How to Enjoy Poetry without Understanding It: A Review of The Hate Artist by Niran Okewole

By Richard Oduor Oduku


  • Title: The Hate Artist
  • Author: Niran Okewole
  • Publisher: Khalam Editions
  • Number of pages: 67
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Poetry

Reading Charles Bernstein’s essay on ‘The Difficult Poem’ is instructive before one begins interacting with The Hate Artist by Niran Okewole. ‘All of us from time to time encounter a difficult poem’. It may be from a friend, a family member, and sometimes it is a poem we have written ourselves’. As the author and frequent reader of difficult poems, Bernstein explores ways of making the reader’s experience with the difficult poem more rewarding and recommends strategies for coping with such poems.

But what is a difficult poem? To identify a difficult poem, according to Bernstein:

Look for the presence of any of these symptoms: high syntactic, grammatical, or intellectual activity level; elevated linguistic intensity; textual irregularities; initial withdrawal (poem not immediately available); poor adaptability (poem unsuitable for use in love letters, memorial commemoration, etc.); sensory overload; or negative mood.

Bernstein says that when a reader encounters a difficult poem their first reaction is, ‘Why me?’ To cope with this, know that you are not alone. The second reaction is often, ‘What am I doing to cause this poem to be so difficult?’ To battle such feelings of self-shame, always know that you are not responsible for the difficulty of the poem. Do not get frustrated or angry.

Sometimes poets recognise that they have written a difficult poem, and their questions are no different from those of their readers. According to Bernstein, a poet may ask, ‘Why did my poem turn out like this? Why is it not completely accessible like the poems of Billy Collins, which never pose any problems for understanding?’ Bernstein says that for poets who come up with difficult poems, one way of coping with such a situation is to understand that they are not alone. The problem of difficult poems is shared by many poets. Poets should also know that it is not their fault that the poem is not accessible like Collins’s. It is not their fault that their poem is incoherent, meaningless, or even hostile. Some poems just turn out that way. Poets and readers can also share the consolation that no poem is difficulty-free, while noting the propensity to idealise accessible poems. A poem may be easy because it is not saying anything.

So how can one write a ‘good’ poem, one that is presumably accessible, to reader and poet, and sensually gratifying? Nearly 200 years ago, on 27 February 1818, John Keats wrote a letter to John Taylor. The brunt of the letter was on axioms and the surprise of poetry. In the letter, Keats writes:

In Poetry, I have a few Axioms and you will see how far I am from their Centre. 1st I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity – it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance – 2nd its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should be like the Sun come natural to him – shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight – but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it – and this leads me to another Axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree it better not come at all.

What does Keats mean by ‘poetry should surprise by a fine excess’? Writing about poetry in the Cambridge Literary Review, J H Prynne says that the fine excess Keats had in mind is concerned with running past the ‘normal bounds and limits of making new combinations of words and thoughts that draw the reader into new kinds of pleasurable excitement’. He further adds that:

If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of hot spot that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrases which break the rules for local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity.

But what happens if the surprises produced by difficult and unfamiliar combinations of language seem so extreme and excessive that the underlying tendency becomes near impossible to discover, making choices between alternative meanings seem arbitrary and obscure? In such cases the effect is not a rewarding surprise but an experience close to bafflement: we lose confidence in the text or in our ability to deal with it adequately.

The Hate Artist has equal parts of surprise and bafflement. The poet is a nonconformist and an experimenter, master of a strangely unique vocabulary and a veritable polymath, with knowledge flailing about in diverse disciplines and discourses. He is an elegant weaver of words, a vanguard distanced from the pusillanimity and deadness often associated with the mainstream. His is a poetry that has earned its freedom. Not seeking to replicate experience, The Hate Artist follows Will Rowe’s belief that if poetry replicates experience, ‘then why bother with the experience of poetry?’ It is a belief that poetry should not just be cultural capital, to be managed and accumulated.

In the collection, almost every poem drops a new name or place: Africa, Pushkin, Samarkand and Irish farms appear in ‘Lost Poem’; history slinks away on Kafka’s wings in ‘Random Nights’; Beijing, Cape Town, Tehran, Islamabad, and Harare breathe over the lines on ‘First Breath’; ‘Zarathustra Blues’ feature Raven, Shelley, Yeats, Compaq, Wittgenstein, Wild, Pentium II, Schulpforta, and Basel; while ‘The Hate Artist’ parades Mein Kampf, Alabama, Ulster, Beslan, Tutsi, Darfur, Leeds, Damascus, Mogadishu, Wimbledon, Kigali, Freetown.

The extremes of this is in ‘Dropped Names’, a poem which literally drops names from Adler, Brecht, IRS, Beirut, Castro, Debray, Eagleton, Hezbollah, US, Faulkner, Gandhi, Heaney, Alaska, Jung, Kant, Levi, Marx, Nietzsche, Orwell, Planck, Quasimodo, Rushdie, Sophocles, Trotsky, Unamuno, Virgil, Walcott, Yeats, to Zizek. It is an obsession that makes stanzas read like this (p 18):

Like bombs from US fighter jets,

Faulkner and Gandhi and Heaney and Ionesco

Tracing net arcs like the ones we used

To plot in Mr. Alaka’s Physics class

 

Jung and Kant and Levi are seeds

In the parable of the sower.

Marx and Nietzsche fall among thorns,

Orwell and Planck drop by the highway,

Quasimodo and Rushdie and Sophocles on hard

Ground, but Trotsky and Unamuno fall in good, rich soil.

This is but a tiny fraction. For a single poetry collection, the work is too populated with names and places. It is distracting. Like Prynne says, when a reader is bombarded with difficult and unfamiliar combinations of language, so extreme and excessive, we lose confidence in the text or in our ability to deal with it adequately. Perhaps foretokening that a reader’s or critic’s reading experience may be poisoned by the gratuitous name-dropping, the poet, Okewole, attempts an explanation, a single paragraph, on the penultimate page of the collection, which he calls ‘A Note to the Reader’ and which is supposed to serve instead of a glossary. It is an instruction on how The Hate Artist should be read. He says:

As in my first collection, there are a lot of names in this volume. This is not out of a narcissistic desire to ‘drop names’. The names are there because for me, poetry is a form of ‘secondary revision’ – the usual sequence is that poems are written and then there is scholarship built around them. I have preferred to attempt to build poems out of logos, a form of ‘reverse transcription’, to borrow a biological metaphor. So it is inevitable that there should be names in my poetry. Indeed, without referencing, a poetry of ideas would stand guilty of the intellectual crime of plagiarism.

Most of the names dropped are big names, thinkers of international repute with oeuvres that span decades and historical epochs, yet reading the collection forces one to tolerate the weak webs of association between the central pursuit of the poem and the lack of fluidity arising from the multiple and sometimes conflicting ideas in the works of the authors whose names appear in a single poem.

Dropping names is a very popular feature of Hip Hop and Spoken Word. Performers often drop names as a shorthand for what characterises the work of the people being referred to, as a way to show that one is ‘learned’ and as a secret code binding together those who are ‘learned’ and have the privilege of accessing the meanings of the performance, but it is certainly not a welcoming way to write about something. However, as a blurb, Peter Akinlabi, author of A Pagan Place, notes that The Hate Artist attempts to collect and amplify the hidden histories of places, cultures and encounters, ‘weaving out of these a powerful and inventive chrestomathy of modern consciousness in all its flux of despair and delight’.

Vocabulary, style and metaphoric acrobatics can also wall off a poem. In ‘Mind Games’ (p 41) we read the following stanzas:

Who else could conjure pareidolias, challenge the gestalt

Like an adaptation of Gulliver in Lilliput,

Perceptual distortions and deceptions,

Frankenstein gnarled limbs swaying in the wind

 

Or the phantom limb of a war veteran,

Crown prince of a Waco bike gang, precluding

Synaethesia on mescalin, the blinding aroma of the

Sound of trumpets like the hosts of hell.

 

On Wall Street, at the Kremlin

Zero-sum strategies and Nash equilibria govern

Player decisions, plotting vertices and points of choice.

In ‘A Workers’ Internationalist Professes His Love’ (p 49), we find:

Russian roulette, fire of the Bolsheviki

A leninized, lionized comintern. Narodniks,

Uncocking iskra, like vodka. More.

First fusions, then five years of pedophilia.

October love, in a time of war.

That cuckold Joseph Visarinovich, a quick

Trot in the sky, and how I help

Your Mexican hand, Frida,

Your hand that brewed mysteries like tequila

Even when the rest of you was locked in braces.

Is that not a little too much metaphoric acrobatics? Steve Kowit in ‘The Mystique of the Difficult Poem’ dares us to write poems in coherent English. Kowit says that a poem can be ‘fierce, emotionally charged, and appealing’, like Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, without being filled with ‘footnotable literary allusions and hopelessly gnarled syntax and untrackable metaphoric acrobatics’. If both the reader and poet are struggling with the problem of difficulty, where then do we turn for help? Rajeev S Parke tackles the problem of ‘responsibility’ and ‘difficulty’ in the poetry of Paul Muldoon with the question: to what does a poet owe responsibility in the practice of poetry, especially in cases where most readers find the poet ‘difficult’, opaque, enigmatic? That article is worth reading in its entirety, but to borrow a paragraph:

Responsibility toward communicative action bends language to human needs; responsibility toward experience bends language into stretching, or breaking through, or simply breaking down at, its limits; and responsibility toward language forces the needs of audience and experience into secondariness before the need for language to disport its own being.

And quoting Ange Mlinko, Parke is categorical:

We want what the poets in Cocteau’s Orphée want—“Etonnez-moi! Astonish me!” We want pleasure. And sometimes the oneiric, the obscure, is the only way to feel transported.

Can The Hate Artist transport the reader?

The reader will have to engage with the words on its pages.


Photograph: ‘Medieval Workshop’ by  Petr Kratochvil


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Richard Oduor Oduku (@RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works in Nairobi. He is a Founding member of Jalada Africa and HisiaZangu and has published in Kwani? Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja among others. He also contributes to the Star Newspaper.

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