By Yinka Elujoba—
In Anders Nilsen’s book, Poetry is Useless, a character tries to define love. First he says: “Love is like the ocean.” Then he says: “Or like a photograph of the ocean”. The he says again: “Or like a drawing done from the photograph of the ocean”. Eventually this nondescript character gives up trying to use words and says: “Poetry is useless.”
Poets face this dilemma daily: the task of managing the inadequacy of words. A feeling is simply a feeling, but to delineate this feeling, to give it a form, to make it translatable is a bold task.
What is the appropriate approach of a poet towards a thing or phenomenon whose existence is too sublime to be captured with crude human speech?
This question is probably why all poetry exists: a primordial need to be able to see—and even more bravely, grasp—the very essence of a thing, a moment, a feeling; a need to be able to translate into language or speech the very existence of the distant and the familiar.
This question also means that there will be two kinds of poets: the poet who accepts that it is the curse of a poet to feel, who dares to approach the translation of his experiences with a weapon as feeble as language; and the poet who will not be a poet, who prefers to revel in silence, bathing in the awe of this inimitable experience, preferring to leave it undisturbed in the purity of its resonance.
All poetry is risk.
Poetry is risk: the speaking poet risks undermining the potency of his experience when he employs words in its documentation, he risks arriving at a mere approximation in his attempt at delineation. But the silent poet risks something more: he risks an incredible chance to make his burden known—and shared, he risks the opportunity to birth something new, from an experience only he might have had, or the chance to contribute a new side to a familiar discussion.
On the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, Emily Cooke writes: “She was perennially mistrustful of her medium, seeming sometimes more interested in silence than in language.” The speaking poet learns wariness from the silent poet—a healthy reluctance—if his work must be true, if his work will not be a mere attempt to shout into an abyss and listen for echo.
The poet in Nilsen’s book may be admirable in his ability to recognize—and embrace—his failure to capture the essence of such a common phenomenon as love. Perhaps the silent poet too is admirable in his ability to demonstrate restraint, to overcome his ego and the impulse to name a thing after his own likeness. But these will not suffice. Poetry is more than the idea, the phenomenon; poetry is the feeling itself. When we read a poet, we do not care as much about the experience as we do about the poet’s burden, the feeling the experience gives the poet, the effects it has on his very being. And to use Nilsen’s poet as an example, we do not care as much about whether his definition of love is accurate, instead we care about what this phenomenon—love—makes the poet feel. It is on this plateau that poetry is served.
Yinka Elujoba is a Nigerian writer. His works have been published in Klorofyl Mag, Aerodromme and Saraba magazine. He lives in Lagos and sometimes in Ile-Ife.
Photograph of Alejandra Pizarnik by Sara Facio, in public domain.
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