Sunday, March 22, 2009

Poetry As Impressionism

I'm continuing some of the most pleasurable reading I've done in some time--that of The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry (cited in earlier posts). If you like poetry and haven't read it, then by all means buy the book new or used or borrow it from a library or a friend or a friendly library.

One of the short poems in there I like is by Femi Fatoba, a multi-talented person--actor, dramatist, stage director, painter, and drummer. He is from West Nigeria. The poem is called "In America," and (unfortunately, the blog-machinery gets in the way) each line below is supposed to be indented four spaces more than the previous line--to create a stair-step effect:

In America
The highway runs too fast
For men to feel the ground underneath;
The mirage does not have time
To look like water:
And too many rainbows
Strangle the clouds.

(p. 270)

Of course, any time anyone, including a poet, makes an observation about one's nation, one is likely to want to correct the impression--not so much out of defensiveness as out of a sense in which one believes one knows "the whole story." But in the case of poetry, photography, painting, etc., one must fight the urge to correct--precisely because what's being offered is an impression--not a sociological or anthropological thesis.

Having visited the U.S., Fatoba no doubt felt the impression(s) represented in the poem, and they're not inaccurate. Obviously, folks from rural California, Montana, and West Virginia (for example) may protest, "Wait a minute--we feel the ground underneath all the time!" But just as obviously, Fatoba isn't intending to ask his short poem literally to make such sweeping claims. No, he's giving us a quick impression, a lively, inspired sketch.

"The mirage does not have time/to look like water": what a great line, an effective way to convey the rush and haste evident in much U.S. (and industrial, generaly) culture. Fabulous. "And too many rainbows/Strangle the clouds": again, wonderful: a superb image and phrase to capture a visitor's impression of American excess, Americans' sense of their alleged "exceptionalism," Americans' sense of entitlement, and Americans' sense of "no limits."

Fatoba achieves so much in so few lines. Great stuff.
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