Report & Essay

A Poet Realizes He Is Human
Samuel Munene

 Reflections by Samuel Munene

Not long ago I attended a poetry open mic at a city restaurant. I sat next to lady in a grey cotton skirt suit, holding a diary, a newspaper and a small handbag. We engaged in some small talk, as one is wont to do in such a situation. She told me, with considerable excitement, how she was addicted to books. “ Imagine I cant go anywhere without a book”. She said.A diary, certainly, is also a book.

My turn came to contribute to the conversation. She had spoken, without a pause, for about three minutes. It was a night of poetry, she loved books so what better way to take the literally talk to the next, upper, level than revealing to her I was a poet? In the milliseconds when I took a breath before starting my sentence, I imagined her reaction. “ A poet? Oh-my-God, I find poets to be like ah …” And before she overcame the shock I was to unleash the big one “ I am an award winning poet”. (Actually many years back I was a runner up in a ‘prestigious’ poetry competition). I smiled, I could already see her reaction on realizing she was sitting next to an intellectual celebrity as everybody knew poets to be.

“ I am a poet,” I finally said to her.

“Oh, okay” she said and then started telling me what life as a banker, of which she claimed to be, was all about. Nothing, at all, about my being a poet. At the beginning I thought she wanted to relate the life of a banker and that of a poet, create some interesting linkage, you know, but on and on she went about finances and what she referred to as “the crisis”.

After about four minutes she paused and again it was my turn to say something other than the oh and yeah I had been repeating. Perhaps she hadn’t heard I was poet, I thought, not ready to let her go without recognizing my privileged status. Maybe she had heard I am a pet or I am on diet, I said to myself trying to get words, which rhyme with poet.

When I was sure she was listening and she was not distracted by any of the performances on stage, I said to her “ We poets tend to…” .The “we” was intentional, supposed to emphasize that poets belonged to a certain special club or segment, like; “ We people who drive BMWs.” But I didn’t even complete the sentence, she interrupted. “ I have two friends who are poets, even my younger sister says she is a poet”. She then went ahead to tell me about a movie adaption of a Stephen King short story she had recently watched. “ It was scary “ she said. I wasn’t listening, I was thinking of Michael Jackson who a lady behind me had mentioned.

I got the news of MJ’S death from a friend, a female friend, who had called just to give me, well, the sad news. “MJ is dead,” she had told me over the phone. “ Oh my! MJ is dead? That’s bad,” I said trying to sound sensitive. But deep inside me I was, sorry to say, happy. So after all his plastic surgery, platinum sales and rumored oxygen bubble he could die? Death had reduced Michael Jackson to a human being.

And that is the fate, which seems to have befallen poets. They, I painfully realized, the small gods of literature, the geeks of human expression were no longer worshiped. What could have happened, in this country, in a few short years to make poets, the privileged people who used to write the right stuff, kawaidahuman beings?

A young man, with two shiny earrings on his left ear, was on stage reciting a poem and the crowd was applauding. The banker was saying something but I didn’t care. A disturbing thought had crossed by mind. What was the silent thing that the banker had said when I told her I was a poet? I knew. “ A poet? Boo Hoo! What is the big deal?” She must have said to herself before proceeding to lump me together with the likes of Jimwat, Mejja, Juakali and other gengerians.Not that these are not great artists (and maybe poets) in their own way but for the love of life poets were not supposed to be grouped with such, indeed they were a sub set of human beings , solemnly commentating about humanity in words the same humanity could not easily understand.

My introduction to poetry was through my father in an informal way. When we were kids we realized he kept repeating a stanza of Yeat’s the second coming. We didn’t know then it was a poem and thought it to be one of those songs where one sang, stopped, talked, and then sang again. We called it turning. He is turning again we would say…”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, …”.

In the nineties he lost his job just at a time when three of his children had joined secondary school and one was still in primary school. And it seemed, more than before, he could not get enough of the poem and he repeated it every few minutes in a loud voice, not going past the first stanza. I remember at one time my mother asking him,” What is this that you keep repeating to yourself?” He smiled and said nothing. In retrospect I think by the smile he was saying, “ You cannot understand, this is poetry”. It was only after I joined high school and met Chinua Achebe did I discover it was poem, and only many years later did I get to know it went beyond “mere anarchy is loosened upon the world”. Poetry, to me, came to mean my father’s situation expressed in a few abstract words, which he could not explain, even to his wife.

Things, it seems, have changed. There is new poetry in town, which is averse to abstraction and sounds good to the ears. This is the poetry of the masses. The barriers to entry to the poetry class, for indeed it is a class, have been lowered. Who, in these facebook days, can’t do a verse expressing what they feel about themselves, an object or humanity in general?

Back to the open mic, I looked at the young man performing. Forget the ears, there was something about his poetry, which tended to click with the gathered crowd. It was bold and direct. He referred to sex as sex and didn’t describe the act using metaphors in seventeen words or so as I would have done.

The new poetry seems to have produced two types of poets . There are the popular, young people with stage or trade names, depending on how you look at it. They rhyme and the rhyming tends to come before everything. The meaning, if any comes from the rhymes.

I write in the night
When my flight is right
Cause I can fight the plight

Does that mean anything to you? It should.

Then there are the moderates who don’t care much about the rhyming as the subtle, provocative thoughts they deliver. But since poetry has become a mass product they have found a method to make it worldly and user friendly. It is the traditional delivered in a modern way.

Questions can be raised as to whether the new poetry packaged in simple colorful words still fits the definition of poetry.Is poetry just an artistic style without any intellectual input? Do the new poets have the vision and depth to produce thoughtful masterpieces? We can only wait and see.

Near the end of the evening the banker said, “ I can’t wait to get home and catch a movie”. The days when after listening to some poetry one took a beer and reflected are gone. These days poetry produces instantaneous gratification, same as a nice song would.Its entertainment.

Going home later in the night I didn’t feel very safe. Previously I believed thugs would not lay hands on me, if I mentioned I was a poet.

(Samuel Munene is a retired poet)

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