Out of the mouths of babes – new ways of seeing and being from our young poets
Tue, 14 July 2020
First-prize winner: Second-prize winner: Third-prize winner:
Letshepo Morelo (14) Juliet Mokgwadi (17) Lwabelo Bokwana (8)
Cash prize: R1 000 Cash prize: R700 Cash prize: R300
Children have a way of bypassing those typical adult defences and insecurities that are honed over a lifetime of social censure and schooled instruction. They have a way of seeing into the secret heart of things, of feeling deeply, intensely and authentically – before they are swept up in the business of the world and forced to grow up.
In that brief aperture into being – where children are simply allowed to be – the world is wondrous and limitless. In philosopher Michael Meade’s words: “Each young person is a poet of sorts, trying to sort out the poetics of their inner life and its relation to the great world around it.” And this is truer now than ever before, as the COVID-19 crisis has caused such rupture in our lives, and has called into question the foundations on which this adult world of ours is built.
And so, over Youth Month, AVBOB felt it important to invite young poets to craft poems of comfort for kids over this time of uncertainty and instability. We challenged our under-18s to reach out to others and provide a measure of hope to hold on to as they are forced to navigate a changed universe. We wanted to listen in to the voices of our young, who are compelled to come of age in a strange new place, a world where their every instinct – to explore and to connect – has been shut down, as they are forced to wear masks, forgo touch, and isolate. And our three young winning poets did just that, speaking from a place of authenticity, precocity and prescience.
Born and bred in Nelspruit, our first-prize winner, Letshepo Morelo, is just 14 years old but already has a strong sense of his vocation as a poet:
“I always look forward to sharing my words and letting my voice be heard through poetry. I hope that my poem reaches people so they can find comfort in it and be hopeful about the day we will wake up to a world without COVID-19. I hope that people will relate to my poem and be motivated to look forward to better days ahead.”
But Letshepo also wanted his poem to encourage people to comply with the new regulations in order to hasten the end of this pandemic and to bring a return to a more recognisable world. And he puts a positive spin on staying at home: “I believe that we should not look at staying home as a punishment, but as a chance to let planet Earth heal from things like pollution and global warming, while we bond with our loved ones and explore our individual talents.” In spite of the upheaval that has threatened to unmoor our young people right now – they are forced to face a world that is not of their making – there is this positive sense of purpose and opportunity. And a resilience and sense of agency that should inspire the older generation.
In his untitled poem, Letshepo explores the paradoxes of this pandemic (‘Where love/is staying away/from each other’). And he urges us to be willing to ‘move mountains’ in order to find a way forward, with the assurance that ‘we will rise’.
Here in a time
when the Earth
absorb our cries
and sanitizers are used.
is staying away
from each other,
is not embracing
comes and goes
and returning to school,
is not promised.
When we are held back
at a distance
we will rise
and let no pandemic
get under our skin.
We will wait for the day
when we can hug and laugh
and look into
each other's eyes
without distancing much.
We will follow
and stay safe at home,
we will move mountains
by flattening the curve
and working together
Our second-prize winner Juliet Mokgwadi is 17 years old and lives in Middelburg, Mpumalanga. She has been a lifelong lover of poetry, and her bedroom is packed with notebooks containing her writings, which have mirrored the milestones in her young life. She has the courage and confidence that others far older than her would envy, and sees her poetry as a way to connect with and move others:
“I have always known that I had everything it takes to become a poet. The reason why I entered this competition was to water the seed of poetry in me. I express my views and emotions through poetry. I felt the deep urge to give hope in these confusing and difficult times we are facing as a country. And I really hope my poem touches someone's heart.”
Her poem speaks to a time beyond this time, when those simple ordinary delights we have taken for granted – now taken from us – will be restored to us, and we will re-emerge ‘like gorgeous butterflies… grateful/Of a handshake with a stranger,/A crowded theatre,/Each deep breath,/And life itself.’ She layers this rebirth, and the accompanying gratitude, to compass everything from the simplest daily gestures (a handshake) and delights (a crowded theatre), to the profound impulse (each deep breath) that subtends all life. And each and all, from the daily to the sacred, are framed by the familiar, accessible and uncomplicated refrain: ‘So don't worry, be happy.’
So many plans we've laid have unravelled
easily as braids beneath my mother's quick fingers:
Movies on Monday
Tea party on Tuesday
Wedding on Wednesday
Shopping on Thursday
and funeral on Friday.
But don't worry, be happy.
These tough times will soon pass
like the cold wind that rushes through the grass.
Nothing lasts forever,
and though this mountain seems too tall,
its purpose is to teach and heal,
not to confuse or to appal.
So don't worry, be happy.
Because when you worry your face will frown
and that will bring everybody down.
To be honest,
we are already at our lowest.
So don't worry, stay at home.
It will soon pass.
The doctors and nurses will heal the world
then our president will re-open it.
We will come out of our cocoons
Like gorgeous butterflies
We will be more grateful
Of a handshake with a stranger,
A crowded theatre,
Each deep breath,
And life itself.
We will be better people because of the worst crisis.
So don't worry, be happy.
Our third-prize winner is just eight years old and hails from Port Elizabeth. Grade 2 learner Lwabelo Bokwana is something of a spelling whizz and loves words for the sheer joy of what they can do. He wrote his poem – his very first – because he felt he had a duty to comfort his peers and remind them that, one day, they will play together again.
The simplicity and brevity of his poem is deceptive, however, as he manages to pack multiple meanings into just six short lines. He begins by rehearsing those messages that are so regularly received from the figures of authority (doctors, parents, government) in children’s lives. And while these messages may seem a validation of children, and may celebrate their promise and potential (‘we are strong’, ‘we are a blessing’, ‘we are the future’), there is the risk that, at best, they remain mere platitudes and, at worst, they become a burden too difficult to bear.
So, our young poet maps out the concrete, practical steps that are needed to get beyond the restrictions of the present – steps that have been drummed into our children across the world over this pandemic (‘wash your hands’, ‘stop touching your eyes’, ‘keep a distance from people’) – to arrive at a more easy to bear, more accessible reality: playing together as friends, going to school together, and growing together. There is strength in the real and concrete – the lived experience of the child – rather than in the burdens and expectations that are placed on them by society (doctors, parents, government).
Doctors say we are strong.
Parents say we are a blessing.
Government says we are the future.
Wash your hands, so we can play together again.
Stop touching your eyes, so we can go to school again.
Keep a distance from people, so we can grow.
Our young poets remind us that if they are simply given the chance to be themselves, to find their own way forward, on their own terms, they will, perhaps, be able to usher in a world that is better than our present one. And what is more reassuring, as we have seen in this mini-competition, is that our young people have found their voice, and it is true and strong. And that is the power of poetry – to give voice to the smallest among us so that we may speak our truth. So, add your voice to the fourth annual AVBOB Poetry Competition, which runs from 1 August ‘til 30 November 2020. Visit www.avbobpoetry.co.za to enter.