Of poetry, dead white men, and all that Jazz

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

A few years ago, the writer Bruce Wexler rose, apparently from a drunken slumber and declared poetry dead. [Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care? Newsweek, May 5, 2003]. The reaction to Wexler’s heresy was swift and furious. His dignity was assaulted by a million fatwas issued by the self-identified worshippers of poetry, proving Wexler’s point – that poetry is the only art form where the population of those who write it overwhelms the population of those who actually consume it. I disagree with Wexler. Poetry is not dead. And I think a more careful reading of Wexler would strongly suggest that he would agree with me. I do agree with Wexler on one point. Anyone can write a bad poem. That is the beauty of its art. But first we have to agree on what constitutes a bad poem.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the purists who would dismiss any poem that does not meet established standards of literary expression, and then at the other end, you have those who say, to hell with rules. There ought to be a happy medium. So, who is a poet in today’s world? I propose that the poets who live on in our hearts and minds are those who have, using the tricks of the ancients, adapted their medium to effectively communicate the word.  This last point is extremely important. Poets are indeed priests. As buglers of joy and of doom, they have to fashion out crisp messages to the people in the language that the people understand. In Africa, today’s poets stand the risk of closing the barn door after the flight of doom, because they are too busy waxing their messages into the rigor mortis of what Chinweizu would call obscurantism.

Our poets and thinkers must seek to use their gifts to make a difference in our societies. Our poetry should offer perspectives that are rooted deep in the fragrance of the land of our ancestors. We go back to the earth when we are stressed; we look back to the past for succor, when our present condition does not carry us back to the warmth of our mother’s hearth. But there is a danger in imagining that this is reality. For the average consumer does not understand these details. The average reader does not understand why there must be a formula; why there must be a set way to write poetry. Who makes these decisions? One sees a lot of insightful critiques that echo the works of Western writers but one is constrained to ask” Why would Western values be necessarily relevant to the way we tell our stories, the way we sing our songs? Has anyone ever attempted to create our own rules of engagement using the robust body of work that is out there? And how do we know that Western writers like TS Eliot were thinking of us as they wove complex thoughts into elaborate structures that were obviously bound to their own ancestral lands?

We are back to divining the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. I propose that the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what is good poetry and what is painful to the eyes. But I miss the haunting lyricism and imagery of poets like the late great Okogbule Wonodi. Hear him sing to me:

But we have poured more wine
than the gods can drink
more than the soil can drink
and have become outcasts
dispersing the fishes
for which the baskets are laid
and the fisherman did not like us.

[Okogbule Wonodi, Icheke: IV]

Was Wonodi a bad poet? I would never know. Who cares? I hope that there are many more “bad poets” where he came from. Freed from the stifling confines of classrooms, I have taught myself to only pay for that which my heart seeks. I read the new poets and I am comforted by the kind of chants that used to make me jump on a coffee table and dance to the courage of my ancestor’s spirits. We come from a land of simple people who hide deep meanings inside simple words. One has to listen carefully to our people to get the insult or the accolade. I look for those kinds of poems to enjoy. The critic must not breathe on every piece that calls itself “poetry.” Some things are best left alone. If a poem turns out to be what the acerbic reviewer Randall Jarrell once referred to as giving “the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter,” I will simply move on quietly to a more worthy pursuit. Life is too short to be miserable. Poetry is not dead; it just needs re-packaging.