Ikhide R. Ikheloa
“It is difficult to imagine a world without movies, plays, novels and music, but a world without poems doesn’t have to be imagined. I find it disturbing that no one I know has cracked open a book of poetry in decades and that I, who once spent countless hours reading contemporary poets like Lowell and Berryman can no longer even name a living poet.”
- Bruce Wexler, Newsweek, May 5, 2003
In the spring of 2003, the writer Bruce Wexler rose, apparently from a drunken slumber and declared poetry dead. He followed up with the profound, if not provocatively rhetorical question: Who cares? [Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care? Newsweek, May 5, 2003]. The reaction to Wexler’s heresy was swift and flooded with unrelenting fury. 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. And this is precisely what frustrates today’s keepers of the Muse’s gates. But first we have to agree on what constitutes a bad poem.
I have found myself thinking about Wexler ever since reading the poet Amatoritsero Ede’s editorial Tax and Syn/tax in the Sentinel Poetry (Online) edition #43. In my view, Ede’s editorial is an illuminating mirror into the eclectic soul of a thinker who is struggling mightily to marry two worlds of poetry – of a past (some would say overly romanticized) and a present which some would say is too easily dismissed. Ede as the editor of Sentinel online has made no secret of his contempt for much of what passes for poetry these days. He has gotten the attention of respectable connoisseurs of the art of poetry; at least because his uncompromising ideals has influenced the eclectic range of the poetry that he showcases in his monthly offerings. It is hard to fault his taste; the poems that appear on his magazine are simply an enthusiast’s delight, a veritable feast of all senses. Ede is not alone in decrying what he sees as the triumph of style over poetic substance. The writer Afam Akeh, in his essay I Return To Okigbo [Sentinel Poetry (Online) #42] argues along similar lines that the successful poet while free to experiment must adhere to standards of poetry that maintain a tradition of excellence and consistency. Akeh makes the profound point that there appears to be a connection between the ease of publishing today and the mediocrity of the artistic offerings:
“But it is the case, these days, because of the ease of publication, multiplicity of media and the greater exposure of everything and everyone to everything and everyone else, that a greater temptation now exists for would-be poets to focus not on the perfection of their craft but on its placement, on playing the system. There are opportunity providers outside Africa, who are sometimes inundated with unsatisfactory material from young African writers and left with no option but to help and allow passage to whatever is seeking passage or approval. But marking up Africans or African initiatives because the material is out of Africa is just as bad as marking down Africans for the same reason.”
Ede argues that today’s poet should strive for a happy medium between the traditional and the contemporary and he leans heavily on the thoughts of T.S. Eliot to make his point. T. S. Eliot admonishes the individual poet to find an appropriate niche compatible, with, and useful to his own talents within the provisions of tradition and then, hopefully, progress from there. And Ede opines that “the reluctance to look back upon tradition is where the contemporary avant-garde stumbles.” This “newness” as Ede