OGOV Roundtable Discussion #5 - "What makes good poetry and who decides it?"

Our fifth roundtable discussion here at OGOV is notably different than our first four, in that this one took place spontaneously in the comment section of last week's post. The conversation was born out of an original critique by Mutombo of some poetry on this site which he deemed "too bare", and the subsequent question by Reggie Kyere, "What makes good poetry and who decides it?".

Obviously, this question can have thousands of different answers and move in thousands of different directions, but the conversation thus far has focused on issues of form, freedom of expression, negritude, and what makes a poem "African". Where it goes next is up to you! We've copied the pertinent comments from last week's post here for a quick catch-up for those who missed the original discussion. We have also added, sprinkled throughout (in blue), some quotations by poets and critics on the given themes, in order to further spur thought and discussion. These quotations have been included in our "Time with the Philosophers" archive, which contains many more similar quotes.

Thanks to everyone who has participated thus far, and thanks in advance to everyone who will contribute moving forward (to comment, click on the "# Comments" link at the bottom of this post).

Mutombo: A very nice website, I like most of the poems. But I have some problems. Don't intend to be mean or rude or anything but this is what I noticed. Most of the poems I read are so bare, they lack the qualities of what a poem is suppose to entail. Poets are supposed to be creative and very deep but most poems here lack qualities like metaphors, rhymes, similes and all that. I will read such poems just once and will never read it again but with deep poems, I get a new hidden understanding anytime I read it! Let's try to be more creative.

"The failure of craft in Nigerian poetry is complimented by an absence of concern for craft among Nigerian critics. Critical practice so far has concentrated on explication of themes and obscurities of texts and on attempts to invent meaning where often there is none. Far from pruning and nurturing craft, the Nigerian critics indulge in lengthy debates on the sociology of African writing or on the origins and merits of negritude and tigritude, or hunt down borrowings, allusions and other scholarly exotica, all the while avoiding the more vital functions of criticism."

– Chinweizu, from "Towards the Decolonization of African Literature"

Edith Faalong: Your observations are good and very true. Now I ask us all, what is poetry without poetic techniques and devices? We have great poems here, but sometimes I wonder... where are the metaphors, rhymes, similes? Where is the parody, satire, irony? But we learn to grow so we are on track. It's all good.

Anonymous: Mutombo, poetry has evolved from metaphors, similes and rhyme. Some of the best poems on earth do not respect the rules. It's time to think outside the box as a creative person, my friend.

Mutombo: I know very well that poetry has evolved from all of those principles one must follow. But if you read or listen to such poems carefully, you will realize that the same principles are used but not clearly visible. Take note: 'bare' poems to me are just some forms of essays. Take a poem like, 'The Lesson' by Maya Angelou, which to me is a very simple poem but I get something new anytime I read it. Let's be artistic with our poems and it will pay off.

Reggie Kyere: Mutombo, I know you on NTI POETRY. You are a good performance poet. I have heard your poem "Jesus is a black man". I don't know if it is that deep and contains all the qualities you claim are supposed to be in a good poem. There is one question I want us to answer as poets: What makes good poetry and who decides? I can't wait for your poems, Mutombo.

Anonymous: Mutombo, I read Maya Angelou's "The Lesson". Did you realize it had no regard for similes, rhymes and metaphors? It was based on how the words made sense. But I would love to hear what you've got, this is a place we can can agree to disagree, right? Long live Mother Ghana.

Emmanuel Sigauke: Welcome to OGOV, Mutombo. I like the responses your comment has generated, and the follow-up you have made to the responses. After writing and teaching poetry, I am once again committing myself to revising and learning the basic conventions of poetry, the ones we break, as Anonymous pointed out. The problem with some writers who advocate the breaking of convention is that sometimes they do so before they learn what it is they are trying to break. Think of music and what musicians have to learn: there has got to be that basic note upon which you can develop an individual style, otherwise there will be problems of acceptance.

I would love to see this dialogue grow; I think as poets we owe to ourselves and our readers, as Mutombo suggests, to learn our skills well. Mary Kinze, experienced teacher of poetry and practicing poet, has described poetry as always provisional and temporal, that you are never done writing that poem, even the ones that have been published here on OGOV. Even Yeats would consider rewriting most of his poems. She goes on to say that poetry, even "after it has hardened into print", continues to "to represent a risk, a chance, a surmise, or hypothesis about itself."

The tool that we work with as poets, language, is too risky; it often fails to capture the meaning we seek, if we know it, hence our escape to imagery, and other gimmickry (and as Edith said, "It's all good". To some extent). So as we revise our works, let's put the medium (language, words) to use, work it until it delivers...

For those seeking to use the Writer's Service, this would be the best time to work with a very critical me, because I have committed my brief winter break to understand what poetry wants.

Mutombo: Reggie Kyere, it's true, I have been on NT1 Poetry on a couple of occasions. I organize and perform on the show. Even though most of my poems on that show are several years old, they contained all the qualities you want to know for your info. I'm not saying all those qualities are necessary in every poem one writes. It simply acts as a 'spice', if you understand me! It makes it sound better and nicer and for me, such a poem will get me to listen or read again because I definitely know I will get a new meaning to a line I read before. Hope you understand me.

All I am trying to put across is simple! Let's take time to write, we shouldn't rush to finish a poem. One shouldn't be basic but very creative, following some principles of poetry is also necessary.

Lewis Nkosi: What do you feel is the greatest lacking in Nigeria at the moment as far as your life as a writer is concerned, or otherwise?

Wole Soyinka: The greatest lack I think quite frankly is criticism. We have not at the moment got good critics in Nigeria and European critics are not helping by being Eurocentrically condescending, applying a different standard of writing.

-Lewis Nkosi and Wole Soyinka

Prince Mensah: It is gratifying to read the interesting back-and-forth on this great website . Mutombo raised a lot of legitimate concerns, so did Anonymous. Reggie's opinion was superb, in that poetry, being both subjective and objective at the same time, was at the mercy of interpretation. Emmanuel is right. We must learn before we can improvise.

Personally, I take the writing of poetry as a creative project. It is up to the reader to take it or leave it. I make no apologies for what and how I write. Poetry is like a Van Gogh painting: you either like it or you don't. I write poetry not to pander to expectations but to press on to new grounds, to something unheard of, something unique. You should be able to write without the fear of being rejected. The greatest writers were not understood by the societies they lived in. As a poet, we ought to see beyond the horizon. We have to feel what is coming. We are prophets of the word and if our message is ignored, so be it. The fulfillment of any true poet is in the completion of the poem.

As my favorite rapper, Nas, said, 'People fear what they do not understand/Hate what they can't conquer'... Are we going to write as expected of us? Or are we going to write based on some original structure, formulated from the depths of our individuality.

I think what we as writers, especially African writers, must use our creativity to challenge the status quo, to establish something new, something original, carved out of the kaleidoscope of our varying experiences.

Yes, we all grew up reading Keats, Wordsworth et al, but we are Africans. We have our own kind of poetry and it is in the power of words to stun, search and simplify great truths. I know this is a debatable issue but before we speak, let us remember who we are as poets and what we are trying to achieve with our poetry. This is the chance for poets to bare their souls about their art. I am truly honored to be part of this.

Reggie Kyere: Well spoken, Prince! I write poetry every day and ask myself, is it good enough, are they going to like it, does it have metaphors, similes and other literary devices? Doesn't it just have to express a feeling, evoke emotions (just have to be beautiful)? As a person beginning to learn and write poems, it gets very frustrating not knowing every poetic device. And we should also not forget that as poets hoping to get published we always write with our critics in mind.

Emmanuel Sigauke: Prince said: Yes, we all grew up reading Keats, Wordsworth et al, but we are Africans. We have our own kind of poetry and it is in the power of words to stun, search and simplify great truths.

I like your reference to the African worldview and the need for African poets to remember who they are.

While it is true that as Africans we have our own kind of poetry, I'm certain that some African poets writing today have no idea what that "kind of poetry is". Is it poetry informed by traditional praise poetry? Is it informed by grio chants? Is it from the beauty and rhythm of traditional African conversational games, e.g. as in traditional riverside courtship encounters? Or is it poetry only concerned with content over form?

Is this truly African poetry written in African languages? Is it something that can be taught or is it something inherent in all Africa poets? What skills do you have to learn from the African masters to produce that poetry? Or is each poet the original master of this poetry? What sets if apart from, say, Indian poetry? The experiences? The way we render the experiences in words?

Or is it really important for a beginning African poet to attempt to answer even half of the above questions?

"I have always felt, perhaps involuntarily, I should take my poetic sensibility... from the tradition that sort of feeds my language, because in my language there is a lot of poetry... even though it is not written, and so I take my cue from this old tradition, and begin to break it into English, to give it a new dimension."

-Kofi Awoonor

Prince Mensah: Emmanuel, you have a valid point about some poets writing with no sense of direction or zero knowledge about their art. What I was talking about concerns the soul of an artist who is coerced by circumstances (societal perceptions, opinions and myths) to write a certain way. I want freedom of expression in the writing of every poet, experienced or not, for that is a better way of starting the journey of writing. You can have a person who knows all that needs to be learned about poetry, yet his/her poetry sounds like everybody else's. On the other hand, you can have a person with no knowledge about literary devices but with an acute sense of his surroundings. Which of the two will be a better student? Yes, it will always be the first example. Which of the two will be able to produce original work? The second example because of the in-built ability to notice the unseen in the most visible of experiences. Whereas I fully agree to pedagogy in the arts, I think talent has to be given its own space to flutter its wings.

An Ashanti proverb goes, 'Obi nkyere akwala Nyame' - 'Nobody can point a child to the pathway to God.' As an African poet, I shall always vouch for experimentalism. There is so much to be done with this gift of writing that one must be encouraged to do what one feels is the best expression they can garner on some issue. Inspiration is a one-on-one experience and it is important to nurture originality, in any form, whether it conforms to established norms or not.

As to 'our kind of poetry', it is the responsibility of each individual poet to begin a journey to find what kind of structure best suits his/her ideas. I am passionate about this because of the global hunger for African literature. Since this website is a birthing place for great poets and writers of African descent, I will argue for undiluted expressions of the African experience. In as much as I love Western poetry, I do not want to regurgitate everything it tells me.

I hope my advocacy for originality is not misconstrued as an advocacy for ignorance. For indeed, real poets educate themselves so well that they become masters of the subjects they write about.

L.S. Mensah: I agree with the first part of Mutombo's criticism about some of the poems being bare. I take issue though with his point about rhymes and such because I believe it's rather old hat.

The debate about whether to rhyme or not has raged for over 400 years, from the mid-16th century. Probably most of Shakespeare's plays have no end rhyme. Besides, rhymes, similes, metaphors do not in themselves make or break a poem. One has to consider the poem's own internal dynamics as well as its comment on or about the world.

Emmanuel, your point about escape into imagery is similar to one raised by Chinweizu. I think we should all read that essay/article, as it is considered the starting point of modern African criticism.

At the end of the day, it is up to the poet to decide how to engage with the subject, and trust that your reader is mature enough to make sense of it.

One can still write African poetry without being too Negritudinist. Remember, Negritude was discredited long ago.

"A poem cannot just be, it has to also mean – regardless what anyone says to the contrary."

– Chinweizu, Towards the Decolonization of African Literature

Anonymous: Negritude is, I think, talking about your culture through the eyes of another. I agree with L.S. Mensah, we want the real thing. Good discussion, everyone is passionate. No one way is the best way. Find your way...

Reggie Kyere: What makes a poem African? I really want to know.

Prince Mensah: With regards to L S Mensah's comment, I am very pleased that she mentioned negritude. I think Anonymous also mentioned something to that effect, as well. Negritude has been discredited for its fawning mimicry of western patterns. But what has taken its place? A new face on the same, supposedly discredited, concept. Obviously, we do not call it negritude now: we call it something else, something nice to cover the lack of originality.

This brings me to the premise of what I have been writing about. Negritude made us copycats. Knowing who and what you are makes you original, which comes out in everything you do, including writing poetry. Now I am not saying everyone should write from one motivation. Not at all. Sometimes, I write poetry as a man. Sometimes, as an African man. Sometimes, as a black man. I do not stick to one motivation. For we are more than citizens of one country, we are citizens of the world, as Socrates advised his students to become. But in as much as one discovers the world, one cannot disconnect with the preliminary essence of his/her identity.

I see myself as an African poet with the task of interpreting my experiences on God's green earth from windows of my heritage. Another poet might choose to represent themselves in a totally different way, which is great. Bottom line, we are entrusted, as poets and writers, to provide whoever reads our works with beautiful mosaics of the human experience.

I love Chinweizu. He is a true artist, passionate about his work enough to challenge the intellectual powers at a time when it was unheard of for an African to do so. This is the kind of poet I was talking about in my previous posts: firm, focused and founded on faith in who he was. Chinweizu, being a true Pan-Africanist, vouched for the injection of Pan-African themes into our literature, instead of dwelling on parochial themes. I respect that. However, Wole Soyinka, who Chinweizu criticized for being elitist, pays attention to sensitivities of the tribe and the individual. Soyinka positions those sentiments in relation to history, politics and economics. I am not here to argue on behalf of both men. They have done enough in their lives, to speak for themselves through their writings.

So we have two schools of thought on the identity of the African poet: Pan-Africanist and parochial. Both serve noble purposes. One is grand; the other is local. An African poet or writer must be able to choose how he or she wants to express him/herself without being accused of this or that. As Anonymous said, 'no one way is the best way'. The best way is what a poet or writer is absolutely comfortable with.

I read Reggie's comments and I realized his state of confusion because everyone is trying to chip in on his work. He has to seek guidance, if he wants it. But he must be left to find out truths for himself as a poet. Is he going to write in rhyme? That's his choice. Is he going to count syllables and use homonyms? That is his choice. If Reggie needs help, he is free to contact pros like Rob and Emmanuel, which is a service, I think, must be used by everyone who take their art seriously. But the real education shall only come through Reggie's hunger for more knowledge.

So as we go back and forth with our ideas, it is important for us not to tell people how to create. We can only suggest fine tuning and offer feedback. The final product is the prerogative of the poet.

Emmanuel Sigauke:
That poetry you already write, Reggie, that's African poetry. Just believe in it and remember that "writing poetry is like trying to catch a black cat in a dark room" (as fellow poet Robert Greacen said). While we are eager to express our individuality, which is a good thing, we should also read other poets. Read another poet daily--good poetry, bad poetry. Listen to the poetry in our music, listen to the spoken word, listen to the poetry in the dialogue of the market women and men.

Robert Serumaga: People are trying to forge a new kind of African writing in English or in French. Do you think we are succeeding very much?

Kofi Awoonor:
Well, I would say yes; there are a lot of African writers who have really succeeded... I feel that African writing is moving; it's moving about say four or five generations into a new field which is going to mean that African writers are going to go back and find materials and inspiration in their own societies to write about. They move from the period of Osadebay and Michael Dei-Anang and so on, the political writing, to personal writing which is going to be defined as writing committed to a certain positive aspect of African life.

- Robert Serumaga and Kofi Awoonor

L.S. Mensah: I hope I'm not telling people how/what to write. I made the point about negritude because it has become the default thing to do. I write negritude myself, but the important thing is to move away. I don't believe all the poets of the past wrote negritude. Okigbo, Awoonor and others have proved that point again and again.

I guess one has to start from what one's familiar with and then go on with it, Awoonor and Anyidoho have made the Ewe dirge their own. If you take a cursory look at any collection of African poetry, e.g. Poets of Black Africa ed. by Soyinka, the selection runs the gamut: from incantations, through praise poetry to songs of abuse, libation etc.

It is also important to look at critical writings relating to the individual writers we like. One always learns more.

Sometimes even the best critics may not be the best writers, and Chinweizu is a case in point. He may be one of the best critics, but his own poetry leaves much to be desired.

A look at the poetry logs on this site makes one thing clear: that our choices of the poets we like/read are rather narrow (you guys can crucify me for that), but everyone including myself, probably likes Awoonor, Brew, Anyidoho, etc. Our choices are also limited by region: West Africans read west African poetry, Southern Africans read Southern African poets. There are others out there too, and I think broadening these would in turn, help in broadening our own writing. But enough of my lecturing.
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