by Ben Okri
'The poet is he who inspires far more
than he who is inspired.'
- Paul Eluard
The world in which the poet lives does not necessarily yield up the poetic. In the hands of the poet, the world is resistant. It is only with the searching and the moulding that the unyielding world becomes transformed in a new medium of song and metaphor.
It is not surprising therefore that the poet seems to be set against the world. The poet needs to be up at night, when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters where the underside of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don't dare to look, and they need to do this because if they don't they can't sing to us all the secret and public domains of our lives. They need to be multiple witnesses around the central masquerades of reality in order to convey fully the unimaginable dimensions of the deity's terrible and enchanting dance.
The great tidal crowds of everyday events pour in one direction, sometimes the poet has to move in the other - often moving directly against them, at other times cutting tangentially across the morning waves of humanity. Poets seem to be set against the world because we need them to show us the falseness of our limitations, the true extent of our kingdom.
The poet turns the earth into mother, the sky becomes a shelter, the sun an inscrutable god, and the pragmatists are irritated. They want the world to come with only one name, one form. The antagonists of poets and other transformers are those who refuse to see the fluid nature of reality, who cannot perceive that each individual reality is different. Laws do not bind our perceptions. There are as many worlds as there are lives. It is not those who have no imagination who are the problem, for we all possess imagination, few of us use it well. The problem is with those who are frightened of the rather limitless validity of the imagination, frightened of people who continually extend the boundaries of the possible, people who ceaselessly redream the world and reinvent existence; frontiers people of the unknown and the uncharted.
The enemies of poets are those who have no genuine religious thinking. To be truly religious does not require an institution, it requires terror, faith, compassion, imagination, and a belief in more than three dimensions. It also requires love. Religion touches at the place where imagination blends with the divine. Poetry touches us where religion is inseparable from the wholly human. In heaven there should be no poetry. The same is true of hell. It is only on a sphere where heaven and hell are mixed into the fabric of the mortal frame that poetry is possible.
Poets are set against the world because they cannot accept that what there seems to be is all there is. Elias Canetti wrote once that: "The inklings of poets are the forgotten adventures of God." Poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They come with no tablets of stone, and they do not speak with God. They speak to us. Creation speaks to them. They listen. They remake the world in words, from dreams. Intuitions which could only come from the secret mouths of gods whisper to them through all of life, of nature, of visible and invisible agencies. Storms speak to them. Thunder breathes on them. Human suffering drives them. Flowers move their pens. Words themselves speak to them and bring forth more words. The poet is the widener of consciousness. The poet suffers our agonies as well and combines them with all the forgotten waves of childhood. Out of the mouths of poets speak the yearnings of our lives.
The acknowledged legislators of the world take the world as given. They dislike mysteries, for mysteries cannot be coded, or legislated, and wonder cannot be made into law. And so these legislators police the accepted frontiers of things. Politicians, heads of state, kings, religious leaders, soldiers, the rich, the powerful - they all fancy themselves the masters of this earthly kingdom. They speak to us of facts, policies, statistics, programmes, abstract and sever moralities. But the dreams of the people are beyond them, and would trouble them. The hard realities of the people would alarm them. It is they who have to curb the poet's vision of reality. It is they who invoke the infamous "poetic license" whenever they do not want to face the inescapable tragedy contained in, for example, Okigbo's words: "I have lived the oracle dry on the cradle of a new generation." It is they who demand that poetry be partisan, that it takes sides, usually their side; that it rides on the back of causes and issues, their causes, their issues, whoever they may be.
Our lives have become narrow enough. Our dreams strain to widen them, to bring to our waking consciousness the awareness of greater discoveries that lie just beyond the limits of our sights. We must not force our poets to limit the world any further. That is a crime against life itself. If the poet begins to speak only of narrow things, of things that we can effortlessly digest and recognise, of things that do not disturb, frighten, stir, or annoy us, or make us restless for more, make us cry for greater justice, make us want to set sail and explore inklings murdered in our youths, if the poet sings only for our restricted angles and in restricted terms and in restricted language, then what hope is there for any of us in this world?
Those of us who want this are cowards, in flesh and in spirit. We fear heroic heights. We dread the recombining of the world, dread a greater harvest of being. We sit lazily and demand that our poets draw the horizon closer. We therefore become separated from our true selves. Then even beauty can seem repugnant. Then, we no longer recognise who we are, and we forget what we used to be, what states we sometimes inhabited, what extended moments of awareness. It is those who are scared of reality, of their own truths, of their own histories, those who are secretly sickened by what they have become, who are alarmed by the strange mask-like faces that peer back at them from the mirrors of time, it is they who resist the poetic. They resist the poetic with all their hidden might because if they don't, the power of words speaking in their own heads would burst open their inner doors, and all the monsters breeding within would come bounding out and crashing on the floors of their consciousness. What would hold their inner frames together then? They have to suppress the poetic, or accept it only on blurred terms, or promote its cruder imitations, for the simple reason that they have long ago begun suppressing eruptive life and all its irreconcilable shadings, its natural paradoxes.
The antagonists of poetry cannot win. The world seems resistant but carries with it for ever the desire to be transformed into something higher. The world may seem unyielding but, like invisible forces in the air, it merely awaits imagination and will to unloosen the magic within itself. The poet is not a creator but an alchemist. Poets are helplessly on the side of the greatest good, the highest causes, the most just future.
And because they are helplessly on the side of the future it may be valid to say that they need their antagonists. Poets need to be kept alive and awake. We should beware the hardening arteries of our lives. That is perhaps why prophets speak out with such incandescent, irrepressible concern at what we are doing to ourselves. In that sense all prophets have something of the poet, though not all poets are prophets.
The poet as quantum physicist, as healer, as angel and demon of the word cannot afford to disdain the world, cannot feel superior to is any more than the scientist can feel superior to thunder, to mountains, or to the constellations. There are no superiorities of function, only ascendancies.
Their love shows in the quality of their dreams and their works. The deeper the poets feel, the deeper is their exploration. The more we want to reconnect, the more we would follow poets in their quest for impossible transformations. They measure the heroism of the consciousness of any age. It is true when they say that poets are never ahead of their times. It is only we who are far behind others.