An Essay on the Meaning of
Poetry in the Present-day World
Essay by Ifi Amadiume, (USA, UK and Nigeria)
Especial to the XIX International Poetry Festival of Medellin, 2009.
Especial to the XIX International Poetry Festival of Medellin, 2009.
Nagueyalti Warren aptly titles her recently edited collection of poetry by African women Temba Tupu! (Africa World Press, New Jersey: USA, 2008). She translates it to mean walking naked. In addition to this interesting title, her subtitle too speaks to the same poetic truth of this kind of nakedness in our “poetic self-portrait”. I like this meaning of poetry. It is the kind of meaning of poetry that I believe is portrayed in a short poem published in my first book of poetry titled, Passion Waves (Karnak House, London: UK, 1985). In “Passion Waves”, my mind is fully charged. When the mind is so charged, what can it do to thought, but to burst and release, make naked the overflow of passion waves of change and changes, and still changing waves of thought.
Also like the exposed naked body, my thoughts flow out in waves, sending shivers through my veins. This is really from the point of view of the poet who must transmit, release these, should I say, messages as felt truths. In this outpouring, like action and response/reaction, poetry is also that mode of expression that unites minds, so that the reader is often the one that catches a glimpse of the truths being told, and cries, “show me all”, and commits by saying, “we will journey together”. This is the meaning reflected in another very short poem by this same title “show me all” in my book Ecstasy (Longman, Nigeria, 1995) and I write, “show me the strength of your love in your full nakedness”.
What then is this nakedness in other contexts that we all share, young and old, and even in the sweet sound of a baby’s first words that are recorded for eternity by its parents’ loving care. Show me the strength of love, joy, anger, sadness, desire, pleasure, elation. Condensed intensity and freedom in the use of words distinguish poetry from prose and its grammatical constraints.
Perhaps, because I straddle complex worlds, and I am challenged to write in different modes across languages and cultures, I feel very strongly the freedom ride in the poetic expression. Sometimes, I have said that poetry for me, when I feel the urge or when I am inspired to write, is like taking a tea break from heavy academic writing. This is probably because I have earned my living doing academic work in teaching, research and writing. Someone else who earns a living by writing poetry might experience just the opposite. I know that not all academics can write poetry. Likewise, it is not all poets that can write social science academic texts.
Also, I have heard the argument that fiction writing is not as easy as some might think. But, isn’t poetry different from fiction writing? Again, the poet is not constrained by fictional plotting. The poet can focus and imagine oneness with a character, a setting, a landscape, anything, even saying that she is a squirrel, or she can make a squirrel a comrade! I think that the fascist who would claim that red squirrels are superior to grey squirrels and want to kill all grey squirrels, not to talk of black squirrels, can only say that kind of thing in prose, not in poetry. For this reason, the best poetry is not about the interest of or love of fascists and bad people, but about humanity and humanness and humane experiences in us and around us.
It is said that the poet has spoken. This consummate unity with words cuts both ways for both the poet and society. Perhaps I can best express this in the way that I have found useful to organize my poems for publication under sections such as reason, love, and ecstasy. In the poem, “love or reason”, I ask, with what eyes will you look at my faults and shortcomings, “will it be love’s or reason’s eye”? We like to distinguish between the harshness of reason and the indulgent softness of love, when we know that really in live experiences there is an intermingling of both, as the lover and beloved sway from one to the other, so also do friends and family members. I have also chosen other categories for my poems, bringing love into my engagement with everything such as, love and friendship, love and social justice, love and nature, love and desire, love and Sufism. This is the arrangement in my book titled, Circles of Love (Africa World Press, New Jersey: USA, 2006).
What about crossing languages and cultural borders for those of us who straddle complex worlds? Poetic nakedness brings pieces of myself together in ways that do not demand too much the harsh discipline of orthodoxy. I can reveal pieces of different sides to me in poetry more than the rational reflexivity needed in works of method and theory in the social sciences. I can imagine and fill in things that I do not necessarily do in real life, and I am not sure exactly what this means, except the naked oneness, unity and empathy that I have talked about earlier that is strong in the poetic expression. For example, the poem “Water Spell” in Ecstasy (1995) draws images and meaning from indigenous black African religions, as practiced by the original people, the Yoruba of Nigeria (a Nigerian ethnic group), and also practiced in different syncretized forms in Latin American Orisha religions where they are mixed with Catholicism. I can empathize with the strong presence of women in these religions as worshippers and as spirits worshipped. This is also true of the water goddess imagery in the poem and in other poems like “Elegy for Christopher Okigbo” and “Favored Son of the Goddess” and the poem titled, “English Mammy Water” in Circles of Love (2006). The Mammy Water symbolism that I have also written a lot about in my academic works is shared by Africa and her diaspora. It is an interesting and subversive, female-rich topic that captures the complexity of our times, and therefore interests me as a poet and an academic.
Other poems, including the Sufi poems like “Union” from Islamic mysticism, show not only my empathy with other religions, but also the filling in of thought, senses and words with languages other than English. “Chant of the Revolution” in Ecstasy (1995) is really a poem that is almost completely written in translation of Igbo (a Nigerian ethnic group) proverbs and drum sounds. I have only written one poem titled, “Edidi – oo” in Voices Draped in Black (Africa World Press, New Jersey: USA, 2007) in the Igbo language, and I translated it into English. However, poems like “Make Love in Igbo” and “Let’s Kiss in Ebonics!” in Circles of Love (2006) evoke images of desire, but are really in the decolonization and social justice political mode, thus suggesting an incompleteness of the foreign language in the mind of the “native” speaker. As we know, this question of language and culture is a focus of debate and strong disagreements among African writers, constantly reminding us of the of problems of class, leadership and politico-cultural independence.
In those rare moments when my academic research and poetic feelings converge, I have given thought to the old classical debate on the question of power between different interest groups, especially the difficult question of peasant leadership as I see the power of technology humbling and belittling the stoutest of persons, and at the same time empowering mean people! Ideas of the romantic and heroic peasant in myth, literature and history seem archaic and remote when we see how the weak, poor and powerless are represented in the mass media. Their locations are portrayed as places of squalor, disease and meaningless and endless conflicts. This image is held constant to boost the power of the privileged classes and nations. They are no longer used to criticize and compel their governments to correct the situation by improving development in these places. Those so portrayed in negative representation no longer have dignity; they (like Africa) are shown as too needy and too sick, and thus weakened, there is no fear of their anger or numbers; something that was always their ultimate power in past history.
The organization of my poems under topics such as Women Activists, Men Activists, and Struggle in my book, Voices Draped in Black presents poetry more in its uncompromising political form. Perhaps this is the reason that this book has not yet received well deserving awards. Now that I have made this complaint in the right place, let’s hope it changes things. In many ways, poetry speaks to the same topics and themes that are expressed in other prose forms, but in a freer and more intense use of words. Thus, the naked passion of poetry is more likely to capture and express the most beautiful things of our times, as well as ugly political and social realities.
Ifi Amadiume is a scholar, poet, ethnographer and essayist. She was born in Nigeria where she had her early education before moving to Britain in 1971. In Britain, as well as an academic and poet, she was active in local politics as a Local Government Women’s Officer, a Community Education Worker, and was editor of Pan-African Liberation Platform, an educational and human rights journal.
Currently on leave from teaching, Ifi Amadiume moved to Dartmouth College from London with her two children Kemdi and Amadi in July 1993 as Associate Professor. An outstanding book-award scholar, she is a Professor of Religion and Faculty in the Department of Religion and the African and African American Studies Program at Dartmouth College. A tenured full professor since 1999, she has chaired the African and African American Studies program at Dartmouth College. She has a double B.A (Honors 1978) degree in an African language (Hausa) and Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, and a University of London Ph.D. in Social Anthropology (1983). She has researched and taught in African Studies in Nigeria, Britain and the United States of America.
BOOKS- As well as numerous articles in journals, chapters in books and poems in anthologies, Amadiume’s book publications include: Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, (Zed Books, London 1987) winner of an award of Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. Amadiume was one of twelve authors cited for scholarship in the non-fiction category; also winner of the 1998-89 Outstanding Academic Book Choice Magazine award; African Matriarchal Foundations: The Igbo Case, (Karnak House London, 1987 and Red Sea Press, 1999); Reinventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture, (Zed Books & St. Martin's Press, 1997); Ifi Amadiume and Abdullahi An-Na'im (editors) The Politics of Memory: Truth, Healing and Social Justice, (Zed Books and St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Daughters of the Goddess, Daughters of Imperialism: African Women, Culture, Power and Democracy (Zed Books & St. Martin's Press, 2000). Her work has made a tremendous contribution to new ways of thinking of sex and gender, the question of power and women's contributions to history and culture.
Amadiume has participated in several poetry readings and art festivals. Her poetry reflects her complex multi-dimensional and diasporic experiences spanning three continents. She has published four books of poetry, three of which are award-winning books: Passion Waves (London: Karnak House, 1985, winner of a Commonwealth Poetry Prize nomination); Ecstasy (Longman Nigeria, 1995, winner of the Association of Nigerian Authors 1992 Cadbury Literary Award for Poetry); Circles of Love (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2006, winner of the 2006 Flora Nwapa Society Award, African Literature Association, USA, for outstanding achievement in African Religions and African Women and Gender Studies); and Voices Draped in Black (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007). Amadiume’s poems deal with love of people, nature, sufism and struggle, celebrating activism and activists.