The Playfulness of Poetry

In Makhanya/Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival, I attended on Tuesday a Poetryfest event, this being two hours focusing on a poetic theme. Poetryfest is new, the initiative of the multi-talented Tsitsi Sachikonye.

I had expected poet Harry Owen to be focusing, in his talk about  the “Playfulness of Poetry,” on what might be called light or humorous verse, and so I brought along a copy of Gus Ferguson’s Arse Poetica, as did another member of the audience. Gus is certainly playful in this astringent volume of mostly short poems, wittily dissecting the pretensions that thrive in South African poetry circles. This was not specifically the thrust of Harry’s presentation, however.

Harry talked about a playfulness that is not to be confused with humor or light-heartedness but rather the capacity for understanding that children demonstrate, being childlike rather than childish. He quoted various poems, from the Jabberwocky through to Finuala Dowling’s “To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair” to illustrate what he meant: poetry’s playing with words can be used to make sophisticated jokes but also to snatch some meaning from the meaningless of human evil.

One of the poems that Harry cited I had not come across, “Poetry is the Art of Not Succeeding”, by Joe Salerno, whose second verse reads, 

It’s the art of those who didn’t make it

after all, who were lucky enough to be

left behind, while the winners ran on ahead

to wherever it is winners 

go running to.

Only after the event did it strike me that it would have been appropriate to quote Blake, one of the trippiest* and most playful poets ever: 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand 

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

*An archaic term evoking the hallucinatory effects of psychedelic drugs.

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