Travelling without a visa
It seems to me that all writing comes from a place of resistance inside – an urge to resist the norm or the status quo, to resist what’s expected of one, what’s gone before, what’s taken for granted. There’s a very good reason why Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’ or Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’ are such popular poems – because they dared, in their time, to crack open a stereotype and throw the bits away.
And, of course, more than other writers, poets are wonderfully disobedient to the rules of grammar ordinarily observed in prose and ordinary speech. Line breaks, fragmentary sentences, ambiguities, illogical turns, metaphors, puns, rhymes, half-rhymes – all of the mischievous, spontaneous stuff that is frowned on or avoided in other types of discourse is waved through as ‘poetic licence’. For poets, the boom is permanently up. It’s like being allowed to travel without a visa: you go further and see more.
I might seem like an unlikely candidate to speak about disobedience. After all, the first prize I received was for diligence. As a child I was small and quiet – teachers thought I was ‘good’ and ‘cute’.
That wasn’t how I saw myself inside. I had a desire to break out and speak in my own voice, to let people know who I really was. I suppose my poem ‘I am the Zebra’ is a bit of autobiography along those lines.
My poetic voice as it developed – conversational, with elements of dialogue, quirks and humour – was a disobedient response to the types of poetry being written in South Africa at the time – either ‘veld and vlei’ (nature) poetry or the kind of protest poetry that baldly cries out against wrongs. Both were serious modes.
I think all poets are disobedient children of their poetic forebears, saying: ‘you wrote like this, but see how different my poems are’. But like all children, we can’t quite throw off where we come from; we can’t deny our lineage; we can’t deny our debt to it.
Despite everything I’ve said, I don’t believe entirely that writers are ‘disobedient’. (‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself’.) I think most successful poets (and some successful novelists) have a capacity for profound obedience, allowing themselves to be dictated to by an inner voice that possesses them, takes them over, hypnotises them. Which is poetic licence again. You can always say, as an excuse, ‘The muse made me do it.’
(This blog was inspired by my participation in the panel ‘Poetry and Disobedience’, chaired by Robert Seatter, at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2014.)
Finuala Dowling is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies, University of Cape Town. Her first poetry collection, I Flying, was published in 2002 and won the Ingrid Jonker Prize. Her second collection, Doo-Wop Girls of the Universe, was joint winner of the Sanlam Prize for poetry, and her third, Notes from the Dementia Ward, won the Olive Schreiner Prize. Her first novel was What Poets Need, followed by Flyleaf, and then Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart for which she won 2012 M-Net Literary Award (English category). Her most recent novel The Fetch was released in 2015.