Singing soothing ‘Songs of Ourselves’ worthwhile
Elliot Ziwira @ the Bookstore
“SONGS of Ourselves” (2005) is a compilation of poems by the University of Cambridge International Examinations Board to capture more than 400 years of poetic vision. More than 100 poets from the length and breadth of the English speaking world converge to tell the unequivocal story of toil, love, despair, war, frustration and death in different styles but with one voice; the voice of a yearning humanity. The anthology, though meant to stimulate mastery and critical reading, goes beyond the mere rubble of academic discourse, as it appeals to the lay reader as well. Cutting across a cosmopolitan landscape with its diverse cultures, the collection timelessly explores the nature of man, as he struggles against himself, his fellow men and his environment. Divided into five parts drawn from the 16th to the 20th Centuries, the poetic voices used here are unique in their absolution of creed, colour and time in evoking human feelings of gloom, glee and hope.
There is really a story for each one of us for the songs are a true reflection of us all regardless of age, station in life or affiliation; from Great Britain, America and India, through the Caribbean Islands, to South Africa and Zimbabwe, it explores the mundane, sordid and macabre through the wailing tone in the daily songs of the common man, and the ennobling, opulent and yet rueful repertoire of the powerful and affluent. All these separate voices merge into one foreboding song of the futility of life.
The first part, covering the 16th and 17th centuries has among others, poems by such luminaries like William Shakespeare, Lady Mary Worth, Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I. The Queen has three poems in this collection which cover human follies of conceit, suspicion and arrogance. In the poem “When I Was Fair and Young”, Queen Elizabeth I explores the vanity of outward appearances illuminated through beauty and youth as they lack permanency.
Women especially lie in the shadow of beauty and youth in their dealings with men which make them conceited and predatory, but when the shadow fades, as it is wont to, they are left clutching to mere egos, like the woman in the poem who in her youth could control men with her whimsical beauty and tell them: “Go, go, go, seek some other-where; importune me no more,” until her beauty, like fashion, fades out of season, much to her fear and rue. Using traditional traits of poetry, like end rhymes, and a subdued pace through the use of short sentences and punctuation marks, the Queen effectively exposes the folly of vanity.
In “No Crooked Leg, No Bleared Eye”, written in only one quatrain, she pokes at the bane of suspicion, which according to her, surpasses any form of disability. The singing Queen also lays bare the paradoxical nature of life and human nature in “I Grieve, and Dare Not Show My Discontent”.
True to his gargantuan stature, William Shakespeare finds six of his prominent 150 sonnets and poems in this anthology. “Song: Sigh No More, Ladies” examines the chauvinistic and deceptive inclinations of men, and implores women to be wary of such tendencies, and position themselves on a warpath and extol their lot instead of perennially sulking.
He sings: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more/Men were deceivers ever;/One foot in sea, and one on shore,/To one thing constant never./Then sigh not so,/But let them go.” In “Song: Fear No More The Heat O’Th’ Sun”, the poet questions the reason for woe and toil, tyranny and coercion when Man is but a passing shadow, as all must “come to dust.” Death, though final and inevitable, is used as a form of escapism from tyranny, although the tyrants themselves and their physicians will also not escape the cold unfeeling jaws of death. In “Sonnet 18”, “Sonnet 73” and “Song: Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”, Shakespeare highlights the frailty of human life when pitted against the vagaries of nature, which exposes the futility of his toils and aspirations. This rationale also obtains in Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem, “What is Our Life”.
The 17th and 18th Centuries are represented by poets like William Blake, Alexander Pope, Edward Ward and Thomas Gray. In “The Fly”, William Blake questions, like Shakespeare, Sir Raleigh and James Shirley, the essence of human life if pitted against animal life. In-as-much as man is capable of ending or trivialising animal life, he is also mortal as a supernatural hand thwarts his hopes in one shift swish, just as he does to those below his station. His life and that of a fly, that he thoughtlessly brushes with the back of his hand, are the same; impermanent and futile. James Shirley also finds no solace in worldly glory and self-aggrandisement in the poem “Death the Leveller”, as all become futile in the telescopic eyes of death, the justice of the peace.
In one compelling stanza of 16 lines of almost the same length and punctuated at the end to subdue pace and sustain an overall tone of contempt, Katherine Philips debunks creation’s concept of matrimony as satiating and sacrosanct in “A Married State”.
Her opening lines are apt: “A married state affords but little ease:/The best of husbands are so hard to please.” She advocates celibacy as it does not detract a woman from worshipping her maker.
Virginity is a woman’s forte which she should guard jealously to arrest any fears or pains associated with love, childbirth and motherhood; aspects which are claustrophobic and enervating. A married state to the poet is really not worth the while as men’s egos are insatiable. This however, is rather as misogynistic as it is sacrilegious as it demeans God’s idea of procreation, which somehow pits the artiste as both feministic and chauvinistic, for it takes two to tango.
Marriage is about giving and not always receiving as compromise is required as is advocated by Dennis Scott in “Marrysong” because the “geographical landscapes” of a woman’s mind are always in a state of flux which makes it tasking for men especially her husband to understand her.
The recurring themes of love in all its variations, death, deception and war are carried into the 19th and 20th Centuries, where they find home in the poetry of the nature poets William Wordsworth, Boey Kim Cheng and Margaret Atwood as well as in the work of T.S Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, Maya Angelou and the Zimbabwean master craftsman, Charles Mungoshi among others.
In the poems “Attack” and “Reservist”, Siegfried Sassoon and Boey Kim Cheng respectively lament the decimating nature of war as everyone is reduced to a victim in an attempt to pamper individual whims. This is also true of the poem “Cambodia” by James Fenton. Nature poets also decry the excruciating pain unleashed by technology on the landscape, as city planners destroy nature’s armoury and in its wake construct skyscrapers which crouch menacingly on the horizon of hope.
The African song of displacement, toil and injustice is given a soothing tempo through Charles Mungoshi’s “Before the Sun” and Hilaire Belloc’s “The Justice of the Peace. In the latter, Belloc challenges the erstwhile coloniser to consider the African predicament. In the opening stanza he quips: “Distinguish carefully between these two,/You have a shirt, a brimless hat, a shoe/ And half a coat. I am the Lord benign/ Of fifty hundred acres of fat land/ To which I have a right. You understand…I do not envy you your hat, your shoe/ Why would you envy me my small estate?” and in the end use “economic force” to get it.
As a master of understatement, Mungoshi uses a narrative technique that combines natural images with conventional extended metaphors of hope to capture both the denotative and connotative processes of toil and adolescence. At the denotative level, he captures the story of a 14 year-old boy that wakes up “before the sun”, chops firewood and roasts himself two cobs of maize and readies himself against the rising golden ray from the east. The boy’s toil however, connotes the rebellious, ebullient and daredevil nature of youth as the sun that he chides is likened to “a grown-up” who is constantly checking on his progress in the same way that man is monitored by fate. Strength seems to be his forte against all adversity.
However, there seem to be no hope for him as in the end his cobs-his weaponry remains “just two little skeletons in the sun” which is triumphant over him.