The Arts

June 20, 2009

Contemporary Nigerian poetry and garbage poetics


POETRY is said to be a method  of expression that thrives on   spontaneity of powerful emotions that are given distinct artistic colour and flavour through the use of appropriate literary devices and diction.

By practical extension of this perception,  poetry should be characterised by grace and beauty of language through the use of rhythm in the articulation of ideas and a mission to solve man’s problem via edification. However, a critical survey of the poems produced by young writers, especially on our university campuses, shows the ridiculously low esteem the concept and articulation of contemporary poetry has assumed.

With the preponderance of a body of literature on poetry, it is expected that the generation of emerging elite in literary circles would take a cue from the works of Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Gabriel Emomotimi Okara and a host of other poets of this category and produce equally artistically satisfying poems.

However, the reverse seems to be the case. Towards this rather atavistic decay of poetic artistry and legacy which contrasts sharply with the stereotyped scholarly direction of poetry as advocated by experts, an avalanche of factors have been identified.

Participants at the poetry session

Participants at the poetry session

In this regard, this article will attempt a systematic analysis of these factors which have ridiculed the whole gamut of beauty and grace in contemporary poetry, especially as produced by young writers, with a view to beaming light on my conception of the direction of poetry in contemporary society – such as ours.

From my critical survey of works by young poets, I have come to identify a sheer misconception of poetic licence as a factor responsible for the misdirection which has become the lot of poetry from these young writers. Poetic licence is the deliberate departure from the syntax of a particular language for the creation and the achievement of a particular effect in poetry. Armed with this awareness, young writers compose poems with distorted syntax, semantics and place them for public consumption.

Puzzled by this, I ask such writers of the necessity for the trash dominating their poems, but they merely push forward their right to the use of poetic licence as the pedestal though without a convincing explanation as to what effect they are out to achieve by the employment of the said poetic licence.

Incidentally, the poems don’t even have claims to thematic compartmentalisation  accompanied by contemporary relevance, which ought to have been the anchor. By and large, such poems only mar the beauty and grace characteristic of poetry.

Deliberate achievement of complexity in poetry is another factor that has cast a cloud on the beauty of poetry. Most self-acclaimed poets in this category of young poets make conscious efforts to give their poems a complex colouration through the use of ‘bombastic words’ which eventually fail to even communicate the sense of the poem to the reader. Premised on this,the poet has only succeeded in creating a world which essence is not in the least felt by the reader. Obviously, this craze for complex status in writing, specifically poetry, is occasioned by lack of the mastery of success in poetry.

In my conception, success in poetry does not lie in the use of ‘big words’ which do not even agree ‘to the diction but rather it lies in the creation of picture in the reader’s mind through the employment of appropriate images. If a poem at all achieves complexity in its expression of an idea, it should be anchored on the depth of the literary devices employed to suggest the meaning, not high-sounding words.

To further     buttress the above point, the poems of JP Clark are worth-quoting as they testify to my claim of achieving complexity in poetry through the use of imagery, and not through the employment of bombastic words. In line with the narrow purview of this piece, I shall only quote a stanza from J.P Clark’s  poem, ‘Streamside exchange’.
‘Bird: You cannot know
And you should not bother
Tide and market come and go
And so shall your mother.’

I shall not attempt an elaborate analysis of this poem as obtainable in academic circle and a corollary of this disposition is the limited scope of the write-up. Nevertheless, this poem which is a deep exploration into the future emanating from a childhood anxiety, can only yield meaning to one who has  insight into  the images of ‘Tide and market’ and the effect the poet sets out to achieve by employing them. The achievement of complexity in this poem does not stem from the use of ‘big words’ but from the depth of the images the poet has employed to communicate the sense of the poem.

This accounts for the spontaneous flow of the beauty and grace of the poem which only a gifted and committed poet can evoke. The use of hackneyed images dominating this category of poems is also instrumental in the departure of poetic beauty and glory.

Hackneyed images here denote images  that have been used by writers of old with artistic flavour to convey  messages to mankind,  but which today’s poets employ  in their poems without a sense of creative modification and assignment of  new meanings for the evocation of new images in order to communicate their messages to the readers.

A creative colouration of such images for a new meaning would have even spoken volumes about the originality and artistry of such poets; sadly, they use these hackneyed images in their poetry without modification and this no longer creates refreshing  impact on the reader.

Unarguable, this category of poets dare not deny the label of poetic plagiarism in this rather pathological quest for fame in the literary world via circuitous routes. A careful use of words is a characterisation of modern poetry. A poet’s appropriate diction in communicating an idea to the reader is a measure of his artistic competence and the success of his poetry.

However, critical scrutiny of these poems reveals that they lack accurate sense of diction. Words are haphazardly used to express ideas for public consumption. This unwholesome development which takes its origin from a conglomeration of unedited poems written by people without clearly visible literary training or calling poses a mortal threat to poetry.

The relevance of poetry lies in its assertion and projection of an aspect of life of a people. An extension of this entails that the thematic preoccupation of poems should be an embodiment of the prevailing trends in a contemporary society as this is the avenue through which its edification mission can be fulfilled.

Sadly, today’s young poetry departs significantly from this direction – which is the nerve-centre of poetry in modern society. This category of poets treats themes that are of no relevance to mankind.

Sense of self pride

The man who stumbles and falls on his way to a River for a bath would write a poem about it.Similarly, the man suddenly jilted by his lover would write a poem about it. Ideally, these developments could be used to educate and edify man in poetry but a lot depends on the handling  of the resources deployed by the poet.Poets, who only cast the story in   prosaic mould and brand it a poem with some sense of self-pride,cannot in the right sense be said to be contributing anything to contemporary growth of poetry.

Having exposed today’s poetry in all its questionable dimensions, I might be asked my conception of the ideal poetry and how to achieve it with artistic touch. Leaving the arena for committed poets is the only welcome development in this regard. By committed poets, I mean poets who have the natural bent for poetry and who write poems with an awareness of the features that characterise poetry.

The committed poets are those who write poem with thematic preoccupations that are as relevant to Africans as they are to Europeans. This categorisation excludes those who push themselves into the poetic arena with unnecessary display of pedantry based on their academic exposure to the composition of a poem.

Those poetic pedants have no flair for poetry; yet incessantly propelled by  fame-motivated calculations to make a debut in the literary world, propped by  disease-stricken poems placed on the notice boards of different departments at the Delta State University, Abraka. I am compelled to make the above observations because of my desire to salvage poetry from its present movement down the precipice and to re-assert its direction in a contemporary society.