A book launch is exciting especially when something as rare as an Afrikaans poetry book is being introduced. Narreskip (Protea Boeke) by Johan Myburg was the collection being celebrated. DIANE DE BEER wants to invite poetry patrons to share her enchantment:
One of my favourite writers, Johan Myburg, recently launched his 4th poetry book titled Narreskip (loosely translated as Ship of Fools) and, without spoiling the fun, it is the life around him that he observes and spotlights.
Poetry is something I have always loved and checked from the side lines. More than anything, I love other people reading and talking about poetry – making sense of my own reading experience.
And then, Johan writes in Afrikaans, and while it is my mother tongue, I write in English and am perhaps not as familiar with my first language as I should be.
He was surprised when I told him there were many words I didn’t understand. It’s not that the language is that highbrow, it’s simply that he has a phenomenal vocabulary and makes use of words that few people still use. But that also gets your attention. It’s not just what he is writing about but the way he engages with the language.
Even his references send you scuttling to google and you do, because it is intriguing enough to get your curiosity salivating.
But I digress. In spite of all my qualms, Johan’s writing is especially interesting because, even if poetry might seem scary to some, and he is quite the intellectual, he has a way of writing that is embracing and accessible. And that more than anything is what makes it so fascinating.
Poetry can be alienating to many people and when you start talking about Herzog Prize winners like this particular poet, it could be even more intimidating. But now I’m starting to sound scary – even to myself – and that’s not the point of this exercise.
I want to encourage – even second-language speakers – to try this book, which had already received a handful of glowing reviews from the top Afrikaans critics at the time of the launch. And yes, we’re talking poetry, that niche of writing exercises.
With Afrikaans poetry critic Karen de Wet’s introduction (at the launch) in hand, I am going to use her as my guide because of her in-depth knowledge of this poet and his writing. But also as someone who knows how to judge the value of someone like Johan, who still in this time we live in, has the chutzpah to write yet another book of poetry.
It’s not as if readers are clamouring for the latest Afrikaans poetry offering. But as an artist, I suspect, he can’t help himself. He has the skill and the artistry and something to say. His awards prove that he also has the means to say it magnificently. And even I, with my paucity of knowledge in this field, can attest to that.
Johan has the credentials. He is one of only 20 poets who has won the Herzog Prize in its 104 years of existence. And he is a true classicist. Not only is he knowledgeable about classical literature, art and music, he is also well versed in history and philosophy, as well as being one of the country’s top art critics who has often curated small and large exhibitions.
And he uses this wealth of experience in his writing. In fact, he giggles as an aside when talking about all his references at the launch, “I had to make sure ahead of time that I could still remember where all those come from.” I know him well enough to suspect that’s just his insecurities. That mind of his would hardly allow one of those to slip away.
In fact, if I could really make a wish, I would like to spend some time with Johan so that he can take me through the work and explain his thought processes. It’s that kind of work. There’s too much happening for everything to be grasped with a first or even second and third reading and my grasp of Afrikaans literature as well as the classics is much too scant to be truly comfortable with the essence of this work.
Both Karen and critic Joan Hambidge agree that this is something to read again and again. As Karen states so succinctly (and I translate loosely): “The 106 pages of verse in Narreskip will not be read only once, there is value in the money paid for this poetry book.” And then Hambidge gives you the key when she explains in her review that the poet uses the classical landscape in which to play with the here and now.
Again Karen captures it best when she explains what the real importance of these Myburg words, witticisms and wisdoms might be: “What is the role (importance) of the poet, the poem, here? That those of us who might be blunted, might see what is happening in our world, see ourselves, reflect, devise (or even rethink).”
Johan himself reflects in an interview about his preference for a participating society rather a grumbling one.
He practises what he preaches and invites his readers to engage. In fact, when we lose hope not only because of what is happening too close and personal for comfort, but also because of the universal fallout with wars, epidemics and economic downturn affecting everyone, this is indeed a way to climb out of that quagmire.
Allow this wise and witty wordsmith to take you by the hand and follow him on a journey, masterfully thought through, of the here and now. It gets your mind exercising in a way that presents much more in the way of positive than negative thought.
We do need those now.
Finally, if nothing else, it is the brilliance of the Myburg mind that will entice and enchant. We need to take time out to listen and then languish in the thoughts of others – especially those who make the time to not only think, but then also share it so bravely with others.