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Book Review March 3, 2003
One African Genius, Sunny-Side Up
By John Dolan Browse author Email

When I heard that the eXile would be covering the Congo war in this issue, I felt obliged to offer a brief commentary on that other great Central African tragedy, the poetic career of Ben Okri.

When world literature needs to find a genius in some newly-fashionable corner of the world, it always finds them -- whether they are actually geniuses or not. There are many examples from the last century, but the clearest is probably Irish literature post-Yeats. Desperate for another Yeats (and unmindful of the fact that Yeats was "Irish" only by deed-poll), generations of critics fanned out like minor-league scouts, seeking geniuses in every noisome hovel, eventually resorting to such transparent mediocrities as Seamus Heaney, the current placeholder.

African literature, a much bigger market, shows the same strange process of genius-building at work. Its most bizarre product is Ben Okri. Okri is not just a bad poet; he's the worst poet I've ever read.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, here's a typical Okri work, uncut and unchanged:

Ben Okri

Ben Okri

The Awakening Age

by Ben Okri

O ye who travel the meridian line,
May the vision of a new world within you shine.
May eyes that have lived with poverty's rage,
See through to the glory of the awakening age.
For we are all richly linked in hope,
Woven in history, like a mountain rope.
Together we can ascend to a new height,
Guided by our heart's clearest light. When perceptions are changed there's much to gain,
A flowering of truth instead of pain.
There's more to a people than their poverty;
There's their work, wisdom, and creativity.
Along the line may our lives rhyme,
To make a loving harvest of space and time.

It's not easy to write poetry bad enough to stand out from the mass of slack blathering that passes for verse in English. Unlike Russian poets, those writing in English have largely abandoned rhyme and meter, making it much harder to spot the frauds. One of the most discouraging aspects of free verse is the ease with which any amateur can write passable specimens -- not good, but passable.

Okri still writes in rhyming metrical verse, which makes it much easier to see what a comically bad poet he is. For this, the weary, aesthetically exhausted contemporary reader should give thanks. A fraud who announces himself as such has already largely atoned for his crime.

And Okri is not shy or sly in his badness. It's not often in these cynical days that one encounters a verse beginning "O ye...." But archaic diction isn't always a sign of bad verse. It's been used to good effect by everyone from Yeats to Mark E. Smith, who confesses he is "...not un-guilty of using it [him]self." It's the combination of archaic diction, grand stance and bad rhymes which mark Ben as a hopelessly bad poet.

One of the clearest signs of bad rhyme is distorted syntax. Indeed, the frustrating rigidity of word-order is one reason English-language poets gave up on rhyme. (Russian, much heavier on morphology and thus more flexible about word-order, offers the rhyming poet more opportunities.) In his first couplet, Okri distorts English syntax grossly by witholding the verb "shine" to the end of the second line.

Good poets make good rhymes look easy. Bad poets make you wince with every rhyme, not only twisting sentences but resorting to the worst of top-40 rhyme standards. Take a look at the rhymes in Okri's first three couplets: "line/shine, rage/age, hope/rope." They're as grimy and worn as a prison towel.

That's not to say that good contemporary patterned verse requires esoteric rhymes. Good poets can use very simple rhymes, as Yeats does, and still use them to slap the reader awake. Philip Larkin's poem "This Be the Verse" is as monosyllablic and simple as Blake -- but no one who's heard it has ever forgotten it. I quote it in full, not only to rub your nose in some decent poetry but because Americans deserve to know this great poem better than they do.

This Be the Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad;
They may not mean to, but they do.
They give you all the faults they had,
Then add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-time hats and coats
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands down misery to man;
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can
And don't have any kids yourself.

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