Louis Esterhuizen. Klaptong van die liriese vers


Die vraag word dikwels geopper of die liriese vers in staat is tot sosiale kommentaar en die aktualiteite wat daarmee verband hou; dikwels met ‘n gevoel van “Nee”, as gevolg van die eksplisiete geneigdheid van so ‘n betoog en die gevolglike inboet van poëtiese resonansie. Ook tydens die onlangse Dansende Digtersfees was daar ‘n besonder interessante gesprek wat onder andere oor die kwessies van morele verval en hoe dit in die digkuns reflekteer word, gehandel het.  Die vraag wat sentraal gestaan het, is hoe skryf ‘n mens ‘n liriese vers vanuit die posisie van “evil”, soos Carolyn Forché daarna verwys het. Uiteraard is Adorno se beroemde – en dikwels skeef aangehaalde – uitspraak oor Auschwitz en die onmoontlikheid van poësie onder die vergrootglas geplaas. (As voorbeeld van hoe ‘n liriese digter ‘n vers oor die “boosheid” kan pleeg, het Forché haar kragtige gedig “The Colonel” voorgehou.) Ook Dan Pagis se aangrypende gedig “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car” wat in haar bloemlesing Against Forgetting (1993: WW Norton) gevind kan word:


here in this carload

I am eve

with abel my son

if you see my other son

cain son of man

tell him that i


© Dan Pagis (Vertaal deur Stephenn Mitchell)


Nietemin, dié gesprek het my onwillekeurig herinner aan James Fenton (foto), loshande een van my gunsteling Britse digters. Veral vanweë sy gedig “A German Requiem”.  Hoe die skrikwekkende kwessies van ons verknoeide samelewing deur dié liriese digter hanteer word, bly vir my na soveel jare nog steeds ‘n bron van aspirasie; soos dit ook gevind kan word in die onderhoud wat Robyn Creswell verlede jaar met Fenton gevoer het vir The Paris Review, No. 96.

Maar eers, by wyse van agtergrond: James Fenton is bekend as oorlogsverslaggewer, librettis, garnaalboer, drama-kritikus, digter en ook voormalige Oxford Professor of Poetry. Die veelsydige geskakeerdheid van dié digter word goed raakgevat deur Creswell in sy openingsparagraaf: “Fenton was born in Lincoln, in northern England, in 1949. He attended the Chorister School, Durham, where he sang in the choir. He went on to read psychology, philosophy, and physiology at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1968, he won the university’s Newdigate Prize with a sequence of sonnets and haikus on the opening of Japan. The theme was set by the prize committee, but the history of Western imperialism in Asia became one of Fenton’s abiding interests (as did questions of poetic form). Five years later, having joined the Trotskyite International Socialists, Fenton used the prize money from another poetry award to go to Cambodia. He found work as a journalist, moved to Vietnam, and reported the fall of Saigon with evident satisfaction, famously riding the first North Vietnamese tank into the compound of the presidential palace.”

Oor die kwessie van sang en die liriese toon, die volgende:

Creswell: Song has an important place in your own poetry. In your Introduction to English Poetry you write, ‘Poetry itself begins in those situations where the voice has to be raised . . . The voice is raised, and that is where poetry begins.’ What are the consequences for poetry when you think about it in this way?

Fenton: When I wrote that, I was probably thinking about my time in the rural Philippines. One of the advantages of running a prawn farm is that you meet interesting people. I knew this guy who was illiterate, but, probably by virtue of being illiterate, he had preserved the oral form of Filipino poetry, whose rules are quite complex. For example, the last word of the first line of a poem must rhyme with the penultimate syllable of the second. The whole poem is in couplets, of a sort. And this is an improvised poetry. If there was a drinking session and somebody important had arrived, this poet might be called on to ad-lib some appropriate words. The first thing he did was produce a special raised voice that went with his improvisation. It was a voice that could be heard at the back of the room. This is something that that kind of village bard has in common with the street vendor.

Creswell: You say that the raised voice, the sung word, is essential to poetry. On the other hand, there’s a long tradition that says otherwise. John Stuart Mill thought that lyric poetry is not heard, but overheard. The reader listens in on the poet talking to himself. That’s Mill’s definition of the lyric—not a raised voice, but a private one. 

Fenton: I wonder what exactly he was thinking of. Because lyric poetry is, of course, musical in origin. I do know that what happened to poetry in the twentieth century was that it began to be written for the page. When it’s a question of typography, why not? Poets have done beautiful things with typography—Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, that sort of thing. But now we are left with people who write only for the page, who feel that a poem is something very far from performance.

Maar genoeg hiervan. Gaan lees gerus die volledige onderhoud by The Paris Review; ‘n wonderlike, wydlopende gesprek oor ‘n swetterjoel aangeleenthede.

Waarop ek eintlik jou aandag wil fokus, is ‘n aantal van James Fenton se gedigte wat as voorbeeld kan dien van presies hoe ‘n liriese digter hom met eietydse tema’s kan bemoei sonder om ‘n politieke vlag (of vaandel) daaroor te laat wapper.

Hieronder volg vier voorbeelde.




One man shall smile one day and say goodbye. 

Two shall be left, two shall be left to die. 

One man shall give his best advice. 

Three men shall pay the price. 


One man shall live, live to regret. 

Four men shall meet the debt. 


One man shall wake from terror to his bed. 

Five men shall be dead. 


One man to five. A million men to one. 

And still they die. And still the war goes on. 


Blood and Lead 

Listen to what they did.

Don’t listen to what they said.

What was written in blood

Has been set up in lead.


Lead tears the heart.

Lead tears the brain.

What was written in blood

Has been set up again.


The heart is a drum.

The drum has a snare.

The snare is in the blood.

The blood is in the air.


Listen to what they did.

Listen to what’s to come.

Listen to the blood.

Listen to the drum.



The moon is sharp on the blade.
The dew shines on the hill.
The heart bleeds dark
And my men lie still.

The heads on the palisades
Dried in the wind so black
Call out to the venturing foe:
Turn back, fool, turn back.

Here snores no feasted clown
Who has drunk disgrace with his wine.
Here drools no amorous dupe
In the lap of his concubine.

Here watches a bitter pride
In exile lonely and long.
He serves an unjust lord.
He endures a continuing wrong.

One watches. One endures
On the ramparts, on the towers,
The laughter of the stars,
The taunts of the small hours.

Who sweeps my ancestors’ graves?
Who holds the reins for my son?
Will my dog still come to my call?
Does my wife sleep alone?

I serve an unjust lord.
Exile is an early tomb.
The heart bleeds dark.
Death is a journey home.

By the bright dew on the hill,
By the sharp blade of the moon,
I shall wake my grieving men.
I shall make that journey soon. 


A German Requiem


It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.

It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.

It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.

It is not your memories which haunt you.

It is not what you have written down.

It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

What you must go on forgetting all your life.

And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.

You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise.

Yesterday the very furniture seemed to reproach you.

Today you take your place in the Widow’s Shuttle.


The bus is waiting at the southern gate

To take you to the city of your ancestors

Which stands on the hill opposite, with gleaming pediments,

As vivid as this charming square, your home.

Are you shy? You should be. It is almost like a wedding,

The way you clasp your flowers and give a little tug at your veil. Oh,

The hideous bridesmaids, it is natural that you should resent them

Just a little, on this first day.

But that will pass, and the cemetery is not far.

Here comes the driver, flicking a toothpick into the gutter,

His tongue still searching between his teeth.

See, he has not noticed you. No one has noticed you.

It will pass, young lady, it will pass.


How comforting it is, once or twice a year,

To get together and forget the old times.

As on those special days, ladies and gentlemen,

When the boiled shirts gather at the graveside

And a leering waistcoast approaches the rostrum.

It is like a solemn pact between the survivors.

They mayor has signed it on behalf of the freemasonry.

The priest has sealed it on behalf of all the rest.

Nothing more need be said, and it is better that way-


 The better for the widow, that she should not live in fear of surprise,

The better for the young man, that he should move at liberty between the armchairs,

The better that these bent figures who flutter among the graves

Tending the nightlights and replacing the chrysanthemums

Are not ghosts,

That they shall go home.

The bus is waiting, and on the upper terraces

The workmen are dismantling the houses of the dead.


But when so many had died, so many and at such speed,

There were no cities waiting for the victims.

They unscrewed the name-plates from the shattered doorways

And carried them away with the coffins.

So the squares and parks were filled with the eloquence of young cemeteries:

The smell of fresh earth, the improvised crosses

And all the impossible directions in brass and enamel.


‘Doctor Gliedschirm, skin specialist, surgeries 14-16 hours or by appointment.’

Professor Sarnagel was buried with four degrees, two associate memberships

And instructions to tradesmen to use the back entrance.

Your uncle’s grave informed you that he lived in the third floor, left.

You were asked please to ring, and he would come down in the lift

To which one needed a key…


Would come down, would ever come down

With a smile like thin gruel, and never too much to say.

How he shrank through the years.

How you towered over him in the narrow cage.

How he shrinks now…


But come. Grief must have its term? Guilt too, then.

And it seems there is no limit to the resourcefulness of recollection.

So that a man might say and think:

When the world was at its darkest,

When the black wings passed over the rooftops,

(And who can divine His purposes?) even then

There was always, always a fire in this hearth.

You see this cupboard? A priest-hole!

And in that lumber-room whole generations have been housed and fed.

Oh, if I were to begin, if I were to begin to tell you

The half, the quarter, a mere smattering of what we went through!


His wife nods, and a secret smile,

Like a breeze with enough strength to carry one dry leaf

Over two pavingstones, passes from chair to chair.

Even the enquirer is charmed.

He forgets to pursue the point.

It is now what he wants to know.

It is what he wants not to know.

It is not what they say.

It is what they do not say.

© James Fenton (Uit: New Selected Poems, 2006: Penguin)



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