editorial: poetry is existentialism

zamantungwa | March 23rd, 2013 | editorial | No Comments

We are very complex. Humans are complex beings. We have an immense capacity for greatness. And at times because we can get so caught up in the race to acquire, to showboat and be the one on top, we seem to have an even greater capacity for darkness. And living, living is a constant battle to untangle this complexity without complicating or frustrating it. I sometimes feel that poetry and life, living, are such closely related processes that one could say the poetry is existential.

I started writing poems as a way to understand myself and the world. When struggling with some dark emotions, the only way to keep my head from exploding has been to write it down, to write a poem. For some reason rhyme, meter, rhythm, word play helps me have a better sense of my humanity and helps me deal with the humanity around me.

George Bernard Shaw said: “Only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love.”

I’ve attempted to find answers by writing and reading other poems. It is in poems that I’ve found the beauty, truth and knowledge that Shaw speaks about. Poems and poets have taught me to see the beauty of humanity and in poems, I imagine a world more virtuous and glorious. So, asking for poems written to the On Being Human theme, I hoped for beauty, knowledge, love, virtue, for an understand and celebration of the human being just being. All this and more drives the reason why I write, why I love poetry.

Poetry has always helped me deal through my numerous existential crises. If I had nothing, at least I had poetry. My first poem, Walk on (Have Plenty), (a pretty awful poem) dealt with a crisis over whether to give my lunch to a homeless man I encountered on my way to school. It was confessional in spirit. It sent me into a crisis because I kept wondering why he was there, how he’d come to be there and how even my lunch would not really be much help. It dealt with my feelings at the moment of that encounter and it left me open to a different way of being. Poetry requires one to look inward with as much intensity as you look outward. Poetry has the power to remind us how to be human again. Through poetry we can explore what makes us human, we can give meaning to life and get us to live it meaningfully and passionately.

When I put out a call for this edition and came up with the theme, On Being Human, I didn’t realise that I was entering existentialist territory. I was inspired by South Africa’s Human Right’s Day, 21 March also known as Sharpeville Day – a day in 1960 when apartheid cops shot, in the back, and killed 69 of about 6000 Black people who had marched to the police station to hand themselves over for not carrying their pass books. This had been part of the protest against pass law organised by the Pan African Congress (PAC). When the PAC was tried for defying apartheid law, one of its leaders, Potlako Leballo said this:

“We believe in one race only – the human race to which we belong. The history of the human race is a long history of struggle against all restrictions, physical, mental and spiritual. We would have betrayed the human race if we had not done our share.”

They fought to be human and that fight continues to be fought everyday. I salute these heroes who died tragically on that fateful day.

The poems, I’ve received for On Being Human, examine and comment on the human condition in an interesting way. While questioning, describing, critiquing the human condition, the poets also attempted to give meaning to life. Every time we take pen to paper, distil our thoughts in rhyme scheme, metre, apply metaphor and imagery, we search for humanity.

So with this edition, we poets are attempting to do our share to not betray the human race. We are saying we’re here. To be cheesy – we write poems, therefore we are…

If existentialism precedes essence then poetry is existentialism and I dedicate this edition to all those who have fought for and continue to fight for our humanity.

published in print in Poetry Potion 2013.01 On Being Human

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