The purpose and power of poetry

Ruth HartleyPoetry, Politics, Publication, Songs, Writing, Zambia4 Comments

The title of this collection of poetry gathered by the inspirational Kate Clanchy does not do justice to the extraordinary power and beauty of these poems by school children

At school, we learnt to declaim poetry. It was mostly heroic stuff designed to inspire patriotism and action like Felicia Dorothea Heman’s Casabianca about filial duty and Thomas Macaulay’s incredibly lengthy poem Horatius at the Bridge about courage. We weren’t taught to make poetry, and poetry was never going to be about us and our lives. Even though this kind of verse was stirring stuff, we were made to believe that poems were for girls and sissies and Valentine cards – unless, of course, it was very rude, crude and a limerick recited while banging a beer bottle on the table. Poetry, we were instructed, must follow strict rules and formulations. It has to have metre and rhyme and needs to be recited in that reverential ‘poet’s voice’ so that you know it’s only for especially sensitive, gifted and educated persons. Poetry was always going to be beyond and above ordinary people like me. I found this interesting 2014 article by Rich Smith about the Poet’s voice online and I quote him here. “[Sentimentality is giving] to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” ‘Poet Voice’ gives to the poem more tenderness than the poet gave it. Potentially wonderful poems are made cheesy.” I think that what I dislike about the reverential treatment of poetry is that it suggests it’s for an elite. It isn’t – it’s for everybody and for me!

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How to be a published writer in Zambia – or anywhere in the world

Ruth HartleyBooks, Education, Publication, The Shaping of Water, Writing, Writing Process, Zambia4 Comments

Writers Circle

Books written by Zambian writers or set in Zambia

I want to thank Daniel Sikazwe very much or inviting me to take part with Mubanga Kalimamukwento, the author of The Mourning Bird. in this Writers Circle online forum.  Mubanga and I have published our books in different ways and I’m here to tell you about the decisions I made and why I decided to self-publish.

First of all, I must say how essential storytelling, writing books, publishing books and selling books is for any society. So, too, is a free press, journalism and the visual arts. Nobody will get rich by doing any of these things, but they are the acts of love and truth-telling which keep society going. This is important!

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When I Was Bad

Ruth HartleyApartheid, Family, Feminism, Human rights, Marriage, Religion, South Africa, When I Was BadLeave a Comment

Wicked women

The front page of the Irish Examiner has some of the names of the 1000s of babies that died in Ireland’s Catholic homes for unmarried mothers and babies.

Bridget and I are the same age and we were both ‘unmarried mothers’ a long time ago.

Bridget became pregnant in Ireland at 17 years. She escaped to London but was sent home by a priest to the torture of the brutal Bessborough home, a Catholic institution for unmarried mothers. Her tragic story and the death of her baby is recounted here. I became pregnant at 22 years in Cape Town, South Africa. From a very different background, with strong political convictions and different intentions, I too escaped to London. I was more fortunate. There I was helped by progressive and proactive women first in the Defence and Aid organisation and then in the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child run by the wonderful Pauline Crabbe.

Sinful sex

Bridget and I were both ignorant about contraception and sexual intercourse. Bridget, a Catholic, was deeply ashamed. I, a Marxist then, was terrified that I might go to prison under the South African miscegenation laws. I also knew that my pregnancy would shame my family and I wanted to spare them that.

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We are on earth to grow bones

Ruth HartleyGods, Seasons, Truth2 Comments


Wheelbarrow,fork, sieve and compost.

It’s a sunny winter’s day in my garden and I’m busy digging compost for my raised vegetable beds. I’m doing a job that gives me great pleasure. I’m outdoors, the weather is kind enough, the air is fresh and the sun is bright. My fork goes easily into the ground to loosen the earth and my woman-sized spade lifts the dark friable soil easily. I chuck it onto the wire mesh resting over my wheelbarrow and scrape away until it all falls through leaving only bones and the occasional bits of plastic trapped by the mesh. There are many more bones than plastic. Interesting, I think. Gardening is physical philosophy and I’m an amateur – a lover that is – of philosophy and ecology but also a debutante who is always learning. I wonder if the production of bones isn’t the actual purpose of human life. They are the end product of human life after all and they do last thousands of years.

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From 1966 District Six in Cape Town to Zambia and back – the start of this writer’s journey

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Apartheid, Family, History, Mpapa Gallery, Politics, Racism, Religion, South Africa, When I Was Bad, Zambia14 Comments

Beyond reconciliation – a virtual walk through different faiths

District Six 1965
The family if the Imam in District Six who taught me Arabic in 1965

At the start of this week, I was invited to participate in this online event by Nic Paton, grandson of Alan Paton, author of Cry The Beloved Country. Thank you, Nic! The event was organised by the District Six Reconciliation Day Interfaith Walk. It was a healing and uplifting hour and a half and it has inspired me to tell the following story. The event began with the Call to Prayer from the Al-Azhar Mosque – a prayer that I heard every day in 1965 when I lived in District Six. This story is recounted in my memoir When I Was Bad before the destruction of District Six by the apartheid regime.

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