As someone who thoroughly enjoys reading 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, Soyinka and Okigbo were truly relevant to the times. For they spoke in decipherable code to their fellow intellectuals (some of them in 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. Akeh’s effectively situates Okigbo’s poetry in the relevance of the struggles in which the poet found himself:
“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.”
Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, Okigbo, these poets spoke to the oppressors in the language they understood. Our new oppressors do not understand the complex arcana of the type of poetry that seems to scale the bar of excellence in Europe. And if therefore they do not buy our new books of poetry, if 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 dying for? 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. I say 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. We are back to divining the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. I propose that the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what is good poetry 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. Ede rightly appreciates Tanure Ojaide’s mastery of the craft and for good reason. In Ojaide one savors in a very comforting way, the kind of chant that used to make me jump on a coffee table and do the dance of my ancestor's spirits. 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. 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.