Sentinel Poetry (Online) #48, November 2006 Frontpage l Contents
The Irony of Form
In his essay, “Night Light” (sentinel #44, July 2006), Ikhide R. Ikheloa quarrelled with my ‘puritanical’, ‘romanticised’ critical views on poetry. It was a general response to what amounts to my ‘right-wing’ posture; and a direct reproach of the previous month’s sentinel editorial “Tax and Syn/tax”, in which I quoted from Olu Oguibe’s poem, “I am Bound to this Land by Blood”. I critiqued it as an example of the fully achieved poem, which marries style and sense in synthetic agreement, while giving a nod to tradition. Ikheloa disagreed with my view of poetic tradition because within my proffered pantheon one finds figures like Eliot, and other English modernists by implication. My puritanism apart, Ikheloa’s other great worry was that I left out or marginalised ‘African gods’ within my Eurocentric pantheon. According to him:
He [Amatoritsero Ede] highlights Olu Oguibe’s poem I Am Bound to This Land by Blood as a successful example of such a fusion. It is hard to quibble with Ede’s analysis of Oguibe’s poem; however one could make a compelling argument that the very techniques that Oguibe employs in his poem are as rooted in the poetry of our forefathers as Eliot is white. There may be similarities of techniques in both cultures but most of the credit ought not to go to the English (2).
His anxiety, from the above quotation, is that one might be giving the credit of Oguibe’s mastery to the English or that a black Oguibe should be so intimately connected with Eliot, who is white. It is easy to misread Ikheloa in so many different ways and even to interpret his ‘colourism’ as racist. To do that would be mischievous indeed. On the contrary; he is doing no more than what the Negritudinists did in the metropolises of Paris and London in the 1920s and 1930s in calling for a romantic return to origins. One understands Ikheloa’s pan-Africanism. His insistence that there was poetry in Africa before the appearance of white explorers, or slavery and colonialism, is incontrovertible. The sentinel editorial of February 2006, “The Black Canon”, has as its central argument the fact that the poetic utterance is an age-old phenomenon on the African continent; it did not come with conquerors. Even before the advent of modern English orthography it was alive as oral literature in African languages. African religious rites and rituals, traditional ceremonies, and life at the courts of old African kingdoms relied heavily on the incantatory efficacy of the word. In “The Black Canon” it is noted that the first epic poetry known to history is the black Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh by Shin-eqi-unninni. Dated at 2000 BC, it is older than the Hebrew Bible or the Homeric Epics by more than a thousand years. Obviously Ikheloa had not read that or other editorials by the time he penned “Night Light.” Moreover, “Tax and Syntax” insinuates the fact of African roots, originality and influence in poetic practice as evinced by the stylistics of some of the poets (like Tanure Ojaide and Pius Adesanmi) referred to in that essay. This leaves one no choice but to presume that the subtext of Ikheloa’s argument has to do with a disquiet with one’s insistence on a high standard in poetry. He seeks to foreground poetic utility and set up a fight with standard. He gives the example of Amiri Baraka’s recent exhortatory, propagandist work as being sufficient in its utilitarian politics. Hear him:
Conversely, Ede dismisses Amiri Baraka’s poem Someone Blew up America as a bad poem. He does not explain why; he is that disgusted by the mediocrity of the poem. But is it? But listen to this stanza in the poem:
Who live on Wall Street
The first plantation
Who cut your nuts off
Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa (2).
Incidentally the deficiency of Amiri Baraka’s poem has been dealt with fully in another editorial. One did not uncritically simplify the poem as ‘bad’ but pointed out its weaknesses. Baraka’s poem says what it had to say, vigorously; the poetry is in the message itself. And this is the problem. It begins to resemble poetry from the trenches of revolution, where the self thrashes in the mud of survival. We see this in some of the poetry of the Black Arts Movement, Apartheid South Africa and the Harlem Renaissance or Negritude and in the political tracts of anti-colonial poetry in Africa exemplified, for example, in Nnamdi Azikiwe. Ikheloa’s explains his programmatic call for a poetry of utility thus:
In Africa, today’s poets stand the risk of closing the barn door after the flight of doom, because they are too busy waxing their messages into the rigor mortis of what Chinweizu would call obscurantism. My point is that more than ever, Nigeria, indeed Africa cannot afford the luxury of having its best minds prattle on about the sheen of polished words. An inferno rages and we have the words to douse the inferno? Why dawdle?
There might be poets out there who are obscure, deliberately or unwittingly. For example, Christopher Okigbo and W.H. Auden are celebrated for their obscurity. Opacity is symptomatic of a failure of communication, simply. The first duty for a poet or any writer indeed is to communicate. Nevertheless a unified aesthetic quality should not, in the process, be sacrificed to utility. Nor should quantity be the goal as suggested in Ikheloa’s call for urgency in literary production. The ideal should be to wrap up the subject of poetry in a language that will survive the onset of time; otherwise the work becomes a period piece merely. It either dies with the dying of a particular ‘topic’ in the public domain or become obsolete with time.
However, Ikhide’s formalist regressions also foreground the idea that literature is a largely ideological construct in all societies. At the risk of being read as Eurocentric once again, let us look at the example of English society and the rise of English Literature; precisely England because, willy-nilly, the contemporary ideas of what literature is today was heavily influenced by historical cultural developments in that country. Historical forces like colonialism then took those ideas and planted them in far off places such as Africa, India, the United States of America, Australia, Canada and nearer home around England in the Celtic fringe of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. A monstrous, sprawling British Empire also transported its language all over the face of the globe. We cannot think of modern Indian, African, Canadian or Irish literature without thinking of the English language. Much as Ngugi Wa Thiongo advocates for a return to African languages in literary production, it is impractical today because English has become a global language. African languages have to take distant second place behind English. Modernity in literature is infinitely bound up with the rise of the study of English Literature and the spread of the English language – especially in all Anglophone countries. A tradition has been constructed by a confluence of certain historical forces, which has swept us all along. Are we to ignore the reality of the results, and can we really avoid using English and its ideological products because of its dark beginnings?
The critic, Terry Eagleton (1996), who is himself Irish, writes copiously in English – not Irish, and details how our present idea of what literature is was “invented” around the end of the eighteenth century. That invention gathered its ‘normalising’ energies during what we, from an historical vantage point, now refer to as the Romantic period in English literature. Originally in England literature described “the whole body of valued writing in society: philosophy, history, essays and letters as well as poems” (Eagleton, 15); ‘valued’, that is by a particular class in society. It included writing that constituted a body of “polite letters” in England. Our contemporary ‘imaginative’ or ‘fictional’ marker of the literary was not a concern before the romantic period; such that when the novel genre appeared in the eighteenth century its ‘literary’ quality was in doubt. Only with the shift in the perception of literature as being writing that was ‘fictional’, ‘imaginative’ or mimetic did the novel form enter the English ‘literary’ tradition. This is not to say that there was no recognition of a divide between the factual and the fictional in the past but that, during the Romantic period, literature became “virtually synonymous with the ‘imaginative’” (Eagleton, 16). This shift in the meaning of what literature is, according to Eagleton, was “frankly ideological: writing which embodied the values and ‘tastes’ of a particular social class qualified as literature, whereas a street ballad, a popular romance and perhaps even the drama did not” (15).
The point here is that Ikheloa in Night Light, unwittingly, questions the ideological constructions of the literary or of the ‘valued’ poem. Although a general overview of the rise of the broad spectrum of literature is useful, our concern is, of course, more with poetry. And Eagleton has something to say about that. Generally what happened in eighteenth century England was, first
a narrowing of the category of literature to so-called ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’ work. The final decades of the eighteenth century witness a new division and demarcation of discourses, a radical reorganizing of what we might call the ‘discursive formation’ of English society. Poetry comes to mean a good deal more than verse: by the time of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (1821), it signifies a concept of human creativity which is radically at odds with the utilitarian ideology of early industrial capitalist England (Eagleton, 16)
In effect Ikhide asks us to jettison that received ideological construction of what poetry or literature is, that was developed in eighteenth century England, and which the Romantic period consolidated. It created the ‘Romantic Artist’, the individual genius. Ideas about the sublime, about poetry and its elevating and inspirational value were entrenched during the romantic period. William Wordsworth, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other Romantics reacted against a utilitarian and philistinic capitalist economy in their politics and in their views about the special place of the artefact in elevating society. They even began to resist the old patronage systems that sustained the artist and, party because it, at the same time, sought to influence what he produced. This reactionary self-positioning reached its height in a repudiation of ‘public taste.’ The relationship between the writer and the reading public became mediated by the phenomenon of the ‘market’ – made possible, ironic as it is, by the rise of a rich industrial middle class, whose philistinism and decadence resulted in the poet’s radical self-repositioning in the first place.
It should be noted that it is not only in English society of the past that artists, writers or poets embodied or personified social rejuvenation or were seen as special elevated figures, with peculiar capabilities. To take a literary rather than historical or sociological example, there is a romantic vision of the artist in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), which is comparable to the old English idea of the romantic. Nnoka, the drifter artist, Okonkwo’s failure of a father, is comparable to the idea of the artist as a romanticised figure. He is the antithesis of Okwonko, a respected and titled personality in his society of Umofia. Like a true romantic, Nnoka happily shunned all the materialism and fierce competition of a titular society. Reminiscent of the Romantic Artist of eighteenth century England he epitomises a return to an ‘organic wholeness’, which went against the grain of a success-driven decadent fragmentary society. Failure or not, he is presented as the redemptive figure, especially as compared to Okonkwo, who though, successful and titled, was destroyed by his success and his mis-applied passion for progress, which made him irascible and angry with any appearances of weakness or failure. Nnoka, much like the romantic artist reached for the sublime in art and was at peace with himself and the world around him.
It is also noteworthy that in the court of African kings, the court poet, raised by the king above all others in society, was the one who could ‘insult’ the king and get away with it. He could criticise that powerful regal figure through the ploy of jokes and humour; he could tell the king things other subjects were in mortal fear of broaching. Clearly the romanticised artistic personality was not foreign to African society. The important fact is that the English model fused with and superimposed itself on the African, Asian, Canadian, Australian or American models due to the historically subordinating forces of the British Empire and the spread of the English language – with all its cultural paraphernalia – like an octopus across the globe. The empire brought with it a form of tradition that merged with other local traditions and re-defined them in unrecognisable and permanent ways. Though the local can be traced within the global and in their combined hybrid cultural connections, the latter has forever changed the face of the former.
But we seem to be getting ahead of the topic, namely the challenge to any puritanical critique of contemporary poetry and the values or lack thereof of a utilitarian poetry. While arts for arts sake needs to be frowned upon, while poetry has to carry in its kernel a libratory politics, the truth or the beautiful should not be subordinated, one to the other. It should fuse or merge into an agreeable whole. We need to also look at the genealogy of such astringent critique of poetry.
On the heels of the reifications of the writer, of poets and poetry or literature in eighteenth century England was the rise of English studies and contemporary literary criticism. It is not a coincidence. The revitalising needs of a decadent industrially polluted English society, which ‘literature’ provided, also led to the institutionalisation of ways of studying that literature; a ‘studying’ that became closely connected to the rise of literary theory.
According to Eagleton, there was a failure of religion during the period under discussion. It was a period of social ferment and revolution all over Europe; notable is the French revolution of 1789, which led to chain reactions elsewhere in Europe and in England itself. It resulted in the overthrow of feudalism and the rise of a mercantile middle class, lacking in ruling class’ gentility and assumed cultivation of the spirit. The need to ‘humanise’ this new middle class by the ruling class led to the rise of the study of English. Eagleton quotes George Gordon, a pioneer professor of English at Oxford as commenting during his inaugural lecture:
England is sick, and … English literature must save it. The churches having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also to and above all, to save our souls and heal the state (20).
One can imagine that the dissolution of feudalism and the rise of industrial capitalism, with its devastating, antecedent slave trade on the African continent, could not have been possible without an energising ideology, and an overthrow of an older one, the former being the Enlightenment and the latter, Religion. In 1784 Kant published the essay, “Answering the Question: What is enlightenment” in the Berlinische Monatsschrift (the Berlin Monthly), which was to prepare the ground for the entrenchment of a movement and the consolidation of a new ideology - Enlightenment philosophy. This Victorian era gave birth to modern aesthetics and the philosophy of art in the work of Kant, Hegel Schiller Coleridge amongst others. Contemporary fetishsisation of the artefact was as a result of the ideological ferments of that period.
To go back to the rise of the study of English and literary theory, since religion had failed as the pacifying ideology for the lower classes, there was a need to find a substitute for purposes of social cohesion in an English society fragmented by previous centuries of civil war. The study of literature was thought to be a humanising and elevating instrument. Mathew Arnold was central to this project. He believed there was a need to Hellenize the middle classes, who, by its example of cultivation, would in turn instruct the working classes. A succession of university professors, who started literary criticism in an effort to dignify the study of Literature, came and went: Mathew Arnold himself, F. R. Leavis, I. A. Richards, T.S Eliot and so on. English studies was not considered as having the sophistication of the hard sciences. In an effort to turn it into a ‘masculine’ rather than a ‘feminine’ discipline, the early critics began to concentrate on close reading of the text. “In the face of […] whimsical taste, they stressed the centrality of rigorous critical analysis, a disciplined attention to the word on the page. They urged this not simply for technical or aesthetic reasons, but because it hard the closer relevance to the spiritual crisis of modern civilization” (33). This close-reading critical approach led from the extremes of Leavisites in England to the impossibilities of New Criticism in the USA and the outrage of Russian formalists led by Roman Jakobson. In the Formalist and later Structuralists, meaning was completely ignored for the signifying system. This development was foreshadowed in the early critics and in Eliot, for example, who attacked middle class liberalism – the official ideology of industrial capitalist society. Liberalism, Protestantism, economic individualism: all of these are the perverted dogmas of those expelled from the happy garden of the organic society…Eliot’s own solution [was] a right-wing authoritarianism: men and women must sacrifice their petty personalities and opinions to an impersonal order. In the sphere of literature this order is the Tradition (Eagleton, 34).
The critical tools applied today by experts go back to that early development of English studies and literary theory in the early nineteenth century, which in turn was indebted to late eighteenth century romanticism.
We come finally to the crux of this argument – is tradition and utilitarianism in poetry a proper yardstick for critical judgement. Although Eliot’s idea of tradition, or the ideas of tradition we get from the past of literary studies, are rather reactionary and utilitarian, we still do need some form of tradition to guide us forward. And the only place to look for it is in the past. It is true that modern literary criticism moved from several extremes to a position where the literary artefact becomes a symbol, a round, hard shiny object with no content or meaning, to be examined for its value as sheer object of formalist or structuralist contemplation. It was a panacea for all kinds of social malaise, and the way to cure these problems was to consider the literary work as a unit, a symbolic object; as a kind of all-curing pill. What the pill contained was not as necessary as its affective, placebo effect for uplifting the spirits of the age. Religion had the same function till the eighteenth century and was superseded from early nineteenth century onwards, and the effects are still with us today.
Ikheloa unwittingly behaves like a formalist when he mis-recognises poetry as a confluence of several unifying factors for an emphasis on the message. He foregrounds the outer shape rather than its connection to the inner spirit of the artefact, since, for him, the message is contained in the words themselves. He says, like the formalist, ‘look at the words on the page; it does not matter if other aesthetic considerations are missing.’
We have traced the rise of modern literary criticism, and do agree that these terms: aesthetics, tradition or the symbol are contaminated. But should we then simply throw the baby out with the bathwater? Problematic as the history of these terms are, modern literary criticism has nothing else to go by in its project except by examining and sifting these terms to elicit what is positive from them. If we are to listen to Ikheloa and the old formalist or structuralists, any writing is poetry as long as it is arranged on paper in columns or in the new-fangled linear form of the prose poem; as long as it declares itself poetry.
Our ideas of what poetry is derive from its historical genesis. One could argue that all puritanism in criticism is not dialogic enough, and does not allow for inclusion, is chauvinist and ideological. Very true! Literature is an ideology! Society needs organising ideologies which arise out of class struggles. The dominant class usually manages to impose its ideology on the lower classes. Today’s upper class would also include the critic, of course – the specialist. If one berates the contemporary avant-garde from a received ideological position, it is unavoidable since we are all ultimately constituted by ideology as subjects.
The important questions should be, ‘is it an oppressive or liberating, good or a bad ideology.’ If it is the later case, social forces and history has a way of dislodging such ideologies and replacing them with something suited to a unified and agreeable working of human society. Finally Eliot was not English but an American, who took refuge in Britain, away from the perceived decadence in his own American New England background. He arrived in England at a propitious time in the development of modern English literature. Even if his politics was ‘right-wing’, there is something to be learned from his aesthetically symbiotic poetry, irrespective of what tradition one is coming from. Contemporary postmodern culture is, after all, hybrid and there can be no return to nativity. Ford Maddox Ford was one of the precursors of modernism. His musings on what literature is might be a good exit point on this matter:
But for the judging of contemporary literature the only test is one's personal taste. If you much like a new book, you must call it literature even though you find no other soul to agree with you, and if you dislike a book you must declare that it is not literature though a million voices should shout you that you are wrong. The ultimate decision will be made by Time. (The March of Literature, 1939)
One reservation concerning the above quotation though: one’s ‘taste’ is invariably ideological and does not occur in a vacuum but is a result of education and class, allegiance, worldview and so on. It is a result of one’s constitution, by those and other social forces, as a subject of history.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. USA: U Minnesota P, 1996.
Ikheloa, R. Ikhide. “Night Light”: http://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/0706/index_files/page0019.htm
Ede, Amatoritsero. “Tax and Syn/Tax.”: http://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/0706/index_files/page0019.htm
Ede, Amatoritsero. “The Black Canon.”: http://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/0306/index_files/page0002.htm