Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Transcolonial Metapoetry in South Africa

Stephen M. Finn

The poetic process, the act of composition, cannot be defined in a way that will satisfy all poets, as the degree of inspiration and sweat, the intention behind the writing, the desire to salve the soul or be a social seer, differs from poet to poet, from poem to poem. With Arthur Nortje, aspects of a particular poem come to him laboriously and also flash painfully upon his psyche:

I peer through the skull's black windows
wondering what can credibly save me.
The poem trails across the ruined wall
a solitary snail, or phosphorescently
swims into vision like a fish
through a hole in the mind's foundation, acute
as a glittering nerve.

("Waiting" - FG83)

[The key to the abbreviations of collections of poetry can be found in the bibliography (primary sources) after each entry.]

Don Mattera views the art of creativity as one that takes him over; he is the medium through which a poem insists on being born:

Thumping deep, deep
I feel a poem inside
Wriggling within the membrane
Of my soul;
tiny fists beating,
beating against my being
as it tries to break
the navelcord,
crying, crying out
to be born on paper.

deep, so deeply
I feel a poem,
inside ...
("I feel a poem ..." - M4)

These are obviously metapoems - poems about poetry, a subgenre linked to other metatexts, such as metafiction.

Like other metafiction as considered by Schlueter (1979:3), the metapoem is "supremely aware of itself as artifice and is unabashedly self-reflective." Metapoetry is self-declaratory in showing itself to be tackling issues of whatever nature head on, be these issues the art of composition, or the thematic indulgence of the poet; in other words, it refers to poetry that talks about itself. However, the thesis of this paper is that metapoetry goes further than merely writing about writing: in the poet's acknowledging that s/he is producing an artefact, s/he is also stating that it is subject to certain personal, relational, social or political contingencies and exigencies that inform its whole existence, and could well be used as a weapon or tool in pursuing the writer's objectives. The South African metapoem is embedded in both the poetic and socio-political structures of what is generally considered to be the postcolonial conditions of the country. If colonial writing is taken as referring to the period in a country before independence, and postcolonial as indicating the time after liberation, then terminology in South Africa poses something of a problem as the country, independent since 1910, is still in the grips of what amounts to a racial oligarchy. A problem also exists in the view of Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (1989:2) in their incisive study, The Empire Writes Back, in which they consider that the term postcolonial covers "all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day," and add:

What each of these literatures has in common beyond their special and distinctive regional characteristics is that they emerged in their present form out of the experience of colonisation and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasising their differences from the assumptions of the imperial centre. It is this which makes them distinctively postcolonial.

I find difficulty with this terminology and especially when applied to South Africa. Most of these poets do foreground "the tension with the imperial power," but the later poets, and particularly the contemporary ones, regard this power as the government of apartheid. "Postcolonial," no matter what it is defined as referring to, essentially gives the impression of the overthrow of the colonial. This is palpably not the case linguistically anywhere, and particularly in South Africa, linguistically or on other levels. The major former occupying power might have been physically removed, but another is still hanging on. The term "postcolonial" becomes a misnomer in that it lends a false impression to the socio-political as well as the cultural state. Mzamane (in Goddard and Wessels 1992:46) holds that the term "neocolonial" in this case would be apposite. However, as South Africa is both independent and colonized on an internal level, I would prefer to use the term "transcolonial" when referring to the writings in English of any South Africans, as this gives the impression of a transitional time, a crossing over between two periods (in this case between European imperialism and an internal control of the country); it also reflects the term (derived from chemistry) referring to atoms on the opposite side of a plane, which raises the point of most of the poets being outspoken in their opposition to the status quo.

Although Nkosi (1981:76) does stretch the truth somewhat in saying that "with very few exceptions the literature of Southern Africa is wholly concerned with the theme of struggle and conflict" (emphasis added), this concern does play the major role in any South African literature, and most of all in the writing of the past thirty years or so, which describes and comments on the "conflict between the white conquerors and the conquered blacks, between white masters and black servitors, between the village and the city" (Nkosi 1981:76).

Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (1989:5) point out that in the imperial period, the literate elite writers' prime identification is with the colonizing power. The white South African metapoets still often take this kind of approach. Even if they decry the regime, the injustices, the horrors, they do so ambivalently from the point of the privileged racial group. The poets are the "we," the oppressed are the "they." In "Could You not Write Otherwise?" (FG28-29) the liberal and genteel Alan Paton reveals that even though he is driven involuntarily to write about the suffering of the blacks, he is an outsider to such suffering; ironically, at the very point when he insists on this, Paton exposes himself to be inextricably bound to the romantic tradition - something he rejects early in the poem - by taking imagery from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan":

But the deep notes and the undertones
Kept sounding themselves, kept insistently
Intruding themselves, like a prisoned tide
That under the shining and the sunlit sea
In caverns and corridors goes underground thundering.

In contrast, the black poet Peter Abrahams links himself totally to the suffering of his people:

A poet could not but share in your joy -
What of tomorrow's pain and want:
The tears of a poet and the joys of a poet
Are a mother's tears and a mother's joys.
("Spring in a Coloured Woman" - FG38-39)

The white writers, whether they like it or not, are linked to the colonizers opposing the colonized, what Dorsinville (1974) sees as the dominating society as against the dominated one. The white poet, no matter how much s/he tries, cannot speak for the oppressed, because to do that s/he "must suffer with them, rejoice with them, work with them, fight with them" (Thomson 1946:65). Few of the white metapoets have been prepared to "suffer with them"; among the exceptions are Jeremy Cronin and Peter Horn.

Amuta (1989:176) makes the point that in capitalist societies, "written poetry is . . . the exclusive preserve of the intellectual arm of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes," with such poetry being "primarily addressed to members of the same class and their approximations." This is true in South Africa for most metapoets, and even much black writing has been directed at a white readership to get the dominating class to change its attitudes. The irony, of course, is that such poetry is read by the converted anyway. The danger is that if a poet adopts the role of mystic or orphic messenger, bearing tidings of the grief and suffering of his/her people to others, "the outsiders hear and understand you (perhaps), but your own people wonder what's going on, what the jabbering is all about" (Chinweizu, Jemie & Madubuike 1983:241). James Matthews is confronted with this problem in "they say" (Cii162-163), in which he mentions that others consider that the writing of poetry "at / this stage / of our struggle is / absurd" and that his neighbours do not even read what he has written. Similarly, in "The Voices that are Dead" (CD146-147), Achmat Dangor remarks that the songs of the black poets are heard "in the great white halls" only,

but are not heard
by the cowherd who treads
his unknowing peace,
nor is it heard
in the ashen townships
where soon your memory
will flit unlovingly
from one darkness to the next.

Nkosi (1981:1) foregrounds the anomaly of Africans (and, by implication, others who have been colonized) having to use the language of their colonial masters to assert their right to self-determination. He comments:

. . . the rhetoric of political demand they adopted was better understood in Europe among both rulers and the common people, than among the African masses for whom, presumably, the demands were being made. (Nkosi 1981:1)

This paradox is highlighted rather "poetically" by Mphahlele (1984:89):

First there was slavery, then colonial conquest followed. Prospero taught us his language. But he administered the knowledge in small doses, never sure about the limits of his own magical power, sometimes startled by his Caliban's growing impertinence and hidden native strength.

The language of the imperialists and the "impertinence" and "native strength" are combined in Walter Nhlapo's "The Revolution Song: 12 Dec 1936" ((FG33), with its preponderance of incongruous and outdated vocabulary and constructions, such as "'Tis," "Hark," "ye," "'twill," "dusky braves," forced syntax to allow rhyme (all showing a probable mission school education), combined with a call for revolt and unity:

Go across the deserts and the sea,
And sing, 'Blackmen shall be free!'
Go everywhere beneath the sun
Join all black souls into one.

The goal of African writers should be the appropriation of English. They should not be reticent, defensive or even ashamed in using their vernacular, their colloquialisms or sociolects in aggressively formulating a new English, bound to Africa and both socially and academically acceptable as an African language in its own right. This view is in line with that of Cronin (1985:26) who contends that

poetry has been used by the African poets of the last decade to 'nationalise' the English language: that is, to transform the English language - one of the colonial languages - into a language expressing the emergent culture and aspirations of the majority of South Africans.

The proposed African English will allow poetry, indeed any literature, to be available to the wider community (cf. Nwoga 1973:27).

Little published poetry originally stems from "that spontaneity of relationship between the poet and his live audience which was the norm in the oral tradition of all societies" (Amuta 1989:176; cf. also Antjie Krog's comment in Coetzee & Polley 1990:130). Of all the metapoets examined in this paper, Lesego Rampolokeng is the only one who obviously writes with the oral experience primarily in mind. His rap poetry, with its definite beat, off-the-top rhyme and spontaneity is evidently always performed first before a live audience. It is, thus, both "dict" and "script" (cf. Schipper 1989:64), and falls into the area of topical and political songs, according to the taxonomy put forward by Finnegan (1970). Like Paton and Horn before him, Rampolokeng adopts a persona in his poem, "letter" (R2), with his being told, in "good" South African English (of which Cronin might be proud):

ag man polemics is mos nie poetry . . .
make the poetry and stop the politics . . .

However, Rampolokeng does regard his poetry as politics:

i remain my people's transmitter
this is the reason for my presence . . .
("rap 20" - R31-32)

This sense of being one with the public is a concrete example of the African heritage (cf. Chirikure 1991), art for the African always having been a community activity rather than "a matter for private contemplation" (Barnett 1985:35). What is peculiar, however, is that very few people, possibly nobody, in Rampolokeng's audience has English as a home language, thus entrenching the sense of alienation and estrangement. One wonders if such poetry in the language of the colonizer does in effect fulfil its social function optimally (cf. Ngara 1985:46).

The socio-political climate of the South African situation has determined that many poets, and the majority of black poets, speak with the public voice. Any writer with a sense of social responsibility cannot escape from this (cf. Kgositsile, in Goddard & Wessels 1992:85). It is, in effect, what Nkosi (1981:ix) sees as the carrying out of a social task. In his requiem for Duma Nokwe, "A Luta Continua" (FG75-76), Keorapetse Kgositsile emphasizes this role of the poet in bringing the people together:

If you sing of workers you have praised him
If you sing of liberation you have praised him
If you sing of peace you have praised him . . .

Don Mattera underlines this in "The poet must die . . ." (M61), in holding that the role of the poet is to start a revolution against the authorities of oppression: "If their lies are to survive / The poet must die . . ." And Lesego Rampolokeng explodes:

i'm a glittering spectacle
to baffle the censor tentacle
i come like a release
from the repression disease . . . ("rap 31" - R55)

African literature should not be viewed merely from a Western critical perspective: the house of Africa is burning and it is possibly the writer's prime task to help douse the flames in order to ensure the social and cultural survival of his/her people. The introspection, the masturbation of the individual soul, must take second place if need be. Admittedly, that most unpolitical poet Douglas Livingstone disagrees:

The Poet's or Playwright's Function
Is to embark physically
Upon the Consciousness of his Generation;
Not merely as the Conscience
Of his Time ....
("Giovanni Jacopo Meditates (on Aspects of Art &

Love) - Ci210)

On the whole, however, the metapoems show that writers realize their responsibility in attending to socio-political demands. Chinweisu, Jemie and Madubuike (1983:252) insist that the writer, as a public voice, should "not preoccupy himself with his puny ego." But poetry is an egoistical pursuit on whatever level, whether the poet is interested in his/her own internal rumblings or sees him/herself as publicly committed: it needs a strong ego for the writer to see him/herself as the instigator of action, as the salve of the nation, as the redeemer of the people.

This is not found among the most oppressed group of writers in South Africa: the women, in whose metapoems a sense of alienation, rejection and inferiority is found. Isabel Fannin Barker is one who experiences this:

My Muse is all of moonlight still and cold,
No Shakespeare glints of song make music bursts ...
When at the Lyric spring my wild heart sips,
I think, Cannot I join them in their song?
("Lyric Poetry" - L68)

This feeling of inadequacy is not surprising considering the male-centred structure of society. Lauretta Ngcobo (in Granqvist & Stotesbury 1989:52) contends:

It is true that male writers have little regard for women's writing, for all sorts of reasons. They often label our work as 'domestic,' 'confessional' and 'private.'

This is revealed in Roy Campbell's male chauvinistic mocking of women novelists:

You praise the firm restraint with which they write -
I'm with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where's the bloody horse?
("On Some South African Novelists" - C176)


Far from the vulgar haunts of men
Each sits in her 'successful room,'
Housekeeping with her fountain pen
And writing novels with her broom.
("On the Same" - C176)

In her "Lament" (L139-140) about not being able to write well, Adele NaudŽ answers Campbell in a way that underlines her feeling of female inferiority:

Since Campbell's cantered down the gamut
Of the dictionary's course,
I must needs trot when I would gallop
Even when I've found a horse.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And if my spring dries on the shelf,
Choked with the dust of uneasiness,
It is because I find myself
A dumb, wordsworthless poetess.

Women believe that men despise their efforts. Their social experience is different, their efforts are belittled, and they are designated as "poetesses," implying a certain effeteness. This is possibly why nearly all South African anthologies include merely a token number of women writers: the anthologists are nearly always men, who might have their own agendas and not be affected by women's interests.

Even the contemporary ANC activist Sankie Dolly Nkondo allows herself to fall for male terminology, reflecting the idea that strength is a male prerogative: "I am a mere soldier-poet / the poet that be man and soldier . . ." ("Voices from the Trench" - N14-17). In "Simple Mind" (N69) she proclaims:

The kind of poet I want
is the one who writes simply . . .
he must write about explosions
enumerate the names of guns . . .
[emphasis added]

The feeling of being considered unimportant as a poet because of gender comes not only from male, but also female, attitudes. Jennifer Davids touches on this point in her "Poem for my Mother" (CD98):

That isn't everything, you said
on the afternoon I brought a poem
to you hunched over the washtub . . .
A poem isn't all
there is to life, you said . . .
and my words
being clenched
smaller and

Although some metapoems are concerned with the inner being, and others touch on the idea of love, the major themes of such writing are related to the socio-political, the concerns being suffering and revolt, the moral evils of apartheid and the hope for triumph over them. The feeling is horror, bitterness and anger. The desire is to record injustices, call for solidarity, and achieve dignity. There is certainly a dichotomy between white and black writers. The former do write about aspects other than the socio-political at times; the latter do not. The whites are always on the outside looking in, commenting generally from a secure position, wringing their hands in despair, but powerless in doing so. The blacks, on the whole, are increasingly furious and see their poems as a means to bring their people together and overthrow their oppressors.

But is this not a chimera? White poets might think so. Joan Hambidge (in Brown & Van Dyk 1991:36), for instance, asks whether literature ever could "change the world," and Douglas Livingstone (in Brown & Van Dyk 1991:40) sees literature as not playing much of a role in South Africa in the future, "as usual." In "Notes from No Sanctuary" (Ci242-243), Keorapetse Kgositsile seems to agree in talking about the impotence of his poem, but another black writer, Nise Malange (in Brown & Van Dyk 1991:45), brings a different perspective, considering literature as having an influence; it has been used, for example, "for the mobilisation of the masses." Lewis Nkosi (1983:164) says somewhat idealistically:

Writers . . . ought to be the eyes and ears of the revolution. Because of its peculiar relations to ideology, literature at its best is able to provide us with unique insights into historical conditions. It is thus a form of knowledge; but its materials, including language, are ideological, and literature achieves its power over us by working these ideological values into something fresh and startling.

The question is, however, whether any poem has ever overthrown a government, or even, as Chris Mann remarks, "set the hurrying world to rights" ("The Poet's Progress" - G350-351). On the other hand, performed poetry, which in essence is aimed not at the intelligentsia and the literary elite but at the proletariat, can be regarded as helping bring people together and unite them in hope: "i write to fight," says Lesego Rampolokeng, "to make a dark land bright" ("rap 31" - R53).

Whatever poets say must have some sort of effect on the reader or listener, something Peter Horn understands in his metapoem, "Poems at Bargain Prices" (Cii190):

Poems? You want poems? We got poems! . . .
Poems to make you dream . . .
Poems which will disturb you . . .
You do not want to hear these poems?
They will come to you nevertheless.

The culture of the colonizers in South Africa has been assimilated to a large extent, attempts have been made to reject it, but now in the transcolonial phase there should be the endeavour to form a national literature fusing all traditions and heritages. This could be where poets writing about their work in future will be heading.

University of Pretoria


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