Sentinel Poetry (Online) #44  


ISSN 1479-425X Editor: Amatoritsero Ede                                                            


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critic should be able to say the poem is great and it achieves greatness because it uses certain tools. It ought not to achieve greatness because it has (a) (b) (c) and (d) rules, structures, etc... This is especially the case when the rules of the game are blatantly Eurocentric. Needless to say, there were poets, story tellers, and dancers in African societies well before the coming of alien cultures. Africans didn't just discover the creative arts yesterday. And to this day, these poets are still kicking up a storm in Africa. Because they connect with the audience.  Effective mass communication should be multi-dimensional and I say the poet must listen to me closely to tell me what he or she needs me to hear. 


I make these points because Ede’s musings taken together address over and over again the following age-old questions: What is poetry? Who defines what poetry is? Who is a poet? And of what relevance should the poet (and poetry) be to the society? The answers that we keep getting are largely carved out of a Eurocentric tradition and they bear little or no resemblance to the sum of our experiences as Africans. Some of the best poets that I know of never stepped into a classroom except perhaps to clean it. If you want to listen to real poetry, take a trip to any African village and luxuriate in an oral tradition of real poetry and dance.


 Ede’s editorials remind us that the debate rages on. There are "purists" and there are the rest of us. The answer probably lies in the middle. I will say this: Those that are gifted with the power of expression must seek to use that gift to make a difference in the society. Today, it is not only our politicians that are removed from the reality of our every day existence. Our best thinkers are out there painfully disconnected from the people. Our poetry should offer perspectives or insights 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 echoes 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 writers like T.S. Eliot were thinking of us as they wove complex thoughts into elaborate structures that were obviously bound to their own ancestral lands?


 Many poems that are deemed well-crafted from a strictly technical standpoint are abject failures when it comes to substance; to use a cliché, they are all sizzle and no steak. One reads these pretty poems and one is reminded of a craftsman busily fashioning solutions where problems do not exist. The reader asks: What is the point? Where is the beef? Several proponents of the need to respect tradition in the writing of poetry, tend to rely on the pronouncements of those I call “dead white men” to cement their assertions. Indeed we should rail against the painstaking, careful imitation of what I call alien voices. I think it is a particularly insidious form of plagiarism. In any case, with respect to the use of English language as a medium, it is a lot more complicated than that. The English language for good or for bad is now a shared language. The notion that the English language is the white man’s language ironically has the unintended effect of assigning too much credit to the undeserving. The history of the evolution of that language would be laughably incomplete without mention of the pioneering works of giants like Chinua Achebe, Chris Okigbo, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wole Soyinka, and of course the great men and women of Onitsha Market literature. Let it be said that we took the language of the oppressor, mastered it and made it our own. Now, that is poetry!


An uncritical adherence to a Eurocentric approach has the unintended consequence of isolating our best voices, and assigning their songs to a pantheon of obscurity. On behalf of our long-suffering people, I would like to urge a return of voices to the rescue of our people. Africa cannot afford the consignment of its griots to the barracks of the unreadable. Again, I ask: How does the poet become truly relevant to the yearnings, the aspirations, and the dreams of our people?



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