Why poetry matters
• Everyday Of The Year Is World Poetry Day
Let me begin by thanking the Baoa International Poetry Forum for selecting me as co-winner of the 5th Baoa International Poetry Outstanding Achievement Award. From my own little corner of our world here in Nigeria, I send a resounding ‘Congratulation!’ to my fellow winner, Xu Jingya, whose poetry and other works I look forward to reading and sharing. In thus recognising us, the Baoa International Poetry Festival is not only honouring Poetry, Humanity’s most exalted literary genre; it is also for boosting its international outreach and capacity for building bridges and crossing boundaries.
For poetry is the soulmate of music, the sister of the song. It is Humanity’s long, immeasurable ballad with a stanza in every language. Its sounds may vary from language to language, but its sounding possesses the magic of memory that finds basic affinities in all tongues. That magic is also the master of motion and movement, of measured swing and seamless sway. Poetry beats the drum of language – and in many cases, it is the very drum itself. Its primal communication with the human body is orchestrated by command without coercion. The ear responds to its rhyme, the body to its rhythm. In poetry’s power is the charm, which unwinds the wind, the sound, which unsettles the conspiracy of silence.
Sound and sounding. Sounding and signifying. Making statements of meaning in ways that beautify the medium and transcend the prison of quotidian existence. Words and images, which travel the miles, open up frontiers, and throw Bridges of Light over gulfs of hate and darkness. Words, which run errands in time and space too distant for their senders. Words that are already on the other side of night even when their authors are still battling the haze of a preceding twilight. Words, which connect intimately and inter-spatially. Words, which borrow their wisdom from the poem, their love from its lyric, their memory from its epic, their laughter from its sadness. Poems, which follow as we lead; poems, which lead wherever we follow…
Chinese poetry and I found each other at the right time. My ‘discovery’ of the poems of Ai Qing occurred in the early 1980’s in a period when a new wave of radicalization was sweeping through the Nigerian academia, and Nigerian literature began to respond to a liberating leftist impetus emerging from our contact with the works and practices of the likes of Marx, Lenin, and Mao Tsetung. Chairman Mao’s charm was particularly magical: it was both astonishing and inspiring to discover that that great leader of people was also a significant author of poems. His acute apprehension of the people’s mindscape was indivisible from his profound understanding of the landscape, and the culture from which both emerged. He was a poet of nature in the most ennobling sense of the phrase. Mao’s poetry prepared me for the relevance and immediacy of Aig Qing’s verse, his well-travelled perspective, his multidisciplinary cosmopolitanism, his borderless Humanism. And so when Ai Qing declared in that clear, deliberative tone:
I shall bring light for the world
I shall bring warmth for mankind
He reminds me so admirably of Kuo Mo-jo’s confidence in the lines
The one that is all sings for joy
the all that is one sings for joy
(Selected Poems from The Goddess, p. 16).
This love for and of Humanity, this eagerness to project beyond one’s immediate place of origin and invest in the commonality of positive Humanity across the world; this image of the poet as bridge-builder and purveyor of humane values – these are some of the virtues I have discovered in the poetry of Cao Shui, a member of a younger generation of contemporary poets whose verse beams ample rays on a world in need of light. The petals of Flowers of Empire are watered by the urgent rains of a thinker whose poetry invites us to see the universe anew even as we commence an urgent reconsideration of the Blight of Babel.
Poetry matters. Poetry matters immeasurably. That is why we are gathered here from different parts of the world today, in celebration of its infinite possibilities and the humanising magic of its music. It is poetry’s abiding duty to make sure that the mouth of our Universe is not far from its ears, that its mind is not far from its music.
Before I end this short speech, let me make a risky confession: I am one of those idealists who still believe that “poetry can save the world”. Maybe because many times, my own life has been saved by that belief itself.
Poetry matters because it never fails to remind us of the common colour of the blood in our veins, the violence of hunger, the ugliness of evil, the frailty of our forests, the vulnerability of our rivers, and the sigh of our Planet. Poetry never forgets, and never ceases to remind the Future of its debt to the Past. Wherever Justice is hidden, you can trust poetry to seek and find it. For in its lyrical habitation lives our Lamp of Life.
Poetry matters because it is Life’s pristine verse and its Ultimate Song
* Acceptance Speech for the 5th Baoa International Poetry Outstanding Achievement Award, Shanghai, China; slightly modified here for the commemoration of the 2023 World Poetry Day