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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


VAN VUUREN, Helize. Louw set free: A riff on a seam. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.2, pp.508-533. ISSN 2224-7912.

The poetic oeuvre of NP van Wyk Louw (1906-1970) consists of six collections of poetry, four written in South Africa between 1935 and 1942, and two while living in Amsterdam in the Fifties: Nuwe verse [New poems] (1954) and Tristia en ander verse, voorspele en vlugte 1950-1957 [Tristia and other poems, preludes and flights 1950-1957] (1962). These two collections are viewed as his late work (last poetical works, written later in his life) that concluded his oeuvre (the poet had a serious heart attack in 1961 and never recuperated fully, nor published a poetry collection again till he died in 1970, aged 61). The term "late work" is not problematised in this essay, but merely used as a marker, to differentiate it from the earlier works (as the term "Spätwerk" is used in German literary and musicology analysis and criticism). In view of the usual close reading of his work that arose from the canonised status of the oeuvre as if it were set in stone (including my own 1989 reading in Tristia in perspektief [Tristia in perspective]), this essay is a rereading, a reading in a wider context, more open to all sides, as if for the first time, against the grain of all sedimented conceptions of his work, a reading that aims to scrape off some of the verdigris of encrusted critical perspectives, as the poet referred to critical reception in his last text, Rondom eie werk [Around my own work] (1970). The jazz term "riff" is used for the rather free associative style in the essay (repeated ostinato on various topoi around a few motifs, utilising singular words or phrases). Throughout the researcher's gaze is also following what might be identified as characteristic of Louw's later style, read with a constant eye on the intense socio-political connectedness of his later work, produced while in voluntary exile in Amsterdam.A short, under-researched poem, "Die narwal" [The narwhal] (in Tristia, p.27), offers an entry into the oeuvre, tracing his late-style technique of oblique use of single words or phrases which easily escape the reader's attention.In "Die narwal" it is the word "stoottand" that stands out, as this word does not, to my knowledge, occur elsewhere in Afrikaans; Louw's singular use of the word (eschewing the familiar word "slagtand" [canine tooth]) caught the reader's attention. It is derived from German "Stoßzahn", as used by Paul Celan in "Eingedunkelt". In Afrikaans the verb "stoot" means "to push" (and combined with "tooth" connotes violence), but in vulgar usage denotes copulation. The poet points out the narwhal's main attributes as having "speckles. :/a canine tooth or a pen". The naming of the "pen" connoting a writing instrument pushes the simple little poem into the metatextual realm, as the poet identifies himself with this singular, red-listed creature. "The narwhal" is a self-portrait of the poet: he - the poet, is "speckled" (rare, sought-after, and multi-composite), but has a tusk or horn as weapon (later revealed by researchers to be a highly sensitive tacticle organ), and lives through this "pen", his writing.The attention then shifts from this poem to a highly canonised, ostensibly simple poem, "Die beiteltjie" [The small chisel], that contains the phrase "die donker naat" [the dark seam]. The Afrikaans word "naat" is similarly nuanced and connected to vulgar usage: it could simply refer to the pleat in a garment, sewn there through use of needle and thread, but the verb from which it is derived, "naai" [to sew], likewise in vulgar usage connotes copulation. Some now-disused, racist terms in Afrikaans for miscegenation of varying degrees (going back to the 1920s and 1930s) aimed to indicate the proportion of "dark blood" mixed with "white blood" in the people concerned - through terms such as "halfnaatjie" and "kwartnaatjie". Behind all these terms involving "naat" [seam] lies the tragedy of apartheid (1948-1994). The hypothesis of this essay is that "Die beiteltjie" deals directly with this "dark seam" between races after the National Party came into power in 1948, although the poem, for whatever reason, has mostly been read as an upbeat verse, illustrating the poet's ars poetica.In "Klipwerk" (in Nuwe verse), poems containing a collection of oral traditional voices from his childhood in the remote Roggeveld area near Sutherland, it seems as if the poet is also going back to the roots of the Afrikaans language, to a time when farmers and descendants of the Khoi-San were living close to one another on the farms and in the small village of Sutherland. This is reflected especially in dance, drinking and dagga songs. It is suggested that the origins of the language lie in Khoi-San and white mouths. Finally, the absence of a precise date for the genesis of the "small chisel" poem (although narrowed down to between April 1947 and October 1949 by the dating of other poems) leaves a gap, a suture, a wound (to echo Derrida on Celan's "Schibboleth"), as it suggests that the poem was conceived around the time of 4 June 1948 when the National Party came into power, after which apartheid legislation multiplied. The essay takes as its point of departure a present of being locked-down, darkened-in, the title of Celan's 1968 poem "Eingedunkelt".

Keywords : NP van Wyk Louw; late work; late style; apartheid; speckledness; narwhal; Afrikaans poetry; Nuwe verse; New poems; 1954; Tristia; 1962; Paul Celan; canonisation; Jacques Derrida; Xam; Khoi-San; Trafalgar High School; DJ Opperman; apartheid; Afrikaner nationalism; African Political Organisation; Afrikaans; GR von Wielligh; Afrikaans poetry; South African literature.

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