Sentinel Poetry Magazine January 2003 | Letter

Olu Oguibe

Poetry In A Season Of Anomie


Congratulations on your project, and on the very profound interview with Obi Nwakanma.

Irrespective of Obi's very apt response to the question on the nature of poetry and its relationship to performance, it is nevertheless clear that his poetry is written with an ear for sound, which is the sine qua non of all poetry, or at least what used to be known as poetry.

My only and favorite recollection of Obi Nwakanma is that he once made me go back to London and spend days reading one of my own poems aloud, trying with all admiration to see if I could read it like Obi Nwakanma read it at the Okigbo Prize reading party organized by Toyin Akinosho and others in Lagos in 1992. But the poem in question could only be read so well because it was written with an ear for sound, for though we have come to conceive of poetry as a written form, it is however an oral form first, unlike the novel which began and survives as a written form. I read and listen as I write, often aloud, sometimes into a microphone; In the end, I am not a great reader of my own poetry, but I *hear* what it ought to sound like in the voice of a good reader, and I make that my bench mark. It does not matter if the poem is not for declamation; even in its quietest form, poetry must work as a tracery of sounds.

In a radio interview with Lewis Nkosi (I believe in 1962, I'd have to check the dates), Okigbo stated: "What has influenced me most are not poets but musical composers... The composer is working with abstract sounds while the poet is working with words." He also revealed that he was "under the spell of the impressionist composers; Debussy and others" while writing *Heavensgate*, and that he began writing poetry seriously in 1957 only after he quit composing music. An excellent pianist and flutist, Okigbo had often accompanied Soyinka on the piano while the later performed in bars in Ibadan (many do not remember today that Soyinka, a fine guitar player, spent a brief period trying to make a living playing bars in Paris before he finally decided that his future lay in theatre.) So that the success of Okigbo's poetry, as everyone from Obiechina and Udechukwu to Obi Nwakanma in this interview have pointed out, lies not merely in its mystical depth but first in its irresistible sonorousness. Hence the truth in that most quoted saying that for all good poetry, the aim was song.

Nnorom, in your interview with your previous guest, Nathan Lewis, whose poetry by the way is quite typical of much contemporary poetry including those of the most acclaimed on both sides of the Ocean such as Rita Dove; plain, Lewis takes issue with rap and speaks of the "purity" of poetry, which leads one to think that he believes poetry to be an elevated literary form distinct from the insurgencies of the oral. Now, one has a lot to take issue with regarding so-called spoken word or performance poetry as practised today, which often languishes at the very other extreme of complete vacuity and inanity (if you can strut about on stage, wave your hands and howl, then you are a poet or "spoken word artist": Bollocks!), yet the truth remains that the finest poetry in existence today is to be found in rap; in the words of Nas (aka Nasiru, who is reputed to be the son of the famous drummer,
Olu Dara) singing "One mic", or JayZ, or the incomparable Biggie Smalls, or that unassailable wordsmith, Tupac Shakur, or Guru, perhaps the finest lyricist of them all. Or indeed those elemental pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five at the height of their genius. I have theorized that the most successful translation of African traditions in poetry into the contemporary is through rap and Jamaican dancehall. The rest of us are mere impostors, unworthy heirs, failed sons. Okonkwo begat Nwoye. It happens.

Oguibe's letter continues >>>