In a week when hundreds, not just three, of our fellow citizens in Baga have been wiped off the face of the earth, not just maimed and injured and recovering in well-equipped hospitals, what sense is there in singing the praise of a poet? Why does a poet or his poem matter?
There will never be a satisfactory answer to this question, but there is one that I personally prefer. When Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and one of the best in the trade, confronted this question, he replied with a poem, the earthy and full-throated “I’m Explaining A Few Things.” The poem about the Spanish Civil War begins with evocative imagery of a peaceful Madrid suburb in spring, with flowers in bloom. But soon Franco’s goons appear with jackboots, and all is burning and mourning, and the vines of the geraniums come alive as vipers and the cracks in the walls grow into the wide-open mouths of devouring jackals…
The poem ends with the unforgettable last two stanzas:
“And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
“Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!”
Bertolt Brecht, the redoubtable German writer with one of the craziest imaginations ever, also once smilingly spoke of times when it would be a sin to sing of flowers…
The remarkable thing, though, is that these responses about the limitations of poetry in troubled times are themselves poetry. So, we need poems to convince us of the reason that, in wartime, we should not write poems about flowers and springs and love and the effects that a glass of fine wine leaves on the palate. Russian writers of the twentieth century wrote and died under the terrifying shadow of Stalinism, alias “socialism in one country.” But of these, the most exemplary sufferer was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of Gulag Archipelago, the two-volume account of his imprisonment in the Soviet gulag. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, and he gave the obligatory acceptance speech of which the most resonant line remains, “Beauty will save the world!”
For me, and in this continuing series on the work of the Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun, it is this uncompromising defense of beauty as the savior of our known world that represents the most satisfactory answer to the dilemma of praising roses while people roast. The beauty I defend isn’t the abstract beauty limited to the word itself, nor is it the ordinary beauty of everyday life, which does not beg to be defended in peacetime. It is the ethical beauty of identifying what is essential about that life and the one yet to come, and finding the right register, the right tone, to bring it to life in everlasting songs.
Imagine it this way: the Baga tragedy is the work of Boko Haram, the fundamentalist and terrorist group that has continued to kill people indiscriminately since 2008. But also imagine the everyday, invisible acts of terrorism, those that have turned Nigeria into a country at war for as long as we can remember. (Traveling with Ofeimun to Lagos from Ibadan in 1994, I wondered about the ubiquity of elderly women begging in the streets, and the poet responded by saying, ‘This is what happens when a country is at war.”) This doesn’t minimize the threats that Boko Haram poses to all the values we live by, but it does suggest an alternative way of imaginatively understanding those threats and creatively defending those values.
Ofeimun dreams powerful dreams about railways across West Africa, but he starts from Lagos, his beloved city by the lagoon. In his poems and other writings about this city, his theme is the city as a civis. The place of civil behavior and civilized values, the place which admits everyone and allows all to make contributions according to their capacities, the place, indeed, that increases human capacity irrespective of origin, color, or creed. Work with care to beautify this place, Lagos, or Jos, or Onitsha, and it will repay the care with its love, the one being impossible without the other.
There will still be the unforeseen tragedies—think of the Boston Marathon or the London Underground—but a city built with caring love will triumph with grace and uncompromising beauty. It will hold those who caused that tragedy responsible, but it will do so with a forthrightness uncolored by present feelings. It will prosecute them in a just manner, so that others with unarticulated desires in obscure parts of the world will want to go there for self-fulfillment.
Only poets look at life in this way.
Akin Adesokan, poet and literary theorist, is a professor of literature at the University of Indiana in the United States.
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