Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: The Anxiety of Originality


the anxiety of originality part1

Recently I had a conversation with a young poet about writing, and I began by asking her what she is reading, and what she considers her greatest influences. She said she didn’t want to be influenced, she wants to find her own voice. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Rustum Kozain about eight years ago. I asked him to read and review my first collection of poetry, Taller than Buildings, and his first question to me was “who are your influences?” I said I didn’t know, I was trying to find my own voice. He persisted, “but who do you want to sound like, who do you admire?”

I was like a horse bucking off that rider. I didn’t want to be ridden by anyone; I wanted to be free and true to my own inner story. Original. We continued the conversation though, and I told him that I was most interested in the Caribbean writers and the writers in the African diaspora. Rustum told me that he admired Derek Walcott, had read everything that Walcott had written. I told him that I found Walcott’s classical style alienating, that I preferred Martin Carter.

The conversation was part of a series of exchanges I was having with various poets on an internet list with a number of accomplished South African writers including Keith Gottschalk, Karin Schimke, Michael Cope and others. One of them actually said – I can’t remember who exactly – that they banned the word “I” in young poets, and encouraged them to try to write like someone who was an acknowledged master of the craft of poetry for a year or two, to in fact by repetition and copying to internalise the poetic ability of the master, and to keep these poems aside before beginning to expose their own explorations into the craft.

I did try to write one poem like Langston Hughes – I’ve never showed it to anyone but my mentor. It showed me that I can imitate – and I’m not sure if it improved my voice, but it was a worthwhile exercise because it focused me on the poem instead of the emotions that lead to the poem. I was a little bit more conscious of what I was doing, which was not bad when I look back on it now.

I was outraged by the order to write like someone else for a year or two – it seemed like a willful silencing of my own voice. My mentor encouraged me to respond to my own resistance and continue exploring the way I wanted to. He said that the great poets of the 20th century like Sylvia Plath who bravely exposed their lives and their feelings, opening new ways of expressing the human condition, continuously dissected the ‘I’. I carried on writing ‘what I liked’ but kept Rustum’s comments as a footnote to my explorations.

Earlier this year I met a Chinese scholar of comparative literature
who was visiting at Wits, Professor Hui Jiang. He came in search of me after seeing the anthology of African poetry which was translated into Mandarin, No Serenity Here, which I co-edited with Isabel Ferrin-Aguirre and the Chinese poet and scholar Professor Kaiyu Xiao. The book was published in 2010 and we were invited to China by the publishers in 2010 in order to meet the translators and attend a series of launches.

China’s poetry tradition goes back five thousand years, and poets are most successful when they emulate the masters. In this way the particular aesthetic choices of that poet are noted, repeated and preserved. The translators were highly impressed by the innovation of African poets. The first question from the scholar was “who are your ancestors?” and it sent me back to try to understand what forms my poetic vocabulary? What are my influences?

anxiety-of-influence-a-theory-of-poetryIt feels somewhat different than it did when Rustum asked me. I am less threatened by the idea of being influenced or coming from a particular tradition. In The Anxiety of Influence: A theory of poetry, Harold Bloom introduces his investigation into poetry by quoting from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Lord Wotton observes bitterly that a poet who openly follows a master “…becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.”

Yet to think that you gave birth to yourself seems like the opposite kind of vanity. I prefer instead to look at another poet of the Western tradition, Wallace Stevens who says (quoted again by Bloom) “While, of course, I come down from the past, the past is my own and not something marked Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc. I know of no one who has been particularly important to me. My reality-imagination complex is entirely my own, even though I see it in others.”

As a black woman writing in contemporary South Africa I derive the following from reading others:

  • Poetry, as Keorapetse Kgositsile says, was there before I wrote a poem and will exist long after I have stopped writing;
  • The more ways of expressing you read and appreciate, the more choice you have when expressing yourself
  • Africans can learn more about ourselves by knowing where our expression comes from and our poetic craft can be enriched by reading and learning.

Bloom, H: The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford University Press) 1973.

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