words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

a traffic in shadows

It is impossible to forget even now the excitement that accompanied the Super Eagles’ first foray into the World Cup. The year was 1994, and the tournament was being held in the USA. We celebrated our first game and first win: a 3-0 thrashing of Bulgaria. Not long afterwards, we brushed aside Greece, 2-0. It was perhaps unfortunate that, of the four teams we met that year, the other two were Italy and Argentina.

The Eagles were summarily dispatched, and headed back to Lagos. Yet the memories that remain are these: what it was like to have a representative on a global stage, to have one’s colours displayed before the world, to hope and at the same time to secretly know that one hopes in vain.

The sensation matches, almost exactly, what it was like to witness a poet at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Elizabeth Alexander, she of the doubly imperial name, approached the podium almost as a representative of all writers.

The public sphere is famously impatient with poetry. Life in the capitalistic marketplace unfolds in numbers and prose. But here, suddenly in view of countless millions, was a lyric poet. Sadly, expectation did not match performance.

Alexander gave a wooden reading of a mediocre poem, and the emotions poets and writers felt in the aftermath would have been familiar to any broken-hearted football fan: first we blamed the performance, debated how it could have been altered to secure a victory, and only later blamed the situation itself, the hostile, elusive, unmasterable situation.

There is simply no victorious game-plan, we had to admit, for a poet at a political occasion. Politics is always keen to adorn itself with poetic feathers. Politicians love poets’ way with words, and often seek to harness poetry’s strange energies to statecraft. Poets should perhaps be more skeptical of such love.

Alexander’s poem was entitled “Praise Song for the Day,” and this hinted, I thought, at some sort of oriki (the traditional Yoruba declamations of glory and lineage). What she delivered, though, was a plain-spoken poem, devoid of meter or audible rhythm, stripped of metaphor, and stuffed with dry generalities.

The poem begins: “Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.” And it goes on too long, with hardly any modulation: “A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin. We encounter each other in words…” What is this? Alexander’s poem sounds like a free-association exercise on the view from her window.

But let us be honest: poetry is difficult. Nothing is served by mocking Alexander’s failure. It is not easy to articulate just what it is that makes a great poem, but it is possible to take guesses.

Fresh metaphors do help, sure, but as wonderful a poet as Cavafy (of “Waiting for the Barbarians” fame) almost completely eschews metaphor. So, the absence of metaphor wasn’t Alexander’s problem. What Cavafy does have in common with other more luxuriously imagistic poets like, say, Walcott, is an instinct for ambiguity. There, more than anywhere else, is where we must seek the peculiar power of a poem, and that was what was most disappointing about Alexander’s poem. It contained not one notable moment of double, not to mention triple, meaning. It was all surface, all earnestness: it extolled humble work, it praised love and struggle, and did so in untroubled and untroubling language.

But it is not a poem’s task to avoid trouble. That is what a political speech is good for. A presidential address that is as clear as a pane of glass is a wonderful thing, but a perfectly transparent poem is useless.

Among American and British politicians, no poet is more often quoted these days than W.B. Yeats. It seems that some politician’s tongue is never far from proclaiming that “the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity” or that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” What these people think the lines mean is not easy to tell, nor do they betray any knowledge that the lines originate in Yeats’ anarchic masterpiece “The Second Coming.”

Whether the politician in question is Bill Clinton, Gerry Adams or John Hume, it seems that what they love is simply the grand way the words sound. They quote Yeats to deflect struggle, not to engage it.

More recently, I’ve noticed a similar use of another eminent poet. A decontextualized fragment from Seamus Heaney’s play The Cure at Troy has found its way into the speeches of the U.S. Vice President, Joe Biden, and the now-disgraced former-Senator John Edwards.

Heaney writes, “once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” The sentiments are worthy, no doubt, and the words are stirring, but it is important to note that they occur in the middle of a work that is about frustration and unfair punishment.

Philoctetes’ story is emphatically not a feel-good narrative. Politicians, by the nature of their work, feel compelled to offer bromides and promise sunny days. But poetry, truly great poetry, traffics in doubt and shadow. Every thought conceals a second-thought like a knife in a scabbard. Poetry and politics are in theory and should be in practice as separate as okra and cornflakes.

Small wonder then, that Elizabeth Alexander failed. Facing the millions, she was clear, direct, unambiguous, and was, for those very reasons, unsuccessful. Lovers of the written word will long feel it as an opportunity missed. Super Eagles fans surely understand this: you urge your team on even when you know that, in this place, on this day, in this very stadium, there’s no way on earth to win the thing.


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