ONE of the enduring memories of Peter Pan’s How to be a Nigerian is, for me, his fascinating sketch of the Nigerian radical. If the Nigerian poet had been roaming the streets at the time the book was written, a place, I am sure, would have been found for him within the pages of that book. At any rate, living in these peculiar times when it is easier to write poetry than to read it, in work after work, I find him staring at me – as it were, daring me to attempt fitting him into a composite picture of a poet. To begin, let me use the definition of poetry as the grids on my sketch pad.

From Wordsworth’s view of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ whose origins lie ‘in emotions recollected in tranquility’, to Okigbo’s own view of poetry as ‘melodies/silences heard in retrospect’, the whole spectrum of definitions is conveniently covered. I have always understood Wordsworth’s ‘tranquility’ and Okigbo’s ‘retrospect’ to mean that the mind that suffers cannot be the mind that creates. Okigbo’s ‘melodies’, like Wordsworth’s ‘powerful feelings’ aim at ‘the idealization of the real and the realization of the ideal’. To achieve this elemental transubstantiation, the mind that suffers must necessarily transcend its suffering before it can create anything out of that suffering. The mind, for instance, suffers bitterness, anguish, disillusionment, etc – but it is only when it has distanced itself from what it suffers that it becomes the mind that creates, that makes ‘melodies’, that ‘recollects in tranquility’. (If Soyinka’s ‘Lines Written in Tegel/October 66’ reads infinitely better than his diatribe against the woman who rejoiced, it must be because in the one the anger/anguish has been sublimated whereas in the other the feeling is still too raw, too immediate). So, the poet is very much like the wounded oyster that mends its shell with pearls.

The disquietude in the world around him, transforms the poet into a being with more eyes than a fisherman’s nest. Transformed, he becomes a quiver full of words – words that are arrow tipped, barbed, poisoned, tranquilized and steroidzed. Transformed, his words become a road map, a marching song and a mantra that push the boundaries of the mind beyond home and into another day. Transformed, he sees himself as one of the angels commanded by Iqball’s God to go: trample down the palaces of the rich; burn to ashes all the harvest from which the tiller gets no grain to eat; and to destroy all the marble temples on account of their false glory and in their stead erect a temple made of clay. The problem with the poet is that, carrying the full weight of what should be, he develops a social conscience as large as life itself. One of two things happens: either he sprouts itches where he cannot scratch or, like Hamlet, he becomes convinced that the world he knows is out of joint – and that he has been born to set it right. In either case, he is doomed: indeed, those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first turn into poets. That is why we stand at the thriving homestead of the non-poet to point at the ruins where a poet’s house used to stand…

A. J. Dagga Tolar says that Nigeria is not a poem. Fine. But Nigeria has an abundant harvest of poetry/poets. In fact, if you rub any Nigerian deep enough, you’re very likely to unearth a poet, pen and jotter in hand and poetry on the tongue. I’ve been voraciously consuming and listening to these poets; and I’ve been trying to classify them. It should be interesting to see how and where they fit into my composite picture of the poet, as I perceive him to be.

The poet as a classicist: he has one over riding passion – to redeem what he perceives as the chaos of modern poetry with the metrics and sonics that characterize the rigid discipline of the orthographical and constructional schemas of the rhyme. Reading him, one smells the midnight oil and one feels the stress and anguish he experienced in dredging or searching for the right word/rhyme. With the exception of Funso Aiyejina, and, possibly, one or two others, the poets here all fail – and grandly, too – on account of their tendency to privilege rhyme over meaning and mood.

The poet for whom ignorance is strength: he has read nothing and forgotten everything, beyond ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ and the poems forced down his throat for the WASC/NECO exams. He wears his ignorance like a badge of courage. Never mind that he cannot recognize T. S. Elliot’s objective correlative even if he encounters it all dressed in red and walking the streets in broad daylight…never mind that there is absolutely no logic in the architectonics of his poetry – he lets it be known from the housetop that if you cannot understand the semantic and syntactic dislocations of the ‘versified prose’ which he calls poetry, your ignorance is to blame. I must locate most of the ‘younger’ members of ANA (the Association of Nigerian Authors) here. They publish mainly on the pages of newspapers/magazines and on-line. Thanks to them, each time I go to ANA readings, it is as though I go to do penance for my sins. I happen to know that these poems/poets feature in creative writing courses as examples of how not to do it.

The poet as a pamphleteer: the prose equivalent to his poetry is Tony Momoh’s Letters to my Countrymen. This poet invariably creates the impression in you that he has a bee in his bonnet. He leaves you in no doubt that he is on top of his subject/theme and technique – however, you cannot but fault him for being too predictable in his thematic and stylistic preoccupations. The example that quickly comes to my mind here is Tanure Ojaide.

The poet as a traditional performer/raconteur: this poet relies heavily on traditional motifs and tropes/language resources (including orature). Akeem Lasisi, Nelson Fasina, Ezenwa Ohaeto, Demola Daslyva, etc all belong with this poet. There are three problems with this poet. His tendency to write long-span poems is one. Then there is this heavy cultural curtain in his poem – much too heavy, at times, for accessibility. The last reason – and I find this very strange – is that, at times, the music against which he sets his poems, does get in the way: it becomes obtrusive.

The poet as a weather-cock: he takes his cue from human rights groups and from major NGOs (Green Peace has, for long, remained current). This poet has done some significant work; but like the poet as pamphleteer, he has two major shortcomings: he resolutely believes that the theme/subject makes the poet; and, here and there, he vainly tries to dress up sloganeering and traditional aphorisms as poetry. The following poets belong here: Doutimiarieye Kpakiama; Ebi Yeibo; Albert Otto; etc.

The poet as a troubadour – there are two variants here: the poet of the market square (Niyi Osundare) and the poet as an iconoclast (Remi Raji/Tubal Cain – I find it impossible not to think of this name as a pseudonym). The poet as a troubadour traverses both the nation space and the universe of the human mind; and his concern is man, the heart of man and human life. He displays a nuanced awareness of how poetry deploys language and motifs to create/enhance meaning and mood – witness the commiseration/recrimination in Tayo Olafioye; the imploding anger in Odia; the uncontainable pain in Okpanachi, the lacerations of memory in Verasimo and the restrained hysteria in Tony Kan…. By and large, we find in the poet troubadour his over riding need to tie intent, content and style together. Perhaps the greatest criticism against him is not so much that he ‘over thematizes the rot that is Nigeria’ but that he does so without any motif/structure that strikes a resonance with his theme of endemic rot. Another criticism is that his voice is too oracular – a throwback, I think, to Okigbo, who actually identifies himself by name in his poetry. The roots of this, I am inclined to think, must be sought in the predilection for the egopoetic point of view with the concomitant egopoetic fallacy: that assumption that the poet’s experiences must, of necessity, be of interest to the reader. If we note some form of posturing, of grandstanding, in the poet as a troubadour, we must note, also, that this is even the more so with the other four classes of poets. I have in mind here the kind of posturing that is at the heart of the grammatics and lexical eccentricities of e e cummings and that tendency towards being a rebel without a cause that is very much evident in cavalier poetry.

THE poet as a classicist, the poet for whom ignorance is strength, the poet as a pamphleteer, the poet as a weather cock, the poet as a traditional performer/raconteur, and the poet as a troubadour: I can, somehow, fit all these poets into my composite picture of the poet. But not without a lot of hammering and chiseling – and, even then, some of them will still hang out on a limb.

There are many reasons why this is so. Two of such reasons will suffice here – and they are: the nature of the songs these poets sing; and the very nature of these poets.

Most of these songs are such that I cannot sink my teeth into them. They are not the kind of songs that can egg me on to that longest of journeys: the journey from the head to the heart. Even when they do cajole me into such a journey, at the end, I feel no sense of belonging – not even of arrival: though the man who arrives at journey’s end should be different from the man who set out, always, I arrive the same man – and the fault is not in me but in the music that piped me along.

For the nature of these poets, I have had to rely mainly on the extra-textual reading of the poems. This has led me to the suspicion, amounting to well neigh a solid conviction, that these are not the kind of poets that will likely, if the need arises, take up arms to fight for their vision of their society. I smell in them their willingness to concede Ali Mazrui’s position (The Trial of Christopher Okigbo) that Okigbo had no business in the war front, let alone dying in there. I can’t see them embarking on a hunger strike in sympathy with any neighbour/compatriot deprived of his food. I can’t see them, masked or unmasked, holding up a radio station – or, for that matter, running a clandestine/guerilla radio station whose existence in the scorched earth environment of a dictatorship was like poking a finger of iron in the eyes of a despot …. What is poetry if not the battle song that puts the singer himself right in the front lines?

Every where I turn, I see Nigerian poets – including those of them whom I have had to locate on the edge of everything that is beyond my composite picture of the poet: I see them giving out free copies of their poems – as it were, hitting their heads against the goad: I see them fighting not to decompose in the eternity of unread print. My wish for them is simple: it is the wish of John Donne for himself and his fellow poets – that, at the end, it be said of them: their sins were scarlet/ but their poems were read.

Ekwuazi, an award winning poet, is a senior lecturer at the University of Ibadan

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