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In poetry, we are made human - Alfred Msadala, Malawi PEN President

Thursday 20 March 2014 - 8:18am

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, sitting at its 30th Session of its annual Congress held in Paris, France on November 15, 1999, declared that March 21 shall be observed as the World Poetry Day. This was after noting that quite a good proportion of the world was growing edgy that the art of poetry was being considered as outdated especially by the media. The new recognition took into consideration several factors, among which were that there is now a growing shift in society towards the recognition of ancestral values which also represents a return to the oral tradition and an acceptance of speech as a means of socializing and structuring the individual; and that human beings, being natural poets, ought to free themselves from the unnecessary bondage that bars them from appreciating and expressing poetry in their daily lives.

The first appreciation here impacts greatly on us in this part of the globe, the sub-Saharan region, in which the oral tradition is part of us. The entertainment that we are renowned of, the songs that we have in all our performances are simply poems. In addition to this, our dirges and songs that accompany tasks that demand great physical degrees are poems. People have brandished these as primitive and yet what they do not consider is the fact that the modern day civilization emanates from such an order.

The Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, in her address this year testifies to the fact that our identity as humans is shrouded in the appreciating the beauty of our beliefs and practices:

All peoples throughout history have developed and practiced forms of poetry, so as to pass on orally their knowledge, history and myths – the Vedas and Ramayana in India, the Hebrew Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greece and many other philosophical and religious texts – to express feelings, to talk about daily life, to withstand trials or to entertain.

As I intimated earlier own, poetry is a social need which makes us realize that we are coming from a home, we have roots and that through poetry, we assert and regain our identity.

In the just concluded Malawi PEN Poetry Writing Competition at Chancellor College Writers Workshop, the chief judge, Syned Mthathiwa, advised that poetry is about human experience in its varied forms. The issue here is that poetry is about life—in a football pitch, in an examination room, in a scientific laboratory, at the tailor’s by the veranda of a grocery, at the grave-yard during the funeral, at the village court under a mango tree, in the bed-room at night and in all other settings. Poetry cannot be eluded; naturally it is there.

During the UNESCO proclamation, it was noted that it is only poetry that fulfills our aesthetic needs once its social role of interpersonal communication is recognized. Communication includes listening and poetry calls for this actively. There is an inner call once we are engaged in poetry, from whatever side of the stage. At this point, we may be able to understand poetry and all its healing effects.

The issue of conception is another area that needs understanding and realization. The moment one thinks about eating after a rumbling stomach is conception. Or when one feels doubtful for his or her chances of success during the forthcoming tripartite elections, that is also conception. The art of managing these conceptions is what matters most in poetry because the result becomes obvious.

For more than six months now, I have been struggling with one of my latest compositions: I have just concluded it. The second stanza reads as follows:

Barefeet and barebacks, out of instructions
our teeth tinkling, in silence
none talking, it is demanded of us
our hands criss-crossing the chests
the gods have decreed
towards Chitenje pool lie answers
we are marching towards these places
we are walking to these places together

It is for the melody that I paste the stanza hereon - the reception of which, it is not for me to commission.

This celebration we have just gotten ourselves into should be out of our self-wills. I take the opportunity to offer best wishes to all my colleagues, especially Joseph Madzedze, he is of a rare wodge. I pay tribute to Christopher Marlowe for his Dr. Faustus and E. J. Chadza for Likongolerenji Bokosi. When I read Gumbu by Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga for the first time, I said, ‘Wow!’. Congratulations to all that perform poetry at various stages, although we seem to be ignoring the tree shades. There are beautiful tree shades scattered across the country; I have in mind one at home in Liwewe village, Nkhotakota which has been claimed by one of these political parties. This is all about celebrating.

Alfred Msadala is a poet  and President of Malawi PEN

The opinions contained in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of PEN International.