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IT WAS NOT UNTIL a fellow literary scholar, Ayobami Enitilo–reacted to my post on Facebook, “Pain is pleasure, pleasure is pain”, that the thought of writing on poetry came to my consciousness. It was like consciousness manifesting itself unconsciously and that being the case I began to think of expressing my thought in the best language I could. In retrospect, I had used my verve to place a succinct expression “pain is pleasure, pleasure is pain” on my Facebook wall and after getting my status updated I logged out to face the worldly quotidian chores as usual. Facebook could be a haven. It could also be a medium through which ideas are generated and shared.
The title of this essay was fetched from the comment which followed my status on Facebook. I only came back later in the day to see a comment from a friend that reads, “Like the delusion of a man in an illusion.” What! I felt the shock reverberating through my veins. I felt the two words, ‘illusion’ and ‘delusion’ so heavy upon my imagination that I was almost trounced out of sangfroid into giddiness. The two words, ‘delusion’ and ‘illusion’ began to gain more magnitude and later I began to think of onomatopoeic words such as ‘glossolalia,’ and ‘somnambulism’. That means if my friend’s comment is further intensified, the following expressions could be synonymous: ‘like the delusion of a man in somnambulism’, ‘like the delusion of a man in glossolalia’ and many more diversification.
I had delighted myself upon dishing out such an expression, “Pain is pleasure, pleasure is pain” to regale my cronies as usual. This is a chiasmus, a paradoxical utterance that reads forward and backward. It is one of those expressions with which one’s thoughts could be garnished and sequined. A similar example is ‘hell is heaven, heaven is hell.’ Other literary tropes that fall into this category are hendiadys, prolepsis, oxymoron, antithesis, syllepsis, zeugma, apokoinou and many more tropes with which writers garnish their expressions and thoughts.
As I stated earlier, I was nudged out of my slumber with such a seemingly indefatigable comment from a friend: “Like the delusion of a man in an illusion.” However, my attempt to argue further with the friend degenerated into further arguments. My friend maintained that there is a clear-cut difference between the agonies and pains of a burning fire and the sweetness embedded in the taste of honey. He argued that only the deluded would assume the reality of such diametrically opposite feelings combined or experienced. My friend’s argument hinged more on what is real or the absolute reality. He wanted me to be ‘realistic’ in some things and undeniably I could view his argument emerging from the perspective of an empiricist. An empiricist’s arguments are strongly based on the experience of taste, touch, sight, smell and sound.
I felt no ease to succumb. I argued that at times we experience such confluence of feelings. There is always a meeting point between life and death, love and hate, pain and pleasure. The point relies on the quantitative and the qualitative change of them. We live to die to live another life. We die to live to die another death. Where pain peters, pleasure takes and where pleasure peters, pain emerges. Love untamed results in hatred and hatred if endured with time results in abundant love. Our consciousness should not be oblivious of the fact that there is an afterlife, the corollary of death or that we live to bear the pain or perdition of some sins that through pleasures we had committed. Through the orgies of sex or the ‘poisonous’ pleasure of wine we experience the harmony of pain and pleasure or through such an activity or hobby that commands our effervescence and that gives us pain and pleasure at the same time. What then can we say of avowed fiends that later turn friends or one time lovers that end the fiendish way. The point remains that the intermingling, the intertwining and the dialectical nature of conditions and feelings cannot be disputed or overemphasized.
I argued further that reality is relative and that reality exists in the mind of the perceiver or the manner of the perceiving. While we lay claims to reality, we cannot rely on what is corporeal or ephemeral to argue for our claims to reality, rather we should rally our arguments around the totalities and absoluteness of human existence. We cannot at all times depend on the information we are being fed by the world around us or sight, or touch, or smell, or taste, or sound for our claims to reality, but rather we should lay further claims to other things beyond our immediate corporeal experience. What about the realities that exist in space or the realities that exist in the world of dreams or the assumed realities of the power of vision or the realities of the ethereal or the divine which pious religionists and revivalists aspire and dream?
I must say that I love and I would always love the way my friend ended his argument and the main idea behind his argument serves as the basis for this write-up. My friend’s argument suffices me in two ways: first as a title and second as the thesis or idea behind my write-up. From his conclusion it was evident that he did not dispute my argument that reality is relative, rather he framed and concluded thus: ‘Only that poets play reality with pun.’ And I responded thus: ‘Therefore everybody is a “poet”,’ meaning that if poets play reality with pun, everybody plays reality with pun.
My further interpretation of my friend’s argument that ‘poets play reality with pun’ is that poets use elegant and prosodic expressions either to impress their readers or listeners or to confound their understanding. Could this mean that sometimes poets accentuate, or sometimes poets attenuate, or sometimes poets create conundrums, with their expressions? One of these could be a way by which poets play reality with pun: “when the artist’s imagination clashes with life’s very reality, it creates heavy conundrums.” (Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country, p64). Thus I commence my argument and establish my stand on the title, Poetry: the Delusion of a Man in an Illusion?
I have taken my time to ask this question: ‘Is poetry a malaise, a corollary of giddiness an emotional chaos channelled through the pen to confound the minds of the readers?’ And I almost had my thoughts corroborated when my status on Facebook attracted a response from my friend. I began to perceive poets as the possessed in urgent need of exorcism and the readers of the so-called poets as the enchanted who are only left to be disenchanted by the non-poets who would spend times to disenchant them of their feelings. I could have gone the extra mile in tagging poetry as an erroneous doctrine that easily goes viral until it kept on occurring to me again that poetry being an ‘illusory’ state of a ‘deluded’ being is the best state to be if bars are to be crossed and hurdles are to be scaled to reach the peak that will afford us a better edge to see from the true vantage point. Thus the language of poetry becomes the best language that can transform us if truly we are ready to be transformed by it.
What do I mean by the language of poetry? The language of poetry is that which possesses the capability of arresting the totalities and consciousness of the poet and the reader. It is a language that levitates beyond the common material to the uncommon ideal; from the visible to the invisible; from the corporeal to the ethereal and from what can be felt to what cannot be felt. The language of poetry levitates, intensifies, accentuates, attenuates and plays puns through existential riddles and conundrums. This is the reason why at times a poet seems to lose contact with his or her immediate environment when so inspired or the reader of that poetry that levitates. Therefore, the so-called ‘delusion’ or ‘illusion’ of poetry is not in its capability to disconnect our consciousness from the world around us but our inability to straddle the two worlds perfectly (the world around us and the world of what we read and imagine or dream).
There was a time a brother complained on how absent minded I had always been. He had spent his time to observe me and his conclusion was that I always lost or preferred to lose concentration whenever I was being engaged in a conversation of some striking matters and that I seldom placed people in mind. That was the main attribute he detested in me. I told him that he should consider me as someone who placed great importance on my thoughts and who could hardly stop those thoughts from infiltrating on my feelings or obtrude on my mood because once I let loose the tethers from the necks of some brilliant thoughts and let them fly away I might never recover them again. I told him that I was always under the total hegemony of my thoughts and inspirations and that it was cumbersome taking my mind off a poem I had written halfway or a prose whose labyrinths of events are yet to be unknotted. But the brother insisted that I had to change because I was always off the radar.
Subsequently I began to think if it was of any benefit living in the castle of my thoughts and dreams or cocooned in the ambience of my poetic imaginations. I kept on asking myself if truly I was doing myself good. Often times I had waded deep in my thoughts and such thoughts had fetched me joy through my write-ups. Often times I had also waded deep in my thoughts and such thoughts had made me to lose contact with the world around me. But I have never regretted having waded deep in my thoughts. Rather I would train myself to be broader in my thoughts and to straddle the two worlds I live.
Once in a church while listening to the pastor preaching I was sitting near the window that gave me the panoramic view of a hill and the river that flowed beneath it. The hill was vast and trees covered the hill and the top of the hill seemed to have mingled with the sky at the horizon. It was in the northern part of Nigeria. I had empathy on the natural phenomena down from the window of the church which was built on the chest of a hill opposite the hill that was commanding my attention. I was straddling two worlds: the world of the word of God coming from the man of God and the world of nature coming from the river, hills and trees around me. I listened to the pastor preaching and I scribbled down few lines that crossed my mind about the phenomena. When we were through with the church service I went to my room and in the morning of the next day I came out with a beautiful poem ‘Gidan Waya’. This I was able to achieve by heeding the words of the great Chinua Achebe of blessed memory:
I had in essence discovered the writer’s life, one that exists in
the world of the pages of his or her story and then seamlessly
steps into realities of everyday life.
(Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country, p35)
Therefore, surviving the complexities and multifaceted nature of the present ever-changing world demands straddling the realities of the world of poetic imaginations and the realities of the world around us, if only we want our footprints on the shores of life, if only we want a fulfilling and balanced life, if only we want to have our fingers on every pie. This, a poet must do, this a poet must learnt to do by no longer dwelling in the monotony of some thoughts so as to have his or her thinking ameliorated and imagination bettered.
The question is ‘is poetry a delusion of a man in an illusion?’ This question can be addressed in two ways. First, if poetry is a delusion of a man in illusion, it could be how poets play reality with pun, i.e. how poets use language to describe what they believe and how poets use language to impress or confound their readers. Also another consideration of this could be how some ideas expressed in poetry are accentuated and strongly believed by both the poets and the readers. Therefore, my stand is how language is necessary for the realization of our dreams and aspirations and how being in the so-called delusion could drive us into achieving our aims and dreams with passion and aspiration.
A close look at some poems would feed us with the knowledge of the importance of language in poetry and how poets hold what they express or write to an esteem even when those ideas seem to be far-fetched to some people. The strength, plausibility and efficacy of an idea depend strongly on the language and someone that propounds it, and the majority that have much regard for such idea. I would first reference some lines in T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land, move a bit backward to the romantic poem, ‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and come home with the poem, ‘Ambush’ from Gbemisola Adeoti’s Naked Soles. These are the poems within my reach apart from many more poems that are good examples for the idea being expressed.
T.S Eliot makes the idea of the First World War very real and vivid in his poem The Waste Land through the use of language. No other title could have been more appropriate. Even non-witnesses of the First World War could attest, through the seriousness in the use of language in the poem, to how serious, gory and gruesome the First World War was. The first four lines of the poem read:
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain…
(T.S Eliot, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, The Waste Land, p 1)
Why is April qualified with so serious a word as ‘cruellest’? But this is an attestation to the famine, dryness and dearth that characterized the aftermath of the First World War. The surplus and comfort that usually characterized the month of April had vanished and only what was left was the cruelty of dryness, famine and dearth. The poet goes further in subsequent lines with another serious expression captured in an intimidating language: ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’ What a vivid image of death! These expressions capture the poet’s idea of massive destruction of lives and properties in the First World War. There couldn’t have been a better usage than those captivating words. All these attest to the way the poet held his idea of the First World War to a high esteem.
It is expedient to take a look at Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. The poem is said to be an aftermath of a vision and there are several lines in the poem that attest to that but the poem seems to speak more of the world beyond through the perfect and ideal environment being portrayed and the seriousness attached to those environment by the poet himself. The poem reads:
damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision I saw
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played
Singing of mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song…
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Unarguably the language of the poem is visionary and the environment being portrayed is perfect. Whatever opium the poet had taken does not matter here but the similarity between his experience and the experience of those who lay claims to vision. Vision is usually a conundrum or a blurred experience that demands clarification and interpretation. It never comes raw. Anybody could appear in a vision or dream and any place could be reached or featured. The poet claims seeing ‘a damsel with a dulcimer’ in his vision. The damsel was ‘an Abyssinian’ (Ethiopian) ‘maid’ and ‘on her dulcimer she played / singing of Mount Abora.’ The poet has narrated his visionary experience in the best language he could. Ethiopia is remarkable for its spiritual significance and virgin maids (and lads) are always assumed to be spiritual. Music is a language of heaven and ‘Mount Abora’ is an ethereal haven that exists in the poet’s vision. The poet also confesses his wish to revive within himself the symphony and song experienced in his vision. This is typical of a vision. People who have had such experience have always regretted not having a full memory of what they saw or felt and wished such an experience would recrudesce (come again).
Therefore, it would be false to claim that Coleridge’s vision was a product of delusion or illusion. It is the experience of the poet himself that determines whether he was hallucinating or he was in a vision. But as far as language and visionary experience is concerned, this is not an illusion.
Coming to Nigerian poetry, Gbemisola Adeoti’s ‘Ambush’ is another example. Gbemisola Adeoti’s ‘Ambush’ is replete with metaphors typical of a land of fear and impossibilities. The first stanza of the poem reads:
The land is a giant whale
That swallows the sinker,
With hook, line and bait
Aborting dreams of a good catch…
(Gbemisola Adeoti, ‘Ambush’, Naked Soles p33)
While the poet expresses the idea of a land or country where nothing works and dreams are aborted he uses the best language that could suffice him in driving home his point. The metaphor ‘the land is a giant whale’ could seem to be an act of exaggeration but that is exactly what the land or country being described is like. The same land or country is further personified as swallowing ‘the sinker, / with hook, line and bait / Aborting dreams of a good catch…’ It is a reflection of the poet’s perception of the land or country being portrayed. Therefore the poet could not have been hallucinating or deluded at the sight of ‘a giant whale that swallows the sinker with hook, line and bait’ and aborts ‘the dreams of a good catch.’ He has only expressed his thoughts and feelings in the best language he could.
In conclusion, I wish to maintain that it is better to be deluded by some trail-blazing ideas. The so-called unrealistic ideas have ruled the world. We cannot always be realistic if we want to attain a better height. We need some taste of idealism. We need some iota of faith. Sometimes we need to let the uncertain guide us at the expense of the certain. The words ‘love’ and ‘unity’ seem not to exist or be real but if we have a better language to express them they become real. They become real if only we believe in them. It is not always the plausibility of a belief or an idea that matters, but the believer. Poetry is not a delusion, poetry is not an illusion. It is the language that makes it so. It is the language that gives the conundrum. And if it is the language, it is the way the poet esteems his or her ideas.
Olayiwola Olanrewaju holds a B.A Degree in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He is a writer, a philosopher and an artist. Presently he teaches English Language and Literature in English at Damico College of Arts and Sciences, Ajebamidele, Ile-Ife.