Poetry continues to be a great love for me. From when I was about eight when I got a truly beautiful English teacher called Mrs Whittle. I have grown to love poetry and subsequently write poetry. In times of extreme conditions like war, love and anger, poetry has always come in handy. Out on a limb or well told, poetry will hold your hand for those who understand with words that sparkle that elevate and titillate while for the uninitiated, it attempts to cross into your life and sing you to sleep. For seasons of great difficulty, alone on an island, moments of loss, moments of grief, a break up or a pandemic, I find poetry never fails to rise like yeast in bread to our collective literary needs.
Here then are some of the poems that speak to me when I am a little befuddled, too much in love or simply trying to make sense of things.
1. Dennis Brutus’s Letters to Martha. I read this amazing collection as an undergraduate in ABU Zaria and because of how much I fell in love with this collection, attempted to meet up with him in London many years ago. I arrived at his hotel room after he departed for the airport. Sad but true. I never met him till he died. Why are Dennis Brutus’ poems so important to me? Born in Rhodesia, Dennis was a teacher who felt apartheid was unjustified and racist and was therefore sent to jail for being part of those who fought against Apartheid. In Prison, Dennis wrote Letters to Martha to his sister-in-law and could only publish them in book form in 1966 after he left South Africa for Europe. I fell in love with this collection because the poems are about taking freedom for granted. Check out our lockdown, share the parallels in this lockdown and how everything we take for granted are now very important to us. An amazing collection of poems lets share Letter to Martha 17. “In prison, the clouds assume importance and the birds with a small space, cut off by walls of weak hostility and pressed upon by hostile authority, the mind turns upwards when it can…Clichés of the birds and their absolute freedom from care become meaningful and the graceful impeded emotion of the clouds- a kind of music, poetic, dance sends delicate rhythms tremoring through the flesh and fantasies course easily through the mind…” Ah, a collection so worthy at this time. Words to live by.
2. No book amused me in my A-levels like Ugandan Poet Okot Kbptek’s Song of Ocol and Song of Lawino. Widely read around the world and wildly popular, Song of Ocol and Song of Lawino written in 1966 was originally written in Luo, a language spoken among East Africans and then translated into many other languages including English. Poetry written in Epic form, it was literally written as a dialogue between husband, Ocol and Lawino. Hilarious but taking serious issues on board about post-colonial Africa. Also how Africa wants to proceed, westernised, a mix or with African traditions? Lawino laments that “My husband abuses me together with my parents. He says terrible things about my mother. And I am ashamed.” She says because her husband is in government, he wants to take a wife with western values…” He says black people are primitive and their ways are utterly harmful, their dances are mortal sins, they are ignorant, poor and diseased.” If you have not read this collection of poems that contributed to a heated debate over the future of African graphic metaphor and grammatical intensity. This is the time you must look for it and read it.
3. How many of you have read renowned Nigerian Poet, Professor John Pepper Clark’s classic poem” Ibadan”? We encountered it in our little text, West African verse in secondary school in the early ’70s. And after knowing it by heart, we all wanted to go to Ibadan. It’s short so here is the iconic poem by one of Nigeria’s finest. “Ibadan, running splash of rust and gold-flung and scattered among seven hills like broken China in the sun. A true classic by a master poet. So many years after secondary school, I am still nostalgic and having gone to Ibadan many times over, every time I read this poem, I still want to go to Ibadan. Since we cannot travel in this Pandemic as we would wish to. It’s time to do travel by words. Ibadan-so comforting.
4. One time UK poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy must have some of the most fascinating collection of Poems I know. I bring you Prayer, one of her more popular Poems. Here are excerpts from Prayer taking from The Times of London review in 1992. Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer utters itself. So a woman will lift her head from the sieve of her hands and stare at the minims song by a tree, a sudden gift.” There is a reason why I love Poetry so much. So deliberate, so subtle, so true.
5. I met Jackie Kay many years ago in London at a British Council boot camp for writers. I was immediately taken in by her. When she was done with her sessions, we were all meant to lunch at a Pub and she gave me a ride. A fascinating woman whom I found was in fact, Nigerian of Igbo extraction, but had been adopted by a Scottish family because her Father had walked off and her mother who was Scottish gave her up for adoption. She was forthright and fun to be with and had a warm and genuine smile. I subsequently picked up as many of her books as I could. Her Poem Late Love from her poetry collection Life Mask leaves me contented each time. Here is a stanza. “How they strut about, people in love. How tall they grow, pleased with themselves, their hair glossy, their skin shinning. They don’t remember who they’ve been.” How true. People in love often forget who they’ve been. Scenes we miss now as not much is seen of love on the streets as we all strive to maintain distance.