WHAT IS POETRY? - BIG QUESTION PUTS SENTINEL POETS ON THE SPOT
A report on the 2nd Sentinel Poetry Bar Challenge (August 2004)
By Nnorom Azuonye
In August 2004, we set ourselves a poetry writing challenge in the Sentinel Poetry Bar. The theme of this challenge, the second in the series, was "What Is Poetry?"
It is hard enough for many poets to express what poetry means to them with the benefit and leeway of prose, but to mould the definition in a poem for the poets in this challenge brought out some interesting results - interesting because as a group we produced works that reveal the objective and subjective traits in the ways we treat our work, marrying in a way the two halves of poetry that Sarah L. Evans describes in 'An Axe For The Frozen Sea Within Us: Anne Sexton and The Confessional Poetry':
"For centuries, poetry has been a vehicle for universal, objective statements on humanity, avoiding the personality and emotions of the author…In the last half of the twentieth century, however, even as people seemed to gain a heightened concern for public issues like the Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights Movement, a new class of poets emerged whose writings were turned entirely inward, focusing on the life, struggles, and emotions of the poet and no one else."
As a living art form, poetry continues to evolve and continues to task the attitudes of poets from all over the world on its very nature. It always comes down to words. Words are the central ingredients with which the poet cooks a meal of life. Sometimes words are written, sometimes they are spoken and at other times they are simply thought - but still words. In handling this weapon, in attempting to use it to describe the sometimes indescribable, for many poets the only image that may compare will be of a meat carver that works with a hot knife without a handle. In his 1988 poem 'Word In The Craft', Chimalum Nwankwo paints a succinct portrait of the word and its powers:
The word in the craft is the word for our crafts
For the word is a warrior is also a deadly noose
And a deadly noose in a warrior's crazed spear -
A thunder cometh when the wizards brood for wisdom
In all there were seven entries for the challenge. Sylvester Nurudeen Omosun fired the first shot with a poem of the same title as the challenge. He came out with some really fresh takes on what poetry is. For Omosun, poetry is, among other things: "the wane of a gong across the hill / the clapping leaves by the oak woods / …wood choppers chopping wood / …the odour of new turned earth…/…a goat's dropping…/ a blade going through…/ the tangled dogwood." It was refreshing to see how keenly he found poetic movement in virtually everything around him, and manages to portray a somewhat utopian world of the poet with the lines:
POETRY is to write on a slate
over the gulf of dreams
a shape in the mind
but quickly claims the power of poetry to heal, liberate and resettle his people;
I don't mind breaking grammar
as long as I can break chains
and give my brothers back a home
they never knew they lost.
I applaud Omosun's work, although it was undermined in many parts with a lack of attention to his grammar, tenses and punctuation. Actually when I got to towards the end of the poem and read the line 'I don't mind breaking grammar' I stopped and went for a re-read to see if the errors were deliberate. They were not. In any case this poem, had it been better controlled would have proven the premise of Esiaba Irobi on poetry in 'My e-conversation with Esiaba Irobi'. For Irobi "Poetry is the energy that moves the world. It is that inexplicable force that brought the universe into being and which will also destroy it. The Ocean has its own poetry. The desert as a well. The forest. Crowds. Politics. Cities. Towns. Villages. Football. Basket ball. Religion. Sex. Murder. Love. Food. Academics, all have their own poetry. An African market (not supermarket) is the finest example of true poetry… Poetry, by definition, is that phenomenal fusion of music and imagery that creates life and propels life forward in the world. It is a regenerative dynamic that is reflected not only in human language/speech and writing but also in the heave and swell of the ocean, the wind in the trees, the seasons and their verses of leaves with changing colours. Life and death. The child's first cry. The last breath. …Metaphysics…real poetry, can only be found in the speech of nature, the power of landscapes, the terror of the dark, the forest and its hallucinations…"
Another entry to the challenge, Malcolm Fabiyi's "Diverse Forms" attempts to explain what poetry is by telling, if only he had shown us, it would have been wonderful, how poetry deals with sadness, love, insurrection and grief:
Tears held on paper's edge,
pain captured on wood sheet
Cupid's bow strong with words,
letters penned in ink of blood.
He dances around the liberties that poets tend to take with structured human communication protocols - liberties that in fact define the free spirits of poets always lay claim to:
Language unstifled by strictures
Of tense and form, like kites unstrung
From the holding chord
A canvas of words unbeholden to
The laws of perspective and space.
and talks about "life summarised in verse / eternity captured in rhyme / a voiceless cappella." Suddenly I worry about the art of poetry. To sing a cappella is to make music with voice only without accompaniment. If a cappella has no voice it is not cappella, in my view, and if this is what poetry is, then poetry also isn't. If that makes sense. Poetry is dead. Long live poetry?
'Diverse Forms' opens with verbal jabs that remind me of Bambulu in James Ene Henshaw's 'This Is Our Chance':
Wordsongs spun by wordsmiths, bearing:
Lyrical rhapsodies with thematic relevance,
Pierced through acerbic observations,
Laced with ancient verbalogues
Festooned with obfuscating euphemisms.
…this is poetry.
Is it? Maybe so, but Fabiyi, in my thinking could have said whatever all those words meant without using them.
I am writing this report with a bit of uneasiness at this point because I have to talk about 'The Song About What Happens' - my own contribution to the challenge. It almost feels like playing with myself. Anyway, I attempt in this poem to marry my own views and what many poets over the years have told me poetry means to them, presenting it like a response note to whoever asked me what poetry is, I say:
This is the song I told you about, channelled
through men, in the vernacular of gods.
The lyrics of this song probe the purposes
Of earthly sojourns, explore platforms
that bear the weight of experiences in cycles
of life and death, elucidate energies that bind
or divide the animate and the inanimate
cousins in one universe.
Then after wondering if "chairs know that people sit on them / aeroplanes know they fly / …lips and heels crack in the harmattan, / crocuses sprout in springtime, and birds lay eggs…" among other everyday questions in an ordinary man's life concerning our relationship with nature around us, and yes, I wonder about the consciousness levels of all the functional entities we create with our hands, but in whose hands we also often entrust our lives. I explain that to me this song, that is poetry, is "a mirror" that…
I hold up to myself and to the world and say
If there is hope and joy in the lines
of our faces, let there be laughter.
If there is fear and sadness in the lines
of our faces, let there be tears.
By my assessment, the two strongest entries in the challenge were "Underline" by Patrick Iberi and "I Am Poetry" by James Agada.
In "I Am Poetry" Agada allows his poem to become the poetic character entering with the explosive lines:
I am the rainbow before the storm
The promise of serenity after these rumblings
These whirlwinds of energy urgently released.
I like the idea of the rainbow before the storm. This is a beautiful expression of hope, poetry therefore becomes the consoler of the bereaved even before the bereavement, the healer of the heartbroken even before the heartbreak. In a way, poetry here speaks of what it is at this time in its own history because over the centuries poets have written poems for every conceivable occasion, marriage, birth, death, divorce, natural disasters, wars, and sickness. Any situation you find yourself in there already exists a poem to help you get through it.
Agada's poetry declares pompously, "I am the message greater than the messenger / …I am the chant of shaman / the praisesong of the oracle / the incantations that arouse the ancestors" thereby walking the rope of a premise that firmly places poetry in the plane of the supernatural, and the poet becomes a witness without a choice. The poet always does the bidding of the master, and the master is poetry.
I find this poem trespassingly exciting in the way it mixes up morbidity and folkloric superstition/fantasy as poetry celebrates itself as 'the last gasps of a dying heart' before waltzing on with "I am the longing baying of a werewolf / at the slow death of the full moon."
Agada's poetry finishes its own profiling by declaring:
I am the song in your heart
that you cannot sing
the rhythms that you cannot share.