Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Poems From Africa

The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry arrived, and of course I immediately dived in.

Certainly, the editors must have felt dispirited at times (as they imply) because their task was to represent poetry from writers in nations and homelands across a whole immense continent in a wide variety of languages--all in one volume.

Some well known writers are represented, as one might expect; these include Ben Okri, Tchicaya U Tam'si, and Wole Soyinka.

One of my favorite poems so far is "Sometimes When It Rains," by Gcina Mhlophe, a poet from South Africa. Unfortunately, no other biographical information about her appears in the back of the book. "Sometimes when it rains" is a first-line refrain in five-line, free-verse stanzas, of which there are ten. The images, experiences, memories, and/or scenes depicted in each stanza get increasingly more complex, weighty, and intense, and there's also a general movement from childhood to adulthood--and toward what might be called political awareness. A poem with this design can easily become a static list-poem, but Mhlophe escapes that outcome easily. The voice is authorative, and one never gets the feeling the poem or poet is trying to do too much, so (almost paradoxically) the poem's able to achieve a lot. I think I'm going to use this poem in classes. There's so much to admire in it.

It's hard to beat a new, interesting anthology of poetry on an unseasonably cold day in the Pacific Northwest. And I'm just getting started reading it.
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