What do I want from poetry? What makes me return to some poets, and immediately forget others? I’m constantly checking and re-checking these answers for myself. And now I’ve had the opportunity to do it again in selecting my Top Ten for Badilisha Poetry X-change.
This is how far I’ve got with my answers for myself: I know that I am an impatient reader of poems, so if a poem is going to be long, it needs to keep me on side with every word and every line so that I don’t find myself thinking eight or ten lines in “Why am I reading this?”
The brevity of the form is what appeals to me: jamming neuron-electrifying images and concepts into as few words as possible.
Secondly, I am drawn to specificity. Poems that meander around mustering vague ideas of things (like the concept of “woman”, or the concept of “my Africa”, or the concept of “love”) bore me. I like detail. I like the universe to be revealed to me in the detail. And I like to know that the poet knows what he or she is trying to convey – I like to feel assured that they have something to say that is new and interesting and worthwhile.
Thirdly, and possibly most importantly for me, is the language. When a poet shows that he or she is undaunted by the possibility of language, is exhilirated and enlivened by surprising word combinations, is not a slave to adjectives, then my poet’s ears are opened to anything they have to say. When a poet has this puppy-dog love of language and its gymnastics, I will allow them to lead me even to the end of an epic poem.
And, finally, I realise that I have a particular soft spot for poets who display humour. This is not an absolute requirement and I must be clear that I’m not asking for comedy in my poetry. But when a poet shows a lightness, a kindness, a wryness about all that he or she observes in the world, then the chances are that I will return to their poetry.
Each of the poets I have chosen fulfills each of these requirements. Their poems are not too long, but when they are, I don’t get bored with trite and vague language. With each poet, I have a clear sense that they know what they’re trying to do…they are not merely arranging pretty words and interesting thoughts around for their own amusement, but they have something urgent that needs saying. Many of these poets have to a lesser or greater extent shown me in their poems (not necessarily the ones you’ll read on Badilisha) that they understand humour, that they wield a wry pen, that they do not take all of life so seriously that the readers squirms.
But most importantly, each of the poets I have chosen here knows words, knows the rhythms of meaning, can extract the sounds of any emotion, however fleeting, using the same 26-letter alphabet we all use. Each invents language again with every poem. And that, finally, is perhaps my greatest satisfaction and the reason I return to them often.
Read about my Top Ten Badilisha Poets here.