White Papers, Necessary Noises

The Strange and Surprising Adventures of Jeremy Cronin.

Paper delivered at Craft Wars: Comparative Perspectives on Poetry '74 | University of Cape Town, 19 September 2014.

Jeremy Cronin, Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, MP and poet, describes reading his work to learners in 2007. From an interview with Andrew van der Vlies in Contemporary Literature, vol. 49 (2008):

Over several years now, at least one of my poems has been set in the national matriculation syllabus, and for some reason (perhaps because it is conveniently short), it often appears in the examination paper itself. So these school events involve a captive audience. I am not deluding myself that the majority of learners are present for the sheer love of poetry, or that, as I step into the venue, I have an extensive and passionate school readership; I try to respect these realities [. . .] Over the recent period there has been a certain predictability about these engagements. 

There are the usual preliminaries. We meet briefly in the staff room before proceeding to the school hall. Many of the teachers are not first-language English speakers themselves. They are operating in underresourced and over- whelmed township public schools. I am here at their invitation and they express excessive appreciation for my presence. Over a cup of tea they complain about “the new generation.” They say the students just want to “enjoy their freedom” without showing “any awareness for the generations who actually fought for that freedom.” We then proceed to the venue for the poetry reading. I am introduced in glowing terms to the audience from a potted CV. It includes my birthdate, 1949. There are mocking gasps. (Perhaps 1949 is so far back, I may as well be dead? Does this have anything to do with tumbling life expectancy rates in our country as a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic? Who says these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds are not themselves in the front line of a new struggle?)

After reading some poems, including the poem from the syllabus, I open up for discussion. “Can you make money from writing poetry?” I am always asked. (South Africa currently has a 37 percent unemployment rate. Amongst black youth it often surpasses the 60 percent level.) “What does ‘perpetrate’ mean?” (I’ve used the word in the set-work poem.) “Do you regret committing the crimes that got you into jail?” (This question comes from an alert black student who also asks me more directly poetical questions about the use of repetition and irony. Although I listen carefully for it, sadly I don’t detect any sense of irony in her initial question.)

“Do any of you write poetry?” I ask in turn. Several hands go up, and some students come forward to perform their own poems. Two do a rap performance. The poems are about family hardships, child abuse, drunken adults, youth drug addiction, and the need for caring, for empathy with others. And now the hour and a half is over. . . The fifty-something poet will leave. His poem, itself now thirty years old, older than the wife it was once written about, written in prison out of psychic necessity to deal with her death, the poem stays behind in the dog-eared textbooks of the students. This, for me, is also what poetry is about: it must take its chances as an ordinary citizen in dialogue along the rough edges of life.