Exploring confessional poetry in Afrikaans

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Confessional poetry has been extensively studied in the American literary tradition. The genre was defined by the foundational work of critics like Rosenthal and Lerner in 1959 and 1987 respectively. This article explores confessional poetry in the Afrikaans literary tradition, drawing comparisons with some of its American and South African English counterparts. This comparative study is guided by the following question: Does confessional poetry constitute a distinct movement with a specific cultural context or does it merely amplify tendencies inherent in lyric poetry?

The investigation begins with Rosenthal’s seminal use of the term “confessional poetry” in his review of Robert Lowell’s Life studies in 1959, while Lerner later articulated the genre’s main characteristics in his article “What is confessional poetry?” (1987). Lerner poses critical questions about the distinction between confessional poetry and ordinary confession, as well as its relationship to other kinds of poetry. In the Afrikaans literary landscape, Opperman and Dekker identify the roots of confessional poetry with the Dertigers. Opperman’s Digters van Dertig (1952) offers insights into the cultural milieu of this group of poets, emphasizing a departure from traditional themes towards personal expression. Dekker, in Afrikaanse literatuurgeskiedenis (1958), identifies Leipoldt as the first confessional poet in Afrikaans, citing the poem “Op my ou ramkietjie” from Uit drie wêrelddele (1923) as an early example of the genre in Afrikaans.

The Dertigers, influenced by Romanticism and the literary trends of the Dutch Tagtigers, were the first poets in Afrikaans to embrace personal themes in their work. Opperman also highlights the shift from rural to urban imagery, symptomatic of a broader societal transition at the time. This period saw a rejection of the reticence of previous generations, marking a clear departure from the established poetic norms and conventions. The discussion of confessional poetry in the Afrikaans context is then compared with Gregory’s examination of American confessional poets in the 1950s and 1960s. These poets show the same reactive approach to their reticent predecessors. Drawing on Rosenthal’s definition, Gregory underscores the deeply personal and autobiographical nature of these poets, including Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, who are the first to confront taboo subjects such as mental illness, familial conflict and intimate bodily experiences. Their work, like the work of the Dertigers, challenges the societal norms and conventions of the time. Turning to the contemporary South African context, Weyer explores the confessional poetry of Antjie Krog (translated into English) and Joan Metelerkamp against the backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa. Weyer suggests that their work is informed by both the American confessional tradition and the unique socio-political landscape of South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is identified as a specific influence in their work.

In comparing these three discussions of confessional poetry, it is clear that in each case, an argument is made for the origins of the movement in a specific context: while Opperman’s and Gregory’s arguments focus on broader socio-political conditions, Weyer’s argument includes a specific event, namely the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Weyer identifies similarities between the American context of the 1950s and 1960s and South Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s, while the milieu in which the Afrikaans confessional poets emerge in the 1920s and 1930s is quite different from the former. This comparison allows for the main question to be addressed: Does confessional poetry constitute a distinct movement with a specific cultural context or does it merely amplify tendencies inherent in lyric poetry? Lyric poetry is a well established genre known for emotional expression. Both the Afrikaans and American confessional schools are characterized by a rejection of conventional poetic norms, a focus on personal experience and an exploration of taboo emotions. Confessional poetry as a genre seems to transcend geographical boundaries and temporal distinctions and should therefore be considered an offshoot of lyric poetry with an emphasis on guilt and shame specifically.

Keywords: Afrikaans poetry; confession; confessional poetry; guilt; Krog; Leipoldt; Lerner; Lowell; lyric poetry; Metelerkamp; Opperman; Rosenthal; shame



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