Why Nigeria needs a National Poetry Month
When I was about thirteen I memorized my first real poem. It was “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost. I loved the melodic sound of the words as they slipped from my mouth, sliding in rhyme against one another.
“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”
“There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.” ― Gustave Flaubert
On March 21st, UNESCO recognized its 18th celebration of World Poetry Day. Irina Bokova, the Director General stated in her message this year that, “Poetry is a window onto the breath-taking diversity of humanity.” UNESCO officially proclaimed World Poetry Day in 1999. A few years earlier in 1996, the Academy of American poets had declared April as National Poetry Month in the USA, an annual celebration to highlight the importance of poetry. In that first year, National Poetry Month was recognized by President Bill Clinton, who showed support by stating, “National Poetry Month offers us a welcome opportunity to celebrate not only the unsurpassed body of literature produced by our poets in the past, but also the vitality and diversity of voices reflected in the works of today’s American poetry…Their creativity and wealth of language enrich our culture and inspire a new generation of Americans to learn the power of reading and writing at its best.” The United Kingdom and Ireland also have a designated time of year for a national appreciation of poetry. People around the globe who believe in the power of poetry and the arts to transform thinking and elicit change recognize such days of celebration.
“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” – Salman Rushdie
I used to teach writing and poetry in a former life before moving to Nigeria, and I have always considered poetry a powerful tool for teaching young people about agency, showing them through the rhythmic words of others and through the history of poetics that sometimes the pen can be mightier than the sword. It is my belief that teaching young people how to use their words creatively and intentionally, is one way of teaching them how to think for themselves and how to search for their own authentic voices. The public recitation of poetry is also among many things a means of teaching public speaking skills and promoting self-confidence.
“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” – Rita Dove
In the spring of 2015 just after the Nigerian presidential election I organized a series of one-day poetry workshops in a couple of Federal Government Schools in Abuja. I was working at the time for a large corporation as the head of their Corporate Social Responsibility program, and one of our three pillars of focus was the educational sector. Part of my job was to create initiatives that would make a positive impact in the host communities around the country where the company worked. The plan for the workshops was to expose students to Nigerian poets from history, whose works expressed deep reflection on a range of themes, from cultural and national identity, to passion, vocation and varied life experiences. After this, the students would be guided and instructed in writing their own poems about their understanding of what it meant to be Nigerian and their hopes for the country.
I reached out to my dear friend, the gifted poet, Dike Chukwumerije and coerced him into work with me on the project. He agreed; so, we got to work collaborating. He selected the poems to teach and together we created a poetry booklet complete with poetry exercises for each student. After all the relevant paperwork had been signed by the necessary officials from the varied educational offices and schools, we spent a few amazing days working with several hundred students.
I will never forget what it was like listening to these young boys and girls offer their interpretations of poetry by the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J.P. Clark and others. Some of the poems were like puzzles whose meanings the students worked together, to make a picture they could visualize, and understand for themselves. Some of the poems spoke to things they had heard about but for which they now had more questions. After working through poems of renown poets and learning about traditional forms of poetry and the rudiments of style and composition, we led students to rethink how some of the essentials of poetry like metaphor and simile appear in places they probably never thought of, like familiar proverbs particular to certain regions and people of Nigeria, popular modern songs they listen to on the radio, and even in slang catch phrases they used on a daily basis. You could almost see their brains making the connections by the smiles that crept onto their faces, with each new example they themselves began to offer.
Following a brief break, the students then had the chance to spend time quietly drafting their own individual poems on their hopes for the future of Nigeria, which they could recite before their classmates. When it was time to read their work aloud, skinny arms shot up in the air and these young boys and girls, with their dusty socks and rumpled school uniforms, mischievous grins put aside, stood up in front of the classroom and read about their hope for unity between ethnic groups, hope for jobs for family members, prayers for peace alongside more electricity, and even hopes for increased pride in the country. It was both astonishing and humbling to listen to what the children came up with. In just a few short hours they had experienced the power of poetry as a tool for communicating their own thoughts and for sharing their opinions with one another about a topic larger than themselves but vital to each and every one of them. It made me wish I could host more workshops with more Nigerian poets and writers in schools across the country. It also made me wish Nigeria had a National Poetry Month.