Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews

I have a complicated and uneven relationship with poetry. There are times when it has felt so close and urgent and essential. At other times, like now, it seems distant and difficult and inconsequential. When I’m feeling like this, the deluge of submissions we receive at Aerodrome, the online literary journal I edit, seems all the more bewildering.

Every year we receive hundreds of submissions from a demographic so wide that it cuts across every ethnic, gender, cultural, and class line imaginable. And
geography too: we’ve had poems from Malamulele, Mafikeng, and Richards Bay; from Hong Kong and the US and Iraq. Why do all these people, from around the world, put pen to paper?

Hang on, though. Let’s start with me. Why have I written poetry? I think back to the schlock I wrote as a teenager, when poetry was a way of admitting feelings I felt too afraid to admit anywhere else, when it felt as if writing a poem were the only way of coping with those feelings. Later, in my early 20s, I participated in poetry workshops because I thought the form’s preoccupation with the level of the sentence might improve my writing generally, while its emphasis on imagery might help me to avoid clichés.

George Orwell once instructed: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print”, and by straining really hard for fresh, striking images perhaps I could get better at putting that advice into practice in my prose. 

It became about more than mere craftsmanship, though. Unlike prose, poetry isn’t about telling a story or conveying a narrative. Its ambitions are both
smaller and weightier — to honour, to capture, or simply to attempt to understand a moment, a feeling, a space, or an idea — taking life’s raw, bewildering, and sometimes traumatic material and hewing this into an
orderly sequence of words; a transformation that’s been often satisfying, sometimes liberating — and occasionally revelatory.

But enough about me. I asked my own poetry mentor, Finuala Dowling, who has three award-winning collections under her belt, why she writes poetry. “It
allows me to say what I’m not allowed to say in any emails, meetings or daily conversations,” she replied. “It lifts the veil on what I have been hiding. It calms me. I can give strictly economical form, pattern, and sometimes beauty to otherwise chaotic thoughts. It keeps me company. I can reach out to an invisible audience, saying something simple and deeply human, like: ‘I feel this way: do you feel this way?’ Poetry is, always, Kafka’s ‘axe to the frozen sea within’, for both poet and reader.”

Dowling has judged plenty of poetry competitions and, as Aerodrome’s poetry editor for almost four years, has been responsible for choosing which poems we publish on the site. Many of these submissions give her the impression “that sometimes poetry is mistaken as an ‘easy’ genre, a place where you can dump your unprocessed, dully abstract or numbingly clichéd words for your readers (which readers?) to make sense of, using skills you yourself do not possess.

“I get a sense of entrants just slapping down on the page something that sounds like something they once heard being described as poetry,” she told me. “A bad poet will say ‘I am sad’, but give no life to that sadness, perhaps out of coyness. A bad poet thinks that poetry is a quick road to literary fame; that it can be churned out using the same tired old tropes over and over again. But poetry makes demands, some of them, admittedly, elusive.” She encourages aspirant poets to think about their readers. “Write for others. Subject your work to more rigorous editing; scour every word and every line for evidence of posturing and mendacity. Finally, know that not to read poetry, not to buy poetry, but to expect others to read or publish yours, is a sin.”

The poet and publisher Nick Mulgrew told me that poetry “does a lot of things for one’s psyche, whether through catharsis, expression, or just playing”.
While mainstream publishers in South Africa have largely shied away from publishing poetry recently, the 26-year-old Mulgrew’s uHlanga Press has released nine collections since 2014, with more on the way.

“I publish poetry because poetry, like any art form, has unique ways of exploring and illuminating ourselves and society, and without it being available to people, ourselves and society are poorer for it,” he says.

It’s encouraging that another new imprint, Dryad Press, was established by Michèle Betty and University of Cape Town creative writing professor Joan Hambidge this year; while Mzwakhe Mbuli — “the People’s Poet” — has founded the Mzansi Poetry Academy, which will be offering poetry classes from its base in Joburg’s CBD. Clearly, poetry is here to stay.

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