“I am on a quest to find the perfect poem,—Kojo Baffoe
a gentle balance between word, rhythm and thought …
a poem that sends the moon and sun dancing over the skyline hand in hand”
I find myself slouched in the corner of an old poem. Misspelt words swirl around its motionless flesh. The dead furniture secretly holds Citalopram and fading memory in its creaking bones. I find myself on all fours, crawling between stanzas, searching for a face. The mirror instructs me to read the room. I find myself heaving my heavy head onto a comma. Pause, push and tumble out of a crowded sentence. I am falling up. In and out of myself, scraping sunlight off crooked grammar.
I collide with an overused image. There it goes, sLiThErIng across the worn-out linoleum, where pattern and message come to flicker away. In the furthest corner, my dead sister sits propped up in metaphor. The poem reads me for filth. An old stain ignored – the blood of missing punctuation. The night under my fingernails betrays my intentions. Dazed by the white space, I snort up the windows and every shard of framed virtue. The high is juvenile. The cupboards are bare. All poetic devices unplugged, dead in the margins. Doors are language, keeping me safe from the silence on the other side. I watch myself unhinge. Formless. Searching for the quiet. To destroy it. This room is a mess. Brittle monsteras thirst for meaning. A ramshackle structure fighting to hold and explain it all. I allow myself to die. Peacefully. Fist in the air. On the next page, I start living again. An idiot- naiveté unfolding like some dumb flower. Beautiful to watch. Horrible to read. And so it goes. But it gets better and that is the reward…
“O Christ, my craft, and the long time it is taking!”—Derek Walcott
So, I’ve been revisiting some of my old poems from 20-plus years ago. If you’re interested in a good laugh, you should ask me to read you a poem I wrote about school…you know what, here, read it yourself and judge me.
I don’t know what girl gave birth in what school toilet, but I call bullshit! I wrote that in 2002 on the back of an English examination paper. (My mother saved every scrap of poetry I left at home- because Moms are the Gods of archiving!)
Absolute cringe-fest! A literary crime if there ever was one. So I embarrassingly disregard the poor writing and choose to interrogate the themes and ideas. It does not get better. A childish (not childlike) hopefulness and an untested life and love dominate most of my earlier poems. Vibrant! Idealistic!.Optimistic! But also poorly written, haughtily critical, ignorant, misguided, preachy, verbose. Laughable! I miss that guy though. He thought poetry and the arts will end world hunger. Turns out only food can solve that problem.
According to Nicanor Parra, the poem should at least improve on the blank page. I think poetry and art, in general, should on some level also seek to improve the human condition and that of its creator. The role of the poet and the poem is (insert your precious opinion here). To quote myself.
“We become what the moment asks us to be”.—QR
Poets draw inspiration from everything and the nothing in between. We interrogate the darkest shards of our own silence and toy with the malleability and friability of language. We then add the lived experiences and philosophies that we’ve picked up along the way (I am partial to Biocentrism these days ) and sit back and hope that our intentions shine through when we toss that poem into the chaos. And with practice, we become a little better at articulating and formulating the themes and poetic concepts. We learn and unlearn, then utilize the tools and devices to expand our views- sideways and inward for inspiration. And we edge closer and closer to that elusive, timeless, perfect poem. Which according to Kwame Dawes in his 2011 essay ‘On timelessness’ is pretty much a vain pursuit:
“The quest for timelessness is a vanity, a pure vanity. It grows out of a desire to somehow defy death. It is arrogant because it grows out of a desire to be read by people long after we have left this earth. Finally, and most importantly, it is a quest for immortality, an old hunger in artists. The pleasure we get in the hope of a continued existence after we are gone is what drives out effort to write the poem that we hope will stay around. Sadly, such an effort is likely to generate, not great work, but quite mediocre and ordinary.”—Kwame Dawes
I‘ve resigned to asking my own poems about themselves. Hey my guy, where was I when I wrote you? Why are you so poor in form? Where I am currently situated in this mixture of old words and slipshod ideas? How much of my current truth still holds you together? No, really, what is this “giving birth in a toilet” story? Did I ruin the beautiful silence of the blank page by bringing you into the world? I want to know what the poem learns when it reads me now. Are my intentions still true? Have I outgrown my biases? Are my politics and socializing still consistent with the text? Can I track my evolution through these pieces of writing? Have I grown? Am I better at this 20 years later? I would love to think so.
I am learning, albeit reluctantly, to pursue the revelations, the discoveries, the confessions and personal implications that the poems offer in answer. The reexamination has now reached my person. My poetry is now editing me. Chiselling away at the cynicism and apathy that time has added to my rhythm. Applying hope and sunlight to my lips once more. Reminding me that this is a sacred art form that requires learning and practice and care. That there is magic waiting to be evoked from each letter and word and stanza and poem and collection and anthology. And that I must respect the craft. It was here before us and will remain here long after the earth has consumed our bones. We are temporary custodians, tasked with the creative and literary work that this moment demands of us.
“Poetry is the history of the human heart, and it continues to record the history of human emotion, whether it’s celebration or grief or whatever it may be“—William Collins
I love that quote. Yes, poets have documented the history of the human heart. And according to the poetry ,we’ve been recycling the same old emotions since the beginning of time. Pretty predictive stuff really. We’ve collectively woven a pandemic into verse. Buried loved ones in song and prose. Spoke to the violence and its prevalent shadow over society. We celebrate the mundane. Rally the spirit of our people. We dance the old “personal-is-political” adage into rhyme and form. We scoff at God and question and answer our way in and out of uncertainty. With eloquence and absolute arrogance, as poets tend to do. And then we will die and another generation will take the pen from our cold hands and add to humanity’s tale.
I don’t really think about why I write poetry anymore. I used to say to change the world, but I have outgrown those foolish ambitions. I also answered, “To live forever”. But Kwame Dawes warned us against that silly dream. I’m learning to love and live in the constant now. To enjoy the things that inspire me to write poetry. I love reading poetry. I enjoy writing poetry. I am excited by the possibilities those 24 letters of the alphabet have on offer. I am thrilled when a line jumps out and surrounds and consumes me whole. When a poem lays bare my vulnerabilities. When a poem gently rains into my heart. I enjoy experimenting with language and form and performance. Building, always building towards the perfect poem.
For the love of Poetry