The Poet Lives in Us

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

As someone who thoroughly enjoys reading Nigerian poetry, let me just observe that several of our new poets are timid holdovers from the Soyinka-Okigbo era; that era that Chinweizu famously derided as unreadable and obscurantist. Such an uncritical adherence to that era ignores the fact that even as oblique as their works were, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo were truly relevant to the times in at least one sense. They spoke in decipherable code to their fellow intellectuals (some of them in military uniform) and the intended audience listened closely. Soyinka has many seasons of incarceration to show for the effectiveness of his poetic rage. Okigbo died carrying his message.

An uncritical adherence to a Euro-centric approach has the unintended consequence of isolating our best voices, and assigning their songs to a pantheon of obscure mediocrity. On behalf of our long-suffering people, I would like to urge a return of voices to the true songs of our people. Africa cannot afford the consignment of its griots to the barracks of the unreadable. How does the poet become truly relevant to the yearnings and anxieties of our people?

Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, Okigbo, these poets spoke to the oppressors in the language they understood. Our new oppressors do not understand the complex nuance of the type of poetry that many of our poets seem to favor, that pass the smell test in the West. And if therefore they do not read our poetry, when will they hear the clanging of the chains around our people’s necks? Which begs the question again: What are our poets living for today? It is about seizing opportunities. Our lands lie devastated, enduring rape upon rape. Our poets stare stunned, in disbelief and in shame, because, this time, their voices have been drowned in shallow pools of self-absorption. Word to the poet: turn your poems into songs of freedom, and let your songs morph into weapons of war. We are at war, what are you doing stringing together incoherent sentences?

The poet lives, breathes in all of us. And as Soyinka would probably say it, the poet dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. Let us honestly divine the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. The consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what good poetry is and what is painful to the eyes. But I miss the haunting lyricism and imagery of poets like 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]

Is Wonodi a bad poet? I would never know. I hope that there are many more bad poets where he came from. I come from a land of simple people who hide deep meanings inside simple words. One has to listen carefully to my people to get the insult or the accolade. I look for those kinds of poems to enjoy. Freed from the stifling confines of classrooms, I have taught myself to only pay for that which my heart seeks. If a poem turns out to be what the acerbic reviewer Randall Jarrell refers 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. Our poetry is not dead; it just needs packaging.

Thriving societies of thinkers and doers look at their world and they see visions of possibilities and they say, why not? We have inherited a culture that celebrates customs as sacrosanct, and the past poses as the present tense. The great societies take their best thinkers and exhort them to think, no, dream of a better world, and worry about the constraints later. Every day, we lose our tenuous grip on our continent; I think we are going to drown in the syrupy fluid of Western customs and traditions.

In the beginning there were walls. And in the beginning walls defined every being and everything. The Berlin Wall is no more and poets lament the coming of the new dispensation. Except that the new dispensation is not new; it is here. Books are dying, poetry as we know it is limping on life support and prose is hawking her wares in obscure literary journals like a junkie in need of a fix.  But the world lives, life goes on and ideas continue to rock our foundations. In the seeming irrelevance of the written word, the poet lives. Poet, do not cripple your voice with silly little sentences that make sense only to the terminally drunk. I say, speak up, don’t stutter. Straighten up and lift our people’s dreams on the strong backs of your strong voices, and carry them through to the deaf myrmidons of darkness who live beyond the valley of darkness, past the hills of decadence. And sing it; sing it for a people long used to the silence of her priests. The poet lives. The poet lives in all of us.