Their Voice In My Songs
I believe that we cannot really talk about poetry without talking about poetics. I happen to be teaching not just poetry, the practical writing of it and its explication, but also how it is generated, the theory behind creativity. That is why the first poem in the Songs from the Marketplace is Poetry Is, it is a kind of definitive definitional poem. Some kind of history, very-very briefly told, will be necessary for this.
At the time I was writing the poems that went into Songs from the Marketplace, there was a ferment of opinion in African literature as to where our literature was heading. Young people like us, we were young then, we were growing up and we were disagreeing with the older generation, who were our teachers. We disagreed respectfully with them, the Soyinkas, the J.P. Clarks, the Okigbos and so on. For example, Soyinka, who was my teacher and a person I regard with awe was my — his poetry was rather tragic, too difficult. And we were saying if poetry is for the people, how can you write in a language that the people don’t — in an idiolect, that the people do not really understand.1 Who are you trying to impress? The university people, the academic journals or the people for whom you are writing? That’s one too.
We looked at many of the poems and many of the places, we didn’t see the people’s aspirations in them. Now you are writing about all these middle class, upper middle class people and so on, what about the cobblers who repaired their shoes? What about the mechanics, automobile mechanics, who put their engines, their cars on the road? What about the farmers who produce the food they eat? Because these academics, these intellectuals don’t have farms. What about people who wash their clothes? What about the hungry ones by the road side?
We do not see all these people here, and at that time I was of course reading poetry from different parts of the world. Walt Whitman, oh yes, that I liked very much. Will Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and so on, yes, and of course John Donne, then Pablo Neruda. Oh, Pablo Neruda, I took to Pablo Neruda straight away. I still remember — I mean that snippet at the beginning of Songs from the Marketplace, I made a pledge to myself that the people will hear their voice in my songs.