In his lifetime as a translator, the Englishman Robert Burton once said: "All poets are mad". I don't know why he made such a crude statement. He may have had difficulties in translating the burlesque nature of some poetic lines. Probably, he was expressing disgust at the odd private lives of poets.
As I ponder on the rationale behind Burton’s utterance – and while I pray no one takes offence – I have managed to look out for some psychotic symptoms among Ghanaian poets of Martin Egblewogbe’s generation. The result is compelling to the assumed universal madness of poets, in the metaphoric sense though.
To find out for yourself how crazy Ghanaian poets are, go to the capital of Ghanaian poetry sites: an online magazine called One Ghana, One Voice (OGOV). Since 2007, OGOV, founded by the Canadian Rob Taylor and Julian Adomako-Gyimah, has become a haven where Ghanaian poets, in fellowship with other nationals, have settled their innate desire for seclusion.
With poets from across regions and tribes, the OGOV archive has become wealthy by some eccentric, weird, twisted but mostly brilliant and heartwarming titles to excite a reader. Perhaps the most encouraging factor of the magazine is its magic to attract the outcast Ghanaian poets of the diaspora to interact with colleagues who wander in the homeland. The male-to-female ratio of 5:1 succeeds a fashion which the lady poet, Mariska Taylor-Darko, examined years ago in an OGOV Roundtable Discussion: "Ghanaian writing has been male dominated in the past because to be honest women were relegated to the kitchen and bringing up kids and learning home science". Not so encouraging a trend! The general profile is however interesting: with a make-up of high academic laurels and noble career backgrounds, incorporating: civil engineers, nurses, lecturers, lawyers, and more. One would expect this group of intellectuals to be a calibre of sound mind, but the opposite is evident.
Per custom, editor Rob Taylor often asks (within his traditional "five questions") what an OGOV featured poet wants to achieve with a particular poem. In response, each attempts either a social order or a political change. Their obsession for socio-political change does no harm in exposing the ultra-moral Ghanaian poet who seems to have wild thoughts about the world around him. He suspects a minister of state, with a sackful of stolen cedis, air-bound for safekeeping in Switzerland. The Ghanaian poet believes that the Greenwich Meridian line at Tema should be guarded against some western wind that could blow it by inches and miles to Ouagadougou. Given the licence, the Ghanaian poet would cry wolf about the rusty axis of the earth that needs repair. In his paranoia, he looks over his shoulders and raises unnecessary alarm on a variety of issues.
Could a host of their titles have influence over any social injustice or political impropriety? The reality is: when put on the scale, most of the relevant subjects do not carry weight. Such chaffy poems are full of delusions and weak logic – they lack the application of science. It would not be surprising if authors under this description test positive for a schizophrenia screening!
Of course, there are some anointed poets whose works have the tendency to affect purported social/political transformation. Most notable are the lingua-potent Novisi Dzitrie, the robust satirist Nana Yaw Sarpong, the theatrical prodigy Reggie Kyere and the idiomatic wizard Nii Ayikwei Parkes. Nevertheless, the best is yet to come out from the zeal and imagination of Adjei Agyei-Baah, Reginald Asanga Taluah, Nana Agyemang Ofosu, Edith Faalong, Appiah Grant, Foster Topper and several others. Let’s watch out!
If you were a fan of poetry, you would certainly agree with the respectable Adomako-Gyimah on the argument that poetry, in the hands of the poet, is a powerful weapon that can be used to kill politicians. But you may part ways with him (Adomako-Gyimah) when it comes to endorsing the circumstances under which some poets attack. In real life scenario, one person kills to be acquitted, and another kills to be convicted. The advice to the poet therefore is: he can/should kill – but with a reason to justify.
To avoid guilt and the ensuing consequences that befall murderers, I hope the Ghanaian poet learns to control his outrage as he goes about his virtuous endeavours. After all, the fair balance of principles (ideas) and feelings is important in upholding the image of the poetic voice as it engages the collective conscience of the reading public. To achieve a profound interplay of logic and sentiment, writers – and indeed poets – should definitely relate to the wisdom of Taylor’s Yardstick (a term I devised after reading one of Rob Taylor's answers to an OGOV "five questions" interview): a theory that puts a premium on the art of comprehensible writing over a focus on purely aesthetic concerns.
With little or no mentorship from elderly literary personnel, the young Ghanaian poet seems to have drawn inspiration from writers around the world, as sourced from OGOV interviews. Their mentors are remotely based: if the Ghanaian poets are not having an admiration for John Keats, they would be romantically inclined to Lord Byron. They idolize William Wordsworth and go bananas for Robert Browning. You may blame the elderly Ghanaian poets for not having the will to nurture the present OGOV-borne movement. Hold on! Share the blame. Give a large part to the young poets; since they themselves do not have the will to socialise, relate and stay at home. It’s hard taming them as they roam about picking some fifteenth century ornaments, that have been dropped in poetic waste bins, to adorn their verses. Such experience could be positive. But it would have been fearfully negative if we had found no trace of Ghanaian culture in the forms and themes they choose to write about. On that note, the Ghanaian poet should be praised for remembering their roots. You see, they don’t suffer from dementia, after all. They are only moderately insane, with sharp memories.
The poets’ cultural pride is brightly celebrated in the following selected poems: "For my Husband, an Educated Fool" by Nana Yeboaa, "Mama" by Vida Ayitah, "Marketplace" by Emma Akuffo, "Dry Season in Erenom" by Edith Faalong, "The Deer Hunt" by Mariska Taylor-Darko, "Trotro" by Kwadwo Kwarteng, "Night Falls on Children Playing" by Kofi A. Amoako.
Apart from the mental lapse, the Ghanaian poet has slipped into Acute Criticism Deficiency Syndrome. Do not panic! This disease can easily be cured. It takes field knowledge and fair mindedness of a practitioner – both of which are provisionally available.
Oscar Wilde understood what he was talking about when he warned about the doom of any genre of creative writing which is stripped of criticism. To avoid any sort of doom, let’s hope the leading critics Dela Bobobee, L.S. Mensah, Nana Fredua-Agyeman and Prince Mensah would extend their constructive arms (from beyond the OGOV pages, to the reach of other journals) to examine the crooked paths, and point out the square pegs that end up in round holes.
When the critic has played his role, the publisher is left to be pleased. As they examine a manuscript, the publisher will, in no doubt, look out for the following images: Einstein’s formula or Frankenstein’s monster within the written work, before risking an investment. Whenever I think of the objective of the publisher, I ask myself as to whether the Ghanaian poet (like the Russian poet, Pushkin) would look at his finished work "as a cobbler looks on his pair of boots." Pushkin went on to note that he "sells[s] for profit". The impression is simple: Pushkin kept on polishing his art to the appeal of publishers, to the pleasure of the common reader, and deliberately, to the displeasure of the authorities of his time. And he became a publishing success. End of story!
Should the Ghanaian poet take after Pushkin he must learn to clean his dusty and sometimes greasy art, since failure in exercising a routine revision of one’s intellectual paperwork could lead to a wretched output: as the status of a shabbily dressed somebody who roams the streets of central Accra. Isn’t that an act of madness?
When asked about the number of drafts L.S. Mensah took her poem "Mother of Ikemefuna" through before its appearance at OGOV in October 2011, she replied: "Over a dozen. Of my million hideous obsessions, the number of drafts of a single poem I go through is probably the worst". No wonder her verses are sensible, brisk and lively.
It may be controversial in acknowledging Kwaku Ananse as a poet, yet I hope it would largely be agreed that the rise of OGOV has not only stirred the absurd enthusiasm in its contributory poets... but it has as well-inspired creativity and the birth of other magazines and platforms like Akwantuo, Ghana Book Review, Phillis Wheatley Chapter, Alewa, Elhalakasa, and functional organisations like Writers Project of Ghana and Poetry Foundation Ghana.
Until I share another dark joke with you, let us leave the tricky Kwaku Ananse to do the web, and the patriotic Ghanaian poets, their sublime art.
Darko Antwi is a Ghanaian poet and critic. He is also the proprietor of Seaweed Books and editor of Phillis Wheatley Chapter. This article was originally published at Poetry Foundation Ghana, and is republished here with the author's permission.