Sentinel Poetry Magazine January 2003 | Letter
Poetry In A Season Of Anomie
Congratulations on your project, and on the very profound interview with Obi Nwakanma.
Irrespective of Obi's very apt response to the question on the nature of poetry and its relationship to performance, it is nevertheless clear that his poetry is written with an ear for sound, which is the sine qua non of all poetry, or at least what used to be known as poetry.
My only and favorite recollection of Obi Nwakanma is that he once made me go back to London and spend days reading one of my own poems aloud, trying with all admiration to see if I could read it like Obi Nwakanma read it at the Okigbo Prize reading party organized by Toyin Akinosho and others in Lagos in 1992. But the poem in question could only be read so well because it was written with an ear for sound, for though we have come to conceive of poetry as a written form, it is however an oral form first, unlike the novel which began and survives as a written form. I read and listen as I write, often aloud, sometimes into a microphone; In the end, I am not a great reader of my own poetry, but I *hear* what it ought to sound like in the voice of a good reader, and I make that my bench mark. It does not matter if the poem is not for declamation; even in its quietest form, poetry must work as a tracery of sounds.
In a radio interview with Lewis Nkosi (I believe in 1962, I'd have to check the dates), Okigbo stated: "What has influenced me most are not poets but musical composers... The composer is working with abstract sounds while the poet is working with words." He also revealed that he was "under the spell of the impressionist composers; Debussy and others" while writing *Heavensgate*, and that he began writing poetry seriously in 1957 only after he quit composing music. An excellent pianist and flutist, Okigbo had often accompanied Soyinka on the piano while the later performed in bars in Ibadan (many do not remember today that Soyinka, a fine guitar player, spent a brief period trying to make a living playing bars in Paris before he finally decided that his future lay in theatre.) So that the success of Okigbo's poetry, as everyone from Obiechina and Udechukwu to Obi Nwakanma in this interview have pointed out, lies not merely in its mystical depth but first in its irresistible sonorousness. Hence the truth in that most quoted saying that for all good poetry, the aim was song.
Nnorom, in your interview with your previous guest, Nathan Lewis, whose poetry by the way is quite typical of much contemporary poetry including those of the most acclaimed on both sides of the Ocean such as Rita Dove; plain, Lewis takes issue with rap and speaks of the "purity" of poetry, which leads one to think that he believes poetry to be an elevated literary form distinct from the insurgencies of the oral. Now, one has a lot to take issue with regarding so-called spoken word or performance poetry as practised today, which often languishes at the very other extreme of complete vacuity and inanity (if you can strut about on stage, wave your hands and howl, then you are a poet or "spoken word artist": Bollocks!), yet the truth remains that the finest poetry in existence today is to be found in rap; in the words of Nas (aka Nasiru, who is reputed to be the son of the famous drummer, Olu Dara) singing "One mic", or JayZ, or the incomparable Biggie Smalls, or that unassailable wordsmith, Tupac Shakur, or Guru, perhaps the finest lyricist of them all. Or indeed those elemental pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five at the height of their genius. I have theorized that the most successful translation of African traditions in poetry into the contemporary is through rap and Jamaican dancehall. The rest of us are mere impostors, unworthy heirs, failed sons. Okonkwo begat Nwoye. It happens.
I trace the tragedy of all contemporary poetry to one inanity; the mistake of confusing *verse* with poetry because classical European poetry came down to us in written form as verse. But verse is not necessarily poetry, which is to say that an arrangement of four lines on a page, or four sections of four lines with an additional couplet at the end, does not become poetry in and of itself; it is only a notation, like the written signs or *scores* with which a composer encodes his music. Now, if the scores are mere signs on paper without music, then that becomes a drawing, not a musical composition, just as verse without poetic content remains mere words and not poetry. I would take my example from Mr. Lewis's own "poetry". In his "Brenda Poem #8", from his apparently much acclaimed *Brenda Poems*, there is a narrative about an encounter with a woman in her kitchen, who instructs the protagonist in the folly of sexist assumptions. The narrative is chopped up and arranged in 50 lines of verse, but where is the poetry? Where are the poetic devices that distinguish poetry from mere narrative?
Mr. Lewis's admirers praise him as a "lyrical poet", which is ironic because the term, lyrical is after all from the word, lyric, which is a musical form that in turn derives its register from the word, lyre, a stringed, musical instrument for solo. Which means that a lyrical poet writes introspective poetry that in ancient times would be performed solo with the accompaniment of a lyre. A lyrical poet writes lyrics. Now, compare Mr. Lewis's poetry, or what I have read of it, with those of another poet who writes the same genre that Mr. Lewis seems to write, Chicago poet Sanda Cisneros, and you find that the difference is clear. You can almost hear a trio on a Mexican street corner performing Cisneros's poems just like they once did the poetry of Lorca, who was a true lyrical poet.
The other great tragedy of contemporary poetry is the license of free verse. Before Walt Whitman most poets took the trouble to instill at least the barest poetic pretenses into their work through the end rhyme. A quatrain was forced to rhyme in a pattern; abba, abab, aabb, etc. Even those who would not bother with syllabic meters, at least used rhyme to bring a musical or sonic coherence to their poetry. But then Whitman changed all that with his declamatory poetry that did away with the end rhyme. What most contemporary so-called poets forget is that he retained and in fact magnified a whole range of rhetorical devices from occasional internal rhyme and alliterative syncopation to modal resonance, all of
which made his poetry not a departure but in fact a continuation in the great traditions of orature. None of which the majority of impostors out there today know anything about. And so, they take only the free verse, but freedom can be a curse sometimes because freedom provides no restraint from incompetence and decadence, both of which now parade in the name of poetry.
I have a word of admonition for those who still practice this ancient art; speak your words till they sound beautiful, no matter your subject, speak your words to yourself, in front of a mirror, to the emptiness of your own home or the raucous company of admirers, vocalize your words till they sound right and beautiful, and no one who hears or reads them will forget them.