Friday, October 27, 2006

Let's not make poetry difficult...?

In 1999, the Zimbabwean writer, Nhamo Mhiripiri wrote a signifcant essay on Marechera’s poetry. As a starting point it is of some interest. But is it rather partial…if not odd in the stance that it takes. The essay begins by saying that the “unitiated” should not be put off by the fact that Marechera’s poetry is “inaccessible”. Clearly, Mhiripiri counts himself as one of the elect, in which case his comments are addressed to the many who cannot access Marechera’s poetry. This opening stance troubles me because it already canopies Marechera with the term “inaccessible”. It is off-putting, though Mhiripiri’s essay is rather about including as many readers as possible in the Marechera experience: an admirable intention. This approach, seemimngly, begs a question: Is Marechera “difficult”? He is no more difficult than Christopher Okigbo (who requires an African-European perspective on poetry). He is less difficult that Robert Duncan (who presuppose a massive metaphysical knowledge). He is no more outrageous than Edward Kamau Braithwaite (who delights in intellectual puns). He sometimes equals the crafted lyricism of Osundare. He is more accessible than Christopher Middleton (the major exponent of surrealism in English). He is not as obscure as John Ashberry. He does not rely on personal allusions like Pound. He plays games with linguistic registers—“That curdled the spunk of negritude”— but is not as extreme as Edwin Morgan in interdicting the formalities of speech. Yes, Marechera is difficult—for poetry is difficult—but this cult of difficulty is something of a blind.
When reading Marechera, to overcome the hurdle of impenetrable meaning, Mhiripiri recommends an interesting critical practice: don’t worry about the hard stuff, yet don’t be lazy and unprepared to take a challenge. This, I find, a strange approach to poetry (if not life). On one hand, I am supposed to exclude what I don’t understand! But how can I know this until I have read, felt, researched…experienced it? On the other hand, I must not like what is easy…what I read, sense, know at a glance! But how do I rise above this into the ranks of the elect?
Mhiripiri says: “Pick up the poems that attract you.” And there the problem really begins. So Throne of Bayonets is just too difficult to bother with and “Christmas 1983” is just too simplistic (or so it might be claimed). And what I might be attracted to might not be the most fulfilling poetry. I must search for the middle ground. I understand what Mhiripiri is saying…the middle ground is always the best way for inclusion…it is the way that most teaching of poetry in schools goes…it is the level at which popular academia likes to write…the level of the lecture and mass communication. It is where poetry ends up when teachers don’t really want to teach it and pupils don’t really want to experience it.
Not surprisingly, given his critical stance, Mhiripiri’s reading of Marechera is fairly bland. It comes under four main headings: Nationalism/politics; Voids/existential despair; Harare/intellect; Voices/humour. This gives a cartoon of Marechera: he has an outside and an inside, is emotional, but funny…a bit of an all rounder…who is damn difficult! But worth reading, if you can find poems that you like. Mhiripi’s choice of Marechera reveals a lot about Mhiripiri. He is drawn to the early poetry and wants to make Marechera into an African poet, you know, one of those who writes about the fight for freedom— a poet with political commitment, who lives for the outside world! (How we so love our World War Poetry in the English tradition, all struggle and conscience…how well we ignore Lowell and Levertov because they objected to war or HD who wasn’t a real participant! She only wrote the first feminist analysis of the patriarchal psyche; if only she had been content to drive an ambulance through the Blitz in London instead!) “Pledging my Soul” is given a wonderful Romantic reading about how Marechera loved Zimbabwe’s breast-like landscapes, even though Marechera was sceptical about the great Romantic Image and English poetry. “Boyhood has its satisfying innocence” says Mhiripiri as if Marechera’s poem was something out of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Marechera no more favoured political heroism than he did anything superficial. Mhiripiri writes interestingly on “Comrade Dracula Joins the Revolution”, a difficult poem, though one whose criticism of politics almost escapes him, and so it enters the field of the middle-ground on which the mind can battle happily. When it comes to existential despair, Mhiripiri has no real time for Marechera. He wants to read the poetry, again, as a despair about Zimbabwe, even though a poem like “Characters from the Bergfrith” touches Oxford as much as Harare. Mhiripiri might not like the “cheapening of religious structures” in Marechera’s poetry. For Marechera, however, they were part of the individual’s problem. And in this respect, Mhiripiri wilfully misreads Marechera, removing the caverns inside the individual so as the flat lands of politics might become the ground for Marechera’s upset mind. It is a sort of hospitalisation of Marechera, who suffered, though not too greatly, a sanitisation that once more aligns Marechera with the poets most admired and needed by Mhiripiri's Africa: those who attacked colonialism and post-colonialism, but didn't know much about the individual psyche and how that connected to the future, communal psyche.
At the conclusion of his essay, Mhiripiri is right: the reader should read Marechera by bringing his or her whole being into the reading process. But that is an odd statement, considering that he recommends a reading experience that only requires the reader to engage with what they are happy with. It is rather like advising the reader to perform a dive into 30 centimetres of water! And finally, Mhiripiri urges the reader to celebrate life in poetry in spite of “anguish and loneliness”. Unfortunately, what he makes an apology for is rather what life is about—certainly was for Marechera.


Unsane said...

Very interesting! Thank you for that analyses (Do you know where I can get a copy of the critique made by Mhiripiri?). Yes -- it is funny, isn't it, I mean in the stingjay sense, the way that the articulation of pain is seen to imply failure or antisocial intent. I don't mean necessarily just with Mhiripiri, and I'm not certain he does imply that "pain is failure" (and consequently should be overlooked, in a direct way.

Recently, I read something in a article about Bataille, which resonated strongly with my take on Marechera (and yours as well, I can see).

It said:

“Lucretius describes man's pleasure at witnessing the storm which imperils others from the solidity of the philosophical shores, a position in many regards analogous to what Bataille, in "Corps celestes," called the error of "stationary earth". But, in answering the various philosophers who had questioned him during [a] discussion, Batailled reverses the image: "Placed before you, I feel myself to be the contrary of him who tranquilly watches the dismasted vessels from the shore, because in fact, in spite of everything, I cannot imagine anyone so cruel that he couuld notice the one who is dismasted with such carefree laughter. Sinking is something altogether different, one can have it to one's heart's content." Bataille's cogito, thus, reads: "I sink therefore I am."

In the violent expenditure of self, man must "perceive that he breathes in the power of death" (Corps celestes," 5:20 [78]].This philosophical raft of the Medusa is the allegory of a thought that has left behind the world we live in, the philosophical world of the exercise of thought, of thought as exercise, for the world we die in, the world of thought as awakening. A thought which sustains itself beyond the loss of the subject, when thought keeps going even after its subject has been spent. Expenditure here is not so much an object to be thought of, as it is the mode of thought when there is no subject left to think it. Thinking expenditure, for a subject, means first of all thinking of a scene from which he has been evacuated. It means to push self-sacrifice at least to the point of the loss of ego, entering a space where the ego, having become expendable, is endowed with the glory of not being there."

P138-139 Denis Hollier, The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille.


The quote above implies, for me, the complete situatedness of the human condition in such a way that it IS pain or "sinking". These aspects are not extraneous from humans.

Unsane said...

And most interestingly, I read in Black Sunlight, Marechera's corruption of Augustine. Aug himself states: "the nature of God [i]s a circle whose centre is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere."

For Marechera, it is death which has these properties.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Thank you for the interesting analysis and tantalizing introduction to Marechera.

eshuneutics said...

"I sink therefore I am"...that is very witty! A true Beckettian credo that one.

Hi, Marechera truly is tantalizing. That is just the word for him--just when I think I have understood something, I realise that I have scraped the surface.

Id it is said...

Not a dent in that one! Brilliant analysis.