Nigerians take sides as Bamidele Johnson reopens poetry vs prose debate

by Araayo Akande

Renowned prose stylist and a former editor of TheNews Magazine, Bamidele Temitope Johnson, rekindled the age-long poetry versus prose debate on Sunday.

Some people regard poetry as abstract because of its word economy: saying so much with few words.  It is therefore considered as high art by some who lack the patience to decode its perceived obscurantism.

Johnson started the debate with a Facebook post that read: “I can’t stand poetry. I find poems as appealing as a COVID-era sneeze over the shoulder on a supermarket queue. Is something wrong with me? It probably has something to do with lower brainpower.”

No sooner had he posted his comment than reactions in support and against his position came pouring in, rekindling the poetry versus prose debate.

Public relations professional, Temitope Ajayi, who commented first, confessed that “I don’t particularly like it too even with my first and second degree in Literature.”

Ajayi added an anecdote to buttress why he prefers prose. “I accompanied Baba Odia [Ofeimun] to reading in 98. On our way back, he asked if I enjoyed it. I told him the only thing I understood was people closing their eyes like singers performing emotional songs live and that I did not enjoy it. He said: “Philistine, God punish your head.” I combusted with laughter. He thought I was one of those cerebral, ANA-inclined guys. Me na agbero.”

Another person, Adeola Daramola, supported Ajayi, writing: “I have read many books. I love prose. I can count the number of poems I have read on the tip of my fingers. I get bored reading poems. I loathe them.”

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Dele Ogundele, however, had a contrary opinion. His reaction was poetic. “Poetry is interestingly intriguing…./It’s like a ball of Alubosa …./Filled/With/Layer upon layer/Of/Intriguingly Aroma/That/Are interestingly/Curious…./Interestingly intriguing/And/Intriguingly/Interesting.

“Poetry is/When/Unravelled/In/Colourful/Poesy…./In/Cadence/Of/Lyrical/Poems.”

Senior editor, Emeka Duru, aligned with Johnson and Ajayi, saying: “But for sheer determination, Poetry almost scared me from Literature in English, one of my most favourite subjects in secondary school. Quite difficult for me to flow with it.”

Uche Ezeh, another lover of prose, was quite passionate in his response. “Kindred spirit right there, sir. I generally have no patience for folks who are so afflicted with language paucity and are somehow reduced to either speaking in riddles or writing in short hesitant bursts. I used to think that all poets are sadists or perhaps people who are notorious for practising ‘aka-gum’ as an art form. I never liked the genre, to begin with, but I guess my late uncle sort of put the hate-nail in the poetry coffin for me. The man was a literature professor who was also famous for his penny-pinching proclivities. You couldn’t impress him, no matter the feat. He was that sad and incorrigible. You couldn’t even ride in his Mercedes 230 (flat boot) with him. The man famously drove that car alone and hid the keys away from all his sons and his wife too. I think African poets are the most annoying of the lot. They are a sorry imitation of poets in a different era. Language is arguably the most beautiful thing ever created. We so happen to be living in the age of free expression. We are always better, richer and more colourful when we use language freely. So why anyone would still prefer to speak or write in such hesitant or epileptic fashion beats me.”

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World Poetry Day

Another journalist, Ibrahim Yusuf, affirmed his love for poetry this way: “As for me, I eat, drink and sleep poetry. What can’t I do with poetry? I often travel the sun, moon and back and even journey to other worlds far beyond our ken, all thanks to poetry. Little wonder I was born on World International Poetry Day, March 21st! Poetry is life; life is poetry!”

Also responding to Johnson, award-winning poet and performance artist Akeem Lasisi empathised with him but noted that his prose is lyrical.

He wrote: “Surprising but understandable. Surprising because, as has been observed, your command of words, images and linguistic mischief is almost unfathomable, and these are prime assets of a poet. And who can fault your power of spontaneity? Yet, understandable because some people and poetry don’t just mix as such folks consider the art too abstract. This is one reason why someone like me (like my mentor, Professor Niyi Osundare), chose to democratise poetry, giving it a human and entertaining face to win more souls for it. Now, with a mortal like BJ, our efforts seem to remain in vain.” 

The prose versus poetry debate is age-long with often disastrous results in some instances. Writing in the Irish Times of April 2, 2016, administrator of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards and curator of the DLR Voices Series and the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival, Bert Wright, narrated how a Russian poet killed a writer over the debate. 

You can read the piece here.

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