This article explores the difficulties that Sheila Cussons, in her role as artist, encounters in artistic creation. These problems belong to the field of the metatext; for the purpose of this article, specifically the metapoem.
The metapoem is eminently the poem in which the poet-speaker, as artist, engages with his artistry, the creative process and his artistic creation – the poem.
Cussons’ poetry, more often than not, expresses her intense desire to capture the wonder of artistic creation, the Divine and the mystical experience. However, art as a reproduction of reality is problematic, and the poet-speaker is very conscious of the fact that her artistic creation can never satisfactorily reflect reality.
This view is also fundamental to postmodernism, which is characterised by a growing doubt or distrust in the abilities of language – as a vehicle of human thought – to fathom or explain reality. Cussons’ endeavour with the poetic word, however, results in an intense lamentation on the inadequacy of her words, and a feeling of deep sorrow about her lacking abilities of expression. Yet, unlike postmodernism, Cussons’ poems do not flaunt their status as artefacts. They rather give expression to her experience of general human inadequacy. Therefore, the inadequacy of language as a vehicle of her thoughts is essentially a reflection of her own human inadequacies and shortcomings. Furthermore, she lacks the cynicism and scepticism towards the abilities of language that is intrinsic to postmodernism. From her perspective, her distress about her own incomplete insight and abilities of expression is a result of the Fall and man’s subsequent state of being “plundered” (Die Somerjood, 1980:12).
In “Little Ode on White” (Die Somerjood, 1980:22), the poet-speaker knows that her insight and portrayal are incomplete and will remain incomplete. Her characters are “redundant” and therefore senseless because everything has indeed been realised, grasped, and is fully known to God. However, she finds consolation in the fact that Christ’s body is “legion” and “subtle”. He is boundless unboundedness and in his immeasurability too comprehensive for words (Die sagte sprong, 1979:53). Even so, she knows that finding the right word will suddenly make sense of all things puzzling and intricate. Therefore, she has an intense desire for words, as suggested in “Aquatic” (Die Somerjood, 1980:26). She confirms that there is a sort of comprehension that precedes words and language, and her search is for the word that can give expression to this insight. In this endeavour, the poet-speaker contemplates whether it is man’s destiny to know Beauty at all. To violate the Secret, to taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, might even be dangerous. It might awaken the beautiful snake, Kundalini, which could be catastrophic to the poet: “[...] no one should experiment with or try to rouse it without explicit instructions from a guru, as the dangers connected with its awakening are very real and very terrible” (Scholtz 1991:170). Therefore, it is safer to look with the eyes of the ape, in other words devoid of human reason (Die woedende brood, 1981:31).
On the other hand, and despite the continuous struggle with the inadequacy of the human cognition, Cussons’ poet-speaker sometimes experiences those joyful moments when she finds the “right word” and discovers the “honey” in the “human sweat” (Die Somerjood, 1980:8). The delight that the poet-speaker experiences at the wonder of the poetic word is equated to the ecstasy she felt when, as a toddler, she experienced a storm (Die swart kombuis, 1978:26). In closing, the poet-speaker describes her words as “shiny”, as if to say, on looking at her artistic creation, she felt “it was good”. At times like these, the poet-speaker experiences the world as a carnival and her words work in her like wine (Die woedende brood; 1981:6). This is the “Dionysian world of ‘intoxication’, of ‘excitement’ and ecstasy, in which there is no calm and no clarity, but a strange sense of power and a narcotic influence which makes a man forget himself and identify himself with nature or the human crowd in its less rational and more instinctive moods” (Bowra 1949:5).
Occasionally, the poet-speaker also experiences the “right word” as coming from “nowhere” as if supernaturally falling into place, but in conclusion, she recognises the source of the “right word” as the Spirit. It is, in fact, God writing through her.
At times, Cussons’ poet-speaker realises the potential of words. She experiences that “[t]hose small articulated sounds, that seem so simple and so definite, turn out, the more one examines them, to be the receptacles of subtle mystery and the dispensers of unanticipated power” (Rylands 1928:xii). This realisation gives birth to conceit in the poem with the title “A conceit” (Die knetterende woord, 1990:20). She grasps the dynamic, disseminating power of the poetic word, and knows “[a] great artist can invest a common word with a miraculous significance – can suddenly turn a halfpenny into a five-pound note” (Rylands 1928:xv).
Her awe of words culminates in “Loose” (Verwikkelde lyn, 1978:29) and she applauds the glorious “inebriation of twirling words”, bringing about the sensation of a free fall, the epitome of complete freedom – not being bound to the confining influence of the earth or the earthly.
The absolute separation of language and reality or the reduction of language to an arbitrary sign system is not emblematic of Cussons’ poetry. Her struggle with the inadequacy of language as a vehicle of her thoughts is essentially a reflection of her own human inadequacy. Her mourning is not for the lacking abilities of language but for her own incomplete insight and inadequate ability to express the wonder of artistic creation, the Divine and the mystical experience.
Keywords: adequacy versus inadequacy of the word; metapoetry; metatext; postmodernism