Separating poetry from chaff


As the world celebrates poetry day on Monday, March 21, Charles Mpaka examines what makes poetry so big and relevant that the United Nations decided to set aside a special day for it

What spirit visited Jack Mapanje for him to craft these lines in ‘When this carnival finally closes’?

When this frothful carnival finally closes, brother


When your drumming veins dry, these very officers

Will burn the scripts of the praises we sang to you

And shatter the calabashes you drank from. Your


Charms, these drums, and the effigies blazing will

Become the accomplices to your lie-achieved world!

Or what head had grown on WB Yeats human body for him to conceive these verses in his apocalyptic ‘Second Coming’?

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Such is the literary richness of poetry.

Poetry takes your soul on a flight. It takes you on a rhythmic transportation through the power of imagination and creativity, through aptly-picked and aptly-placed word, well-packaged and concisely-told texts and subtexts.

Poetry is a product so spell-binding not because it has to be complex or cryptic always but because, even in the simplicity and clarity of its words, it is enough to spur interrogation of the self and the other and the environment.

It is a smorgasbord of timeless and universal passions and emotions.

Mapanje’s and Yeats’ works, for instance, are tissues of literary profundity. They are articles of inspiration otherworldly.

Their hold on the mind and their stirring of the love for a beautiful verse is superstitious – even now, many years after they got published.

That’s because poetry is a lofty craft. It is a living fibre, far away from shoddy, soulless jokes criminally branded as poems.

Otherwise, a whole United Nation’s body would not have bothered to declare World Poetry Day, which falls on March 21.

In her message for the 2015 World Poetry Day, Unesco’s Director General, Irina Bokova, described poetry as the “power of imagination to brighten reality, to inspire our thoughts with something more inventive than dismay.”

There may be nothing more delicate than a poem, Bokova said, and, yet, poetry “expresses all of the power of the human mind, and so there is nothing more resilient”.

“Poetry is as old as humanity itself, and as diverse – embodied in traditions, oral and written, that are as varied as human faces, each capturing the depth of emotions, thought and aspiration that guide every woman and man.

“Poetry is intimate expression that opens doors to others, enriching the dialogue that catalyses all human progress, weaving cultures together and reminding all people of the destiny they hold in common,” she said.

Bright Molande, a thoroughbred poet himself with several published collections of poetry to his belt and a scholar of literature in the University of Malawi, says poetry is the language of the human soul.

“Poetry is that language, oral or written, that expresses the deepest of our feelings and thoughts in an organised pattern based on what i call principle of association,” he says.

The beauty of poetry, puts it Molande, really lies in the weaving of its patterns of association.

Its power, he says, lies in its ability to move our inner soul or its ability to provoke imagination whereby it makes us see things with the eye of the mind, hear with the ear of the mind or feel things in our mind.

“But poetry is not simply how words are laid on paper, or dividing something in stanza, let alone just centralising short lines on paper. Poetry is not just a series of punch lines that make people laugh….

“Poetry awakens our innermost soul, making that soul attain its own kind of new life that feels for others…. Good poetry awakens sensibilities and provokes imagination,” he says.

For the afflicted, poetry heals; it “soothes the soul and mind although, paradoxically, it has a maddening effect”.

“Poetry is the kind of virus that heals – just like vaccination,” says Molande.

Another poet, Alfred Msadala, confesses that poetry has stitched what was broken in him.

“It has cleared away loneliness and boredom to the extent that I have always felt an attachment to the picture a particular poem paints. I mostly engage into the goings-on in the piece,” he says.

Christopher Okigbo’s lines ‘Before you, mother Idoto/naked I stand’, for example, transport him to his village where he relives his youth.

“Once I read Okigbo, I get reminded that my progress could have been aborted had I relented. This poem brings in contentment,” he says.

He says poetry has grown in him a sense of belonging, a sense of sanity.

The relevance of poetry in the broader spectrum of human progress isn’t even a matter for question.

From ancient Greeks to ancient Romans, from the French Enlightenment era to Europe’s Renaissance period, from Martin Luther’s America to Nelson Mandela’s apartheid South Africa, poetry has driven societies to civilisation, to awakening.

Which is why poetry has a significant place as the world grapples with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Molande argues.

He says poetry can help us attain serious goals of life, including SDGs.

“Poetry cultivates a culture of serious thinking which Malawi needs to attain SDGs and other national goals. The refinement our poetic faculties and sensibilities is critical for us to understand what the less fortunate and the suffering go through,” says Molande.

Msadala also says in the modern times of advocacy on issues of climate change, environment, HIV and Aids, ICT, entrepreneurship, gender and good governance, these matters are articulated in good poetry such as John Pepper Clark’s ‘Ibadan’.

That is, poetry is a fundamental linguistic artefact that ministers to every human aspect and society in its diversity.

It is kitted with potent arrows that fight prejudice and racism and injustice, bite or dethrone vile or dysfunctional empires, foster moral correctness and drive national progress.

In few words and few lines, poetry is a subconscious that plays a dutiful and serious-minded sentry to the world we live in.

In its metaphors and in the paucity of its words, it delivers its messages in doses so potent to intoxicate a human race to an upheaval when that is necessary or to reign in on one to save humanity from self destruction.

As Bokova observes, “in times of uncertainty and turbulence, perhaps never before have we needed the power of poetry to bring women and men together, to craft new forms of dialogue, to nurture the creativity all societies need today.”

History is replete with accounts of poets treated with suspicion, jailed or killed. That would not have been the case if poetry were just some article pretty much for the frivolous. Nor would it have been necessary to have a day for the world to celebrate this genre.

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