Celebrating East African Writing!

Is Poetry a Clown on a Page?- Highlight from 2011 Storymoja Hay Festival



Ben Okri at the 2011 Storymoja Hay Festival

George I of Great Britain said, “I hate all Boets and Bainters.” Ben Okri believes that poets and painters have a lot in common. Both groups of creative people have to encounter the unknown when they face a blank sheet of paper or canvas. They have to create something out of nothing. “Poetry is not what you want to say or write but what you shape by what you say or write. Passive reaction shaped into active reaction.” Great words. They make one wonder why George the First hated ‘Boets’ and ‘Bainters’ in the first place.

During the poetry master class at the Storymoja Hay Festival, Okri defined a poet as, “not necessarily a writer but a person who sees life in a certain way.” Okri acknowledged although many people write poetry, they not all of them are poets and that is the reason there are more bad poems than there are good poems. Poetry to him is not an unusual distinctive form or something far from normal. It is something that combines the ordinary and the extraordinary and it is impossible to distinguish the extraordinary from the ordinary without extraordinary consciousness.

Consciousness: The word was used many times by Okri through the duration of the workshop. Probably, his favorite word in the dictionary, who knows? Consciousness on the part of the doer/writer/poet and consciousness on the part of the receiver/reader are important for a poem. The poet is a creative aspect of the process but the reader, when reading the poem, also becomes a poet. Therefore it is important for a poet to understand the psychology of consciousness, the psychology of the mind and the psychology of reading. When this understanding is attained, the reader of a poem has the opportunity to enjoy poetry and to read it intensely and not passively. This way, the poem is not a clown on a page.

Back to consciousness, Okri explained that poetry is scratched in the conscious mind. How? Through words, sounds, letters and syllables. The appearance of a letter carries a lot more an ordinary eye perceives. The shapes affect the reader. It carries sound, various intentions and hidden meanings. For instance the letter O has a looooong sound, it is endless. It could signify an entire world or universe. He referred to the image of a Maasai man holding a spear and then linked that image to the letter I, something coming from the bottom to the top or vice versa. The letter H represents two separate points that are linked not at the bottom or at the top but in the middle. To demonstrate this very interesting perspective on the alphabet, he read Heaven’s Gate, a poem from Chris Okigbo’s book,Labyrinths. He animatedly moved to the rhythm of the words ‘before’, ’presence’, ’lost’, ’legend’ while at the same time emphasizing the sounds ‘b’, ’p’,’t’ and ‘d’, and explained the implications of the sounds.

Aside from consciousness, play is also important in poetry. Play of the mind, the spirit, sound and yes, play with consciousness are crucial. Surprise should be included, and sometimes meaningless but beautiful poetry is allowed. The poet can and should play with words and sound“Poets are magicians. They fold a lot of things into small things”, Okri made the second comparison to drive his point home.

So, then, what is a good poem? “A good poem is capable of many interpretations. It is not static. The more you look at it the better it gets. It is infinitely or perpetually suggestive. A good poet says more, suggests more and gives more to the reader.” Okri went on to say that poetry is about mental sex. The teenage participants giggled at that ‘parental advisory’ comment and Okri continued to tickle their ribs and the adults’ as well by adding, “Mental pregnancies come out of it. Let’s not mess around.” Very interesting and humorous because when you think about it, you have to ‘mess around’ to …you know…get pregnant.

Going back to the definition of a good poem, Okri acknowledged that writing a good poem is no mean task, it takes time and attention to details of sound, beat and of course,consciousness and magic.

Reading poetry on the other hand, requires no skills at all. All a reader has to do is hear the poetry in the mind. “Read it out loud and create familiarity with the sounds and movement,” Okri advised.

On whether or not a poet should always have a reader in mind when writing, Okri quoted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “Poetry is a response to commission.” Yes, a poet can write poetry for his or her own pleasure but it is also good to write for an audience because if left to themselves, poets can get lost.

Finally, he read one of his poems, a commissioned one titled, To an English Friend in Africa. The poem is more or less a complete guide to life, love and interaction with people. Lines of note,

…Live while you are alive

Learn the ways of silence and wisdom…”

“Can you use the words of a bad poem to make a good poem?” -BEN OKRI

©Linda Musita

To find out more about this year’s Storymoja Hay Festival, please visit


2 comments on “Is Poetry a Clown on a Page?- Highlight from 2011 Storymoja Hay Festival

  1. Michael m macharia
    August 14, 2012

    Nice words for aspiring poets.


  2. michael mwangi macharia
    August 27, 2012

    really poetry is commissioned by the soul.poets sometimes experience that moment when the poem demands to be pushed out after brewing in the sub-conscious for a while. i do not the audience is really the focus at that point
    when one wakes up to capture the dictates of inspiration.


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This entry was posted on August 13, 2012 by in Writer's Blog.
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