There are people in this world who have a distaste for poetry. Not long ago someone almost beat me on Twitter because I told them they could actually enjoy poetry; they did not care, they said. But you have to care for beauty, I wanted to shout back.
Actually, it’s fine if you don’t care for beauty by way of poetry, but at least care about the beauty of watching a mallam peel an orange—a kind of poetry. But it’s not that people do not care for poetry; it’s that they feel like they don’t get it. If you are one of those who don’t get poetry, I have a song for you.
The primary reason why people don’t get poetry is that they come to it with the wrong mindset: that a poem is a cryptic message in which every word ties to the other and you have to be very, very smart to decode the message. A poem could be cryptic, and, yes, each word in a good poem ties into the other beautifully, magically, but poetry is not a language from Luna. Poetry is language, imagery, absurdity. Most poets are charmed by absurdity, and we all are, poets or hairdressers—or were.
As a child, you sang every rhyme without caring for the cryptic message trapped in its casing, without caring how silly it was, wholly lost in the beauty of whatever your mouth was doing:
Little children want to play.
It was First Love.
If no one told you that the following was from a poem by J.P. Clark, you could easily think it is a version of “Rain, Rain”:
River bird, river bird.
Sitting all day long
On hook over grass,
River bird, river bird.
Sing to me a song
Of all that pass
Will mother come back today?
—from “Streamside Exchange”
Adulting wrenches that First Love from our hearts and hands. The older we grow, the more self-conscious, unbelieving, and restless we become. We tilt our heads, look at clouds wandering above, and wonder what they mean, what they are telling us.
If you want to get poetry, you have to reignite your First Love. You must learn how to revel in the beauty of absurdity again. If you feel too grown up for sounds and a mix of words that say nothing—at least nothing that you can get without letting yourself dance and do the work—then you can forget about getting poetry. But if you will sit with the poem, if you will read it over and over and over again, if you will read it out loud, if you will discuss it with your friends, if you will be actively patient—you will find that poetry is not “boring” and “dull” and meant for a particular set of people. Everyone is welcome.
Poetry could defy general logic, yes, because embedded in every poem is its own logic, a microchip, the DNA. A poem, someone said, is “a trance.” Many poets have made similar declarations. The American poet A. R. Ammons described a poem as “a walk.” Fanny Howe likes to think of it as “dream.” For Emily Dickinson, it was a kind of hypnosis: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
In a long poem by William Carlos Williams, a few lines to the end, he writes:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
I don’t totally agree with Williams: if you’ve read Ben Okri’s “Grenfell Tower, June, 2017,” Abdulbaseet Yusuff’s “Too Much Wahala in This Country,” Pamilerin Jacob’s “It Is Impossible to Live,” or Warsan Shire’s “Home,” you will agree that we get news from poems, though poets engage the news on a much more intimate level.
This is the Aspiration of every poem—to hold multiple views, to be precise and inexhaustible (to paraphrase Karl Ove Knausgaard), to burn and burn and be the fire and be the fire’s enemy. It is what Whitman—who was so attentive to the world that there was none with whom he did not stand—meant: Do I contradict myself? Yes. I contain multitudes.
This is another reason why people find it hard to read poetry—they have been conditioned to take sides, to stand for something and against something, to be particular with their choices and tastes: Us against Them, Here or There, Blue or Pink.
Poems are rebels against that way of living. To borrow and altar a Yorùbá proverb: Poetry is a pot that contains water and the palm fruits and even more. In a poem, a tulip frolics with a knife, an arrow gyrates with a saxophone, God’s hands play in a pool of green blood—and nothing is amiss.
Poetry is party, and what do you do at a party? You dance, lovely. You groove your behind on someone’s crotch. Get high on some ground trees. Drink your head into stupor.
That’s it. When you come to a poem, party, come with the mind to have fun, to let the tide carry you softly wherever it wills, to trust it, and to enjoy the beauty of being carried. Beauty does not have to make any sense. It only has to be Beauty. Engaging with Beauty with good curiosity presents you with new vistas, allowing you to engage with truth on a much more intimate and deep level. Giving yourself to Absurdity—as Christ said of losing your life and finding it—will reveal to you truths that would astound you with their profundity: about yourself, the people around you, the world you live in.
Be open to wonder, to absurdity and ambiguity and their gorgeousness. Give yourself back to your First Love. When you open a new poem—whether it be Logan February’s “Husband Is the Loveliest Word,” or Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah’s “self-portrait as multiple dreamscapes, each craning its neck towards home,” or Henneh Kyereh Kwaku’s “The Magician,” or Goodness Ayoola’s “Celestial Observation,” or Sihle Ntuli’s “Free State,” or Porsha Olayiwola’s “The Cops Behind Us, I Hold My Breath,” or Juliet Lubwama’s “In This Dream, My Father Is a Slaughterer”—enter the Party with a mind to go wherever the music carries you, to whatever shore, be it one where you find your name scribbled in the sand, a coral of flowers around your name, or the shore where everything is misty and, though you hear the faint elegy of a wounded moose, you wonder if it could be a sobbing mother.
Watch the mist turn to moths. Dance with the moths in the light. Or collect them in a jar and watch them turn to tiny crows. Watch the jar become a flower. Let the flower mean nothing. Let it remind you of the meaninglessness of this world.
Let this be your trance, dear reader.