A volcano in the night of oppression

Reflections on the poetry of Mongane Serote

by Peter Horn

Brother, I come like a storm over the veld

A lot of South African poetry is pure form, it is in fact so pure in its formalism that if one looks for any content at all, one has the greatest difficulty to find it. There is, as Nietzsche has seen, wisdom in remaining on the surface, and the cult of form is the cult of the surface. Those who dive beneath that surface get burned easily, and their revenge on life is to falsify its image. Through that kind of art human beings become art to such a degree, become surface, patterns of sound and light in such a way that one no longer suffers when looking at them. But they also become a nothing. This art is thus the pure form of nothing. And since "nothing" cannot have a form, the most intricate form disintigrates into the formlessness of rising hot air. These poems remember nothing and nobody: "When educated people talk, / Its like waiting in a queue / And the bus does not come" (Y 49). It certainly doesn't seem to stop at "black" busstops. And the intellectual bus is astonished if one of the passengers like James Mathews abuses it: "You white motherfuckers", when it happily went its intricate and introspective way, carefully avoiding the muddy, pot-holed roads of townships and reserves, not even noticing the killing of the student leader Tiro, who had been blown apart by a bomb in Botswana during the Poetry '74 congress in Cape Town, where I met Serote for the first and only time. Most of the applauding white liberal audience never knew what James' outburst was about: "God! What are poems?" asked Serote after this event: "How could I face the naïve and ignorant eyes of white liberals as they applauded, asked questions or argued as we read."

There is a second large class of poems which has neither form nor content: its non-content of ever repeated slogans which have lost their potency in the repetition, which in their repetitiveness neither say anything new nor anything exciting, is the non-form of a violent emotion, which one assumes is there - not in the poems, but in the poets. But in poetry what counts is not what the poet has felt (that remains inaccessible and can only be guessed at) but what the poem makes me feel. Perhaps we need to be more precise: even these often repeated slogans do arouse a habitual emotion, in the same way as the habitual phrases of congratulation and condolence do arouse some emotion. But it is an emotion which people feel they ought to have, or which they have anyway, because of their experience, not one they feel because of the poem. The writing was on the walls: Mandela and Sisulu shall lead us. It was repeated in the poems, where it needed to be given more substance, more concreteness. The poet of such verse is not superfluous, he is the one who shouts what thousands would have shouted without him just as well, but he is the one to shout it. But the slogan in the poem does not survive as well as it does on walls - which survive surprisingly well: The Release all detainees, seen by Arthur Nortje Under Lansdowne Bridge is unfortunately not yet historical. The slogan-poem and the formalist poem coincide at opposite poles of the spectrum. The slogan-poem, too, does not remember how it is and how it was, although the shouted slogan does in its abbreviated form encapsulate some abstract of experience, but at best it remembers some of the names of people and places, that is something, but not the face, the human being behind that name, nothing, except perhaps the last ultimate deed which impressed this name on our memory: Luthuli, Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Griffith Mgxenge, Rick Turner, Oscar Petersen, they are all buried in our litanies, and one waits for the poem to resurrect them as people.

There is indeed a dialectical relationship between the emotional experience of the poet and that of his/her audience and the ordering of his material in such a way that both his own experience and that of his/her audience becomes focused in the poem allowing something we can call poetic insight, a grasp of the situation which allows us to live and to act. That relationship spans the entire range between an empty formalism constructing verbal hollowness and an explosive anarchism unable to contain its experience in any kind of form. The muted passions of those who recollect their gentle emotions in serene and police-protected tranquility - even if they feel slightly embarrassed by the presence of their brutal guardians and would like them to become invisible - are easily contained in a traditional mastery of a form (and a lot of modernism is by now a well-worn tradition) which does not need to strain to contain its gentle content. This mastery of form becomes much more difficult "when the pain of humiliation / like the pain of a raped woman" (ATT 10) throbs in you, when you "lie flat while others walk on me to far places" (Y 22), when you are "alone in the darkness / of the faces of my deep anguish" (MBF 11), and when you are surrounded by:

droplets of blood
splashed and scattered on the streets
on fences
on walls of houses we live in -
on ceilings
on floors and on desks
even on floors of land-rovers. (NKW 3)

"How does one tell it?" (ATT 15) Certainly not in tranquility, but "there is nothing that we must forget or let be forgotten" (MBF 11). The poet who does not look away while in the slaughterhouse of South Africa, who is not only concerned but implicated in the violence - "as if our life were flesh between the teeth of a hungry animal" (ATT 10) - and committed to ending it, has problems against which those of a more gentile breed of poets have little significance. But the very ones for whose privilege this pain is inflicted do not see the form of the violence when they are confronted by it, they do complain, however, about "the blood and guts that spoil so much of the verse". They need to look elsewhere when "trickles of blood" form "red pools around us" (MBF 13), when "even / my smiles were bloodstained" (MBF 16). They live in the slaughterhouse but their poetry is spotlessly clean like the uniforms of the butchers after they return from their task and sit down to dinner. There is, after all, always irony and seven types of ambiguity to deal with the "tragic" aspects of life. Serote, however, hears "Yakhal' inkomo", the cry of the cattle in the slaughterhouse, even in the cry that comes out of Mankunku Ngozi's saxophone. It is repetitive: "Another heart has been cut, / Another chest gashed by knife, / A brick cracked another head, / A kierie burst another head". It is repetitive: like crime in government-created slums and like police raids. Unfortunately there is always another and another and another of these killings, and the killings do not stop even now, they continue relentlessly, spurred on by the last attempt to stop the inevitable victory of the people. The ironically "gentle nightfall" has "cruel secrets" in its shadows. (Y 41)

There is a politics of form for which "rotting corpses" floating on water is a "formless" cliché: "The result is seldom poetry." Their own timidity has confined the formalists to safer topics which do not explode their well-worn forms and they look away when people "disappear as if never born". Unable to step over the racist boundaries which they respect and use as excuses for not writing about the experience on the other side of the fence ("I am not black, I cannot authentically write about the black experience"), which they, it is true, deplore as inhuman from the safety of white suburbs, unable to make any kind of contact with reality, they fail to see that the form of violence is other than that contemplated in their tranquility. They fail to see that maybe they are a "piece of art walking around", "whose arms are guns" - and they don't have to carry the guns themselves. It is sufficient that they look away while others carry and shoot the guns, and that they write poems while looking away, poems which are concerned with that form which they think is beauty, but how can anything be beauty that derives its existence from the very violence which sunders this society. We need to understand, as Colin Gardner has, that "all of the characteristics of the township - not only its despair and its erosion but its danger and death too - are produced by the activity of the city", and that therefore the form of these poems is the necessary product of the form of the formalist poem in the same way as the form of the streets in Alexandra is the product of the form of the streets in Houghton. They also do not understand that the question of form really only arises when it begins to crumble under the strain of experience and that to be a formalist means not to expose oneself to situations where the certainties of the poetic textbooks give way and where "the hands clutch the head and wring it" (Y 27). The form of sanity is constantly eroded by the forces of insanity, allpervasive in this land where to be sane is to be insensitive and where form hides indifference:

when i heard an old man
his weeping breaking down walls and steel
trying to fight insanity
which kept stalking and stalking
and finally taking away his sanity
while he was alone in a cell
and when the door opened
he dashed like a rat chased by cats
his sanity dangling from his small finger
and he was pinned down (BMF 17)

Serote "walks the night of this land" (NKW4), "on the road, / fear pulsating near me as if it were my footsteps / i / looking always around me for my shadow" (MBF 11) and knows "many kinds of death", but he is not satisfied protesting the atrocities, and that is maybe why some of his critics say he is formless: he does not allow his poetry to dwell in the accepted form of complicity with the inhuman present, he is not satisfied to politely protest against the inhumanity of this society, but commits the faux pas of demanding and fighting for a different future. After all, the form-giving poets and the form-demanding critics are, by and large, also against this system, from which they make a living, they have even written a protest now and then, not a protest poem, but a prosaic protest, because poetry must not be contaminated by clichés, but the "rhythmic sound of the gun which bites into the enemy's marrow" (ATT 21) does not sound like a rhythm to the one who is the target: that is understandable: "eyes have been broken down and ears shut" and "nobody heard or saw" (MBF 22), - last of all the poet who shapes his poem, - an all too familiar experience in South Africa, where the censorship of the government is merely the extension of the censorship which we all apply to ourselves all the time, not to hear and not to see.

So they utter a word of warning: "gross brutality is not easily assimilable in poetry". How true! But what do you do about it, if it refuses to go away? So in essence, and not counting the very few exceptions, Serote was right, when he wrote in 1973, at the height of Black Consciousness: "There are two distinct worlds in this South Africa. The gutter-trapped black world, and the opinionated, arrogant racist white world. No crossing the fence yet, life is too short for that." The very few exceptions like Jeremy Cronin, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Neil Aggett, Rick Turner etc. in any case crossed the fence in their turn to land in the ghetto and to get the same treatment as those who lived there. This is not inverted racism: the fence which creates neat patterns of white and black, is not of the making of the blacks. Such patterns are forms: they contain.

But Serote sees and hears, he allows a shattering, a form-shattering opening of the senses. The "prose" of an unpoetic existence floods into his poem: "You cannot kill children like cattle and hope that guns are a monopoly". Guns are always formless, especially if wielded by guerillas. It is because his culture is a "culture of resistance" that the form which is always the pre-existing form of an established culture defending itself against change is put into question: the new form which evolves in the resistance against the death in life which is apartheid is never recognisable as form, because otherwise it would be merely a neo-colonial transformation of the colonialising form - what other forms can the colonisers recognise as form? But we are talking destruction before we can talk reconstruction: as the oppressed tear at their lives, "making it shreds with rage", so the poet tears at that holiest of intellectual institutions: poetry. Poetry is put through the same process as black human beings who work in a factory:

the machines
roaring and rattling, whistling and buzzing
they ask for a finger and then a hand
and then an arm
they pull and pull and pull
they leave holes in the earth
smoke in the sky
oil in the sea and miles and miles of graves (ATT 11)

The form of Serote's poems is that of words around the holes left on the killing fields by soldiers and gangsters fighting for the ruling mafia, whose "sanity is bloodstained" (MBF 13). The form of this poetry is the form of "torn streets / and houses which echoed like empty shells / after the bulldozer had been there before him" (BMF 18). Such forms evoke complaints from those whose gardens are meticulously mowed and whose streets are cleaned regularly: "I heard you say we are messy" (Y 43) But then creativity is always messy, only that which is sanctioned by convention has a neat form, and the question is whether that is poetry. No poem without a slash deep into the heart, and no poem that is not a fierce reply to that wound. The form of the poetry is also the form of the resistance, and resistance is resistance against the prevailing form: "it is like being drunk with rage / Yes / it is like being happy / Yes / it is like crying from pain of joy" (ATT 14). It "gnaws and nibbles at the enemy". It is the form of the strike which stops the form of production, the disorder which threatens the order of the surplus value:

and we make fire
storm the walls, crush glass, barricade the Boer streets
crush his cars
yes something yields during a strike action
we move out of the compound
we leave it behind with its cold walls
we clear ground and create space
something yields at this hour (ATT 15)

The disorder is a "promise that the present can be lived" (ATT 17): it is a counterform which like the child "would leap into the air like a gemsbok / with laughter which rang of joy / a joy glowing like headlights of a car in the night" (ATT 17). Against this the order, the form, is the order and the form of the bullet and the bomb, "blind / mad with speed and sound / it sprawled the little bones on the dusty street / and spilled and splashed blood on floors and walls / leaving us cold with disbelief" (ATT 17). The form which is demanded by the formalists is the cliché which is called law and order, the law of the gun-toting Father, the form of the cage which fear has built, and the form of guiltless serenity in the middle of a bloodbath, but life has another form, one which is flexible and adaptable to the purpose, allowing joy and rage.

This disorder extents deep into the past, "once long ago / it hid the arrow / it hid the spear" (NKW 8), so deep that it is now the unspoken colonialist horror, the forgotten anti-image against which form has to be defended at all costs: the form which separates one ghetto from another, one poetry from another. That horror forever stalks the night of the colonialist, "hand with furious rhythm throwing spear after spear" (NKW 8), and that is why form must draw a boundary which delimits day from night and formlessness from form, and that is why it must supervise and spy on that night constantly:

I feel looked at
walking in this night
in this strange land with muted screams. (NKW3)

Although this disorder has been defeated, it is suspected that it will rise again and again and again, that this civil war is an eternal one, that it cannot rest until it has wrested the country from those who have usurped it by the barrel of a gun. That is why it had to be kept under close watch, - "the one time master / and the one time slave / eye each other / spend sleepless nights in watch" - that is why the darkness had to be harrassed and searched, that is why any initiative to free the country had to be stifled long before it became effective. It also had to be stopped before it reached the libraries and the bookshelves, the schools and the universities: censorship and criticism worked overtime to make the eminently readable unreadable. When Yakhal' inkomo was published, Serote had just spent nine months in solitary confinement, he knew that if he were to write about that there would be more of this kind of very practical criticism. But the night of formlessness came again and again, it happened in Sharpeville and Soweto, Nyanga and Bonteheuwel, "the night and the blood and us". and it threatens the coloniser: "we eat him then as worms do a carcass" (ATT 21) - not a "beautiful" image, admittedly. A de-composing aesthetics like this can turn the imitation candle-light next to the reading critic into a green and eery light, and "shatter anyone's dream" (ATT 22).

Yet the hopelessness, the angst, was not on the side of the oppressed, those who whether they liked it or not, had to live through the nightmare. The angst was curiously concentrated where form had its strongest stronghold, in white English South African poetry. While the road was not always clearly delineated, the oppressed had to go follow the road, even where it disappeared into rock and mud.

i can say
i hope the roads lead somewhere, nowhere leads to dreams about nightmares (MBF 16)

The only thing that is surprising is that the road did not end in the cul de sac of race hatred from those who were segregated and hated and feared in the first place. The miracle is that in an insane society people remained sane. That they did not rigidly withdraw into the form which had been prepared for them. That there is still a space for dialogue. By now the road which leads somewhere has become visible, but The actual dialogue has not yet started, we are still where Serote was in 1972 when he tried to reassure the baas, startled by his presence in the night "that's black like me": "It's awright Baas, / Do not fear" (Y 1). The baas has not yet spoken to the servant in the night, and he fears more than ever. He fears the formlessness out there which he cannot control, the violence, which is merely an offshoot and a projection of his own violence. But by now that is no longer the problem of the oppressed but the problem of the oppressor who waits out his last days under an apartheid which has been legally removed without any real change in the social and economic field.

Serote in any case did not wait for the rulers to have a change of heart or even a change of pragmatic policy. Black Consciousness wiped away that "ja baas" mentality long ago and the weapons of Umkhonto we Sizwe have created a situation where the fear is no longer on the one side only. In his earliest volume there is next to the horror of apartheid a new attitude to being black in South Africa:

I do not know where I have been,
But Brother,
I know I am coming. (Y 16)

The law and order people believed they could stifle this cry, and they brutally murdered Steve Biko and thousands like him. But the shout and the consciousness which created this shout has won the battle. It became the shout of millions: school children and workers, women and prisoners. This new consciousness does not lessen the pain or the rage. On the contrary:

For what do you do when, again and again,
Things around you and in you beg you with a painful embrace to hate,
And you respond with a rage and you know,
That you can never hate. (Y 27)

Miraculously the humanity of those who were treated like non-humans survived and did not turn into hatred. In The Nakasa World Serote wrote: "it is very essential for a black writer to be above hatred and bitterness; that is rather too much to ask from a human being, as the world has proved". It was too much, yet Serote knew he had to gain this level of emotional serenity, not for art's sake and not for the whiteman's sake, but for his own humanity, and for the humanity of all the oppressed. Enemies can so easily become similar to each other and the race hatred of the white rulers could so easily have infected their victims and opponents. Without this "too much", this more than what is humanly possible, neither the poet nor his audience can begin to understand that despite the rage and the anguish: "in truth, we are truth beings" (Y 11). In life and death we experience "a whole somewhereness, / a holiness" (Y 11) and this "holiness" is, as the German poet Hölderlin wrote at the time of the terror of the French Revolution, the "god within us", and the god is that experience that a human being is a human being for others and because of others. Because that is what the struggle is about in the end, that is what the struggle wants to achieve, the experience which has been destroyed by the inhumanity of the exploitative system: "There's beauty in love. / There's love in beauty" (Y 42) That experience is there in the middle of the killing fields, when the mother is teaching the child: "The silent speech / Of the eyes, / The face, / And that she is its mother" (Y 28). And that experience is destroyed every time, a family is torn apart, a son or mother is killed, and it is reborn by the struggle, which is an act of love, as Kgotsisile has said.

Let me hold your hand
black mother let me hold your hand and walk with you (NBMW)

"A person is a person because of other people": the experience of jail and solitary confinement has brought that lesson home to those who could never style themselves as isolated individualists concerned only with creating words in beautiful patterns. It is important never to forget what the struggle is all about, so that it does not become a wild and senseless flailing of pangas and a trigger-happy domination with AK47's: it is about people, about mothers and children and it is about the quality of life of everybody. Therefore the resistance poet does not only listen to the inner voice, the demon. He is, in a complex way which has nothing to do with cultural commissars and handbooks for revolutionary poets accountable to the people in everything he writes. Serote has said: "I have always wanted to be guided in my writing by the aspirations of my people. However, in none of my poetry collections so far do I fully understand this collective creativity. Had I, the four books would have been written differently. I have to start from scratch now, and I feel very ignorant."

Because he is concerned with people, not abstractions or empty forms, "Serote tirelessly traces the connection between the subject's current anguish, the suffering of the past and what there may be to hope for in the future." Like most of his contemporaries, victims of Bantu Education and of the harshest repression South Africa has seen, in a period when the people's organisations where apparently smashed inside the country, his historical consciousness of the struggle as reaching far into the past was limited. But like many of his contemporaries he soon discovered this history as an inspiration. The knowledge that there are those who dedicated their lives to the struggle before us, who had their victories and defeats, is the certainty that the struggle will continue until victory is finally reached. That is the hope contained in the middle of destruction and despair.

It is out of such concerns, and out of the experience of the defeat of the people's fighting organisations in 1960 that Serote's poetry evolved as one that does not believe that art is for its own sake but that art is for the people. For him there is a choice of being among the fighters or the defeated. It is that attitude which very soon went from protest to the armed struggle which made Serote's poems less palatable than those of the poets whose poetry could be incorporated into the liberal consciousness, which is always a protesting, not a fighting consciousness. Those who are insisting on the form of democracy without the content are satisfied when they are allowed to protest, but this protest expresses the anger without changing the cause of the anger. It is to those that Serote addresses himself, when he says:

let's tell anyone who hates what we say,
our rage is as red as furious flames (ATT 23)

Rage is formless: but it creates new features in the landscape like a raging volcano. White liberal critics like Christopher Hope have warned against this rage: "The question is whether the poet has the right to indulge his rage by giving way to it? There is a danger if he does so. Brutality is indivisible and no matter how severely tempted he may be to paint it literally in black and white, to do so would misrepresent the subtle and steely savagery of the South African way of life." There are those that would like to forget the blood that has drenched South Africa and who demand of South African writers that they have "the agility of thought imagery not to be reduced" to ever the same situations, to "things that have been overtaken by present political events". Well, let us remind them that the memory of forty two years of apartheid and 350 years of colonial oppression will not evaporate, and that our memories are at least as long as those who mourn the concentration camps of the English ninety years ago even today. Let us remind them that the struggle is not yet won, and that if it is won it will take decades to realize those goals for which the struggle was fought.

For a long time critics have battled with the existence of this volcano, and since a denial of his existence did not make him disappear, they reluctantly wrote their natural histories of the phenomenon. There are those who deny the existence of Kilimandjaro because the forces which created it are "formless" and "chaotic". But like Fuji-yama it is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Maybe we have to rethink "form". Some grudgingly admitted that this formlessness was formidable, but because of its formlessness could not be counted among the works of art, or if, then only among the minor, the flawed works of art. Somehow Serote's poetry was not as easily annexed as e.g. that of Oswald Mtshali. It could not as easily be incorporated into "South African literature", despite the understanding that it was formidable. An exception among the critics was Lionel Abrahams, who recognised early on, both by publishing Serote and in his reviews the considerable genius of Serote. Lewis Nkosi seems to put Mongane Serote in the "second rank" after "front rank" poets like "Mazisi Kunene, Arthur Nortje, Dennis Brutus or Willie Kgotsisile", but he does count him as the "most accomplished lyrical expression" of his generation, and compares him to the "lyrical purity of an Alexander Blok". The judgements of those who wanted to contain Serote among the also-runs need now to be revised: Serote has long clearly shown himself in the front rank of South African and African poetry, with few others his equal.

A selection of Mongane Serote's poetry is on the UCT Poetry Web.

Copyright ©1995 by Peter Horn

You can reach me by EMail at Peter Horn

Last modified: Saturday, 9. March 1996 - 17:40:34