“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 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!
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.
Poetry is not without its rules, and just as in every other discipline they must first be assimilated before they can be effectively broken, so in Poesy, there are basic mechanisms a poet must grasp and diligently seek to master in his work.
In contemporary poetry, this is a skill notably absent.
A failure to comprehend and appreciate the principles of expressive language is a scourge upon it. Nearly all compositions in the style would be vastly improved had the poet a rudimentary understanding of what makes a poem a poem.
There exists a fine line between prose and free verse.
Writing something that resembles a poem does not make it one. How much of what one reads today has themes not worth contemplating, blurted out (for composed they are not) in lumbering stanzas that do nothing to give them form?
Not every man who fancies himself a poet can verse.
For a poem to be good, it must resound in the halls of human experience. It must elevate the mundane through a celebration of language and a distillation of thought that compels the reader to exclaim: Yes! I know—I feel—your meaning!
Is such a thing too great a task for the modern poet?
Perhaps. Consider what we who long for a sublimation of the modern experience are presented with in vers libre: the poetic equivalent of Yeezy—crude phrasal fragments that barely resemble language, unworthy of the ear and soul.
“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.
Presently translating “Shepherd Girl” into the Afrikaans “Skaapwagtertjie”, I am encouraged to do the same for another poem titled “Little River” (yet unfinished). The sketch contains several Afrikaans bird and place names which justify a full translation, I think. When I composed the first draft of “Little River”, I thought of it as a way of enjoying Afrikaans without actually composing a work in the language; but “Skaapwagtertjie” shows me the delights of doing so. Perhaps I shall eventually translate the entire anthology into Afrikaans; but for now, this set shall be my indulgence.
Ruminating on the nature of Poesy, I am struck by how much of its composition is a process of elimination. Poetry, to me, answers the question: “How, in language, do I express this thought as evocatively as possible?” The phrase into which a thought is cast may be constructed from any number of words at a poet’s command; his task: systematically to sift through these to find which, in his estimation, best encapsulate the promptings of his soul—or, in lowlier terms, best wrestle lyric from prose and style from substance.