The Everywhereness and Everydayness of Poetry: A Global Celebration

OPINION PIECE: Nelson S. Ratau lecturer in the Faculty of Arts :Department of English

A global celebration of poetry should not be a one-day event or mood, but a daily act of tribute to one of the most truth-telling, pungent art forms. Poetry is an everyday impulse; it is always there, in the air. It is “an angle of the mind” that offers an alternative to critiquing, depicting reality – intensely and beautifully – and minting out important discourse, political or aesthetic.

But what is poetry? In an essay whose title captures its purpose – ‘A Defence of Poetry’ – the English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, offers a comprehensive and expositional definition of poetry: “Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be the expression of the imagination and poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody.”

To put it clearly, poetry is an imaginative expression, or a product of reason and imagination. In a moment one can think of poetry as the human spirit at play. And all people have what Ben Okri calls “a poetic vision of reality”. That is to say, all people tend to dabble at seeing the world beyond “facts, policies, statistics and programmes” (Ben Okri). We tend to see the world in strange, fairy-tale-like or mythologised ways, to lighten the sad tone of the times or to tickle the dullness of our days; to shine light on the incompressible dark corners of our lives – for clarity and inspired understanding. Poetry is an angle of the mind. It is an alternative way of seeing, of making meaning, of reasoning, of protesting.  Human beings are sentient by nature; and that makes them poetic. All cultures of the world possess a large amount of idiomatic expressions – the stuff by which sometimes poetry is made.   

Poetry is an art form that alchemises language. The poet always writes with a language and “gesture, together with plastic or pictorial imitation” (Percy Shelly) that is multiplied by plethora of influences of knowledge and impulses, strange but clarifying perspectives. He/she writes with the language of flowers, dreams, birds, silences, the hills, the rivers, the seas, the stars, myths and history and mystery’s constant hover over the flow of time. Poetry is about listening deeply, seeing alternatively, and distilling life/reality/idea succinctly, but richly – brevity. Poetry is saying less but meaning more. And so it is clear that one has to listening long, hard, deeply and freely and widely to produce poems, and hear/see in and through a poem the world. There is something that is significantly worth celebrating about poetry, which is that like all art, it engages, and operates on, our consciousness. Making keen a people’s consciousness is poetry’s powerful effect. Take the Negritude poetry, for example, whose sole purpose is to touch and make keen the African mind with Steve Biko’s intellectual and cultural firebrand of (African) Black Consciousness, an affirmation of black pride. Poetry also makes us conscious to nature, while at the same time delighting us with the beauty of language. Consider the Japanese poetic tradition of Haiku – a three-line, seventeen syllables poem, and a whole season, reality contained therein, leaving the reader with a deep and intense feeling or impression; and just like that one begins to see a season, nature, reality anew. A good example is Basho’s Haiku about the mount(ain) Fuji, a poem that lauds the solidity of a man (likened to a mountain) who is unmoved by emotions (volcanic eruptions – life’s problems), and see reality in multidimensionality.  

Everyone should read poetry: Poetry is everywhere, an everyday impulse in human affairs. Poetry is in use every day. It is there on a wine bottle, on which the vintner, in an attempt to appeal to the taste buds of the drinker, would say, with regards to taste (sweetness, acidity, tannin in wine, or a wine’s body or the flavour dimension): it is “sweet/fruity”, “crisp, flabby”, “astringent, firm”, “light-bodied or full-bodied”. The whole point here is to describe the intensity of the flavour – this in poetry is called gustatory imagery, which describes flavours or the sense of taste.

Poetry is there in the motor vehicle industry. Take, for example, the Toyota combi or mini-bus named Inyathi (an isiZulu word for buffalo); this is congruent with what Okri said somewhere: naming is art (poetry). Toyota has used a metaphor in naming the mini-bus. Perhaps the comparison is to capture Toyota’s desired expression of the idea that the combi is ‘strong as a buffalo’, therefore it will carry loads of people without a ‘cringe in the engine’; or to take a poetic variation, it will carry a load of passengers as if they were air (that is simile); thus to appeal to the buyer. Toyota has followed the river of imagination, which, according to Shelly, “is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole”. In their fight against gender-based violence, African National Congress Women’s League coined the slogan “wa thinta abafazi wa thinta imbokodo”, meaning “you strike a woman, you strike a rock”. A poetic affirmation of the strength and significance of a woman in society. There are two meanings/interpretations to that metaphoric slogan: (1) Women are compared to a rock, and whoever hurts a woman, is actually getting themselves hurt or hurting/killing a woman, a mother hurts the whole society; and (2) No perpetrator of violence against a woman will ever break the spirit of woman. That slogan, at times chanted, is poetry; and it used to raise the morale of women as they fight against the scourge of gender-based violence. Two years ago, FNB’ CCB (Corporate Core Banking) came to me through a consulting advertising and recording company to write a script for them with the theme of courage, under the slogan ‘Walk Like an Elephant’, which consequently became the title of the script as I wrote it. There is poetry in the slogan, for it carries a metaphoric self-concept or perception as conceived by the FNB’s CCB CEO, to reflect on their courage in the corporate world. See, there is poetry in banking.      

One may ask: What is the function of poetry? Well, poetry does not have a clear-cut function as does a shoe or a spoon. However, over the years, poetry has been used to fight injustices, tyranny, racism, and antisemitism. This is by virtue of its ability to raise people’s consciousness, touching on the intelligence of man and woman to stand against any form of evil. One remembers the Soweto Poets of South Africa; whose poetry ‘threw metaphors at the apartheid regime’s palace of racial discrimination’; that is why Don Mattera was banned, why former South Africa’s National Poet Laureate (2006) Keorapetse Kgositsile was exiled to Cuba. Of that protest poetry crop, there was Mbyiseni Oswald Mtshali, whose ‘Men in Chains’ outrages the reader into a state of protest against the apartheid injustice. And what about that poet-seer, Christopher Okigbo, whose poems collected under the title Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder (1971) capture important ideas such as nationhood, vision, prophecy omens and war [one could read ‘Elegy for Alto’, poem prophesying (Biafra) war].     

And so a time comes when the world should celebrate the everywhereness of poetry.

Poetry is there in religion, in the holy books, the Psalms of David in the Bible, in Hinduism’s Vedas, and the Talmud. The Quran leans on poetry’s capacity to express its idea of God, faith, love and the world; in fact, the word ‘Quran’ is said to be include recitation, a poetic thing. Buddhism is poetic too; in a Buddhist poem by Su Shi the Buddha’s tongue is compared (metaphor) to the sound of a stream to denote man’s need for a-wakefulness to hear from nature.  Poetry is there in the IT explosion. In his launch of iPhone in 2007 Steve Jobs’ conception of his product was touched by the scientific and poetic, he made a presentation that packaged his vision as one aiming to make products that are both aesthetic and functional. Rui Yang wrote in an article about Jobs: “Jobs’ artistic taste was the output of his personality, intuition, and acquired. He was born to resonate with the beauty of humanities, was passionate about the intersection between art and technology, and pursued pure spirit and intuition.” That is poetry. Isaac Newton’s allegorical exposition of the law of gravity is forever married to the image of a falling apple; image or imagery, that is the stuff of poetry. The Izithakazelo of Zulu people (Zulu clan praise names) and or totems, which ride on metaphoric framing of a person or a people, are laden with poetry. A deployment of queer things to raise a person to a level of bravery, wisdom or trickery.

And so, poetry is everywhere… is in every-day use.    

Albeit, many people have their perception of poetry poisoned by views such as “Oh, poetry, that thing is difficult”, “Poetry is so complex. It is for people with a special interest in its nature or whatever it is about”. These views have made many people run away from poetry.

But this art form is for all us. It has started aesthetic and intellectual cults which infiltrated and transformed existent cultures. Think of the great Persian Astronomer-poet Omar Khayyám’s long poem, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. This poemstarted a phenomenal craze in the English speaking world when Edward Fitzgerald discovered and translated it.

In an opinion piece about the impact of Covid-19 pandemic in India, Debasish Chakraborty used Dante’s nine circles of hell to elucidate the nature of the virus and the exclusive situation in India. See, poetry is consulted in explaining situations in a pandemic.

You do not need to declare yourself a poet or a fan of poetry to be implicated in the poetic; you just need to be human. Poetry is a human condition. It is that fluid bridge where heaven and hell flow into another in human affairs, or as Okri would holds, it is “a sphere where heaven and hell are mixed into the fabric of the mortal frame.”

And who or what is a poet? It is Shelly’s unacknowledged legislator; it is for Okri one who is always set against the world because “they cannot accept what there seems to be is all there is”. A poet is one who sees clearly, and is always agitated by humanity’s syncope in matters of justice, freedom, equality and love. So poetry is a supreme house of justice, where imagination reigns, a guardian for beauty and wonder in human affairs. When Albert Einstein said “Imagination is better than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” he was paying homage to poetry or the poetic. His ‘General/Special Theory of Relativity’ is riddled with poetry, or framed by a poetic tone, mood or mode of expression; for example, the use of the ‘twin paradox’ to explain the fluidity of reality. The element of paradox is used in poetry to make the reader think deeper. The idea of ‘relativity’ or relativeness is what art, poetry deals with. Poetry (art) deals with the concept of reality (which it imitates) as relative, fluid, dynamic; that is what Einstein explains in his theory. To understand this better, one could read the Canadian astronomer, poet, who is dubbed a “tragic genius” Rebecca Elson, in her slender but intensely powerful poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe.

Now, we ought to celebrate this art form every-day, because always goes straight to the house of truth and wisdom without much of flowers and manipulations or persuasion.

Hey there, that is my opinion of what poetry is and all about, something to chew on as we celebrate World Poetry Day. Blessed be the poet!

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