Are you an African Poet? Enjoy Olu Oguibe’s post about a Poetry Masterclass he attended…
Some posts you read on Facebook and you immediately go GBAM!! I saw this on Olu Oguibe’s wall and simply had to share. I also particularly love the engaging conversation it opened up on his thread. Lot’s to think about. Enjoy!
[Culled from the Facebook Page of Olu Oguibe on December 27, 2015 at 8.30 am EST]. Shared with permission from the writer. Follow Olu Oguibe on Facebook by Clicking Here.
A couple of months ago, I attended a public lecture in the English Department at my college. The lecture was given by an emeritus professor, who’s also Connecticut’s most prominent contemporary poet. I was never a fan of her poetry because she writes in a vein that few Africans from the Continent relate to, but that’s exactly why I made a point of attending the lecture.
It was, in fact, a masterclass of sorts, and the subject was something that I also never paid much mind in my own work when I was still writing, given as I was practically what in the visual arts we might call a self-taught or naive practitioner back when I still wrote poetry.
The subject was scansion, that is, the craft of determining proper metrical length for a line of verse. I know it theoretically and rather vaguely, having taken classes in poetry appreciation all the way through college, but, poetry appreciation is quite different from creative writing class. You do not learn how to write poetry in a poetry appreciation class. The lecture lasted just over an hour and a half, and like I said, it was a masterclass.
I actually came away with a great many negative impressions of the writer, which I will write about some other time, but nonetheless you could tell why, in her time, she was a great teacher and still is. More importantly, I learnt a whole lot, from stuff that I took for granted to others that I was entirely unaware of. And I discovered some of the reasons African writers especially of my generation wrote–and mostly still write- poetry quite differently than contemporary American or Western poets.
One is that we scan and versify in fundamentally different ways. Most contemporary American poets–and possibly, some African poets who studied poetry writing formally, especially in the West–scan graphically or numerically, and in a proper regular fashion, while African writers like me versify by what one might call length of thought. In other words, in our verse the length of a line often corresponds to the length of a sentence. Should that become impracticable, we often find ourselves completely lost and simply winging it.
In effect, we versify same way that we build our cities, streets, and even nations, that is, randomly and with little clear guideline, strict planning, or regular pattern. As a matter of fact, we still mostly build our homes in same manner. Often, there’s no architectural blueprint or nobody pays it any mind. You have a basic idea: number of floors or stories, number of rooms, and a vague layout. With that, you break ground, pour your foundation, and have the contractor and his masons go at it!
Another reason is that we actually do view poetry quite differently. Contemporary Western writers and readers approach poetry as text: we approach it as sound. In effect, they write for sight, for silent scanning, while we still regard poetry in its original form. When we write, we do not write for the words and lines to be seen: we write for them to be verbalized and heard.
That I prefer. It’s rather old fashioned, of course; in fact, entirely ancient and anachronistic, and has been for several decades. But we prefer it that way. I like it that way. I like it when I hear Thomas read “And death shall have no dominion” or Eliot read from ‘The Waste Land” or Neruda read from ‘Veinte Poemas’ though I often cannot understand the words, which is how I imagine Lorca and Tagore might sound. That’s how Igbo bards sound, albeit with musical accompaniment: Lorca and Neruda and Tagore were also set to music. Try setting Rita Dove to music!
And when you write to be heard, you write very differently than when you’re writing simply to be read. You think of cadence, because it is oratory, and oratory does not follow graphic scansion. Oratory relies on cadence and cadence is sound, cadence is music, cadence is what Lorca famously described as “duende”: cadence is soul.
That’s why many Africans are turned off by contemporary American poetry; because, to us, it lacks soul. Oratorical cadence has it’s own entirely different metric system and it rises and falls and rises allover again, and only comes to rest whenever and wherever it may. Cadence has no respect for a strict pattern of five units to a line.
But there the problem arises, because where there are no strict rules, there’s also little rigor or discipline.
There, quite often, there’s a sense that you can’t be lost if you don’t know where you’re going. You just go. The result is often akin to the chaos and mayhem that Fela Kuti described in his song, ODOO (Overtake done overtake Overtake). At least, to the degree that one considers regular pattern and rigor essential to poetry without necessarily apotheosizing the iambic pentameter.
That’s the other thing I learnt from the lecture: that anyone may invent or devise their own metric system or scanning rules, as long as they observe some conscious, regular method and do so with discipline. Should they decide–decide is important here–to ignore all that like some altogether still great poets did, then, they had better bring another element of substance to the work that’s worthy of attention.
If I had to return to writing poetry now, I doubt I’d ever be able to find the discipline of a Derek Walcott. However, I certainly made a note to pay closer attention to scansion.
By Olu Oguibe
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