Sentinel Poetry (Online) #54 ISSN 1479-425X


Editor-in-Chief: Amatoritsero Ede

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The grain and the Chaff  

There seems to be a crisis in the poet’s trade these days; his shop is worm-eaten and the wooden beams of its roof rotten and collapsing; the ceiling is caving in and our poet might go to the dog-house if the critic does not rebuild the shop. A notable and signal decline in quality, coupled with an overproduction of poetry, is ceaselessly propelled by a contemporary failure of criticism in nurturing and mid-wifing good or even great poetry. This phenomenon seems to stretch from equator to equator around the globe. And it seems to involve all who are in the business of publishing – from poet or ‘poetaster’, to editor, to critic, prize-awarding institutions, and publishers, especially the vanity press and, online poetry journals! This is not to suggest that there are no great quality works being produced, but that such quality poetry seems to burst forth in spurts these days; that there is much too much chaff out there.


Cultures have always flowed into and influenced each other across historical space. The motor or vehicle of such global flows are multiple and varied; while some conduits are paradigmatic historical events like slavery or colonialism, with their enabling discursive formations, others are less noticeable and seemingly ‘natural’ activities such as migration or travel. Empire also transplanted textual institutionalising apparatuses like the university, intact with its pedagogical strategies and curricula. In this way the imperial library flowed into local archives, resulting in cosmopolitan and hybrid intertexts. At such confluences we find poetry being fashioned and re-fashioned in the intersection of national and transnational idioms.


 It is significant that the nature of such influences have been one of a largely North-South uni-directional flow. It is not unusual for the flow to go the other way but this is a trickle when compared to the deluge of the Northern poetic library on Southern textual practices. For example, we know that modernism in poetry was to some extent influenced, notably through Ezra Pound, by classical Chinese poetry. The modernists looked towards untraditional sources of influence and it is understandable that they looked towards the South. Other South-North influences are more overarching; an example is the influence of so-called ‘black primitivism’, within the black internationalist ambience of Paris, on surrealism via Picasso’s cubism; surrealism then further influenced the poetry of Aime Cesaire of Notebook of a Return to my Native Land. The Jazz of the Harlem renaissance influenced the fractal rhythm and imagery of the Beat Poets like Allen Ginsberg. The observant reader is probably wondering: ‘why do Harlem and Paris, since these locales are in geographically located in the North, qualify as ‘South’ alongside nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Several Critics, such as Arif Dirlik, have noted how the terms North and South have become connotations for the pathways of transnational capital, rather than a denotation of actual physical location. The south would be the points of the erosion of capital, the exploited spaces, and the North its final destination. As such the South extends in unexpected directions, especially within the internationalism that Imperialism inaugurated as a result of the uprooting and dislocation of people.


And where is the connection between imperialism and the decline in the quality of poetry today? Most modern literary movements have always had a progressive political and ideological undertow, which reflected the general mood of the national proletariat against imperialism. Examples are the Harlem renaissance with its commitment to racial uplift through the efforts of those referred to by Alaine Locke as the “talented tenth”; the anti-apartheid poetry of the Black Consciousness Movement era in South African literature; the anti-colonial poetry of Sub-Saharan Africa; the Negritudinist dialectics of French African and Caribbean poetry of the 1930s and upwards; and the poetry of Nicolas Guillen and the Negrismo school. Modernism, literary and otherwise, in the North was a progressive reaction against the old hegemonic order, which resulted in the World War of 1914. 


The political fervour of the poetic works suggested above, of course, insinuates that those poets involved took craft very serious and were ideologically committed. The impetus was not material gains; if these appeared they were merely by-products. It is significant that these movements were inter-linked, and rhizomes of one internationalist whole. Neil Larsen (in Schwarz and Ray 2000, 31) opines that “what is generated in the wake of imperialism’s first [i.e. the Great War] and subsequent global crises is not an international aesthetic per se […]. Rather it is an experience of aesthetic form itself as ‘international’.” He also emphasises the overarching politics that informed poetic or artistic practice. It was “[a] ‘revolutionary’ world aesthetic – as opposed to a tradition, cannon or culture [which] stands forth as the poetics of the new (anti)imperialist internationalism, both proletarian and all-purpose liberal-humanist, and binds items as apparently antinomial as surrealism and Zhadonovite social realism […] etc”


Of course those works of anti-imperialist fervour – especially in sub-Saharan Africa – were not always of the greatest quality. This is the reason why Pius Adesanmi*, in his interventions in third generation African poetry insist that pioneer ‘political’ poets like Gladys Casely Hayford, J.B. Danquah, Raphael Armattoe, H.E. Dhlomo, Dennis Osadebay, Abioseh Nicol, Michael Dei-Anang, Pita Nwana, R.E. Obeng, and Nnamdi Azikiwe are mere ‘precursors’ to the true beginnings of modern African poetry exemplified in the works of Senghor, Diop, Soyinka, Okigbo et al. Nevertheless, by the time the nationalist fervour of pioneer African poetry had settled, the modernist muscle of the poetry initiated by a meeting of the internationalist western library and local archives built up, and coalesced into great craft of execution. The process was the same in most twentieth century rhizomatic off-shoots of an internationalist network. At the end the chaff fell off and left a wholesome grain behind.


The period of ideologically committed and craft-conscious poetry in recent time was the 20th century. As we enter the 21st century – with the disappearance of communism, the disillusion of un-freedom from an ever-powerful imperialistic world order, exemplified by a lone and overgrown superpower – poetry seems to have gone into a decline. The idea of an international aesthetic is still prevalent; nevertheless a relentless and ever-strengthening bourgeoisie order seems to have fragmented the will to political action or aesthetic felicity. Poets do not seem to have any ideological focus and their energies are scattered. A notable puerility in thematic concern seems to creep in, setting the flesh of poetry in a rigor mortis of ineptitude – in style, craft or theme. As consumerism and the capitalist order takes complete hold of modern society, the poem has become some kind of Sunday or Saturday distraction. Aesthetic concerns seem to have deteriorated in tandem with the Zeitgeist.


The economic depletions that attended several centuries of imperial activity in the South, worsened by the economic failure of a non-aligned conference of newly independent Asian and African countries in Bandung in 1955, makes the high introspection required by sustained craft an unaffordable luxury. Western imperial economics policies like the IMF or a Global financial arrangement based on a Breton Woods system has further impoverished large sections of the south, forcing writers to either abandon poetry completely or write it as a kind of after-thought. Derek Walcott in a recent reading in the USA queried the need for such a misnomer as the ‘prose-poem’ during a recent reading at the Jane Oxford Keiter Performing Arts Centre, Natick, USA, in a discussion generated by the audience. Of course complicating this lack of the factors of cultural production is a bankruptcy in ideological direction, with the collapse of institutional Marxism/socialism on the one hand, and the rise of comprador governments, on the other.  As such poets write in haste. It is easy to note a propagandist and didactic tone in the works of most poets from the south today, reminiscent of the days of anti-colonial poetry.  In short it is a regression.


In the northern hemisphere, the plenitude that has accumulated due to capitalist activity, coupled – again – with the resurgence of high imperialism, leads to over-production of poetry. The resources for cultural production are aplenty and the emphasis of poets shifts from quality to quantity. Blurb writers in the west are quick to highlight the number of poetry collection published so far rather than the quality. Although poetry is not a money-making venture, nevertheless there is cultural capital, and as such, financial benefits to be had from being seen to be a poet – hence the emphasis on quantity. Of course, the ‘prose poem’, which is one of many forms for that proliferation of chaff, is the invention of a somnambulist proletariat in the West.


The nexus of small presses, publishers, agents, poet or poetaster, literary festivals and reading series hang unto the purse strings of supporting financial cultural agencies, which dispense money, based on budgetary allocations for the arts by western governments. All concerned are under pressure to make sure poetry is produced in order to be eligible for a share of the purse. A gentleman’s agreement and an unspoken understanding is made by everyone that the budgetary allocation must be exhausted for the cycle of largess to continue. As such the agents in the field of cultural production see to it that something gets published, quality be damned, if that is what it takes! Of course, the subvention of the arts is a great thing nevertheless, if it leads to poor quality poetry, it becomes detrimental to the aesthetic values it is supposed to promote it the first place.


A dwindling in quality, of course means that less people read poetry, the smaller the number of readers, the smaller the market for poetry, and its consequent increasing unprofitability for the trade publisher. This means more small presses step in as more quantity is shunned out by the poetaster, and the careless or unfinished poet. It is a vicious cycle. Of course, in all of this – high-jacked as poetic practice is by a senseless over-writing in mimicry of the consumerism and over-production of the capitalist state – any kind of ideological commitment is thrown overboard. It simply makes matters worse. Shorn of any commitment to high values, the poet is seized by a paroxysm of activity – “pangs without birth; fruitless industry” to quote John Dryden. As a matter of fact, the long poem from which that quote is taken is titled “Macflecknoe”, a satire on dull poets.


Modern day critics do not seem to help the matter much. In the South the lassitude of shattered economies, and disillusion seem to have the critic in a stranglehold that renders him useless. Again Pius Adesanmi^, in conversation with Joseph Brodsky’s critically intense essay and ironically un-footnote-like, “Footnotes to a Poem”, highlights this contemporary dearth of critical attention to Anglophone or francophone African poetry. The Southern critic’s attitude in his dejection and dereliction of duty has become, “the sky carries a boil of anguish/Let it burst!” In the North contemporary criticism does not seem to go beyond the inanities of ‘blurbing’ and the giddy arithmetic of numbers: ‘Our poet now has twenty collections to his credit’. It does not matter if one of those twenty is truly readable or not.  On the long run the losers are the poets themselves, the nation state, the general reader, and of course imperialism gains, marching on in bloody boots through the Middle East and everywhere else, with his advance guard of Transnational Corporation, and the AK 47.


New technology such as the internet, due to its ease of access and the contemporary trend of bad poetry, combines with the petrification of critics to multiply poetasters. The chaff builds and builds till good or great poetry is hardly discernible, online or off.  If the critic refuses to build the poet’s ramshackle, he becomes an imperialist tool, albeit unwittingly.  Today poetry is still the queen of the arts, but she is, more or less, a ‘beggar queen’ – in rags.


- Amatoritsero Ede


Further reading


*Of Generations and Limits


^Pius Adesanmi

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 Amatoritsero Ede


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