Sentinel Poetry Magazine January 2003.
Olu Oguibe 'Poetry In A Season Of Anomie'


I trace the tragedy of all contemporary poetry to one inanity; the mistake of confusing *verse* with poetry because classical European poetry came down to us in written form as verse. But verse is not necessarily poetry, which is to say that an arrangement of four lines on a page, or four sections of four lines with an additional couplet at the end, does not
become poetry in and of itself; it is only a notation, like the written signs or *scores* with which a composer encodes his music. Now, if the scores are mere signs on paper without music, then that becomes a drawing, not a musical composition, just as verse without poetic content remains
mere words and not poetry. I would take my example from Mr. Lewis's own "poetry". In his "Brenda Poem #8", from his apparently much acclaimed *Brenda Poems*, there is a narrative about an encounter with a woman in her kitchen, who instructs the protagonist in the folly of sexist assumptions. The narrative is chopped up and arranged in 50 lines of verse, but where is the poetry? Where are the poetic devices that distinguish poetry from mere narrative?

Mr. Lewis's admirers praise him as a "lyrical poet", which is ironic because the term, lyrical is after all from the word, lyric, which is a musical form that in turn derives its register from the word, lyre, a stringed, musical instrument for solo. Which means that a lyrical poet writes introspective poetry that in ancient times would be performed solo with the accompaniment of a lyre. A lyrical poet writes lyrics. Now, compare Mr. Lewis's poetry, or what I have read of it, with those of another poet who writes the same genre that Mr. Lewis seems to write, Chicago poet Sanda Cisneros, and you find that the difference is clear. You can almost hear a trio on a Mexican street corner performing Cisneros's poems just like they once did the poetry of Lorca, who was  a true lyrical poet.

The other great tragedy of contemporary poetry is the license of free verse. Before Walt Whitman most poets took the trouble to instill at least the barest poetic pretenses into their work through the end rhyme. A quatrain was forced to rhyme in a pattern; abba, abab, aabb, etc. Even those who would not bother with syllabic meters, at least used rhyme to
bring a musical or sonic coherence to their poetry. But then Whitman changed all that with his declamatory poetry that did away with the end rhyme. What most contemporary so-called poets forget is that he retained and in fact magnified a whole range of rhetorical devices from occasional internal rhyme and alliterative syncopation to modal resonance, all of
which made his poetry not a departure but in fact a continuation in the great traditions of orature. None of which the majority of impostors out there today know anything about. And so, they take only the free verse, but freedom can be a curse sometimes because freedom provides no restraint from incompetence and decadence, both of which now parade in the name of poetry.

I have a word of admonition for those who still practice this ancient art; speak your words till they sound beautiful, no matter your subject, speak your words to yourself, in front of a mirror, to the emptiness of your own home or the raucous company of admirers, vocalize your words till they sound right and beautiful, and no one who hears or reads them will forget them.

Oguibe

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