.  Antjie Krog’s volume Kleur kom nooit alleen nie (2000) uses various images of the wounded and scarred body to give physical embodiment to the trauma experienced in the course of South African history.  Images of the Richtersveld landscape as a wounded body segues into the second section of the volume, titled “Wondweefsel” [“Wound tissue”], which focuses on the pain suffered during the Anglo Boer War as well as the apartheid era.  In her turn Carina Stander focuses on the body wounded by violent crime in her debut volume Die vloedbos sal weer vlieg [The mangrove will fly again] (2006).  In the poem “Credo II” she explicitly states:  “ek skryf om heel te skryf / want my hele wese weersin geweld” [“I write to heal / because my whole being repulses violence”].  She uses a series of vivid images for the bodies violated by sexual crimes like rape and the abuse that often goes with prostitution in the section with the evocative title “Karkaskaal” [“As naked as a carcass”]. 

A significant section of the love poetry written in the period 2000 to 2009 focuses on the erotic body.  Important here is the work of poets like Breyten Breytenbach, Antjie Krog, Marlise Joubert and Carina Stander. Both Breytenbach and Krog have long had the reputation of being the foremost poets on erotic love in Afrikaans.  Thus it comes as no surprise that Breytenbach’s Die windvanger includes a section of erotic poems, “Die hart se dinge” [“Things of the heart”], in which a surrealist and dreamlike atmosphere is combined with an emphasis on concrete bodily detail. Krog’s Kleur kom nooit alleen nie (2000) also includes a section of poems based on paintings by Marlene Dumas, Walter Battiss and Picasso in which the erotic body is evoked to explore power relationships between men and women, between artists and their models, between writers and the written whereas the erotic body is honoured in a series of “marital songs” in Verweerskrif [Body Bereft] (2006)Marlise Joubert’s volume, Lyfsange [Body songs] (2001) is a celebration of the body in the erotic interplay between man and woman (see for example “Lapis lazuli”).  The emphasis is on the female body, admired and desired by the male, as in the poems “bedding” [“(flower) bed”] and the poem “oorsprong” [“origin”] which appropriates Courbet’s famous painting “L’origine du monde” to describe the lover’s gaze.  Carina Stander’s above-mentioned volume Die vloedbos sal weer vlieg also focuses on the erotic body in the lushly worded love poems in the section “Ewenaar” [“Equator”].  

The homoerotic poetry written by Hennie Aucamp, Marius Crous, Loftus Marais and Johann de Lange also celebrates the (male) body.  Aucamp’s volume Hittegolf [Heat wave] (2002), subtitled “Wulpsesonnette” [“Lewd sonnets”], describes various iconic figures in a series of Shakespearean sonnets.  Several of these sonnets describe the male nude in such explicit detail that they become the verbal equivalent of nude painting or photographs.  The body is also a prime focus in the love poems in Loftus Marais’ debut volume Staan in die algemeen nader aan vensters (2008), although it seems as if he responds to Aucamp’s explicit rendering of the male body by deliberately not describing the private parts of the lover’s body, otherwise rendered in great detail in the poem “Die anatomie van M” [“The anatomy of M”].  Johann de Lange’s volume Die algebra van nood [The algebra of distress] (2009) focuses on the detail of bodily experience in situations like taking drugs, cruising, having sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and witnessing a corpse.  The almost obsessive contemplation of the dead body was worked out a few years earlier in Marius Crous’ second volume Aan ‘n beentjie sit en kluif [Picking a bone] (2006), which deals with the trauma of the beloved’s death by exploring the relationship between erotic desire and feelings of revulsion for his beloved’s corpse (see the poems “Bed 1” and “Bed 2”).  Concrete details about the decaying body and images of abjection also feature in several poems in an attempt to come to terms with the death of the beloved.   The volume concludes with another kind of focus on the body, namely the body either indulging in or withdrawing from food. 

The poets of the past decade also turned their gaze on the ageing body.  De Lange evokes the body weathered by age in the poem “Wabi-sabi” (a reference to the Japanese aesthetic which celebrates the beauty of imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness) and finds beauty in the approachability of the imperfect body (De Lange 2009: 110).  Antjie Krog’s volume Verweerskrif [published in English as Body bereft] (2006) also takes up the “aesthetic of the imperfect body” in poems focusing on the ageing and menopausal female body.  The volume’s daring use of a David Goldblatt photograph of the torso of a naked and aged female body on its cover and its explicit versification of the bodily experience of ageing and menopause sparked great controversy amongst Afrikaans- and English-speaking readers.5 Her deliberate use of transgressive language breaks the polite silence around female bodily experience (menstruation, menopause), but can also be seen as part of the poet’s despair at the difficulty of writing the (aged) body.  Lucas Malan paints mocking self-portraits in which he details the bodily deterioration that age brings in poems like “Genepoel” [“Gene pool”] (Malan 2002: 17) and “Bestek: 2009” [“Reckoning: 2009”] (see Nieuwoudt 2010: 13).  I.L. de Villiers’ volumes Jerusalem tot Johannesburg [Jerusalem to Johannesburg] (2005) and Vervreemdeling [Estrangement/Stranger] (2008) also describes the poet’s aged body in concrete detail, viewing it with disbelief and distaste as if it were that of a stranger in the poem “‘n Ou man klim uit die bad” [“An old man climbs from his bath”] (2009: 65). 

The environment, earth, landscape

Apart from the poems in which an explicitly political content is given to the concept ‘land’ (such as Krog’s poems about landownership in Kleur kom nooit alleen nie and Odendaal’s poetry about the Afrikaner’s relationship to the land in Onbedoelde land), the environment, the earth and the landscape are also themes dealt with by Afrikaans poets in the past decade.  The concern for environmental matters first gained prominence in Afrikaans poetry in the 1990s and was continued beyond 2000, most notably in the work of Johann Lodewyk Marais, Lucas Malan and Martjie Bosman.  Marais became one of the foremost proponents of the environmental thematic in Afrikaans poetry, continuing his own work from the 1990s (his work on the anthologies Groen [Green] and Ons klein en silwerige planeet [Our small and silvery planet] as well as his own volume Verweerde aardbol [Weathered earth])in the decade after 2000 in the volumes Aves (2002) and Plaaslike kennis [Farm/rural/local knowledge] (2004).  The largest part of Aves is devoted to a ‘poetic encyclopaedia’ on birds but the volume also deals with themes like Darwinian evolution and poetry as a way of conserving that which is in danger of becoming extinct.  Plaaslike kennis covers a wider thematic terrain, including poems that reflect specifically on the problems of rural development. 

Several poems in Lucas Malan’s volume Afstande [Distances] (2002) anticipate an ecological disaster of apocalyptic proportions.  The poem “Kuslangs: groen gedagtes” [“Along the coast: green thoughts”] takes disfiguring developments that grow like fungus against coastal slopes as point of departure for imagining a future in which Gaia will split open to destroy all that man has so perversely created during the course of his evolution.  The feeling in more than one of Malan’s poems is that man has outstayed his welcome on earth and will eventually be dismissed from the planet.  Martjie Bosman’s volume Landelik [Rural] (2002) shows the same concern with humankind’s impact on the planet.  In contrast with Malan however, she imagines Gaia playfully slipping away from underneath the markings on Mercator’s map of the earth in the poem “Kartografie” [“Cartography”], thus escaping humankind’s efforts to dominate, regulate and categorize her. Bosman’s poems also reveal an acute awareness of the ecological and social violence implicit in the mere act of living one’s life.  The poem “By die sondagmiddagmaal” [“With the Sunday midday meal”] enumerates everything and everyone that has been impacted or violated in the process of preparing the meal.

Rather than being explicitly concerned with environmental matters, Ilse van Staden’s poetry has an elemental quality in the sense that she built the two volumes she has published thus far around three of the natural elements, namely water, earth and air.  Her debut volume Watervlerk [Water wing] (2003) describes the human being as bound to the earth, but longing to be able to function in the mediums of water and air (thus the title’s reference to wings of water).  Her second volume Fluisterklip [Whispering stone] (2008) places the emphasis on the medium of earth or stone, building up to the conclusion that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hear what the earth is whispering because of the strained breathing and incoherent speech caused by environmental pressure (Van Staden 2008: 50).  Heilna du Plooy explores the relationship between body and landscape in her volume In die landskap ingelyf [Embodied in the landscape] (2003).  The poet-narrator in the cycle of poems “Landskapsiklus” [“Landscape cycle”] tries to enter the landscape in order to paint it, realising that it involves becoming an embodied part of the landscape as well as of the country South Africa.  There is a play on the word “ingelyf” which means incorporated into or inducted (as a member), but is also used in its literal sense of being a body inside the landscape and the country as political and historical entity. 

Ageing, mortality and death

Apart from poems that take the subject of death and dying into the political domain (as in the poems that comment on violent crime), there is also a substantial body of poetry in which death is dealt with as a private matter.  The term “gerontological poetry” has been coined by critics with reference not only to the poetry produced by poets of an advanced age, but also to their thematic concern with ageing, mortality and death.  A significant number of poets either in their seventies or eighties were still productive in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The grande dame of Afrikaans poetry, Elisabeth Eybers, published her last volume Valreep/Stirrip cup (Afrikaans poems with English translations by the poet) in 2005 at the age of 90.  Eybers turns her characteristically ironical gaze on approaching death in this volume, quite unmoved about what lies ahead:  “”You’re leaving all behind / and facing firm, emphatic emptiness”, she says in the poem “Résumé” (Eybers 2005: 7-8).  Other poets that belong to this group are Barend Toerien, T.T. Cloete, Pirow Bekker, Dolf van Niekerk, PJ Philander, MM Walters and I.L. de Villiers. 

Barend Toerien’s volume Die huisapteek [The medicine chest] (2001) ponders death in the wry and humorous style that Toerien became known for:  he wonders what his relations will do with his body after his death in “Kodisil tot my testament” [“Codicil to my will”].  T.T. Cloete takes stock of his life in the volume Heilige nuuskierigheid [Sacred curiosity] (2007), using the image of an astronaut hovering in the atmosphere of a planet, itself toppling through space in the poem (Cloete 2007: 126-131).  Pirow Bekker’s earlier focus on illness, mortality and death is continued in the volumes Stillerlewe [Stiller life] (2002) and Van roes en amarant [Of rust and tumbleweed] (2008).  Dolf van Niekerk’s volume Nag op ‘n kaal plein [Night in an empty square] (2006) is constructed around the experience of a narrator who moves between reality and dream as he confronts figures from his past and from his unconscious when he finds himself in the empty square of the small town in which he was born.  M.M. Walters pursued the satirical and argumentative mode of his earlier work in the volumes Sprekende van God [Speaking of God] (1996) and Satan ter sprake [Discussing Satan] (2004) in which the existence of both God and Satan is questioned.  The only thing that comforts him as skeptic at the end of his life is his faith in the written word. 

Breytenbach continues his almost obsessive concern with the theme of death from his debut volume onwards in Die windvanger, merging it with the themes of erotic love and the writing of poetry as before.  One of the preoccupations of Die windvanger is a pondering of the meaning and value of the poet’s life in the face of approaching death.  Although younger than the ‘gerontological’ poets and more transgressive in her approach, Antjie Krog builds on the work of her predecessor Elisabeth Eybers in her poems on ageing in Verweerskrif [Body bereft].  Several poems highlight the way in which society marginalises the menopausal or older woman.  A young poet who also takes mortality and death as dominant theme is Sarina Dönges.  The title of her debut volume In die tyd van die uile [In the time of the owls] (2004)predicts its preoccupation with the dream-like atmosphere of the night as well as premonitions of death.  Dönges’ poems also explore the links between eroticism and death (as in the poem “Die dood as minnaar” [“Death as lover”]) as well as the grim reality of death in poems about friends who have died. 

Also popular in Afrikaans poetry of the past decade is the funerary poem in which the deceased person is addressed, praised and lamented.  Joan Hambidge’s Lykdigte [Funerary/obituary poems] (2000) consciously employs the structures of classical funerary poetry and oration, with its use of elements like praise (laus), mourning (luctus) and consolation (consolatio), to reflect on the death of personal friends, poets and global celebrities.  The volume includes an epitaph for herself in which her “verse oor die dood” [“poems about death”] is seen as her most important contribution (Hambidge 2001: 39). Lucas Malan also devotes certain sections of his volumes Afstande [Distances] (2001) and Vermaning [Exhortation] (2008) to funerary portraits of deceased writers, friends, family members and even pets.  Other volumes describe the death of a beloved in an attempt to come to terms with the trauma of the experience.  Petra Müller’s Die aandag van jou oë [The attention of your eyes] (2002) is built in its entirety around the death of the poet-narrator’s husband, using poetry as a means of healing.  Henning Pieterse sets up a dense symbolic construction based on the myth of Bluebeard’s castle as well as Bartok’s opera based on the same material to engage with the trauma of his wife’s suicide in the volume Die burg van Hertog Bloubaard [Bluebeard’s castle] (2000).  As in the case of Müller’s volume, writing poetry is perceived as an important means of recovering the presence of the beloved and finally of dealing with the loss caused by her death, to the extent that Bluebeard’s castle becomes a metaphor for the volume itself.  Other examples of volumes constructed around the death of someone close are Trienke Laurie’s Uitroep [Cry/outcry] (2001) and Marius Crous’ Aan ‘n beentjie sit en kluif (2006). 

Family matters

Family relationships have always been an important theme in Afrikaans literature.  Most prominent in literary excavations of the Freudian family romance is undoubtedly the relationship with the father, because of the different father figures present in the strongly patriarchal South African society.  Afrikaans poets of the past decade have not given up pursuing family relationships as thematic resource, with the father again featuring prominently in their work. 

Barend Toerien’s volume Die huisapteek [The Medicine Chest], published in 2001 when the poet was 80 years old, shows that old age does not necessarily resolve painful family relationships.  Several poems recall the poet-narrator’s difficult relationship with his father (using descriptions like “die nors een” [“the surly one”] and “die kwaai man” [“the bad-tempered man”]) as well as a child’s guilty dreams about murdering his father.  The poet-narrator’s reminiscences also pictures the father’s confidence as chairman of the Party in the midst of “die ooms” (an Afrikaans word than can refer to adult men as well as to uncles), thus linking the father with the patriarch of Afrikaner nationalism in the 1930s in poems like “Die egodokument” [“The ego document”] and “Tafereel, met kersieboord” [“Tableau, with cherry orchard’].  Zandra Bezuidenhout’s poem “Die middag van die ooms” [“The afternoon of the uncles”]in the volume Dansmusieke [Dance Music] portrays the confidence of farmers and the sons who will inherit their farms on their Sunday afternoon visits from the perspective of shy adolescent girls, hinting at the social arrangements and sexual tensions inherent in a patriarchal society (Bezuidenhout 2000: 62-3).  In contrast with Toerien’s volume the Afrikaner father, framed by the farm, is lovingly remembered in Odendaal’s volume Onbedoelde land (2007) as well as Gilbert Gibson’s volumes Boomplaats (2005) and Kaplyn (2007). 

The cycle of poems “Langnagvure” [“Longnightfires”] in Louis Esterhuizen’s volume Sloper [Demolisher] (2007) uses mining metaphors to tell the story of the protagonist Egbert’s tempestuous relationship with his miner father and his struggle to forgive him for perpetuating the cycle of family violence.  The complex relationship between father and son (shot through with ambivalent feelings of reproach, longing and regret) is also a constant in Johann de Lange’s poetry.  He again takes up this theme in his 2009 volume Die algebra van nood with the poem “Pa” [“Father”] and “Petidiendroom” [“Pethydine dream”] in which he dreams that his father offers him drugs in an attempt at reconciliation, but that he cannot find a place to use.  Ronelda Kamfer evokes a variety of abject father figures (unemployed, jailed, homeless, abusive, drunk, unresponsive) in her poem “Pick ‘n Pa” [“Pick a Dad”] in Noudat slapende honde (2008).  In contrast with Kamfer’s dispassionate and laconic style, Jeanne Goosen’s poems about her family take on an almost surrealist atmosphere.  Goosen’s volume Elders aan diens [On duty elsewhere] (2007) represents a poet-narrator hovering on the edge of psychological breakdown and paints the picture of a well-loved but dysfunctional family, amongst them a father who smells of gas in the afterlife because he committed suicide (2007: 35) and a sister who has eggbeaters for hands (2007: 15).  Other poets who try to unravel the complexities of the Freudian family romance in their poetry are Joan Hambidge, Danie Marais and Loftus Marais.

Intertextual connections, conversations and rivalries

The tendency of poets to establish intertextual connections and engage in intertextual conversations and rivalries is by no means new or limited to specific literatures.  Thus Afrikaans poets of the past decade, like poets everywhere, felt the need to establish connections with other poets in an attempt to foster poetic solidarity, to stimulate their growth and bolster the substance of their own work.  They also re-write the work of other poets in order establish their own poetic identities and to assert themselves as rivals of poets and trends that they perceive as outdated.  The following examples constitute but a small sampling of this trend in the poetry published between 2000 and 2009. 

The trend is especially marked in the work of poets who made their debut in the past decade.  Gilbert Gibson, who published his first volume in 2005, conducts intricate intertextual conversations with a range of Afrikaans poets, most notably N.P. van Wyk Louw, D.J. Opperman and Breyten Breytenbach, in his second and third volumes Kaplyn (2007) and Oogensiklopedie (2009).  He also establishes connections between his own work and that of a wide variety of writers from other literatures, like Allen Ginsberg, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges.  Danie Marais is another member of the generation of debut poets of the past decade whose work makes use of a substantial number of references to local and international poetry, to popular (especially rock) music and to a variety of films.  The tendency to live vicariously through texts produced by others is cited in one of the poems as an important reason for the break-up of the poet-narrator’s marriage with his German wife who asks him stop quoting her things (Marais 2006; 71).Neither Gibson nor Marais create the impression that they want to ‘do battle’ with their predecessors or fellow poets.  The intertextual references in their work have the function of making them part of a larger community of writers on whom they can rely for inspiration; it also demonstrates their knowledge of a writerly tradition larger than just that of the local language Afrikaans.  Like many Afrikaans poets, they seem inclined to foster links with a global literary system rather than with the literatures in other South African languages.

In contrast with Gibson and Marais, debut poet Loftus Marais does create the impression that he wants to challenge poetic predecessors like Van Wyk Louw and Opperman in his volume Staan in die algemeen nader aan vensters (2008).  In “Die digter as rockstar” [“The poet as rockstar”] he subverts the example set by Louw:  in stead of the chisel that Van Wyk Louw used as symbol for the poetic word in his classic poem “Die beiteltjie”[“The little chisel”], Marais wants to wield a “fokken lugdrukboor” [“fucking jackhammer”] in his poetry.   In the poem “‘n Pleidooi vir vinniger kuns” [“A plea for quicker art”] Marais takes issue with Opperman’s well-known poem “Digter” [“Poet”] in which he uses the image of an exile who painstakingly builds a ship in a bottle.  Marais’ poem argues for a rapid form of art that will contradict the careful craftsmanship suggested by Opperman’s image and concludes with the poet converting the ship-in-a-bottle into a petrol bomb which he hurls at the reader. 

A poet who often works in the intertextual and citational mode is Joan Hambidge who published four volumes in the past decade.  By way of example one can cite her most recent volume Vuurwiel [Fire wheel] (2009) which includes a section titled “Toespelings” [“Allusions”] in which she re-writes, questions or parodies well-known Afrikaans poems as well as texts from other literatures.  Rivalry lies on the level of content rather than form:  she fills pre-existing forms with unexpected content (Van Wyk Louw’s poems about a heterosexual love affair become lesbian love poems in Hambidge’s re-writing) and her parodies honour the work of her predecessors as much as they mock or debunk it. 

The diversity of Afrikaans poetry

In his preface to the anthology Groot verseboek André Brink claims that the variety of voices, perspectives and themes in Afrikaans poetry written after 1990 make it difficult to generalise or identify one or two general trends.  Diversity has become the one characteristic of Afrikaans poetry, he writes (Brink 2008: xvii).  His view is largely confirmed by the Afrikaans poetry published in the first decade of the new century.  Looking back over the period 2000-2009 there seems to be little need for pessimism about the genre.  Afrikaans poets have abundant opportunities to publish their work and they can still rely on a relatively robust literary system in which their work will be reviewed, discussed, awarded, canonised and introduced into school and university syllabuses.  Despite fears to the contrary younger poets regularly publish volumes although the hope that the writers of lyrics will become part of the system of Afrikaans poetry has not realised.  The most promising and provocative lyrics (for instance those written by the group Fokofpolisiekar) have so far not been published in a form that bridges the gap between the so-called elitist sphere of poetry and popular culture.  The diversity of the system is also maintained by the fact that the move towards writing more accessible poetry has not precluded the publication of more complex varieties of poetry. 

Despite this largely positive view of the current state of Afrikaans poetry, one must concede that Afrikaans poetry remains relatively insular.  Afrikaans literature’s move towards participation in the larger national and international contexts seems more difficult to realise in the case of poetry than in the case of the novel.  Although some Afrikaans poets have gained exposure in the Dutch literary world because of the close connection between the two languages, fewer poets than novelists are translated from Afrikaans into English and other international languages.  Poets themselves try to bridge the gap between the local (the Afrikaans literary system) and the global by building intertextual connections with other literatures in South Africa and the larger world.  These provisos notwithstanding the Afrikaans poetry produced in the first decade of the new century constitute a remarkably diverse and vibrant body of work. 

Louise Viljoen
University
of Stellenbosch

 

Notes

1  Keller (1997: 2-3) describes the “long poem” as a “generic hybrid” and gives a partial list of the formal varieties that may be included within the ambit of the term:  “Narrative poems, verse novels, sonnet sequences, irregular lyric medleys or cycles, collage long poems, meditative sequences, extended dramatic monologues, prose long poems, serial poems, heroic epics”. 

2  Many Afrikaans writers of mixed racial descent find the use of the term coloured (“kleurling”) racist and offensive because of its association with the history of oppression in South Africa.  They therefore made a deliberate ideological choice to refer to themselves as black Afrikaans writers in the eighties, thereby placing themselves and their writing in the political arena.  The use of the term and the debates around it still persist. 

3  An Afrikaans newspaper reported on 24 March 2010 that seventy year-old Breytenbach predicted that Afrikaans will become extinct in his lifetime in an interview on Talk Radio 702 (Fourie 2010: 1). 

4  For further reflection on this practice, see Britz (2001: 6), Van Zyl (2001: 9) and Viljoen (2003). 

5  An Afrikaans reader like Spies (2006) found the cover repulsive and the poetry unbearably explicit;  an English reader like Gray (2006) found the English version of the volume lacking in sophistication and poetic quality. 

 

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Note: This article was recently published in Current Writing at the UKZN, English Department, 2012. A shorter version was also published in the book SA Lit:  Beyond 2000,  University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011. The article is published here with the kind permission of Michael Chapman, Margaret Lenta & the author.

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