This column is called Poetic Licence. I rather like the name, implying as it does a certain freedom of expression. There are, to be sure, numerous definitions of the word ‘ licence’. My dictionary offers ‘ a permit to do or to own something’, as in a driver’s licence or a TV licence; a certificate, document, permit, credential or qualification from some recognised authority, such as a government department or training institute. We all know about these.
But ‘ poetic’ licence ‒ what could that be? And why should it be necessary to hold a licence for poetry? Well, of course, it isn’t. Many people seem to believe that the achievement of a licence is an end in itself, as though there is nothing more to learn afterwards. I don’t accept this. Passing a driving test, for instance, and qualifying for a driver’s licence is, in my view, only the start of a much more important process ‒ learning how to be a good driver.
The licence simply says: You’ve got the basics; now go out and discover how to do this really well. Get some experience ‒ and never stop learning.
What it does not say is: Now that you have the licence, you must forever do things exactly like this.
Quite the opposite, in fact. As I hinted above, perhaps it acknowledges a newly earned freedom to try things out, to experiment. It can allow for the careful and intelligent manipulation of ‘ rules’, finding out what works and what doesn’t. So it is with poetry. I have long argued, here and elsewhere, that poetry is a living thing. It has changed over time and will continue to do so. Indeed it must do so, evolving and developing as all life does.
This is why it dismays me to find so many would-be poets using the language and styles of, say, 19th century England. The poetry of Wordsworth, Tennyson and Keats was (and is) wonderful, but it is of their time and place, not ours.
Our place, our time and our language(s) are just as capable of producing poetry as theirs was. We do not need to copy them.
We should allow ourselves the freedom to express and to be who we are ‒ to borrow, to play and experiment where appropriate. To risk failing sometimes in order eventually to succeed.
To illustrate, here is a short poem by Grahamstown writer Sihle Ntuli. It deals with a harshly unpleasant reality of contemporary South Africa and does not hide from its nastiness, but the poem succeeds in just 15 compact lines in making me, at least, aware of something I would probably not care to think about otherwise. And it does so with chilling power, subtlety and precision.
This is how poetic licence can work. taxi rank reeking his despair fills queue area
tears run down his face piss flows down his leg
they pull him with the rings of his trouser trouser touching his back
they pull him
he grips the floor for dear life his shoes do not hold their force pushes him forward
he disappears behind the wall dragged to seclusion from that point you can only hear him