/ 6 July 2024

Rediscovering poetry: A journey through my father’s legacy and anthology

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Well versed: Kevin van Wyk recently published a memoir about his father, writer Chris van Wyk (above). Photo (above): Van Wyk Family Collection

Okay, I’ll admit it. Growing up I never really “got” poetry. For most of my life it didn’t appeal to me and I didn’t think my life of any lesser value for neither understanding nor appreciating poetry. I always thought that poetry was the art of placing a series of fancy and unrelated words together, just like some music groups do in their names. 

In fact, while we were growing up, my brother Karl and I once made a pact that, in the unlikely event that we ever formed a band, its name would be Frog Adoption, because it sounded “poetic”.

Frog Adoption might not have been the most poetic name but someone who could certainly put words together rather poetically was my father Chris. 

In mid-2020, nearly six years after my father’s passing, Karl and I thankfully didn’t form a band, but we did collaborate on publishing an anthology of my father’s poetry with the help of one of my father’s closest friends, Ivan Vladislavic, and the publisher Robert Berold. Both Ivan and Robert are fellow writers who were keen to assist us in preserving my father’s legacy.

The anthology, titled My Mother’s Laughter, brought together a collection of my father’s poetry he had written between 1975 and 1996. A number of the poems were previously published in my father’s first and only prior poetry collection, It Is Time to Go Home, which had long been out of print. The new collection also included a significant number of his uncollected poems, some of which I had never seen before. We found these poems on random sheets of paper, some handwritten and others on (ancient) stiffy disks.

As I trawled through the poems, I read them with a perspective through which I had not considered his poetry before. Whether it was due to my experience of being alive for nearly four decades or the fact that I was reading words written by my now deceased father, the poetry suddenly took on a greater degree of significance for me. It took me back and made me contemplate my own journey in trying to make sense of the art form that is poetry.

When I was growing up and beginning to better understand my father’s profession as a writer, his poetry-writing days were largely behind him; he concentrated more of his efforts on short stories, novels and children’s books. But despite his branching out into other forms of writing, many people in the literary community still defined him as a poet, primarily for that seminal work of poetry published in 1979, 

It Is Time To Go Home.

One evening when I was about 11 years old, I made a pit-stop at my father’s study where he was doing some work on his PC. I asked him a question that made his eyes light up more than usual.

“Daddy, what’s your favourite poem of all time?”

Before he even answered, he sprang up enthusiastically from his chair and shuffled around the perimeter of his large desk to reach his massive wall-to-wall bookshelf where he started scouring the titles with his nose almost touching the spines of his books. In less than a minute he pulled a book from the shelf and displayed it to me with a triumphant swagger.

“I don’t know if I have a favourite poem,” he said, “but this is my favourite poet without a shadow of doubt.”

The book was a collection of poems by Pablo Neruda, the distinguished Chilean poet and Nobel laureate. My father leafed through the pages before settling on one.

“Listen to this, Kevs …” he said.

The poem he read aloud was Tonight I Can Write The Saddest Lines, a poem about a lost love. By the emotive manner in which my father recited it, you would’ve thought that my mother had just filed for divorce. At one point he read a line and looked at me. “How beautiful is that?” he said. “I can feel his hurt — it’s like we’re attached together by an umbilical cord!” 

My father was never prone to sentimentality but that was hands down the cheesiest thing he’d ever uttered to me. I could tell that poetry meant a lot more to him than I realised.

Even though I grew up not fully appreciating my father’s ability as a poet, every now and again he’d say something or explain a concept that, without me even knowing it, was slowly but surely helping me better understand the immense beauty and value of poetry. 

One day he was listening to a song on the radio by one of his favourite musicians, Paul Simon. He looked at me as he digested the lyrics of The Boy in the Bubble and remarked: “This Paul Simon is an exceptional poet.”

I had never equated poetry with music before, but that was the day that reality was planted in my mind.

Kevin Van Wyk Author Photo 2 (1)
Kevin van Wyk

In my mid-teens I arrived home from school one day to find a television crew leaving our home. The producer was a friendly white lady who greeted me warmly as they were making their way back to their car parked outside our yard. 

As the rest of the production crew — they always seemed to be white guys with ponytails and African guys with dreadlocks — packed the camera and tripods into the back of their little van, the lady struck up a conversation with me.

“You must be Kevin?” she asked. I nodded and gave her a shy smile. “You know something, Kevin … your dad is a very clever man.”

“I know,” I said cheekily, hoping my smile masked some of my boastfulness.

“That’s brilliant!” she responded with a delighted laugh.

After a few more pleasantries she left along with the rest of her crew. My father and I stood in the front yard watching them drive away.

“So what was that about, Daddy?” I asked.

“It was an interview about my poetry,” he told me. “They asked me about my early days as a poet and I read out a few poems for them. It went well. They’ll let me know when it’s going to air on TV.”

A couple of weeks later my father’s interview aired on an afternoon programme aimed at schoolkids. Karl and I sat and watched as my father was propped up onto our kitchen counter explaining to the youth of South Africa the immense beauty and value of poetry.

“In teaching poetry or in teaching literature, they should just throw down the shackles and burdens of the old style. There is poetry all around us: the wonderful things that people say, that kids say to each other, the skipping rope songs, the chanting in the streets … so if they want to teach poetry in the classroom, they shouldn’t exclude the wonderful wide world happening outside the classroom because that’s where poetry comes [from], that’s where poetry happens.”

In the 1990s as the country was rapidly evolving, my father’s poetry, once vilified by the government, was being taught to many a youngster across the country.

I lost count of how many school students came through our front door over the years to visit my father and ask for help with one or two of his poems.

When Karl was about nine years old, he and my father would have long discussions about the books he was reading at school, as his burgeoning love for literature started showing promise. Believe it or not, in all of my 12 years of schooling, I only ever asked my father to explain some poems to me at the very end of my school career; literally the night before my final English literature exam in matric. I had never before harnessed his poetic insights but, for some reason, I thought I’d give it a shot right at the very last opportunity.

When I asked him to help me, he was a bit surprised, but mightily pleased all the same. We sat at our dining room table and I pulled out a stack of papers which contained the 10 poems I needed to know. 

I do not remember all the poems we went through except for the very first one on the pile because that happened to be the poem which appeared in the exam the following day.

The poem was Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes. Before Chris explained the poem to me, he first read through it on his own to grasp what it was all about. As he read through the poem silently, he occasionally shook his head in amazement and kept repeating: “Wow, this poem is beautiful.” 

It’s a relatively simple poem about a hawk perched up in the trees surveying the earth below and contemplating its next kill, with an air of noble arrogance that is exceptionally conveyed to the reader in six short stanzas. 

I remember silently thinking to myself, Wow, he actually does seem to know this poetry stuff after all.

Needless to say, I passed the exam, thanks in part to my father. But more than that, it helped me garner more of an appreciation of how the most condensed form of writing can be used creatively to tell a story and evoke one’s emotions.

Chris van Wyk — Irascible Genius: A Son’s Memoir is published by Pan Macmillan.