Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Hospitals in review

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, July 21, 2006 | Category: | 2 comments

So, the hospital experience is improving. I spent about three hours with my brother yesterday, chatting, sitting with and reading to him. I had brought The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with me for him to read, he had had the somewhat ominous and overly deep Iron John sitting on the side table when I went to see him the day prior.

I started reading to him. Not only was it nourishing for him to have someone just there, and for him to hear a voice, but the humour of the story and its poignancy right from the outset are nourishing. It was difficult for him to laugh because of his headache, about which we laughed afterwards. Again, actions intersect with memories. It brought back all the memories I have of reading to him when he was much younger when we lived in Green Point. We would lie on his bed with his Noddy light on (very different in tone and structure to those at the hospital) and I would read to him from books that he liked. One of the first things that we would read were my comic annuals – books my Dad had given me called Beano and a few others about Dennis the Menace (the originial British one, not the later US one) and his friends. It graduated to things like horror stories and others. James always loved the Goosebumps series of books. When I was younger (I read to him since I was in Primary School) I always enjoyed reading, I loved putting on voices, the play of it with him. Equally, although in a more nuanced fashion I would hope, I did that yesterday. I felt echoed of my ability, I had to slip into a space where I would be comfortable enjoying the reading while being in the context of what he was going through with being in hospital. All round it was a much more positive experience than my first visit, he looked much better, he communicated fine. I am going to go through to see him later. There is a chance he will be able to come home this weekend.

What is funny for me though is how I realise that our friendship, not just simply a filial connection, had its beginnings in those moments of my reading to him. Not only would we read and relate to characters we'd talk about what happened. I had this trick I could pull with his Noddy Light where I could switch it off with my elbow and make it look like it was doing it by itself “Magic!”. He loved this trick and for a while it was a ritual part of my reading to him. It is these nuances in brotherhood that have drawn us so close, both as a function of history and as a commonality of those things that stimulate and entertain us now. Which is why I think it was even more difficult for me to see him on the hospital bed. He was confounded somewhat when he realised how concerned, Mum, Steve and I were for him. He said he was getting better and that was that. The thing is, for all of us we are so involved in finding solutions to things, to be able to take worthy action that a situation in which we cannot do so is strange and disempowering. But we have to get over that too, so don't read too much into it.

Anyway, below is a poem I started to write on Wednesday after seeing him for the first time. It is a work in progress, but we'll see where it goes.

Morphine 19.07.06

A needle clogged with blood

creates an entrance into

your bloodstream

but clogging cannot stop

the dosing, it cannot

arrest the opiates

slowly entering and removing

you, us thinking it is

doing good

one: they take the part that feels

pain, stopping the story

it can tell

two: they take the soul from

your eyes: windows are not meant

to be bloodshot

three: you stop moving as you do:

the scratches and nervousness for

which you need nerves

and on that bed with its needles

and tubes, richly clad in blue, you

are no longer you

you stopped; it was difficult for me

to touch someone I didn't know,

you were that far away

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It's Official: I Hate Hospitals

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | Category: | 1 comments

Ok, so another update. My brother, James, went into hospital yesterday with Meningitis. We found out late yesterday, after he'd had a lumbar puncture and the works that it (very thankfully) isn't Bacterial and is most likely Viral. It could be Tic-bite Fever related Meningitis because he was bitten by a tick while on a walk in the Tsitsikamma forest last week. If you know James and want to contact him, then mail me and I'll send you his phone number – he has it with him and can receive messages. I went to visit him this morning.

So back to me hating hospitals. Foucault wrote on hospitals, schools and prisons, how the spaces are similar and how we treat the institutions themselves. In each of the above the architecture is similar, the spaces and the hierarchies work similarly, as people entering into these spaces we don uniforms to differentiate between those 'of' the space and those 'not of' the space. In the hospital, James is not James, he is Mr Harris supervised by Dr Frost in room 5 bed B. He wears a light blue standard-issue hospital overall. An indication that it is him is that he wears his checked boxers.

I get the feeling that as a way of dealing with patients in general it is easier for doctors if the patients are no longer individuals, but rather some abstraction of the individual. It makes it easier to deal with their possible death. Doesn't require genius level-intellect to think that I know. What reinforces this for me is that someone I know who has completed the full six years of medicine and is doing their year of work is thinking about leaving medicine, apart from the trauma of AIDS scares from random pin-prick issues, the ridiculously long hours (sometimes 35 hours of being 'ready'), there is the issue of the distance issue with patients. I have not discussed this that much with this person, but in a space where you both need to relate to the patient, but immediately be distant from them the psychological strain must be massive.

So, not only are patients not who they are in hospitals, but it is quite possible that for doctors to remain in hospitals they have to distance themselves from themselves. This space of 'the hospital' is filled with abstractions of people. Where do the real people go? I don't know.

What made it even stranger for me in the last few minutes of my visit this morning was seeing James trying to pull the duvet off of himself. He gets really hot, and with his fever he has been even hotter. He couldn't pull the duvet off of himself because of the drip in his arm, his eyes were uncharacteristically blood-shot and red-rimmed. James wasn't James. He asked me to help him. I took the duvet off of the corners of the bed and laid it at his feet while he inserted himself under the sheet. I told him I loved him. Visiting hours were over and I had to leave.

Visiting hours are an important part of the hospital structure. For us as the visitors it is even more important that we do actually visit our friends and relatives in the hospital. Part of me believes that we need to go and see them to remind them who they are, that they are not Patient X, Room Y, Bed Z, that they are themselves. I do not mean to say that everything we are is caught up in our names, but the gaps to the outside world, the visitations from others these serve as an additional way to access something which may have become distant to us – that which makes us who we are both in construct and in make-up.

All of the above thoughts had me crying in my car on my way home. I hate hospitals. I don't like seeing people I love being distant from themselves. I am sad because my brother is in pain, has been in pain, and there was not much I could physically do about it. Hence, while listening to Interpol blaring discords, I cried.

This inevitably brings me back to thinking what I can do, what are my skills, what can I or can't I do? There isn't that much research on health economics in South Africa, not enough to make a solid difference. Like many other areas there are skills deficits and massive gaps open in research. For someone like me it is possible to apply my skills to this area. One of the things for which I am thankful is that my parents have the resources to pay for James to be in hospital, to pay for him to get good care, to be in a room by himself (or at most sharing with one other if it becomes necessary). This leads to the consideration that most people in South Africa don't have health care other than that provided by government, they can't afford it, it's expensive. Moreover, the differentials between public and private supplies of health care are massive and they are distortionary. How do we solve it? Get more doctors? As we know the UCT MBChB curriculum changed towards that very purpose. I am supportive of that. How else can we support it? More research into the area? I don't know. I am continually reminded of the difficult job Thabo Mbeki and his cabinet ministers are faced with – HIV/AIDS problems, poverty, unemployment, record death rates amongst policeman because of the prevalence of crime (you don't want to live in Gauteng by the way). I am not envious of all of their position. However, I am good at research and I will do that till the cows come home. I will write, I will read, I will analyse and assess because even though I hate all of these phenomena for some irrational reason I love South Africa and my family, friends and other citizens more. I want South Africa to succeed.

This reminds me of something else I was considering recently. When I play a game of Magic, I get frustrated more when I play badly/misplay than when I have 'bad luck' so to speak. I do get frustrated when I notice that the 'luck' was also a consequence of an earlier misplay, etc. Subsequent to the hijacking I am continually cognizant of the choice that I am making in remaining in South Africa, of being in a specific space (back to philosophy of spaces). So me being in this context where I can be hijacked is both a consequence of an earlier decision and bad luck, so to speak. Relate this to Meningitis and that is almost purely luck (Ok, again decision to go on walk and not protect against Tick bites if that's the case, but hey?). Anyway, it's just something to think about. Again, I reiterate, I love you all my friends (assuming you're a friend if you are reading this). We'll chat soon.

In the Post Office

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 1 comments

The following is a story I wrote, although it's not really a story, but more like the prose-equivalent of a ditty. Please don't take it seriously. If I had a wider readership I would worry about Thom Eaton-equivalent threats of lynching, but I think that my friends have some idea of my sense of humour.

There is a way certain fat men stand, the thumbs of their ample hands planted in their pockets, as if they are unable to cross them over their midriff. Their feet root to their ground, slightly splayed in a way that would provide support for a solid weight – the way that wooden houses in bayous are held up by thin stilts – these men's legs look smaller than they should do for the comparable weight that they hold up. From the back their shorts (and they are always shorts in South Africa) kruip up into the small space between their legs as if to evade the world beyond the mass of fat with which their fabric is familiar. Tomas was such a man. Had you looked at his legs, his abdomen or torso then you would have gotten a certain indication as to his character, feet covered by strops indicating something as pertinent as we could imagine. But all of this seemed out of place when looking at Tomas's face. His face lit up in a friendly manner on almost all occasions. Again, I say almost all because today Tomas was in the Post Office of Plettenbergbaai and he did not smile as much when he was, of necessity, in the post office. At this juncture it is pertinent to note that Tomas's name should be pronounced as an Englishman would pronounce Tour-mus, although the r would not be strongly annunciated. Yes, he was an Afrikaner. He was also a boer, in the readily available translation of the word – a farmer. Agriculture, or landbou (literally building the land), was, and quite happily is, his calling.

Anyway, I get beyond myself in these arbitrary anthropological recollections. Tomas was in the Plettenbergbaai Post Office. He was here because he had received a notice telling him to pick up a long-awaited parcel from a relative in the Orange Free State (he still applied the prefix 'Orange', rather like Zimbabweans who call the country Rhodesia and their hometown Salisbury). His prodigious family had had a diaspora at the beginning of the previous century and their were tannies and ooms spread all over the country, with a large concentration of them around Bloemfontein. In fact it was Oom Petrus and Tannie Petronella (don't ask how that happened) who were sending him this very package. Yes, his was also the kind of Afrikaans family who would always prefix (again that word) family and friends with the title 'Oom' or 'Tannie', this is a strange custom not only amongst Afrikaners in South Africa. In fact many of them, subsequent to the democratisation of South Africa (ongelooflik, ek weet), were disturbed to find out that Black Africans had a similar tradition, but again I move away from the core of my tale. The package. Yes, the package.

Tomas had been waiting for some while for this package. He was certain in fact that it would have taken longer, but was quite surprised to find that the post office did not live up to his expectations and he had received the notice of the package's arrival far earlier than anticipated. (Oom Petrus had said something along the lines of 'Die nuwe kaffirpos gaan glad nie werk nie, maar ek gaan dit gewoontlik vir jou stuur.' Tomas had remained optimistic nevertheless). Seemingly, his optimism had paid off. Having queued for some time in the madness of the Wednesday morning 10am rush at the post office (for the sceptics among you this seems a prevalent phenomenon in the town of Plettenbergbaai), he was finally at the front of the queue where I could observe his behaviour with some intrigue.

Apart from the pose which he struck, as described above, he seemed to have another in which he rested his documents and his hands on the upper lip of his protruding belly while leaning back slightly to maintain his balance. I think that balance must be a very carefully learned skill once one reaches a specific threshold of weight. For example, if one suddenly gave a man who weighed in at sixty kilograms an additional eighty kilograms of mass then that man would struggle to keep himself upright, he would not have learned the apposite skills to hold himself proud, or slightly skew as Tomas was doing. Do not begrudge the proudly stout their abilities.

So he had been waiting in the queue, mostly in stance two, then having reached the front and now, standing in front of a cashier he observed stance number one. He held out his notice and his Identity Document, the picture of which held a likeness that was significantly more hirsute than the person with whom we were confronted this fine morning. Nonetheless, the assistant, a bored-looking Xhosa lady, gave it a few glances, gave him a few interrogative looks, then decided that the picture was simply of the same man at a much younger age and possibly in a better disposition (one's photos for one's ID document are often taken before one has stood in the mind-numbing and time-altering queues of the Home Affairs office, Kafkaesque one could call them, hence a dramatically different disposition – a happy Tomas – relative to the disgruntled one with which she was now presented).

Tomas's father was also one of those Afrikaners who insisted on speaking to public officials in Afrikaans and he had instilled this in Tomas. However, Tomas had realised, quite fortuitously, that doing so with this lady was probably not the method to adopt. So they both spoke in their second language, English, to try to convey information to one another. Luckily, not much was lost in their in their translations, despite the prevalence of of strange verb alterations, misplaced plurals and the like.

“Yous are wanting to be finding for me this parcel that my Oom Petrus had for wanted to be sending for me.” Tomas stated with applomb.

“Yes, seh, thet is theh case. She is in theh beck room.” She responded in kind.

(An aside: This reminds me of how I have never understood why many Nguni language speakers always seem to make all pronouns of the 'He/She/It' class into 'She'. It confounds.)

The lady took his slip, and moved towards the back room. While moving she started a loud conversation with a Xhosa man halfway across the room, I was unsure whether they were picking up from where they may have started off a moment before, or whether this was a new conversation, truth be told I had not been paying much attention to the lady or any of my surroundings other than Tomas, but it was quite characteristic. So this did not strike me as odd behaviour. The German man in the queue behind me was quite taken aback by this behaviour and asked me,

“Iz zere somesing wrong here?” His face was scrunched up in Nordic worry. (The kind of worry where it may seem as though others may be be inferior to you and you may feel dutibound, but exceedingly worried about having to correct their inefficiency – this is a fairly typical German response when spending time in Africa).

I assured him that there were no problems and that he needn't worry himself. All of this was quite customary.

Anyway, the lady spent some time in the back room then came out speaking loudly in Xhosa with her head tilted in a different direction than that which it had held for the first conversation, noting which I assumed she was talking to someone else. This was made evident by the appearance of very short, verging on dwarf-like coloured man. (Another note: I don't particularly encourage the appellations white, coloured, black, etc, but they are expedient and thus serve a purpose). He was rattling off at her in Xhosa, then switched to Afrikaans for the Tomas at the desk, over which the man was struggling to look over, which made the scene all the more comical. One often has the idea that bureacracy is a slow-moving lumbering machine and that the representatives should be equally large and slow moving, this was definitely not the case with this little man. He moved quickly, spoke quickly and much of this speedy movement seemed to be in compensation for his diminutive size. This was possibly the reason why he also spoke Afrikaans, Xhosa and then English with such force and efficacy.

“Jammer meneer, maar dit lyk asof jou package nie hier is nie.” (His wasn't suiwer Afrikaans, but rather the more efficient form of the language that seems to have sprung up subsequent to 1994 in which it is fashionable to throw in the occasional English word – to prove that you aren't too old school).

“Dus, moet ek noua bietjie rond soek en dan kan ek iets vir jou s├¬ oor die location daarvan. Awright?”

Ja, dis ok. Maar, ek wil mos hier sit en wag. Dis a lang distance te travel om hier to kom en net weg te jaag.” (Tomas was trying his best to be equally fashionable in the face of this adversity).

Ok meneer, sit bietjie ek gaan soek...”

Tomas stood to the side of the opening, preferring to remain standing than to sit down. I imagine that for large men this may be preferable. Once they are standing it is easier for them to remain so because of the possible expenditure of energy and effort to roust themselves from their seats.

Suddenly from the back I heard something that was almost like a repeated gunshot. Kehkehkehkehkeh... it reported. It turned out to be the Xhosa lady laughing.

Sorry seh.” (loudly)

Sorry seh!” (even louder).

Maneeyah!” (actually 'Meneer')

Tomas turned around looking chastened.

We hev found yo peckege. She was in theh beck of theh beck, she is so beeg.”

Ja, goed. Dankie Juffrou. I mean, thank you Merrem.”

Again a comical scene took place. The miniature man, who turned out to be the post master, was carrying a very large box. It was so large that he could barely get his head around the side to look where he was going. In fact he bumped into the stalls a number of times and, when it was necessary for him to get the package up onto the top of the desk, it sounded as though he was engaging in a weight lifting competition. We in the queue were quite at a loss. It was one of those awkward situations where you want to help, but are entirely unsure whether you will cause more embarrassment by offering your aid or by doing nothing. Saving us all, Tomas, took a couple of seconds to register this general opinion and leaned over the desk to take the package from the little man. A strange struggle ensued where the man, unable to see Tomas trying to take the package, assumed that something was going wrong with the weight of the package and thus he spent even more effort trying to control it. Tomas then leaned even further over the desk trying to keep the package balanced and to take control of it. Once Tomas's feet left the ground we knew calamity was approaching. Luckily, the Xhosa lady noted what was happening and took control of the situation with loud.

Hayi, Boss, sjoe let go of theh peckege.”

Predictably, both men thought that they were the 'Boss' to whom she was referring. Tomas for reasons historical. The small man for those hierarchical. Thus it was that the hierarchy of the box swiftly began to squash the little man. Tomas noticed this and picked the box up with ease, now that it was no longer being held by the postmaster.

Somehow, we queue-members had been able to restrain ourselves to internal vibrations rather than outright laughter. Tomas was now happily moving away from the desk having signed the mandatory forms in triplicate.

The box, its packaging a bit torn on one side after its travails, looked as though it contained something quite exciting.

Sadly, that is where my story ends. I was lucky enough to be the next in line and I hastily procured my stamps, and sent my envoy of a postcard on its way, chuckling as I did so. I know furthermore that this recollection does not have much point, but then again, many don't. It is simply the observation of the actors that made it pleasant for me, rather than the knowledge of what was in the box. Moreover, I don't really know if the man's name was Tomas, but I thought it apt and constructed it as such. He was a charming fellow in my minimal interactions with him. As were the lady and the postmaster. Charming. For sure.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Plague

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, July 12, 2006 | Category: | 0 comments

I Wrote most of this a couple days ago, I hadn't put it up though. Enjoy.

The following abridged quote is taken from The Plague by Albert Camus:

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yes somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise...

When a war breaks out people say, 'It's too stupid,; it can't last long.' But though a war may well be 'too stupid', that doesn't prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its was' as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

..A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn't always pass away and , from one bad dream to another, it mes men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven't taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others, they forgot to be modest – that was all – and though that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plagues, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views? They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

Now the reason that I bring this up is for a number of reasons. Firstly, the book is really good. I am only halfway through it and I am enjoying seeing where it is going, the seeming ease with which Camus wrote it and conceived of it. It should be noted that it was written immediately subsequent to WWII. Camus was a member of the resistance in France, and we see that there are a number of fairly obvious parallels between his analogies on freedom, choice and motivation in war as there are in a situation of plague. I believe that the plague of which he conceives is meant to be an ubiquitous symbol of whatever may 'plague' the individual, society at large, or whichever other grouping you choose to select. (On a more contemporary note have any of you listened to the band Bright Eyes album, Fevers & Mirrors? The lead singer chats about 'personal' fevers, granted in a much more juvenile way than Camus, but the motif is still prevalent in contemporary pop culture).

It is as a result of this commonality that I think we continuously need to consider those things which act in a plague-like manner in our society today. These may be anything from our consideration of poverty and inequality (the things that often worry me), to HIV/AIDS (an actual plague), to the possibility of moral degeneracy, to political game-playing and power-grabbing. One of the things of which I am dreadfully aware is the extent to which freedom is maligned. I know that I have expressed views on situations in which I believe that I would not mind my individual freedoms infringed if there were increases in the so-called greater good (ephemeral as that may be).

However, that is in an ideal world where government is benevolent and efficient. In the real world we need to consider the movements of government in ways that may be impinging on freedoms. The one that has worried me recently is the silencing of certain voices on the SABC. We all know that there was a whole lot of politicking when John Perlman was told he could not speak to specific individuals, and these individuals (for example William Mervin Gumede) don't like the ways in which the ANC is working. Black intellectuals criticising the black government. These are the ones that we are noticing as well. I wonder to what extent people remain silent in these situations.

Another frustration of which I have been witness is the whole issue surrounding crime. I have written on this already, but I do sincerely believe that something more needs to be done about it. When I, as an individual, have to repeatedly phone the fingerprinting services, the police, etc in order to begin to get a response, but still get nothing, that is a problem. We all know that there are issues with infrastructure, but I think that if there are such a massive number of people unemployed, and we need more people in law enforcement, surely we can find some way of employing these people. Combine this with the amount of underspending that goes on in a number of government departments, then we can see all kinds of possibilities. I know that generally you want to decrease personnel spending, but in such a personnel intense resource surely it isn't such a bad thing. I also agree (and have previously argued) that poverty, HIV/AIDS, unemployment all feed into these problems. The determinants of crime are directly linked to household income, education, employment, coherence (i.e. Single mum vs. more supportive family structure). These all contribute. To what extent is this a plague? What message does it send out when the security minister says that people who complain about crime should leave the country? I agree that we don't want people who are continually complaining, but equally we need to find creative and immediate solutions to a very prevalent problem in order to ensure a successful future. (Check again my whole multi-pronged attack idea, expensive but necessary I believe. Singular and isolated interventions are unlikely to work, they need to be well-coordinated at a high level - Mbeki's cabinet wouldn't be bad at this incidentally, their communal brain power is formidable, Netshitenzhe alone is significant...).

Anyway, there are a number of other things that are worthy of consideration in this context. I think I'll write on some more of them another time. In the interim, if you can, read the book The Plagueit's a good read. Again, this is somewhat rant-ish as well as retreading ideas I have covered before in too shallow a fashion, nevertheless their reintroduction and possible sparking of debate is worthy.

Sui Generis

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 0 comments

So below, we have one re-working of Bath, as well as a couple of other poems. The one, Shoelaces as Time Travel is basically some fun I was having with and image and in idea as well as just playing with rhyme schemes. It's just fun, don't take it too seriously. The other two are just there.

Bath 30.06.06

Twice in two days

I have drawn baths.

Immersing myself

in loud silence

My heartbeat is

playing its song

its evidence

that I'm living.

My heart




a flesh

and blood


My blood

stream mind's

once wild


in calmed



My advice if

you're overwhelmed:

draw a hot bath

immerse yourself

hear your heart beat

prove you're alive.

Why is the word balaclava? 03.07.06

Why is the word balaclava?

When it sounds so unassuming

when it's seeming is not about

violence or disguise or hurting

It pretends to be a Greek sweet

in my sweet-tooth ears listening

or, when I am French-ish maybe

a smart ball in the town Clava.

Then something in me says that its

about ballet, joyful dancing

the length of form, of touching,

of raised bodies, and sacrifice.

That returns me to its meaning

placed over a head in deception

hot, catching the motes of hot breath

full of intent, dark disclaimer:

I will enact violence on you

I will be fearful, you will too.

Both losing moments of living

to this vision - the dark exclaims.

the perfect crime 10.07.06

when a black bent

man and his floppy hat

droop doggedly over

the garden outside my

ample family home

when a woman wearing

a colourful cardigan

sings low to herself walks

with her one grocery bag

while i carry five

when queues of coloured

and black men decorate

the sides of our roads

in continued deference

to jobs that come their way

when a young ingemengde

owns a stainless steel

fridge, unelectrified

and warm, the centerpiece

of a nyanga shack

when these images aren't rare

and i can be arrogant

in my drawing of them

though it hurts me

each and every time i do

when i commit perfect

crimes in my innocent

depictions because

i'm blameless i'm angry

and, yes, i'm white too.

Shoelaces as Time Travel 07.07.06

Silently slipping my feet into shoes

when sitting on beds here or there

tying their laces, beginning to muse

something important's in the care

I take with my deliberate movements

intricate digital progress

in my fingers' fond love, their endearment

of laces, I find such regress

To a time when laces were new to me

(they were such a sweet novelty)

To my eyes and hands so infant clumsy

I recall it with purity.

My worm hole shoelaces such as they are

forwards in time and backwards too,

light speed, in solace from the speed of stars,

shooting past me as moments do.

Five years old and I'm tying up my laces

ready as my shoes for walking,

An infant knowledge I'm going places

smiling as I do, I'm talking

of everything I want from life, you'll see!

A fireman just like my granddad was

when I'm a grown up that's so what I'll be

Now, I fight fires of words because

when I was young, that's what I said I'd do

reminders of what brought me here

captured deep in the laces of my shoe

and, like granddad, I'm without fear

confronting all the scriptures of my past

the struggles of learning the bows

on my shoes, tying up all of the vast

matters of time in barefoot wriggling toes

confronting all the scriptures of my past

the struggles of learning the bows

on my shoes, knowing that I'm not the last

to see shoelaces as time's flows.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Structure, Art and the Specifics of Writing

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, July 06, 2006 | Category: | 4 comments

Something that has been plaguing me of late is the idea of structure and form in writing and people's pooh-poohing of it. This worries me. For some reason at school we are often told that we need to be 'creative' or 'imaginative' and that poetry is something that 'is just an expression of the emotions and the imagination'. We are allowed to write free verse as though it is an underpriced commodity and told to 'let yourselves go'.

There are several problems with this, the first is an over-indulgence in a lack of structure. People these days often give cummings, Eliot, Plath and several others as their favourite poets, without really understanding why they are great. Much of what made these poets interesting was the structure from which they broke – they understood and knew these styles, they used ancient forms and brought them back to modern use (especially Eliot and Pound). Plath and Hughes were brilliant at taking forms and adapting them to their own use, to find ways in which they could re-construct terza rima (for example) or a normal quatrain to their own uses.

But people see free verse, subsequent to Walt Whitman (the man who invented first used free verse in English poetry after observing vers libre in French poetry) as something that they just write without any idea of the constraints of free verse itself, the necessary consideration of the rhythms within words, the syllabic content, the inner workings of the poetry which is being written. Free verse still has a consideration of lyric, of stanzaic structure and of internal and end rhymes. These make much of the premier free verse as good as it is. We can see much of this in work by Seamus Heaney – he takes landscapes and translates them into poetry, finds ways of making us feel the landscape through what he has written. This is what can make free verse great.

The 20th century in both modernist and post-modernist literature has also seen an upsurge in attempts to look at poetry in translation. Poets like Federico Lorca, Yehuda Amichai, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Hans Enzensebergen, Wislawa Szymborska, or Martin Espada have translated their own work or had their work translated into English. This has led to a whole array of work investigating the idea of poetry in translation, of the idea that poetry can be translated – the gain and loss of meaning. In addition to this works that have been translated have challenged the translator to ensure that the translated poem has a similar structure, meaning and rhythm than the original.

An example:

So Little - Czeslaw Milosz

I said so little.

Days were so short.

Short days.

Short nights.

Short years.

I said so little.

I couldn't keep up.

My heart grew weary

From joy,




The jaws of Leviathan

Were closing upon me.

Naked, I lay on the shores

Of desert islands.

The white whale of the world

hauled me down to its pit.

And now I don't know

What in all that was real.

To me this serves as an example of a poem that, in translation, brings us a wonderful sense of how English can interpret and give us poetry from other languages. The ways in which adherence to free verse, to a freer movement in the beginning, with couplets of idea-images towards the end can be a beautiful use of free verse – it has an intent and the intent is mirrored in the voice of the poem (some of you may think I am being abstruse here, but I hope you get what I intend).

Moving away from that example, and from translation in language – Picasso is a typical example in visual art of how an individual firstly mastered the methods of the 'masters' (he is acclaimed for his command of lines of his continuity). From this he was able to then identify the rules and break from them, move away from them towards his cubist work, to his adaptations from ideas such as n├ęgritude of African modes of art. It is this idea, which others such as Whitman in English poetry (and Rimbaud in French if I recall correctly) or the others I listed above (several more even – I could list loads in the past couple centuries who did it well).

On this Pound commented that “The Art of Letters will come to an end before AD 2000” on which Stephen Fry commented “It might be tempting to agree that 'the art of letters' has indeed come to an end, and to wonder whether a doctrinaire abandonment of healthy, living forms for the sake of a dogma of stillborn originality might not have to shoulder some of the responsibility for such a state of affairs.” (2005:174-5). He is even more scathing on this later where he speaks of an indoctrination in which form is 'a kind of fascism'. I agree with him to a large extent (which is to some extent probably why I read the book in the first place). In fact I agree with Strand and Bolan (2000: xiv) when they comment that “The true and final power of form is not societal: poetic form, when it comes from deep feeling, is deeply human.” They also argue that the changes in form in the last century or so should be seen as 'a form of dialogue' with historical forms. This I believe is the crux of what I personally believe – a command and understanding of forms of poetry allows us to engage with this conversation on poetry without this knowledge, without this understanding we could not do so.

The reason that this comes up for me is as a result of a consideration of my own relationship with form. I predominantly write in various free verse structures adhering to specific stanzaic or rhythmic/metric forms when I think them necessary. Sometimes people have asked me why I do this, why I don't write 'freer'. The interesting thing for me is that through an understanding and an adherence to specific ideas in form (say if I wrote a sonnet) or to meter, syllabic structure or stanza in free verse I can actually go about liberating myself to do things I would not have done otherwise. Bad free verse is often self-indulgent, over-written and lacklustre because of some vain attempt to be 'free' or to be 'unconstrained' by 'the rules of poetry'. The thing is in many cases it is the understanding of these rules that makes us able to appreciate good free verse and to be able to appreciate poems that continue to adhere to formal structure.

It should be noted that I write this fairly late at night and that I may have over-stated my intent and my argument, or not outlined it well enough – it happens. I was asked an interesting question recently by my supervisor, Ingrid de Kok, she aske “Why poetry?”. She wanted me to interrogate why I believe that I want to do my Masters in Creative Writing specifically in poetry, what makes poetry that appealing to me, what demands to I place upon myself to write poetry, why poetry? If I have ideas, why poetry? I'm not going to give you my answers to her, maybe we can discuss that at some point over a good bottle of wine while reading good poetry and then we can begin to attempt an understanding of the significance of this question. And it is awfully significant. It is one of the most important questions for an aspiring poet to begin to answer, quite likely the answering of it will end up in the poetry that they write (or they will stop writing altogether because of being unable to answer it, which may be a good thing in itself). Nevertheless, it is something to consider and something which I have had to consider and to which I have begun to relate on multiple levels. Why poetry?

So yes, this little essay thing has rambled, has tickled and has strung its way towards a point at which it says that poetic form is a good thing, so is free verse, poetry in translation is intriguing (try to write your own poetry in another language then translate it back to English and see what happens). Finally ask yourself “Why Poetry?” Why do you read it? Why do you write it? What makes poetry the form of choice (because poetry is itself a form – once you have engaged with it prosody can educate you beyond that which you initially though plausible). Think about language. Think about rhythm. Think about sound and lyric. Think. Read. Speak. Write. Most of all enjoy it, then get back to me with what you thought, I'd really like to hear.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

On the edge of the road

Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, July 01, 2006 | Category: | 0 comments

So, I drove for 9 hours today to be with my family in Grahamstown. It is it's usual rambunctious, yet charming self (yes I am anthropomorphising the city, sue me). I arrived while my folks were still in a show, so we got together afterwards. During that time I popped to the Village Green and procured for myself a program of the events in the festival. There is a plethora of wonderful goings on here and I am looking forward to engaging with as much of it as I am physically and emotionally capable. Granted, that capability is somewhat sub-par at the moment, but I will do my best.

I was struck by a number of things while I was taking my trip up here and also once I had arrived here. Firstly, along the N2 I was looking at these queues of people along the N2 waiting to be picked up for some kind of work. There are various funny models in economics about 'queuing models of unemployment' when there are a number of people at the same skill level in the same geographical location competing for a fixed number of jobs (or equally a number of jobs growing at at a fixed rate possibly lower than the labour force growth rate). That's not really the point. I just saw these men (as most all of them were men) and so many of them looked like one of the people who attacked Amy and I. Now, I have purposefully not brought up descriptions of these people because I inherently dislike the propagation of perceived stereotypes. Nevertheless, the parallels for me were frustrating and illuminating simultaneously. Xhosa, short to average height, slim to thin, most likely unskilled or semi-skilled (I was convinced that the guy who attacked us had no real idea of how to use a firearm) and wearing a beanie, a jersey of some sort, but predominantly nondescript and normal. The kind of guy you often pass in the street, could be poor, could equally be living in Rondebosch, but be adhering to specific social cues. Difficult one. So the ubiquity of it is frustrating, moreover it highlighted for me the ubiquity of the problems with which we in South Africa are faced.

I am working in Economics, focusing on development economics in some attempt to alleviate poverty in my own way in 'the long run' (whatever that turns out to be). However, the crime-poverty relationship is rather like the aids-poverty relationship, not only do they facilitate one another, but they each worsen the impact of the other. What this then means is that for us to solve 'the crime problem' we equally have to be solving 'the poverty problem' (and most likely 'the AIDS problem') simultaneously. We can't presume to attack one, then the other, then the other, people and social groupings don't work that way. There are such massive lags in many situations that trying to actually say, “We've done this and it should have an impact in, say, 20 years.” that is insufficient. Hence, my argument for a multiply pronged attack on all three. This also goes hand-in-hand with the problems of the education system, but I will classify that as falling under the ambit of 'the poverty problem'. I am not entirely sure how government should go about doing this yet, but I am convinced that something more dynamic than is happening now MUST occur lest all of the problems feed into one another – for example, I have AIDS, but no work and no education, what do I do to get meds and survive? I steal... From whom do I steal? Anybody really, other poor individuals, the relatively rich, there are many, many people and because of such poor police infrastructure (you don't want to hear how annoyed I was with the fingerprinting guys who were meant to come before I left). All of this feeds into the extant social problems that plague (and I say plague pointedly) our society. Something drastic must be done and it will have to be massive and involve 'buy-in' (I hate that term) from so many 'stakeholders' (another consultant speak term that annoys me). All of this is valid though.

Anyway, apart from this queueing thing I was watching, when I arrived in Grahamstown, I saw two poor black children (torn, dirty clothes) with a BB gun. I think that they had barely any of the bullets because they were meticulous about picking them up. They were unmistakeably going through a mock-fighting interchange. The guy who had the gun wielded like he was some gangster from the hood in a movie on American Ghetto behaviour, he then pointed it at the other guy menacingly, stuck out his chest do the 'you soeking with me' act and shot the other kid. He'd then pick up the BB that he had shot and they'd re-enact it. Stance, 'soek', shot. They looked like they were trying to fulfill something that they had seen played out by adults, which obviously worried me even more. Who were they watching? What were they learning from these people? Were they learning to target people? Were they doing this to impress people? Ah well... back to my multiply-pronged attack on a social infrastructure that needs dramatic reformation.

Other than all of that, James' show was good. He was well-received. It was fun. I am tired though, so I didn't stay for the next show that they are going to at 10pm.

I turn 25 in a few hours time (I was born at 8am after several hours of labour). Should be interesting. I have Amy's gift with me. For whatever reason, on the evening of the attempted highjacking the robbers didn't try to take her gift to me from us. A votive for small blessings such as this.