Beside the dirt road that leads to the hamlet where I live, a pear tree stands alone at the edge of a field. Every year, it blooms at the beginning of August, a month before the arrival of the South African spring, delighting the passer-by modestly yet spectacularly. In August 2018, I wrote a few rough stanzas in response to that very tree under the working title “A Pear Tree”. Now, nearly two years later, I am ready to develop them into a finished poem.
Of course, the pear tree has inspired a poem. Another new draft—I shall never finish this project! Incidentally, the field where it grows was once an orchard, one of many. In days gone by, my village was known for its pear orchards, earning it the nickname "'Little Pears' Town". pic.twitter.com/YSDy67a7gu
I am stunned by how easily and quickly “O, How Free is the Wind!” has developed into a finished work—as if it composed itself! Regardless of length, it usually takes four to five weeks for my compositions to come together, but this poem has taken one!
Following an AAB C DDB C rhyming scheme in staggered lines, there are two stanzas, each describing a mood of the wind: in the first, it is placid; in the second, full of life. Each stanza concludes with a separated exclamation—the title, that of the second.
Sometimes, a poetic sketch contains within it the rudimentary structure upon which the final composition can be hung; sometimes, it is the beginning of an idea that evolves into a work bearing no resemblance to the first form. The latter is the case with “O, How Free is the Wind!”.
Reviewing my original lines from two years ago, I found they were nothing more than an enthusiastic translation of the Deutscher-Madison lyrics; therefore, I am engineering the poem anew by using as my starting point the three elements of the sketch that I consider salvageable:
the working title (“O, How Free is the Wind!”, which I shall use as a refrain),
the subject (the wind, which will be the focus of the poem) and
the theme (the characteristics of the wind, its effects about and above us).
Around these then I am constructing a new draft which already shows great promise!
It appears I am not yet done with Afrikaans after completing “Skaapwagtertjie”—the counterpart in that language of “Shepherd Girl”—as the next poem to be developed is “O, How Free is the Wind!” (working title), a sketch prompted by an Afrikaans song: “Ruiter van die Windjiie”1 (Rider of the Breeze).
It was composed by Drafi Deutscher in the mid-nineteen-seventies for Heintje Simons and covered in the mid-nineteen-eighties by Bles Bridges.2 For the lyrics, Deutscher—under the alias Renate Vaplus—collaborated with singer Ben E. Madison, describing in simple verses, life on the wings of the wind.
The wind is a prominent theme of my work. When I heard the Deutscher-Madison lyrics anew, almost exactly two years ago, I was moved to compose several rough English stanzas in response. These I shall now review to determine whether they will work as a lyric poem, joyful and bracing as the song.
Pronounced [RoyteR fun dee veyngkee] with the [R]s trilled, the [ee]s short like that in “it” and [oy] like that in “toy”, but uttering an “uh” rather than “aw”: [uhee].
Like Simons in The Netherlands, Bridges in South Africa was famous for schlager songs: vocal-centred compositions with memorable tunes, dutiful accompaniment and light, sentimental lyrics. Simons recorded many songs in Afrikaans, a language similar to his native Dutch, from which it derives.
“Shepherd Girl” and its Afrikaans counterpart, “Skaapwagtertjie”, are complete. Having set myself the task, two weeks ago, of creating greater alignment between the final English and Afrikaans compositions (especially where they were overly dissimilar), I have achieved success.
Now, when the poems are placed side by side, they reflect one another as closely in phrasing and feature as grammar and style allow. Though it took more than sixty additional versions and variations to bring about this symmetry, I consider it time, turmoil and trial well spent.
“I do not know; we did not have watches or clocks.”1
“How fortuitous that you should tell me this! The second stanza in the Afrikaans version of ‘Shepherd Girl’ has the line ‘Van ure onbewus’2—‘Of hours unaware’!”3
For days, I have been vacillating between several versions of the incongruent second stanza in the English and Afrikaans compositions of the poem in question. My most recent gripe was with its line “Of hours unaware”.
It is meant to show that she passed the time in a world of her own, but “Of hours unaware” seemed to me overly hyperbolic: how could she not know what hours were?4
Yesterday’s anecdote revealed that this was in fact the case, vindicating my poetic choice and helping me select the English and Afrikaans stanza versions containing that line as the ones to appear in the final drafts!
My mother watched her stepmother Dot and step-uncle Mike’s sheep which were kept in the latter’s pen atop the mountain. Uncle Mike would crack his whip from far below on the foothills as the signal for her to fold the sheep and return home.
Pronounced [fun eeRuh onbeviss]: [ee] is formed by rounding the mouth as if to say “ooh”, but positioning the tongue to form “eeh” (like the [u] in the French mur); the [R] is trilled (“RRR”) and the [i] like the [uh] in “about”.
I am yet to recite to her the complete Afrikaans poem, but I am happy to report that she was delighted with the English one!
How bizarre the scruples of the poet when working out the implications of his lines!
As if in lockstep with the development of its completed English counterpart (“Shepherd Girl”), “Skaapwagtertjie”’s second stanza is a challenge. Having reduced the number of versions for the stanza from just over twenty to two strong contenders for the final draft, I have reached an impasse.
Stanza one introduces shepherdess and flock on the mountain, whilst stanza two elaborates upon her solitary hours watching the sheep. The challenge: which of the two stanza versions most evocatively captures the scene in its four (very) short lines. To find the victor ludorum, I can but nitpick!
If truth be told, I am still vacillating between—nay, tormented by—my final choices for stanza two in the English poem. In fact, I devoted today to composing six additional versions of the stanza (from which I have extracted three with promise) to assure myself that I have exhausted every variation.
I had hoped that completing the Afrikaans would bring resolution to my concerns about the English version, but it seems there is yet more work to be done on the latter before I can finalise the former. This is primarily due to the fact that I wish to bring the two poems into thematic agreement.
The second stanza is the only one in which they sufficiently diverge (in subject matter) to cause me concern. In spite of my past pronouncements that the two compositions develop independently, my innate desire for uniformity compels me to seek symmetry, and I must attempt to create it!1
It may be that the aforementioned new English second stanza trials produce nothing worthy and I must humbly accept that the current version is my best offering; but, until I am satisfied that I have summoned every poetic ingenuity within my power, I shall not proceed with the Afrikaans.
I am, of course, in the fortunate position that I can so shape both poems that they agree without compromise—the English version informing the Afrikaans and vice versa. This is not one poet translating the work of another, but a poet casting his own composition into another language (a most fascinating exercise).
The poetic process is a fascinating one, especially when it comes to the selection of the “right” words. Consider those instances where we choose words not only for their Content and Construction but their Capacity (to perform a particular function) and Cadence (to actualise a particular meaning).
For example, Heinrich Heine uses “hold” (rather than, say, “lieb”) in “So hold und schön und rein”1 to produce a progression of vowels that “opens” like a flower; and a word like “wandered” that requires a certain unhurriedness to convey its sense2 which a high-tempo stanza would undermine.
“Du bist wie eine Blume, / So hold und schön und rein” (You are like a flower, / So lovely and fair and pure) from “Du bist wie eine Blume”.
The inherent slowness of the act as evoked by the sounds and trailing syllables of the word.
“Skaapwagtertjie” is following the same path of development as its English counterpart, “Shepherd Girl”, with an early resolution of all the stanzas but the second. Just like “Shepherd Girl”, two weeks into its composition, the drafts for stanzas one, three and four are reduced to one or two versions, whilst for stanza two, there are more than ten (from a total of about twenty) yet to be whittled down to that number. This is my task in the days to come.