Sọ̀rọ̀sókè: An #EndSARS Anthology, a flawed collection of poetry edited by Jumoke Verissimo and James Yékú, begs the following questions: Are we supposed to stop putting ‘poetry’ anthologies together on the spur of remarkable moments? Are we supposed to give up using anthologies to mark remarkable events and people?
#EndSARS—the series of youth-led, youth-fuelled protests that took place in various parts of Nigeria in October 2020—remains, in its own way, poignant. It was a moment that almost ripped a string off the guitar of ‘Nigeria-as-we-know-it’ (or so we thought); but one that, like an unripe orange on the tongue, has also left a bitter aftertaste in our collective memory. The event, and much that surrounds it, constitutes the bread and wine of Sọ̀rọ̀sókè: An #EndSARS Anthology (Noirledge, 2022), edited by poet and novelist, Jumoke Verissimo and James Yékú, a scholar whose work centres cultural studies and the social media.
In their introduction, the editors write:
[T]he poems we write are a mode of speaking the truth to power, emphasizing that Nigerian lives matter, that the young Nigerian should be allowed to dream. . . [These poems curated in real-time] speak to the urgency of present lived experiences and the everyday moments of the real. These will speak in their intensities, reinventing inchoate metaphors.
The introduction offers a bland summary of the period and its atmosphere. Just like the poems in the anthology, the introduction was written in the mood of protest. The editors say little about the worth of the poems they have collected—the only reference to the essence of the poems, beyond the talk of ‘speaking the truth to power’, is the last statement in the excerpt above.
The editors also fail to elaborate on how ‘inchoate metaphors’ are ‘reinvented’ in this book. Reading the introduction, one feels that the poems in themselves do not matter; it is the #EndSARS movement that matters: the poems simply ‘bear witness’ to that. Contrary to what the editors suggest, however, the poems don’t reinvent anything. The word ‘invention’, suggesting deliberateness, a knowledge of the mechanics of what is being woven, looks ill on them. They are a burden of cliché, lame lines, shallow tropes, slight plagiarism, and cold allusions hawked like bend-down-select-cloths. If the names of the individual poets were to be removed, it could be argued that one person wrote the fifty-plus poems in Sọ̀rọ̀sókè, with maybe four exceptions. At best, the talk of ‘reinventing inchoate metaphors’ is a weak attempt to deny the inchoateness of the poems they have put together. ‘Bad’—lacking the neat concealing power of ‘inchoate’—seems a more accurate way to describe them.
A CLUMSY BUSINESS
Here’s a dirge to lost dreams
To pains unfelt, to hope never found
Here’s to shattered dreams, to wishes unknown, to prayers unanswered.
— from the poem, ‘Here’s a Dirge to Lost Dreams’
Tired hollow ways, make feet seek green paths,
And ENDSARS covered the eye of big brother by banners.
If nothing else rhymed like pentameter, the chants broke the brass . . .
— from the poem, ‘Asking for Sunrise and Getting Silence’
In the first excerpt, what does the poet mean by ‘pains unfelt’ and ‘wishes unknown’? Perhaps, by ‘pains unfelt’, the poet implies that the Nigerian government was ignorant of the plight of the youth, that it did not ‘know’ the youth’s pain. On the other hand, ‘wishes unknown’ cannot meaningfully mean that the government did not know what the youth wished for. ‘Wishes’ trivializes the substance of the desire that culminated into the movement—the government perhaps plays deaf because they think the youth are ‘wishing’, erecting fancy castles in the air. To try to read the poem meaningfully, with depth and the keen attention that poetry demands, is to render to Caesar what is not his due at all: the poem is unknown to the process of its own meaning. This is the case with more than half the poems in this anthology; of the other half, those that are conscious about how they mean are too anxious to mean, and the poetry is killed by the anxiety.
‘Tired hollow ways’ from the poem, ‘Asking for Sunrise’ is a welcome phrase; there is something going on inside it. Sound saunters through the first two words (rising and falling) and then drops flat in ‘ways’. We can bear the cliché because the structure of the phrase tonally carries the situation it signifies. Imagine a traveller, tired, burning with thirst (hollow), sauntering across a parched field. (In the absence of poetry, phrases like this are the primary things worth savouring in Sọ̀rọ̀sókè; and even they are rare.) The second line, should we replace ‘by’ with ‘with’, remains confusing. The problem is not the absence of finesse, the problem is the absence of clarity. In the third line, we are told that ‘if nothing else rhymed like pentameter,’ meaning, I assume, even if there was no coherence to the protest, no single voice (and of course there were divergent anxieties within the movement), still, the poet says, ‘the chants broke the brass’. A fair image, reminiscent of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of iron-and-clay feet in Daniel, which foreshadowed a brutal kingdom. ‘[N]othing else rhymed like pentameter,’ though, is a confident disaster.
The brass recalls feet, and the image of feet calls to mind Idowu Odeyemi’s from the anthology, ‘& they killed Jimoh Isaiq’ (note that ‘Isiaq’ is misspelled). Odeyemi steals an image from a well-known Wole Soyinka poem—‘Abiku’—and there is no acknowledgement anywhere: ‘as they toss our body inside the mud/ deep into the god-swollen foot.’ The entire line is in fact a rewrite of the Soyinka line: ‘[D]ig me deeper still into/ The god’s swollen foot.’ The fact that the editors failed to note it—as persistent as Soyinka’s poem has been in our culture and in intellectual cum academic circles—the fact that there are so many errors in this book, so much blunder, sincerely makes one wonder if this anthology was ‘edited’ or compiled.
OUR CASUAL DISRESPECT
It may seem trivial that a younger writer lifted an image from an older writer for free, but it is not. It says something about our disrespect, as a culture, for the intellectual work of others. And it is not new; the derivativeness of Nigerian poetry after the Civil War (Christopher Okigbo was the most used) is one reason why no serious development has happened in our poetry for some 40 years. In his review of FESTAC Anthology of Nigerian New Writing, the literary artefact of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, edited by Cyprian Ekwensi in 1977, Oyekan Omoyewola described the state of things: ‘[A] lot of the poetry is pedestrian, trite, or simply bad and often unabashedly imitative of earlier works.’
Yet one cannot argue with Tade Ipadeola, who wrote the epilogue to Sọ̀rọ̀sókè, that this anthology includes some of our ‘best’ minds. Yejide Kilanko, Kola Tubosun, Jumoke Verissimo, Soji Cole are included. One or two fine poets are also included: Niran Okewole and Gbenga Adeoba.
Cole’s argument offers the reader a break from the mindless condemnation of the government that populates the book, he jingles the bones of the youth for the measure of our integrity: ‘Those who brave the barrel of the guns at Lekki are saviours in interim.’ The argument is not original, but the point is taken. Still, Cole’s uninteresting, perfunctory puns (‘arse-hole-rock’ and ‘Jack-a-barn’) and his mention of Das Kapital do not do much for the poetry.
On the other hand, to read the poem by Adeoba, a very lyrical poet, is to see how politics can stunt language and put dust on the poet’s articulateness. The language of the poem sounds antiquated, like some scarlet cloak gifted in the nineteenth century to an Oba of Lagos by some European monarch, rescued at last from a warehouse, a trace of meter playing within it:
We will build this country from afar,
they say, tweeting knots and scars,
embodied notes on surly moments.
They trade police encounters
that cranked the door ajar.
Even Lugard and his woman
Must share in their ladled curse.
It is hard not to like the pidgin poem by Basit Ajibade (it makes an effort) and Servio Gbadamosi’s ‘The Slum Dweller’s Testimony’. There is a contentment to Gbadamosi’s poem—unadorned, moderate in its scope, slight in its promises, and in the lyric voice one comes upon a street, a life so familiar, it almost buds within the reader:
I carry death with me
in a sacred pouch slung
over my shoulders.
IS IT NECESSARY?
In his elegy for W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden famously that poetry makes nothing happen. Poetry ‘survives,/ In the valley of its making . . ./ it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.’ The Nigerian poets of the second and third generations made an expensive mistake in thinking that poetry has the power to do anything other than survive; they were wrong to assume that by singing ‘of a world reshaped,’ as Niyi Osundare once wrote, they could reshape that world.
The successful political poems in Nigerian literature have not tried to reshape the world. The poets were keenly aware that poetry thrives on its limitations, they were attentive to the fact that poetry has high demands of itself, but—regarding its function, its duty to society or to a tribe even—has humble ambitions. J. P. Clark’s Casualties, which was heavily criticized early on for its humility, has survived because of the humanity, the compassion, of its gaze; also, his poem, ‘Song’, which shows how war-cost is best grasped in the place of relationships, in the splintering of communions. Okigbo’s Path of Thunder keeps the urgency of its subject because it has been emplotted as a dramatic lyric moment—it is itself an event. Where are all the other poems on the civil war, the poems written to ‘speak truth to power’ during the years of military rule? Chinua Achebe’s poems on war (with his defective view of the writer as teacher) were praised by some; Achebe won an award for his slim book, Beware, Soul Brother. Those poems—so concerned about making a point, so ‘wise’, so in sync with their time, small hearts made of concrete—are hardly read today.
Putting an anthology together to commemorate a period, an event, or even a person is not new in Nigerian literature. When the Nigeria-Biafra War ended in 1970, Chukwuma Azuonye edited Nsukka Harvest: Poetry from Nsukka 1966—1972, which was not an outright civil war anthology, but substantially represented the event. Harry Garuba, sensing that a new generation of Nigerian poets was emerging, in 1988, put together Voices from the Fringe, including the early works of Third Generation Nigerian poets. The anthology edited by Cyprian Ekwensi is another example. Almost nothing from those anthologies has survived.
Are we, then, supposed to stop putting ‘poetry’ anthologies together on the spur of remarkable moments? Are we supposed to give up using anthologies to mark remarkable events and people? While I acknowledge that it is an endeavour with good intentions, I am inclined to say yes. Make it stop. Of course, unless the poems are, as Auden said, ‘a way of happening, a mouth,’ a mouth well-configured. There is no use contributing terrible poetry to the abundance of terrible poetry that we have in the world already, especially in Nigerian literature, and to think that the bad poetry is offered to readers for a price, and trees have to be taken down to print the weak words on, it is near wickedness. The aim of this anthology, to ‘bear witness’, has been met by scores of studies by scholars working in the fields of political science and cultural studies. Essays may be average, but those looking for information will find something in them worth using. Poetry is not a place for sobbing, for screaming at the top of our lungs, for calling attention to the tyranny of kings (at least not directly, not in the way that it has been attempted in the poems here). The goal of poetry is to do something new, revise reality. By this I am not saying that poetry should dilute or distort violence or oppression—I mean that when the same language is used to tell oppression, the same flat, lifeless language, it adds to the sorrow of the world. Reading bad poetry, at least for me, is almost torment. It does no good⎈
Sọ̀rọ̀sóke: An #EndSARS Anthology
Jumoke Verissimo and James Yékú (Eds.)
110 pp. Noirledge Poetry & Aflame Publishers, 07 February 2022
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