By Tade Ipadeola
That poetry matters, that it is to imagination what air is to human lungs, that the world would be insufferably and intolerably poorer today without it, is a truth that should be so self-evident but sadly isn’t. To redress this state of affairs, the world has agreed on a day, every year, to discuss and ponder the topic and phenomenon of poetry. A day of common, universal reflection is a powerful means of raising the public consciousness in a world in which only punctilious agenda-setting gets anything done, even things that pertain to the human soul and aesthetic health.
Poetry is, perhaps, one of the most private forms of cultural expression in the world today. In terms of how it is made and how it is consumed and enjoyed, the degree of privacy utilized is arguably much higher than for other art forms. There are, of course, exceptions to this general position. The Japanese have evolved the Renga, a form of poetry composed among poets with each poet in the circle contributing a line or phrase in succession until the poem is complete. There are poetry readings in Columbia and Macedonia in which stadia are filled with people listening to poetry. The rule remains, however, that poetry is generally more private than dance or sculpture or music or film or theatre.
This is one more reason why poetry matters even more than ever. Our sense of the private sphere in Nigeria, an over-proselytized country with some of the most perfidious private concerns and public institutions needs reinforcement and precisely the kind of reinforcement that poetry provides. Each one of us can and should enjoy poetry. We should be able to do so in the quiet of our rooms and studies, our libraries and parks, our fields and farms, our forests and deserts. We should be able, indeed enabled, to enjoy poetry in our civic halls and football fields if we so choose.
Some countries have leaders that read poetry and some countries have leaders that know nothing of poetry. We instinctively pity those societies where the leaders are bereft of this cultural product. Something tells us immediately that the citizens of the country without poetry are in for much less as life goes than the citizens of countries with abundant poetry in supply.
Poetry matters also for this reason, that it is a good indicator of what kind of country, and what quality of life citizens are to expect if the leaders have conquered basic needs in life like food and shelter and health. It is no surprise that in Nigeria, poetry is not perceived as essential since government is still wrestling with the production of electric power, food and shelter. A researcher on the field seeking to find out how much Nigeria has spent of poetry may very well find out that the total amount is zero naira, year-on-year, for decades.
In Nigeria, the obscurity of poetry is a metaphor for our general starvation of the spirit. It is a malady for which there are ready solutions which can be implemented immediately to alleviate and ultimately eradicate the condition. The solutions are available, at our fingertips, and require only that we implement them with consistency for our posterity. I will list a few recommendations here, in the order, I imagine, in which the recommendations can be implemented.
1. We can have a new poem read every day in our public and private primary and secondary schools. Nigerian children deserve to know the poetry of Niyi Osundare, of Tony Marinho, of J.P Clark, of Gabriel Okara, of Christoper Okigbo, of Segun Adekoya, of Jumoke Verissimo, of Niran Okewole, of Gbemisola Adeoti, of Damilola Ajayi, of Adebayo Lamikanra, of Ted Huges, of Wole Soyinka, of Seamus Heaney, of Theodore Roethke, of Robert Frost, of Denja Abdullahi, of Okot Bitek, of Amatoritsero Ede, of Edward Thomas, of Akin Adesokan, of William Blake, of Basho, of Lewis Carroll, of Molara Wood, of Attila Jozsef, of Randall Jarrell, of Vachel Lindsay, of Ferenc Juhasz, of Hyam Plutzik, Robert Service, Lesego Rampolokeng, Karl Shapiro, Vasco Popa, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walter Raleigh, Andrei Voznesensky, Tomas Transtromer, R.S Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Miroslav Holub, Dante Alighieri, Padraic Colum, Odia Ofeimun, Allen Curnow, John Clare, Lisa Combrinck, Bertolt Brecht, Lu Xun, Femi Morgan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop. The wonderful thing is that the list is so abundant, so varied, so rich and so magical that it is a real wonder why our educational and cultural planners have not done this for us already. And what is the cost of this huge, daily and constant feast I propose for our children? Literally, a song.
2. We can have translators work more in translating world poetry into Nigerian languages. It is actually a shame on our administrators of culture that we have so little as to constitute only a trace, of world literature in our indigenous languages. Could we be denying a child a vital spark, right now, because his mother tongue is Igala and the poem he is reaching for in his dreams is one by Transtromer? Are we failing in the task of transforming our society at the pace we require because we have placed excessive emphasis on technological transfer while the imagination of our children are subsisting on denial? Can we truly say we have a society that means to grow when a poet like Peter Akinlabi, one of us, is only available in English? Why is Kwesi Brew not yet read in Izon or Itsekiri? These are other ways of asking if we are a serious people.
3. We should ask everyone aspiring to public office to recite a favourite poem, in any language, to us at each campaign stop on the trail. Hitler would have passed this test with flying colours, I know, but almost anyone is better than the cold, colourless and calculating politicians we allow to direct our public affairs.
What we can do with a people and country that is aware of world poetry is limitless. What we can accomplish with this phenomenon that is both a tool and an end in itself is stunning, if only we embrace it. The world is waiting on Nigeria.