Many critics across the globe scoff at contemporary poetry. In an April 2, 2000 London Sunday Times review of Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth, critic Bryan Appleyard wrote:
“Nobody cares about poetry anymore. It is marginalized, trivial, the least regarded of the arts, the preserve of crazed dons, weedy scribblers and a few bankers who, on a good day, can just about remember a couple of lines of Kipling’s If.”
The eminent literary critic Joseph Epstein, in an essay outrageously titled “Who Killed Poetry?” had in the August 1988 edition of the American magazine Commentary written: “Modern poetry, with the advance of modernism, had become an art for the happy few, and the happy few are rarely happier than when they are even fewer… Literarily, poetry no longer seems in any way where the action is. It begins to seem, in fact, a sideline activity – odd, strange, but with a small cult of followers who swear by it.”
Well, poets keep doing their work no matter the dire diagnoses of critics of the moment, and with the passage of time the poetry may paradoxically garner canonical muster. My reading of Idzia Ahmad’s A Shout Across the Wall back in 1988 when it was first published and now is an object lesson in the transformative import of poetry. The precocious poet we fondly called Carlos died young but his poetry is eternal, and his example serves to remind one that Time magazine dismissed T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a hoax on publication in 1922 only to celebrate the poem and the poet with a cover story in 1950. Critics are forever too fond of eating their words!
To continue with the lesson of Eliot, the great protagonist of modernist poetry wrote in his epochal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” Idzia Ahmad in A Shout Across the Wall truly embodies “the dead poets society.” A deep cosmopolitan poet, his influences are indeed wide-ranging as riffs of ancient and modern African lore, Greek mythology, the Bible, old and modern masters, sundry contemporary poets and musicians can be gleaned from his verses.
Born on June 22, 1960, Idzia came into prominence in the national literary firmament in 1988 as one of the “six Update Poets” published by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) with sponsorship from MKO Abiola’s Concord Press of Nigeria. ANA undertook the special publication against the grim background of lack of book publishing outlets for the younger writers, especially the budding poets. This way, A Shout Across the Wall by Idzia Ahmad, Stolen Moments by Afam Akeh, Amnesty by Kemi Atanda Ilori, Cotyledons by Esiaba Irobi, Flower Child by Uche Nduka, and Questions for Big Brother by Emman Usman Shehu became bound books as opposed to dog-eared manuscripts passed from hand to hand.
Each of the six poets showed distinctive early promise: for Idzia, it was borderless vision; for Afam, wounding tenderness; Ilori – subliminal humanism; Esiaba – charged lyricism; Uche Nduka – tumultuous eloquence; and Usman Shehu – passionate enquiry. Apart from Idzia who passed on and Ilori who apparently has abandoned poetry, the rest of the Update Poets are still hard at work, writing poetry, and the promise of yore is in multifarious cantos of fulfillment.
Although A Shout Across the Wall is divided into three broad sections, namely, “Finegrain Horizons”, “The Heel of Treachery”, and “An Iron Voice”, there is this seamlessness in Idzia Ahmad’s art that compels the treatment of the entire corpus as one generic offering a la Christopher Okigbo. Sundering the poems can only lead to an atrophy of vision.
Idzia is a poet of desire as the very first poem of the collection “Beach” establishes:
My heart ripples, fluttering
Like a shredded flag under
The feathery delicacy of its
Caress and I sigh. Suffused
In the flooding surge of its
Amorous train I cast my anchors
Into the very depth of its soul
And the seagulls – cheerful
Spectators – crow encouragement
As with outflung arms I throw
Myself into the heaving embrace
Of the azure sea.
Wrenching love from the iron grip of pain is the forte of Idzia and his generation of tortured poets. The poems collected here were mainly written in 1985 and 1987, that is, at the very epicentre of military dictatorship, whence the poem “A Mutant Generation” which wills a world in transition. A major victim of the era, the journalist Dele Giwa who was letter-bombed to death, earns the poem “For Dele”:
And ours is the grief
But theirs the gnawing fear
Of its bare-faced ferocity.
Between grief and fear, the poet does not give in to silence for his voice carries in “I am the Bird Perched”:
I am the bird perched
On the dead root of your tongue
Chirping nectar’d songs and
Wrapping your rotten gums in fragrant tunes.
Poets die young, they say, and each poet writes his own obituary everyday of his lived life with each word drawn from the ink of his own blood. Idzia addresses “Death” thus:
I see your gaunt shadow on every wall
And hear your heavy footfalls
In every home and hall.
Harbingers of death abound, not the least of which is the “IMF” which the poet likens to hemlock. In “The Chimera”, a nine-line poem about SFEM/SAP, words such as “goblin” and “diabolic” are juxtaposed with “essence” and “quintessence”. Biblical presences like Ichabod, Nazerenes and Ahithophelian oracles dot the lines, balancing the delicate duality of divinity and profanity.
In all, A Shout Across the Wall contains 72 poems of uncommon elegance. Idzia Ahmad obviously came before his time, but he made sure of leaving something solid behind for the world to catch up with.
Few poets define any given generation. From the early nationalist verses of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dennis Osadebay to the advent of iconic literary poetry by Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, J. P. Clark and Wole Soyinka, Nigerian poetry has been poised on a canon-bursting charge. The succeeding generation of poets, notably Odia Ofeimun and Niyi Osundare now share anthology space with the old masters.
A reissue of A Shout Across the Wall will go a long way in earning for Idzia Ahmad a deserving reputation as a pathfinder of the new generation of poets extending the canon.