A Poem for a Pear Tree

A Pear Tree Blooming in Winter, 9 August 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
The sight that inspired “A Pear Tree” on 4 August 2018, photographed (again) a few days later.

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.

Poetry Publication Progress (2020-06-24)

Composing “O, How Free is the Wind!”: A Final Draft

The rhyming scheme of “O, How Free is the Wind!”. (The purpose of the staggered, asymmetrical format is to suggest the movement of the wind.)

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.

Poetry Publication Progress (2020-06-21)

Composing “O, How Free is the Wind!”

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:

  1. the working title (“O, How Free is the Wind!”, which I shall use as a refrain),
  2. the subject (the wind, which will be the focus of the poem) and
  3. 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!

The Next Sketch

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.

  1. 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].
  2. 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.

Poetry Publication Progress (2020-06-12)

Sweet Similitude

Mist Above Bethoeskloof, 5 June 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
Were you to turn to the left whilst surveying the scene I photographed last Friday, you would see the easternmost extremity of the Little River Mountain range, the setting for the “Shepherd Girl” and “Skaapwagtertjie” poems.

“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.

Poetry Publication Progress (2020-06-09)

A Poet Vindicated

Mist Above Bethoeskloof, 5 June 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
The ridges of the Little River Mountains with a misty mantle. As a girl, my mother watched the family’s sheep beyond the concealed elevation, just left of centre.

Yesterday, I spoke again with my mother about her childhood shepherding days as the very mountain upon which she grazed her flock slowly succumbed to the mist:

“Would you still be up there at this time?”

“By now, I would be home.”

“What time did you descend?”

“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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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”.
  3. 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!
  4. How bizarre the scruples of the poet when working out the implications of his lines!

Stanza Two: What To Do?

Stanza Two: What To Do?, 24 May 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.

“Skaapwagtertjie”

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!

“Shepherd Girl”

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.

O, Symmetry!

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.

  1. 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).

Poetic Temptations

Poetic Temptations, 23 May 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.

The Purely Pragmatic

The traditional poet is often tempted to use a word solely for its rhyming ability and must, therefore, be ever wary of the possibility that his choice serves no other function than the purely pragmatic, adding nothing conceptual to the work.

I faced just such a trap in a variation for “Skaapwagtertjie”’s1 first stanza, where the word windjie’s2 sole purpose was to rhyme with kindjie3, contributing nothing beyond those lowest of functions: superfluous detail and mere rhyme.

The Delightfully Literary

Another temptation concerns my anachronistic compositional style—a Romantic use of language to complement my theme. I prefer, for example, “upon” and “whilst” over “on” and “while”; a line with a literary phrasing over a prosaic one.

In the Afrikaans counterpart of “Shepherd Girl”, I must presently decide whether the archaic newels4 or familiar mis5 (both mean “mist(s)”) best suits the poem. In cases such as these, it is fortunate that my artistic approach indulges!

  1. The Afrikaans counterpart of “Shepherd Girl” that I am now composing.
  2. Pronounced [veyngki] (with [ey] like the [ei] in “reign” and the [i] in “in”), Afrikaans for “breeze” (literally “little wind”).
  3. Pronounced [keyngki] (with [ey] like the [ei] in “reign” and the [i] in “in”), Afrikaans for “little child”.
  4. Pronounced [neevils] (with the [ee] in “deer” and [i] like the [a] in “about”).
  5. Pronounced [miss] (with [i] like the [a] in “about”).

The Words We Choose

The Words We Choose, 19 May 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.

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.

  1. “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”.
  2. The inherent slowness of the act as evoked by the sounds and trailing syllables of the word.