Afam Akeh “I Returm To Okigbo” continued from previous page
but that a lot of respect for Okigbo is still leftover is what I generally find. You can, as I did, outgrow Labyrinths. In my case, I went on to have other equally satisfying but less intense affairs with the poets Derek Walcott, Pablo Neruda and T. S. Eliot. But the power of outstanding poetry is that it also marks your choices in poetry criticism, so that whichever side you sway you are never really indifferent to the conditioning of those defining marks. I think that my interest in poetry criticism was actually kindled when I stumbled on an amusing but quite ruthless essay by the poet- olemicist Karl Shapiro. That essay ‘What Is Not Poetry?’ was part of a work, In Defence of Ignorance (1960), and Shapiro’s rage in the essay is directed against restrictive academic poetry criticism, which he referred repeatedly to as “modern criticism”. Shapiro, writing outside the discourse modes and constructs of recent theory, was deliberately provocative, opinionated and maddeningly illogical sometimes in his essay. A poet, he wrote, “ recognises the limitations of human language and is always slightly outside language.”
Shapiro was focusing on somewhat different matters but his words instructed me on what makes good poetry great. I understood then what made Okigbo’s poetry so special. Labyrinths was more than just pages of language. Beyond all that excellence in expression, in the celebration of language, the real creative power of the poet of Labyrinths, as might also be observed of Shakespeare, lay in his affecting and successful realisation of the very life from which he sourced his work. His lines came alive as you encountered them, filling you, making you, moving you, not letting you get away without feeling their tangible presence. You felt the love. You lived the rage. You saw the beauty. You did not merely read words. Those lines of his poems had character, emotion, attitude, intelligence. They possessed you as you read them. They were awe-inspiring in parts, filling you with their sounds and smells and errors and arguments, with all the worlds of experience represented in and by them. If you managed to pull yourself away from those words they still wanted to follow you wherever else you wanted to go for the rest of your life. Like devotional literature, great literature affects and stays with the reader as a living companion.
Recognising that real poetry is richer than the words by which it is often expressed, that indeed the poetic experience is inclusive of language but not exclusive to it, meant that I was trained early to engage without fear such representations and elements of the poetic some may consider marginal, underground, ‘too experimental’ or ‘not poetry’. I have known poetry written, spoken, made and demonstrated in various media and through even more varied instruments, not all of them human. I have learned to engage with all, loving some, grading them differently according to their kind. The following is also poetry - these words tattooed on the naked back of a woman, who, in an accompanying photograph to the poem, was doing exactly what the poem said she was doing:
She is / riding me, facing / away, and I am / deep inside her. /
The moles / and freckles / on her back / are an unknown / constellation. /
On the other side, / too far away / and far / too dark to see /
there are / her perfect breasts / her face / her closed eyes.
‘The Balcony’, David Brooks, Poetry Salzburg Review No. 7
But this poetry is not the poetry of ‘Burnt Norton’ (Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot), or of The Heights of Macchu Picchu (Pablo Neruda). It is not the poetry that made Rabindranath Tagore at least an equal Indian in historical importance with his compatriot and great contemporary, Mahatma Gandhi. “The Balcony”, or just the third part of it quoted above, is a different poetry, but poetry still. It is of, and speaking to, a differently valid and valuated experience of the human from that which is the source of the great Psalms of the Christian Bible. This later devotional experience, allowing for the significant differences in faith, is also the ruling experience of the ‘Hymns of Homer’, “a group of thirty-three songs composed to honour the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greek pantheon,” and attributed to the poet of the Iliad and Odyssey (The Homeric Hymns, Jules Cashford and Nicholas Richardson, Penguin Classics, 2003). That homage to Sappho above isn’t momentous poetry. It is a poetry of the moment. It isn’t about the past, present and future. It is about the now and nothing else.
SENTINEL POETRY (ONLINE) #42
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002
MAY 2006 ISSN 1479-425X Editor: Amatoritsero Ede