How women’s untold histories shaped South Africa’s national poet



Keorapetse Kgositsile with US author Alice Walker, 1996.
Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University and Uhuru Portia Phalafala, Stellenbosch University

Keorapetse Kgositsile, the South African-born poet who passed away in 2018, lived in exile in the US from 1962 to 1975 and was at the centre of the country’s 1960s and ’70s Black Arts Movement. Informed by his South African and Tswana background, the poet makes a case for multiple inflections of voices, geographies, and histories in the making of transnational black modernity.

Analysing his work offers ways in which African poetry can disrupt dominant thinking on Black Atlantic studies, particularly Paul Gilroy’s
1993 text The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. The Atlantic world referred to by Gilroy tells the histories of Europe, Africa and the Americas, two hemispheres joined by the Atlantic ocean and exchanging influence. Kgositsile’s poetry can be read as challenging the direction of influence from north to south.

Uhuru Phalafala considers the rich oral traditions passed on from Kgositsile’s grandmother and mother as a key system of knowledge that informed and shaped his black radical imagination. Aretha Phiri interviewed her.


Aretha Phiri: Your colloquium paper situates the celebrated poet-in-exile at the centre of and as uniquely influential to the Black Arts Movement?

Uhuru Phalafala: It was a time when African Americans were seeking to define their identities, with Africa as key metaphor. Kgositsile happened to not only come from that continent, but also used his mother tongue, Setswana, spiritual practices, and music from southern Africa in his work. By interweaving Tswana vernacular with the black diaspora parlance, he affirmed African America’s legitimate affiliation to the continent, as seen in the example of his influence on “the grandfather of rap music”, The Last Poets.

He also came from a mass liberation movement that was experienced in politics of armed confrontation, generated solidarities with other liberation organisations, and adept in decolonial politics. His work became a resource for his contemporaries. Today, when we look at, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s influential album, To Pimp A Butterfly, and the number of references to South Africa in it, we must understand it as grounding itself in the foundation that people such as Kgositsile laid in the sixties and seventies. South Africa will always have an enduring place in the African American imagination.

This is diaspora consciousness. He also admired Nina Simone’s sound, which he called “future memory” to signal that it is not new or emergent, but reminiscent of the protest tradition of South Africa.

Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), 1975, best known member of the Black Arts Movement that embraced Kgositsile.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Aretha Phiri: In focusing on the oral traditions inherited from his female lineage, you make a case for the specific use in his poetry of a “matriarchal archive”?

Uhuru Phalafala: The colonised come from different conceptions of time (temporalities). Colonial temporality is not only racialised but also gendered. The arrogant coloniser inaugurated the beginning of history in his assumption that we did not have a history before he arrived. “History” began with the arrival of the coloniser, and marched forward in a linear fashion. With time, black men accessed modernity’s time – through missionary education and working in the mines – at a different period than women.

We now know that when anti-colonial wars were fought they were primarily and solely about the emergence of the black race from subjugation. When women and queer people attempted to bring the particularities of their oppression to the agenda they were told to wait. When independence was achieved those doubly and triply marginalised did not attain their independence at the same time with their countries because they continued to fight against black patriarchy.

If we backtrack we can then make certain observations. A type of double location of time was constructed when the colonisers’ history was instituted: theirs and ours. Because of lack of contact with missionary education and industrialisation, loosely speaking – of course there were women who accessed modernity – women occupied a different temporality. One of continuity from precolonial to colonial time, with its attendant way of life, philosophies, worldview, oratory practices, etcetera.

Aretha Phiri: In describing this archive, how do you guard against potential accusations of advancing a gendered essentialist claim?

Uhuru Phalafala I do not wish to rehash gendered essentialist claims. This is just historical process. My grandmother never set foot in a classroom but has a world of knowledge, so to say. Men who were later ferried to missionary schools, or those who went to work in the mines en masse, existed in a double location of time. The flow from precolonial to colonial time was interrupted by modernity’s time, fashioning a coexistence of the two.




Read more:
Black and queer women invite the Black Atlantic into the 21st century


These men came face to face with the colonial alienation and “first exile” from their home cultures which were denigrated by colonial assumptions of superior culture. This is how temporality is also gendered. The women who suffered the blows of this history, mostly in the rural countryside, continued to live life on their own terms, without their men. They continued to practise their indigenous ways of knowing – which are not an event but an ongoing process.

These knowledges evolved with time and did not freeze in some dark past. They progress, transform, and evolve as humans do. Today when we call for decolonisation we are actually wanting to retrieve this knowledge that was silenced and erased by the multiheaded hydra of colonialism. Where can we find it if not from those who had little contact with this hydra? In my view black women, in the context of southern Africa, are that “matriarchive”.

The book Black Radical Traditions From The South: Keorapetse Kgositsile and the Black Arts Movement by Uhuru Phalafala will be published shortly.

This article is part of a series called Decolonising the Black Atlantic in which black and queer women literary academics rethink and disrupt traditional Black Atlantic studies. The series is based on papers delivered at the Revising the Black Atlantic: African Diaspora Perspectives colloquium at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.The Conversation

Aretha Phiri, Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University and Uhuru Portia Phalafala, Lecturer, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Eavan Boland: the great Dublin poet and powerful feminist voice


Adam Piette, University of Sheffield

The death of poet Eavan Boland comes as a soft shock to my sense of the world. The creative connections she forged between her richly various poetry, Irish culture and the fierce determinations of feminism were mesmerising. Just as important was her faith in poems as places to think and feel in, where those connections could be offered as intricate gifts to all readers.

She is rightly celebrated for her breakthrough collection, the 1980 In Her Own Image, which pitted itself against the lazy assumptions of a male-dominated poetry world and voiced the bitter extremes of female experience, like the anorexic’s fanaticism (“Flesh is heretic./ My body is a witch. / I am burning it”), the beaten wife’s survivalist plural selving (“I was not myself, myself”), the menstrual visionary (“I leash to her {the moon}, / a sea, / a washy heave, / a tide”), the crazy poetics of the kitchen (“the tropic of the dryer tumbling clothes. / The round lunar window of the washer”).

A true challenger to Yeats

Such poems gave centre stage to female experiences and had a huge impact on the Irish poetry scene in particular, which had taken its time responding to the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Eavan Boland in 1996.
Wikimedia

Their accurate representation of the marginalisation of women in history and by history (“still no page / scores the low music / of our outrage” It’s a Woman’s World, 1982) was belied by the poems as public and historical voices. A feminist collection, In Her Own Image showed the world that Boland’s was a powerful voice above all and a real challenge to the Yeatsian tradition of male poetics in Ireland.

The wonderful Mise Eire (1987), meaning “I am Ireland”, for instance, takes on the identity of the many emigrant women travelling from Ireland to the New World, and opens:

I won’t go back to it

my nation displaced

into old dactyls

and the poem is colourfully detailed about the historical record, as routines being played by Boland:

I am the woman –

a sloven’s mix

of silk at the wrists,

a sort of dove-strut

in the precincts of the garrison

The ancestral women whose being she inherits through her matriarchal line and her Irish identity, women under the control of the old dispensation, the women of Irish patriarchal history, molls to the men of power – that is what she won’t go back to. So what reads as a rich imagining of the emigrant glad to be leaving is also Boland’s coded challenge to the Irish lyric tradition with its old dactyls and assumptions about women poets as strutting doves; as well as a specific historical voicing of second-wave feminism – we are not going back to that old world.

Returning to Dublin

On the back of the extraordinarily febrile mind at work on her own culture and in concert with the feminism of her times, she built up a repertoire of voices that constitute some of the finest poetry in English.

Navigating between work in America and a full life in Ireland, she lived out that emigrant dream and made it real, made it her world. Her poems are intimately connected to the dailiness of her own life, to a sense of significances and exfoliations in the ordinary events in her patch of space and time. Equally, she writes poems of extraordinary power and complexity about the history of Ireland, about the Famine, the Troubles (the three-decade conflict between nationalists and unionists), about the acts of violence suffered by her people over time.

She was unafraid to make poetry do the work that once was most resolutely its task: the work of elegy, epic (her lyrics attend to history with the eye of an epic poet), lyric most of all and testimonial witnessing of experience with heart and mind.

For me, one of her tasks was to be the poet of Dublin, the Dublin she loved and cherished, and fought for and against too. Many of her very best poems bring that fabled city to new light. Her poem Anna Liffey (1997), which tussles with James Joyce’s representation of the female principle Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake, is also a hymn of praise to Dublin’s river Liffey:

It rises in rush and ling heather and

Black peat and bracken and strengthens

To claim the city it narrated.

Again, subtly, it is a woman’s story-telling (Anna Liffey narrating) that lays claim to this new post-feminist Dublin. Born abroad, she adopted Dublin as an émigré Irish returnee – but that journey home was also this complex act of kinship and claim:

It has taken me

All my strength to do this.

Becoming a figure in a poem.

Usurping a name and a theme.

Thank goodness for her usurpation! Such a harvest of gifts, as well.

In the incomparably beautiful And Soul (2007), Dublin’s rain is praised at the same time as Boland is battling the cloudburst of her grief for her dying mother. In The Lost Land (1998), her daughters growing up and living faraway reprise her whole life story (“memory itself / has become an emigrant”). Nobody has written so fully and well about the intimate relationship between Ireland and the United States. Ireland has lost its most exquisite chronicler:

In the end

everything that burdened and distinguished me

will be lost in this:

I was a voice.The Conversation

Adam Piette, Professor of Modern Literature, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Edwin Morgan: remembering Scotland’s first poet laureate at 100


James McGonigal, University of Glasgow

Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up,
dragged their rain through the cemetery trees.
The gates shone cold. Wind rose
flaring the hissing leaves, the branches
swung, heavy, across the lamps.
From King Billy (1963)

Why do we remember particular poems and poets – and happily forget others? The Scottish poet Edwin Morgan was born 100 years ago, and this week marks the the start of a year of celebration of the man and his work. It goes ahead in a virtual way, with public events cancelled in days of lockdown or deferred to 2021 – an advantage of a year-long celebration.

Born in Glasgow on April 27, 1920, Edwin George Morgan led a remarkable and wide-ranging creative life. He published 25 collections of his own poetry and translated hundreds of Russian, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German poems too. He also wrote plays, opera libretti, radio broadcasts, journalism, book and drama reviews and literary criticism.

His work continues to be published, produced, taught and celebrated. His poetry is memorable not only for Glasgow, his native city, and for Scotland – but for a wider audience thanks to Morgan’s lifelong concern with universal and cosmic matters.

Glasgow and Scotland

Morgan loved the city of his birth for its energy, industrial inventiveness, humour and crowded streets. He warmed to its humanity, shared its sorrows, wrote against scarring deprivation, recovered its history (real and imagined), and projected several Glasgows into the future.

He celebrated its changing cityscape in The Starlings in George Square, and its interactive street culture in Trio, where we encounter three Glaswegians bearing Christmas gifts of a guitar festooned with mistletoe, a new baby and a chihuahua, cosy in a tartan coat. He recorded the darker elements of Glasgow too, such as the city’s sectarian violence and notorious tribal gang culture in King Billy.

The directness of these interactions is carried in authentic urban speech rhythms new to Scottish poetry at the time. In the Snack-bar and Death in Duke Street vividly describe the long deprivation and the sudden death that are also part of the scene:

Only the hungry ambulance
howls for him through the staring squares.

Morgan taught English at Glasgow University all his working life, and became the city’s first poet laureate in 1999. He became Scotland’s laureate too, in 2004 – its first “makar” or national poet. He celebrated Scotland’s varied landscapes, people and places, whether humorously in Canedolia, or reflectively in Sonnets from Scotland.

For Morgan, part of a poet’s job was to remind Scots that if they want to achieve something in the world and to really be taken seriously, then they need to find words to show the world what they stand for. Poets and other writers can help them to do this. When Scotland’s ambitious new parliament building opened at Holyrood at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, he wrote:

What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking
persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.
A nest of fearties is what they do not want.
A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.
A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.
And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of “it wizny me” is what they do not want.
Lines from For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, October 9 2004

The world, the universe and love

Morgan travelled widely – to Africa and the Middle East during the second world war, to Russia and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, to the US, New Zealand and the North Pole. These are the places he writes of in his poetry. The New Divan is his mysterious war poem in which he records in 100 sharp filmic stanzas, memories from the second world war desert campaign that shift like characters in an Arabian Nights tale – and yet are modern soldiers and lovers too.

Space and time travel fascinated him. A supersonic flight by Concorde to Lapland was the nearest he could actually get to outer space, where he had often journeyed in his imagination. The First Men on Mercury dramatises a linguistic encounter between Western astronauts and Mercurian beings that ends in a complete and hilarious transposition of language and power. Morgan believed that humanity would ultimately endeavour to create “A Home in Space”, which is the title of another poem that follows “a band of tranquil defiers” who decide to cut off all connection with the Earth.

This was a poet who could speak as a space module or a Mercurian, and also as an apple, a computer, an Egyptian mummy. He was an acrobat of words and identities. Perhaps his own identity as a gay man, risking censure or imprisonment through most of his life, encouraged that ability to shape-shift. His love poems are haunting. Some deal with loss or transience, as in One Cigarette, or Absence, or Dear man, my love goes out in waves, or with the physical risks of a forbidden lifestyle, as in Glasgow Green or Christmas Eve, which tells of a fleeting encounter with another man on a bus.

But his poems also celebrate ways in which all lovers share the tender details of everyday life together, as in Strawberries. His writing of gay and queer experience had a significant impact on social attitudes and political change in Scotland. His voice spoke for many young or isolated gay people, with an advocacy that was subtle but powerful in effect.

Collaboration

Morgan was an individualist, in some senses a loner. And yet he was also an inspirer of creative partnerships – in art, photography, opera, music and drama, cultural journalism and poetry in performance. His early support was invaluable to an array of groundbreaking poets and artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay, and he enjoyed collaborations with Scots musicians such as jazz saxophonist Tommy Smith and indie band Idlewild.

Such lists could be extended. They continue to grow through the Edwin Morgan Trust, set up to administer his cultural legacy by supporting new poets and poetry in Scotland and Europe as well as wider artistic responses to Morgan’s work. There are centenary publications too with new collections of selected poems and prose. For those who loved this quiet man of Scottish poetry it promises to be a memorable year.The Conversation

James McGonigal, Emeritus Professor of English in Education, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vale Bruce Dawe, Australia’s ‘Poet of Suburbia’



Lennon Cheng/Unsplash, CC BY

Kevin John Brophy, University of Melbourne

“Katrina, I had in mind a prayer, but only this came,” Bruce Dawe wrote to his infant daughter, new-born, in intensive care, her life in the balance, declaring as poets must that their poems are the best and only real gift they can give.

I did not know Dawe, who died aged 90 on Wednesday, but I knew his poetry from my first years of reading poems. For decades, the first contemporary poems many Australians read were his.

Born in 1930 in Fitzroy, a failed student after attending seven schools, he worked as a labourer like his father, a farmhand, a postman, and spent a year on the University of Melbourne campus where he became a poet and a Catholic. He joined the RAAF in 1959.

As well as publishing a growing list of books, he studied part time until he achieved a PhD. His teaching life at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education and the University of Southern Queensland lasted from 1969 until 1993. By then he was easily Australia’s most well-read and well-loved poet. His death this week is a significant moment for poets and readers of poetry.

Poet Bruce Dawe reads Little Red Fox.
National Film & Sound Archive

A skilled mate

We know that poetry is somehow central to our nation’s soul, but mostly we like to keep its presence at the margins. In living memory, Les Murray and Dorothy Porter managed to bring poetry to wide audiences, but neither of them so broadly, neither of them prompting the passion of Dawe’s many readers.

When it comes to poetry, readers know pretty quickly what is authentic. Dawe’s poems are real enough to talk to you with one arm over your shoulder, or sit beside you, inviting you to look with them at what this whole damned creation is doing now.

But he couldn’t have survived as a poet by simply being genial. His poetry always held a deep steadiness of purpose in its gaze. This was his special skill. He was able to bring us in to seeing for instance how “the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry” (from Homecoming) when dead soldiers are freighted home.

He was uncannily capable of making poetry that talked plainly but still mysteriously about the most extreme of our experiences: funerals and suicides, drowned children, a mother-in-law’s glorious death falling out of her chair at a barbecue, the last nail being driven into the body of Christ (“the iron shocking the dumb wood”), the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, or the hanging of Ronald Ryan.

You cannot read his poems without finding some personal connection to them too; my grandmother who once held a telegram announcing her son’s wartime death, and whose home was opposite Ronald Ryan’s bloody shootout on Sydney Road, had seemed to me to have had her life marked by images in Dawe’s poems.

In Australia, we know there’s another job requirement for any poet worth their salt, and that is a dry and thoroughly demotic wit. Dawe’s hilarious At Shagger’s Funeral is just one gem that Lawson would have been proud to have chiselled out.

Tests of time

New themes of gender, ethnicity, identity politics, the explosion of poetry since the avant-garde experiments of Fluxus might seem to leave Dawe’s poetry suspended in a historical moment, but this is to say no more than what happens to every strong and distinctive poet.

No one wrote poetry quite like Dawe. Lots of poets took inspiration from him too, many without realising it – the vibrant “street poetry” movement in Melbourne through the 1970s and 80s, morphing into performance poetry and spoken word – each take their impulse from Dawe’s confidence in poetry’s place as a voice for, about, and from life as it’s lived by the most desperate and the most ordinary of us.

The bravery of his poetry, its wit and sensitivity to the world are there in one of the most stark and touching love poems you could imagine reading:

Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,

with the dog at your feet, his head resting

on a shoe, and the clock’s ticking

Like water dripping in a sink

– I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,

given the inherent cruelty of the world

where beautiful things and people

are blasted apart all the day long,

I would never want to come back, knowing

I could never be this lucky twice …

(from You and Sarajevo: for Gloria)

He has been praised for the technical achievement of blending the colloquial with the lyrical, something he often got “right”. But beyond this deftness, his poems always reach towards our most humane responses to the world.

We know from our present troubles as a nation, as a planet, and as a species, that we need poets as right and true as Bruce Dawe to continue this sometimes visionary and sometimes laughably inadequate work. The Conversation

A mural dedicated to poet Bruce Dawe in his birthplace Fitzroy.

Kevin John Brophy, Emeritus Professor of Creative writing, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why French poet Charles Baudelaire was the godfather of Goths



The poet in a picture by Gustave Courbet.
Wikimedia Commons

Nick Freeman, Loughborough University

Goths are typically regarded as being on the fringes of society – members of a subculture which finds beauty in the darker elements of human experience. And while their dress code is much imitated – and celebrated – over Halloween, they have a proud history that stretches far beyond a seasonal horror festival.

In fact, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) could easily qualify as the template goths (and other bohemians) aspire to. He often dressed in black, dyed his hair green, and rebelled against the conformist, bourgeois world of mid-19th century Paris in both his personal life and his art.

His first collections of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), was prosecuted for offending public morals, challenging its audiences with its startling treatments of sex, Satanism, vampirism and decay. No wonder his words would one day be set to music by The Cure.

Aside from his writing, Baudlaire’s dissolute life was a checklist of boho credentials. He fell out with his family. He went bankrupt. He pursued reckless sexual experiments and contracted syphilis. He developed a drug habit. He associated with artists, musicians, writers and petty criminals rather than “respectable” people.

He outraged his family by having a mistress who was mixed race and probably illiterate. He refused conventional employment and made a precarious living as a writer, critic and occasional art dealer.

He wrote poetry which was prosecuted for obscenity and was adored by like-minded souls throughout Europe while being hated, even feared, by “straight” society. And then he died young, after years of serious illness and addiction, at the age of 46.

Baudelaire, photographed by Étienne Carat in 1863.

Baudelaire was also a dandy, clean-shaven in an age of whiskers and dressed immaculately despite squalid domestic circumstances. Never ostentatious, he wore sombre black in mourning for his times.

Considering nature to be tyrannical, he championed everything which fought or transcended it, while being, like many of his contemporaries, overtly misogynistic. “Woman is natural. That is to say, abominable,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, he recognised how both genders were trapped within their fleshly prisons and urged resistance to such incarceration through costume and cosmetics, recreational sex, drugs and alcohol.

Baudelaire sounds like many later writers, actors and rock stars, but it is unfair to suggest his cultural importance resides only in his delinquent mannerisms. What makes Baudelaire so significant, and so relevant today, is his recognition in Les Fleurs du Mal, his prose poetry, and essays, that the urbanised, industrial and increasingly godless modern world is radically different from any earlier epoch.

Artists responding to these new conditions of existence cannot cling to outworn traditions. They need instead to cast off convention and rethink their relationship to their culture and surroundings.

Baudelaire’s translations of Edgar Allan Poe brought the American writer to a new audience – and the morbidity of many Baudelaire poems suggests the two men were kindred spirits. In Une Charogne (A Carcass, 1857) for example, he recounts finding a woman’s maggot-infested body, cataloguing her obscene decay in hideous detail before telling his lover that one day, she too will be rotten and worm-eaten.

Like his contemporary, Gustave Flaubert, Baudelaire felt stifled and alienated by the bombastic hypocrisy of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. He despaired at the gulf between public morality and private vice, and was sickened by the rise of bourgeois respectability, the protestant work ethic, and the sweeping modernisation of Paris itself.

Disdaining realism’s preoccupation with appearances, his writing examined the mental states his surroundings produced: boredom, an aggressive self-lacerating melancholy, and ennui – the listlessness and depression which left sufferers joyless and blasé.

He depicted himself as being like the king of a rainy country gripped by an unending despair, prematurely aged, impotent and sorrowful with no clear cause. “Life is a hospital,” he wrote, “in which all the patients are obsessed with changing their beds. One would prefer to suffer beside the fire, another thinks he’d recover sooner if placed by the window.”

A series of unfortunate events

More than 150 years after his death, Baudelaire remains a challenging figure – not least for his sexual attitudes. Nevertheless, his influence is undeniable. T.S. Eliot hailed him in The Waste Land (1922), borrowing his line: “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère!” (Hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother), for his dissection of the post-1918 world.

More recently, English author Angela Carter’s Black Venus (1985) gave a voice to Baudelaire’s mistress, Jeanne Duval, who rages at how “his eloquence denied her language”. And How Beautiful You Are, by Gothic rockers The Cure (1987) adapted his prose-poem Les Yeux des Pauvres (The Eyes of the Poor).

Baudelaire’s rich musical heritage is being currently documented by the Baudelaire Song Project. His notion of the “flaneur”, the aimless urban idler, influenced the German philosopher Walter Benjamin and the explorations of modern psychogeographers. His presence even lurks in the young adult fiction of Lemony Snicket, where the Baudelaire children suffer a series of unfortunate events.

Meanwhile, black remains one of the uniforms of teenage disaffection from London to Tokyo, shaping the subcultures of the past four decades. Baudelaire’s existential anxieties and refusal to capitulate to the forces of conformity make him a continued inspiration.The Conversation

Nick Freeman, Reader in Late Victorian Literature, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2019 Rathbones Folio Prize Winner


The link below is to an article reporting on the first poet to win the Rathbones Folio Prize.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/20/raymond-antrobus-becomes-first-poet-to-win-folio-prize

Hidden women of history: Enheduanna, princess, priestess and the world’s first known author



File 20190207 174861 1s749k2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Standard of Ur mosaic, 26th century BC.
Wikimedia Commons

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

The world’s first known author is widely considered to be Enheduanna, a woman who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (approximately 2285 – 2250 BCE). Enheduanna is a remarkable figure: an ancient “triple threat”, she was a princess and a priestess as well as a writer and poet.

The third millennium BCE was a time of upheaval in Mesopotamia. The conquest of Sargon the Great saw the development of the world’s first great empire. The city of Akkad become one of the largest in the world, and northern and southern Mesopotamia were united for the first time in history.

In this extraordinary historical setting, we find the fascinating character of Enheduanna, Sargon’s daughter. She worked as the high priestess of the moon deity Nanna-Suen at his temple in Ur (in modern-day Southern Iraq). The celestial nature of her occupation is reflected in her name, meaning “Ornament of Heaven”.

Enheduanna composed several works of literature, including two hymns to the Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna (Semitic Ishtar). She wrote the myth of Inanna and Ebih, and a collection of 42 temple hymns. Scribal traditions in the ancient world are often considered an area of male authority, but Enheduanna’s works form an important part of Mesopotamia’s rich literary history.

Ancient Akkadian cylindrical seal depicting Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna.
Wikimedia Commons



Read more:
Friday essay: the legend of Ishtar, first goddess of love and war


Enheduanna’s status as a named poet is significant given the anonymity surrounding works of even earlier authors. Yet she is almost entirely unknown in the modern day, and her achievements have been largely overlooked (a notable exception is the work of Jungian analyst Betty De Shong Meador).
Her written works are deeply personal in subject, containing numerous biographical features.

Enheduanna’s cycle of temple hymns concludes with an assertion of the work’s originality and its authorship:

The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.

While clearly asserting ownership over the creative property of her work, Enheduanna also comments on the difficulties of the creative process — apparently, writer’s block was a problem even in ancient Mesopotamia.

Long hours labouring by night

In her hymns, Enheduanna comments on the challenge of encapsulating divine wonders through the written word. She describes spending long hours labouring over her compositions by night, for them then to be performed in the day. The fruits of her work are dedicated to the goddess of love.

Enheduanna’s poetry has a reflective quality that emphasises the superlative qualities of its divine muse, while also highlighting the artistic skill required for written compositions.

Her written praise of celestial deities has been recognised in the field of modern astronomy. Her descriptions of stellar measurements and movements have been described as possible early scientific observations. Indeed, a crater on Mercury was named in her honour in 2015.

Enheduanna’s works were written in cuneiform, an ancient form of writing using clay tablets but have only survived in the form of much later copies from around 1800 BCE, from the Old Babylonian period and later. The lack of earlier sources has raised doubts for some over Enheduanna’s identification as the author of myths and hymns and her status as a religious official of high rank. However, the historical record clearly identifies Enheduanna as the composer of ancient literary works, and this is undoubtedly an important aspect of the traditions surrounding her.




Read more:
Friday essay: the recovery of cuneiform, the world’s oldest known writing


Aside from poetry, other sources for Enheduanna’s life have been discovered by archaeologists. These include cylinder seals belonging to her servants, and an alabaster relief inscribed with her dedication. The Disk of Enheduanna was discovered by British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley and his team of excavators in 1927.

The Disk of Enheduanna.
Zunkir/Mefman00/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The Disk was discarded and apparently defaced in antiquity, but the pieces were recovered through excavations and the scene featuring the writer successfully restored. The scene depicts the priestess at work: along with three male attendants, she observes a libation offering being poured from a jug.

Enheduanna is situated in the centre of the image, with her gaze focused on the religious offering, and her hand raised in a gesture of piety. The image on the Disk emphasises the religious and social status of the priestess, who is wearing a cap and flounced garment.

Art imitates life

Enheduanna’s poetry contains what are thought to be autobiographical elements, such as descriptions of her struggle against a usurper, Lugalanne. In her composition The Exaltation of Inanna, Enheduanna describes Lugalanne’s attempts to force her from her role at the temple.

Inanna temple relief.
Wikimedia Commons

Enheduanna’s pleas to the moon god were apparently met with silence. She then turned to Inanna, who is praised for restoring her to office.

The challenge to Enheduanna’s authority, and her praise of her divine helper, are echoed in her other work, such as in the myth known as Inanna and Ebih.

In this narrative, the goddess Inanna comes into conflict with a haughty mountain, Ebih. The mountain offends the deity by standing tall and refusing to bow low to her. Inanna seeks help from her father, the deity Anu. He (understandably) advises her against going to war with the fearsome mountain range.

Inanna, in typically bold form, ignores this instruction and annihilates the mountain, before praising the god Enlil for his assistance. The myth contains intriguing parallels with the conflict described in Enheduanna’s poetry.

In the figure of Enheduanna, we see a powerful figure of great creativity, whose passionate praise of the goddess of love continues to echo through time, 4000 years after first being carved into a clay tablet.

Note: Translations of the Temple Hymns are taken from Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford 1998.The Conversation

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wilfred Owen 100 years on: poet gave voice to a generation of doomed youth



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Wilfred Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918.
Frontispiece from Poems of Wilfred Owen (1920)

Wim Van Mierlo, Loughborough University

For many people, most of what they know about the futility, sacrifice and tragedy of World War I, they learned through reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen. But what they may not be aware of is how close the Armistice was when Owen was killed at the age of 25.

On November 4 1918, the 2nd Manchester Regiment received orders to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal near the village of Ors to capture German positions at the opposite side. But as the troops attempted to build a pontoon bridge, they came under heavy machine gun fire. Against the odds, they forced a crossing and routed the enemy, but in so doing they suffered more than 200 casualties.

The attack was one of multiple attempts made up and down the canal to push back the Germans, all with similar consequences. But what made the crossing at Ors different however was the death of its most celebrated officer – Lieutenant Wilfred Owen – who was hit while helping the men who were building the bridge.

The tragedy of Owen’s end, just seven days before the guns fell silent, stands out in the cultural memory ahead of the thousands of men who died – or were yet to die – during the final moments of World War I. As a poet, Owen understood the irony of heroism very well. He resisted giving concrete identities to the soldiers who populate his poems to stop their experiences from becoming mere anecdotes. One man’s suffering is not more tragic than that of another.

In a provisional preface, written for a collection of his verse he would never see published, he set down his belief in what poetry could do – or could not do – to appropriately remember the atrocity of war:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.

The sentiment here echoes a shift in war poetry, away from the jingoistic tenor of Rupert Brooke’s sonnets from 1914 about “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England” and the men that gave their life for “immortality” to Siegfried Sassoon’s defiant denunciations of the evils of war.

The “big” words “War” and “Poetry” were ultimately not important for Owen – the more humane invocation of “pity” was poignantly written in lowercase. What the country needed, what the world needed, was empathy and regret, not hero worship – there was nothing glorious in being dead. But the time for this was not now. He disbelieved whether his own generation would ever be able to deal truthfully with the trauma. He was probably correct.

Early promise

Owen had aspired to become a poet since boyhood. His early lyric verse written before the war showed promise, but it didn’t set him apart. The effects of war, and of his reading Sassoon, would change all that. Traditional lyricism gave way to starker rhythms, direct imagery and extensive use of assonance and half rhyme, which at once created sonic cohesion within a broken, phantasmagoric world. The protagonists in Owen’s poems are often no more than a spectre of themselves, mere voices who have lost all sense of their surroundings –- “unremembering” souls “[o]n dithering feet” who have “cease[d] feeling | Even themselves or for themselves”.

Wilfred Owen’s grave at Ors Cemetery in France.
Hektor via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

These poetic phantoms, spectres, ghosts were not shaped by the fighting alone; more than the trenches, it was Owen’s experiences at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, near Edinburgh, that coloured his vision. The four months spent there convalescing from shell shock would prove highly significant. Not only did he meet Sassoon there, who encouraged his poetic sensibilities, it was conducive to his creativity.

As part of their treatment, patients were subjected to ergotherapy, a behavioural therapy developed by Dr Arthur Brock, who believed that through useful work and activity patients would regain healthy links with the world around them. Owen was put in charge of The Hydra, the hospital’s literary magazine, and encouraged to write poetry. But his surroundings also furnished Owen with something more valuable: a space to process the suffering he had seen and was seeing around him. This emotion, recollected in tranquillity, is crystallised in the subject matter of some of his best known poems – characterised by an evocation of the sick, the wounded and the dying.

His manuscripts reflect that state of mind. Composition for Owen was neither frenzied nor easy, but rather it involved a steady process of probing words and phrases from which he manufactured the emotional intensity in his poetry. Differences in pen and ink show how Owen revisited his drafts and touched them up at different moments in time, at Craiglockhart and also afterwards when awaiting medical clearance at Scarborough Barracks.

In May 1918, C K Scott-Moncrief, who had tried and failed to secure Owen a Home posting as cadet instructor, told the young poet he ought to send his work to the publisher Heinemann. Owen was enthused by the encouragement. He drafted his Preface and hastily drew up a table of contents.

Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen.
This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © University of Oxford

But it is likely that getting his work in order led to more writing and rewriting. Two poems, Hospital Barge and Futility (one revised, the other new), appeared in The Nation a month later – in August he received his embarkation orders to return to France. On September 17, at 7.35am, he boarded a military train to Folkestone from where he crossed the English Channel. With the exception of just five poems published in magazines, he never prepared any of his poems for the press, leaving the bulk of his work in various stages of completion.

Reluctant posthumous hero

In 1920, his friend Sassoon published a slim volume from the surviving manuscripts with Chatto & Windus, soon followed by a reprint in 1921, which indicates reasonable sales. (A more complete edition appeared in 1931.) The critical response, however, was mixed. Writing in The Athenaeum, John Middleton Murray praised Owen for achieving “the most magnificent expression of the emotional significance of the War”.

The hidebound Basil de Selincourt, on the other hand, dismissed Owen’s “soothing bitterness” in the Times Literary Supplement. He countered that “[t]he only glory imperishably associated with war is that of the supreme sacrifice which it entails; the trumpets and the banners are poor humanity’s imperfect tribute to that sublime implication”.

Owen’s posthumous reputation, however, owes much to the way that first volume introduced his work to the public. “All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems”, Sassoon wrote in his introduction. Unwittingly, perhaps, that phrase – and the frontispiece of Owen in his regimental uniform – entailed an act of monumentalisation that went against Owen’s preface that his book was “not about heroes”.

Owen’s legacy is inscribed into a culture of remembrance (that persists to this day) which seems to go against his own views. By 1920 the nation was in the grip of commemoration as it began the erection of monuments to the war dead all across the country – and the language adopted was the language of glory, honour, dominion and power which Owen had found repugnant:

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.The Conversation

Wim Van Mierlo, Lecturer in Publishing and English, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Sappho, a poet in fragments



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Fresco showing a woman called Sappho holding writing implements from Pompeii Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

For those who have read the fragmented remains of the Greek poet, Sappho the loss of most of her poetic corpus is something to regret. With a mere two complete poems extant from nine books of verse, much is left to the imagination in the reconstruction of the output (and life) of this most mysterious of ancient poets.

In a world dominated by male voices whose view of life, the universe and everything was the loudest and most respected, Sappho’s songs were regarded as extraordinary. So revered was she that the ancients called her the Tenth Muse, and her songs were passed down over centuries, inspiring generations of poets, none of whom managed to replicate her command of metre and sensual artistry.

How Sappho managed to acquire the educational acumen to compose her masterpieces has sometimes baffled both ancient and modern scholars. Women lived quiet and controlled lives in ancient Mediterranean cultures with limited, if any, access to formal education. If there were any perceived need to teach a girl basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, it was only to equip her to run a household once she was married-off.

Fragment of a Sappho poem, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Part X.
Wikimedia Commons

Even if a girl demonstrated extraordinary artistic skills, there was usually no avenue to express them, as the aspirations of women were limited to marriage and motherhood. Females who displayed a talent were normally suppressed and regarded with suspicion. Why? Because men were the artists, intellects and leaders. Ergo, for a woman to possess such qualities meant she also possessed a masculinity that set her apart from nature.

So, where did Sappho come from? What strange land or culture gave her birth and permitted her extraordinary skills to flourish? While we know little that is certain of her life, we do know Sappho was born in the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey in the late 7th Century BC. Mytilene appears to have been an enlightened society compared to other communities in Archaic Greece. Sappho’s works clearly indicate that women – at least from her privileged social standing – had access to a formal education that included training in choral composition, musical accomplishment and performance.

Her estimated birth date places her sometime after the composition and transmission of the works of the Homeric poets, which told the stories of the Trojan War and are preserved in the epics known as the Iliad and the Odyssey.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad


Love of women

But Sappho was no epic poet, rather she composed lyrics: short, sweet verses on a variety of topics from hymns to the gods, marriage songs, and mini-tales of myth and legend. She also sung of desire, passion and love – mostly directed towards women – for which she is best known. And it is for such poems that Sappho has come down to us as history’s first lesbian.

Was Sappho a lesbian? An answer depends on how one is defined. If love of women, even in a non-sexual sense, and an exclusive focus on the needs and lives of women define a woman as a lesbian, then – yes – Sappho was a lesbian. However, if a lesbian is defined more narrowly as a woman who has sex with another woman, then evidence to define Sappho as one is harder to establish.

Of course, these two binaries are inherently artificial and without nuance. They are also ignorant of social constructionism, which insists on understanding an individual in her or his historical environment, its values, and its cultural specificities. And, in the society of Archaic Mytilene, Sappho was not defined as a lesbian. After all, the word “lesbian” was not invented until the Victorian age.

Sappho’s contemporaries were not responsible for her synonymy with women-loving. That began with the Greeks and Romans of later centuries, who tended to interpret her skill as stemming from a perverted form of masculinity, which sometimes found expression in representations of her through the lens of a hyper-sexuality. Sappho’s reputation for sexual proclivity initially linked her to passionate relations with men, which later morphed into a stronger association with women.

Alcaeus (left) and Sappho. Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, circa 470 BC.
Wikimedia Commons

The Sappho mystique is further confounded by later testimonies such as the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda (or the Stronghold), which chronicled the history of the ancient Mediterranean. In one of two entries on Sappho, readers are informed that she was in love with a ferryman by the name of Phaon whose rejection of her caused her to leap to her death from the Leucadian Cliff.

This apocryphal history, which emerged in antiquity, went on to inspire artists, poets and playwrights for hundreds of years, despite the strange origins of Phaon as a figure of myth and legend. In the second entry on Sappho in the Suda, it is stated that Sappho was married, had a daughter by the name of Cleis, and was also a lover of women.

Turning to the fragments and scant number of complete poems from Sappho’s canon, there are references to her daughter, and to her close female companions – even her brothers – although the extant verses do not sing of a husband. In Fragment 132, for example, Sappho sings of Cleis:

I have a beautiful child whose face is like
golden flowers, my beloved Cleis …

Beauty, caresses and whispers

Sappho, following the poetic traditions of Archaic Greece, tended towards floral and natural imagery to depict feminine beauty and youth. Elsewhere, she evokes images of garlands, scents and even apples to convey feminine sensuality. Hers was largely a world of beauty, caresses, whispers and desires; songs sung in honour of the goddess Aphrodite, and tales of mythical love.

In Fragment 16, arguably Sappho’s most sublime poem, fortunately well preserved albeit a little tattered, her definition of beauty anticipates the maxim of the philosopher, Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things”:

Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry,
and others of ships, is the most beautiful
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
whatever a person loves.
It is perfectly easy to make this
understood by everyone: for she who far
surpassed mankind in beauty,
Helen, left her most noble husband
and went sailing off to Troy with no thought at all
for her child or dear parents,
but [love?] led her astray …
lightly …
[and she]
has reminded me
now of Anactoria
who is not here;
I would rather see her
lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her
face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed
infantry …

Sappho’s definition of beauty – that which a person loves – privileges the individual over the community. She extends her dictum with the example of the mythical figure of Helen of Troy, renowned in antiquity as the most beautiful woman in the world. As testimony to Sappho’s unique interpretation of the story, she removes the standard figures of blame for Helen’s role in the Trojan War – Paris, the Trojan prince who abducted her or, in other versions, Aphrodite who forced her to go with him – and gives agency to Helen herself. In Sappho’s world, where love is all, it is Helen who decides to leave her husband and elope with Paris. Consequences be damned!

A cropped version of Raphael’s 1511 fresco Parnassus, showing the figure of Sappho.
Wikimedia Commons

Sappho’s thoughts on love and desire extend to a personal reverie on a woman by the name of Anactoria. Sappho reveals that Anactoria is gone and is missed. She compares her, indirectly, to Helen and then evokes her beauty, namely her gait and her sparkling face. Sappho’s lyrics are sensual, gentle, intense. But they are also powerful, as she rejects the world of masculine warfare in preference for beauty and desire.

‘A tremor shakes me’

In another well-preserved piece, Fragment 31, Sappho evokes the sensations she experiences as a result of being seated opposite a beautiful woman:

He seems to me equal in good fortune to the
whatever man, who sits on the opposite side to you
and listens nearby to your
sweet replies
and desire-inducing laugh: indeed that
gets my heart pounding in my breast.
For just gazing at you for a second, it is impossible
for me even to talk;
my tongue is broken, all at once a soft
flame has stolen beneath my flesh,
my eyes see nothing at all,
my ears ring,
sweat pours down me, a tremor
shakes me, I am more greenish than
grass, and I believe I am at
the very point of death.

The power of the fragment, and indeed the meaning, are substantially derived from the Greek pronouns that denote three players in Sappho’s drama: Sappho, the man, and the woman.

Portrait of Sappho by Léon Jean Bazille Perrault, 1891.
Wikimedia Commons

The man is god-like because he can be in the presence of the woman and remain unaffected. Sappho, in contrast, is a physical, mental and emotional wreck. The fragmented condition of the piece includes a few words that indicate at least one more stanza followed.

Such was the power of Sappho’s poem that it went on to inspire various intellectuals and poets who followed her. The Roman poet, Catullus was so enamoured of Sappho’s work that he reworked Fragment 31, which he would have known in its complete form, into his own version that even rendered the original Sapphic hendecasyllabic metre into Latin [Poem 51].

Translating Sappho is no mean feat. Most of the work is in poor condition, pieced together by papyrologists to make readable texts for scholars to work from. Confronted with the Aeolic Greek of the poet, printed neatly on a page, the translator is immediately drawn into emendations, conjectures, broken lines, missing words, incomplete words, hypothetical punctuation and, in short, a philological headache.

And, after persisting, the translator is always dissatisfied. It is impossible to capture the poet’s genius in another language, especially if the translator is simultaneously striving for a metrical equivalent. Catullus, too, was a poetic genius – an artist with complete control over style, metrics and meaning – yet he was humble enough not to replicate Sappho’s words but to imitate them, to compose a response to them, to make them his own as a homage to the Tenth Muse.

New discoveries

But despite the hurdles and the intellectual heartache, there are rewards in recent discoveries that continue to add more words, more lines, more stanzas and sometimes even new poems to the canon. In 2004, the discovery of piece of papyrus that completed an existing fragment – thereby making a new poem by Sappho – received international media coverage. The process of repair resulted in Poem 58, which deals with the themes of youth and old age.

Sappho’s poem An Old Age (lines 9-20) LB 58. Papyrus from third century BC.
Wikimedia Commons

Sappho mourns the passing of her youth, and reminds her audience of the myth of Tithonos, one of the few mortals to be loved by a goddess. Struck by the beauty of the young man, the goddess Eos asks Zeus to permit her to take the young man to live with her eternity. But Eos forgets to ask that Tithonos be granted a second gift: eternal youth. And so, she is left with a lover she quickly finds hideous and repellent, and Tithonos is left alone, trapped in a never-ending cycle of ageing.

More and more of Sappho is emerging. In 2013, more new fragments were discovered that have assisted in reconstructing existing pieces, and bringing to light four previously unknown pieces. One relatively complete poem, Brothers Song is the most significant of the find because of its hitherto unknown status.

The piece is also important because it further develops the image of the poet as an artist whose themes extended beyond the sensual and romantic. While previously extant fragments and details in works such as the Suda reference Sappho’s brothers, the poem provides more insight into Sappho’s familial world. While the first three stanzas are missing, there are five complete ones, the subject of which is a speaker’s concerns for the safe return of her two brothers, Charaxos and Larichos from a maritime trading venture.

The discoveries of this century are testimony to the fascinating and random nature of such finds. Rather than being hidden away in obscure manuscripts in dusty archives or included in elaborate scrolls, the fragments have sometimes come from less salubrious environments.

For example, much of Sappho’s work, along with pieces from poets and writers ranging from Homer, the Greek playwrights, Plato and Saint Paul came from Oxyrhynchus – an ancient garbage dump in Egypt.

And while other pieces were preserved as quotations in more respectable formats, such as books on grammar, composition and philosophy, the 2004 poem originally came from the cartonnage of an Egyptian mummy.

Indeed, cartonnage – a plaster-like material made from material scraps, including papyri that was wrapped around mummified bodies and then decorated – has yielded rich results, Sappho’s fragments being just one example. Hopefully more garbage will be excavated to reveal more of Sappho’s poetic diamonds.

The ConversationFor a recent, reliable edition of Sappho’s works, see Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, translated from the ancient Greek by Diane J. Rayor, with an introduction and notes by André Lardinois (Cambridge University Press).

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.