The relevance of poetry: an invitation to debate



In the weeks leading up to the recent Poetry Africa in Durban, small teams of participating poets travelled through Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa on “satellite tours” as part of a publicity and awareness campaign to promote poetry in the region.

Addressing a community writing-workshop facilitated by SLiP on the morning before the Poetry Africa event in Cape Town, South African Hip Hop and Spoken Word activist, Ewok; Ghanaian poet, socio-cultural commentator and author Nii Ayikwei Parkes; and Kenyan poet, novelist and activist Philo Ikonya engaged the small group of participants in a conversation on the relevance of poetry in Africa.

Ewok opened the session with his poem, “Poetry can't change the world”:

I SAID “Poetry can't change the world!” and I upset them.
I explained: You think syntax is gonna save us?
                      You think a syllable, some syllables are some kind of shield?
                      You think words really ARE weapons?
                                    Like bullets and bombs are really just aggressive songs?
                                    Like voices can drone so maybe a Drone can voice?
                                    Like a Poetry Slam is really a Defense Council (with a cash bar and a score card)?
                      You gonna use a stanza as a standard?
                      You gonna slingshot sarcasm at a tank and hope that the right amount of refined wit will dent it?
              “Poetry can't change the world!” I said, and I upset them.
I explained: You got a pen with enough of a point to puncture the balloon of best-business-practice?
                                                            enough of a point to pop Pop?
                                                                                        to pierce the skin of the average politician?
                      You got paper with enough grain to feed the poor?
                      You got people with enough brain to read the score AND play their part?
THEY SAID “Yeah! There! That's where it's gonna start!”

When I said “Poetry can't change the world!” I upset them, but their response was easy:
THEY SAID “People can change the world, and Poetry CAN change people, so shut up and get busy...”

© iainEWOKrobinson

The questions raised by Ewok’s poem suggest several avenues for debate:

  • How is/can poetry be useful/relevant/active beyond the page or the recital?
  • How does/can poetry/creativity manifest into actual action on the ground?

We'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter, and invite readers to share their stories and impressions in the comments below.

Philo Ikonya

Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Nii Ayikwei Parkes

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