Oke: Poetry is not art for people in search of quick material success

Ikeogu Oke


A little over a week ago, MR. IKEOGU OKE won The Nigerian Prize for Literature for poetry category. The prize, sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas Limited, has USD$100,000 as it prize value. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUORU (Assistant Arts Editor), Oke talks about the new frontier his winning work, Heresiad, has created and how he needs to give back, more than ever before, to the poetic and writerly community

Congratulations, Ikeogu! Now that you have won, what is likely to change? What has changed about you, about your poetr?
Thank you. Not much has changed or is likely to change in the way I live – a simple life devoted to literary creativity. But that’s if it’s entirely in my powers to determine what happens in my life, which isn’t the case, as with everyone else. So, I leave room for the unexpected. But there’s bound to be a change in the way I perceive my role in the society, a change in my sense of obligation, of responsibility. An event like this offers one a rare privilege to inspire others. And one must give back to society. It would be a shame not to put the opportunity to do both to the best use. As for my poetry, much of its content and direction are somewhat unpredictable, influenced partly by me and partly by forces outside of my control. I believe my poetry and I would remain open to influences, but in a regulated manner. In being creative, an open mind can be a huge asset. But you don’t subject your mind to the incursion just about anything. You’re likely to find it counterproductive if you do. And this is particularly true of the poet, I think.

So, your ‘labour of poetic love’ for 27 years paid off ‘heroically.’ What would you attribute this to?
Many things, perhaps too many to name. But first I believe a Providential hand steered things to the current destination over a long course. And it was important that one yielded to its control and did one’s work with diligence, despite the ever-rising odds and many seeming justifications for giving up. From the outset, my resolve was to pursue success as a labourer for the love for my vocation. I also knew that I needn’t be successful in the eyes of others in order to find fulfillment in that vocation, which is poetry. For those who warned me that I was courting poverty by choosing to be a poet, I wrote a poem, ‘The Way I Want to Go.’ It ends with the defiant lines: ‘…If poets do not make money,/Neither does money make poets.’ Poetry is not the art or calling for people who hustle with words in search of quick or easy material success. Yet here are many wonderful people, who have supported me, but I can’t do justice to their roles in the type of response I believe I’m required to give here.

You describe this particular poetic effort in heroic couplets as lyrical pentameters, and you gave it a name, ‘operatic poetry.’ This would seem like your own special neologism? Please, describe how it works?
Yes. In a sense, lyrical pentameters and operatic poetry are my neologisms, if I rightly understand your use of that word to mean new lexical or phrasal coinages by me. But more importantly, they’re also demonstrable concepts. In writing The Heresiad, I recognised how pentametric versification had always worked for other poets, including its great masters like Alexander Pope and John Dryden. They made it rhythm-dominant, such that it reflected the natural rhythm of speech. I deviated from that to produce a type of pentametric versification that is lyricism-dominant, with the result that the lines sing more or less of their own volition while also reflecting the natural rhythm of speech. And so I call them lyrical pentameters as opposed to rhythmic pentameters. I dare say that what Tchaikovsky says of Pushkin’s poetry, that “they sing themselves,” applies to every line of The Heresiad. As for operatic poetry, it refers to my vision of having the poem staged on an operatic stage with drama and song and music all of which are integral to it. So, that’s also a realistic description.

Some who have read The Heresiad describe it as Shakespearean or Miltonic-style poetry in 21st century environment. How right or wrong are these readers?
First, I consider that a huge compliment because I consider Shakespeare and Milton poets for all time and nations. And there are other such poets from other backgrounds, who lived in other epochs, whose works are timeless as I think all poets should aspire to make theirs. In poetry being modern is not proven by wishing the ancients away, except by those who probably do so to create room for their mediocrity to thrive. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound celebrated their Greco-Roman influences. Even as modern poets, they never hid their indebtedness to the past or admiration for some poets from pervious epochs. T. S. Eliot’s famous dedication of The Wasteland to Pound originated from Dante, and the works of both poets are studded with linguistic and other types of infusions from the classical Greece and Rome. So from T. S. Eliot to Dante to Virgil, we have a linkage spanning about 2000 years. That’s a demonstration of a strong sense of tradition by one of the great ‘modern’ poets, who apparently does not wish to obliterate the ‘ancients’ to enable him thrive. But then you must be supremely confident in your abilities as a poet to wish to put your works side by side with those of the ‘ancients,’ as he apparently preferred.

Also, Derek Walcott’s epic, Omeros is, as it were, a stylistic tribute to Homer and a structural tribute to Dante, being written in terza rima like the latter’s Divine Comedy and in the sober style of the former’s Odyssey. And it’s also about 2000 years from Walcott to Dante to Homer. Chaucer used terza rima in the 14th century after Dante created it. And such modern poets as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, Richard Wilbur and William Carlos Williams have also used it. Even our own poet, Tade Ipadeola, wrote his remarkable Sahara Testaments, a book-length poem like The Heresiad, in quatrains, a rhyme scheme used by Thomas Gray in his famous ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ first published in 1751. As for The Heresiad, those readers are partially right because, besides the Shakespearean and Miltonic influences, the poem boasts an integration of influences from Homer, Virgil, Socrates, Plato, Dante, Pindar, Ennuis, down to the nameless African troubadour, the griot, who chants tales of valour and wisdom embellished with wit and studded with sporadic social commentary.

Clearly, your poetic coinage, ‘operatic poetry,’ is not only new, but likely to be the poetic fad, given how easily and readily Nigerians try to imitate what may seem a winning formula. And given your submission that ‘there is the challenge, actually a moral crisis, of many poets, especially younger ones, who seem more interested in the fruits than the labour of poetry,’ do you think your operatic-style poetry would attract a cult of followership, of young poets, who might want to imitate you and reinvent the form? Or will it just be only you?
I can’t predict of control how other poets, especially the ‘young’ ones, will respond to the idea and craft of operatic poetry. But I’m not setting myself or my work up for a cultic followership or imitation. My preference would be that other poets find their own voices and cut their own paths.

Do you have plans to realise the operatic potential of The Heresiad, say team up with MUSON Centre, for instance, for its musical and dramatic performance on stage for an audience to enjoy?
I have been thinking of that, of a collaboration with MUSON Centre. But it doesn’t translate into a plan yet. And I would like to be open to the possibility of working with other interested institutions on mutually satisfactory terms.

You argued elsewhere against those who oppose The Nigerian Prize for Literature. But that doesn’t yet make it the ideal prize you wish to see entrenched even if you are the winner this time. What do you wish changed about the prize format?
I don’t believe there’s an ideal prize anywhere or the possibility of ever having one. The tendency is for the administration of literary prizes to continue to improve while experiencing occasional glitches like anything run by humans. I don’t expect this prize to be different. I believe it should adopt or retain any format that produces a winner based on merit, as I believe it did this year. I don’t see the possibility of its assuming any format that won’t be subject to some criticism, given that there are also people who don’t believe in merit, which Achebe once said is “quite often a dirty word” in our country. But I recognise the absurdity of arguing against merit, especially among decent people. And I think writers are supposed to be among the most decent people in any society.

Some also argue that the judging panel seems to be set up every year on a quota basis (to reflect the Nigerian ownership of the prize sponsor – NLNG) – a WAZOBIA sort of thing, and that there is the danger that the prize award may soon sink into that same WAZOBIA rotation format. Aside being this year’s winner, what have been your thoughts on this issue? Is this even a remote possibility?
Assuming it’s a possibility, one wonders if it’s possible to recognise merit and diversity simultaneously, as two positive things. That said, I think the main thing is to ensure that the prize goes to the best entry. And that the judges have sometimes withheld the prize when they thought no entry merited it should negate this criticism and the fear it expresses.

Somehow also, the judging panel has become the preserve of university professors, except this year when a past winner was drafted in. Elsewhere, it is the consumers and performers of art who get into the jury panel, not necessarily only those who teach art? Shouldn’t the prize organisers look beyond the academia for its jury?
There are many things we’ve copied from elsewhere that didn’t work for us in this country. But then I consider it the prerogative of those who institute awards to determine the composition of the adjudicators. Perhaps, it should be the same way FIFA does not usually draft spectators and footballers as referees and assistant referees for matches to be officiated acceptably. And I would like to see those who disagree with the composition of such panels and would like to experiment with different compositions set up their own prizes. This would create more platforms for contesting for and winning literary prizes as well as opportunities to compare their judgment and its result with those of those they criticise.

Besides, I think adjudicators of literary prizes should have vast initiations into the reading and appreciation of literary works and their various styles. Such people can be found within and outside the academia, and of course among writers, the literati. But because of the unique nature of their work, I think university professors may be in the best position to fill such roles. And let’s not forget that university professors can also be what you call ‘consumers and performers of art.’ Imagine questioning such a panel comprised of Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi and J. P. Clark, for instance, because they are university professors. And I’m sure everyone will agree that they double(d) as university professors and ‘consumers and performers of art.’ Dichotomies are not always that simple.

Through The Heresiad, you promised to ‘give a lifebuoy to a drowning art.’ Just how would you concretise this promise? What form would it take?
I will do so by doing whatever I can to advance the cause of poetry, beginning with writing and promoting it in such a way as to earn dignity and popularity for it, and especially by cultivating children to love it as its future.

In this article:
Ikeogu Oke


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