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Book Review March 3, 2003
 
One African Genius, Sunny-Side Up
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 3
 
Read it aloud a few times, and you'll see that Larkin's first stanza is perfect. You can hear the decline from that simple perfection to the slightly forced rhymes of the latter two stanzas. "...hats and coats" is there for the rhyme with "throats," just as "coastal shelf" is just marking time for the devastating finish, "...yourself." But this is a falling-off from perfection -- and that's a very different matter from the hammy nonsense of Okri's poem.

Larkin may have been one of the last great rhymers in academically respected poetry. But good rhymes are actually ubiquitous in the livelier arts:

Sixteen clumsy and shy
I came to London and I
Booked myself in at the Y...
WCA. I said 'I like it here
Can I stay?
I like it here can I stay?
And do you have a vacancy
For a back scrubber?'

Morrissey's enjambmnet of "Y-" and the gender-surprise provided when the (mildly) male singer completes it with "W" rather than "M" -- that's the stuff of poetry, and it flourishes in every pop subgenre, creating rich contexts, long arguments in verse that would have made Dryden smack his lips. Rhyme and meter flourish, making billionaires of people like Eminem, who would have been lucky to get a job as village asshole in less rhyme-minded eras.

Why, then, do serious people bother pretending that Okri is a great poet? Well, I want to let you aspiring critics in on something: if you're banging your little head wondering why a poet is famous despite his or her talentlessness, change tack: try considering that he or she is famous because, rather than in spite of it.

Once you admit the possibility that it's Okri's flatfooted earnest sentimentality which has made him famous, the picture makes perfect sense. When high literature turned away from the public pieties in the second decade of the twentieth century, it left behind a grumpy crew of elocutionists, lay clerics, well-meaning burghers and dedicated librarians. This lot was unwilling to go back to Church to get their sermons, but equally unhappy with high literature which seemed to specialize in glorifying rats, psychotics and mould. They've been hanging around the edges of literature ever since, waiting like Lovecraft's Old Ones to make their move.

Inevitably, they found it among poets of the "New Nations." Readers who knew they weren't supposed to cry over love poetry written by their compatriots were eager to sob at the "translations" of Chinese poetry by Pound, who was only too glad to cash in on the venue for his barely-restrained maudlin impulses.

This little scam has been going on for centuries, ever since James MacPherson cut-and-pasted the worst Sentimental excesses of his age on supposedly "ancient" Celtic epics which he claimed to have found in his travels through the Highlands. Even Hume, whose sneer was lethal, relaxed his vigilance long enough to sob over this imported, or rather transposed, tripe.

As old frauds are exposed, new settings for tearjerking are required. And where better than Okri's homeland, Nigeria -- the breeding-ground of every email scam? The only difference between the Nigerians scamsters and Okri is that, while Okri's countrymen were making a precarious living, Ben was getting rich and famous offering poems which were transparently worthless. Crime, obviously, doesn't pay as much as sheer hokum.

Okri's immunity to prosecution for his gross literary crimes is in part a matter of white guilt, but that's a minor aspect of this strange phenomenon. What's really going on is that by sourcing himself in black Africa, Okri can present himself as a convincing literary primitive, entitled to sell bombast and schmaltz to high-culture audiences who -- and this is the key -- have been waiting desperately for it to be offered in some way which spared them the humiliation their base tastes deserve. They don't love him because he's black or African. They love him because his black African identity offers a cover for his treacle.


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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