Poetry purists still waste time claiming that what one reads these days isn’t poetry but verse. They argue that today’s “poets” can’t create poetry that provokes the mind in philosophical directions.
But that can be said of a lot of artistic work these days. In a world where values change so rapidly, even poets can, nay, should, be forgiven for not living up to the expectations of traditionalists. However, one can also see the traditionalists as people hanging on to principles whose time has passed.
Poetry, like many other forms of literary expressions, has evolved over time, and appears in different forms these days. Spoken-word poetry, a somehow cousin of dub poetry (which too had immense trouble with purists when it appeared on the scene), has become some kind of fashion today.
There is a performance of “spoken-word” poetry in many parts of this country almost every week. These sessions have their kind of niche audiences, but even a passer-by would enjoy the energy, the creativity and often the profundity of these performances.
One of the most recognisable spoken-word poets in Kenya today is Mufasa Poet. Mufasa does live performances of his poetry, either solo or as part of a group. But these poets are also increasingly publishing their verses.
Mufasa recently published an anthology of his poetry, Raising a Sun (2019). This collection has four chapters, each carrying several poems, every one dedicated to a particular subject, but all of them connected by the thread of the poet’s own daily life struggles.
Reading Raising a Sun, one meets a poet philosopher; a poet critic; a poet teacher; a poets’ poet; an artiste struggling to come to terms with the fate of humanity in a world that is quite inhuman.
Mufasa begins his performance in the home, among relatives, speaking with, to and about those close to him. For instance, the persona’s relationship with the father starts off the conversation/performance in the verse “Generations”:
I am not at a place to know exactly/how life works. Whether one grows into a good/father or whether a son grows into their father. As a kid/I didn’t know at what point dad/was giving his all/And at what point he was all he/could give.
Here, the persona is worried that he might end up like his father, who, he notes, might not have had much to ‘give’ to others except probably just his self.
However, in the next poem, “Fountain”, the persona offers advice to all and sundry: Don’t dig a hole in your mother’s/heart/If you have never filled anything up.
This theme of care for women runs throughout the anthology, whether these women are the persona’s (or everyone else’s) grandmother (to whom the anthology is dedicated), mother, sister, girlfriend or women friends, among others.
Thus, the foundation of Raising a Sun is really the family. Why, one may ask?
The poet seems to suggest throughout several poems that the relationship one has with the immediate family shapes one’s worldview, conduct and life in general. The persona celebrates the grandmother as an industrious woman:
My grandmother was no Jesus/But I have been told it was miraculous how sometimes she fed and schooled her children with no job.
Later, he would claim:
I am my grandmother’s house … I am grass thatched and as hard/as a calabash.
These images of the grandmother, the house, the calabash, etc, invoke a home environment, in this case one that involves the care and love of a grandparent. This type of world is fast fading away, leaving many troubled young people around.
The grandmother stands in contrast with the parents, who the persona notes, “ … were not obligated to offer you friendship”, but did offer love by “paying school fees; buying food; clothing you”.
In this adult world of today, the poet suggests, the “perfect kid” needs to “understand” the parents’ troubles to raise the children. But at what cost? The cost of producing children with pent-up anger; children who can’t fit in the society?
Indeed, the persona notes that one of the consequences of lack of parental care is that he can see the “brother swimming in alcohol”. Why? Because he “prefers to swim to keep himself from landing on his head every time he walks on land”.
In a most poetic turn of phrase, the persona says, “I think my brother died a long time ago/My mother thinks my brother is living his death/I think my brother doesn’t have poetry/he just has a bottle in his hand/I understand.”
This cynical take on how loveless family life, driven by modernity’s demand on parents to work and work and work in order to give a “comfortable life” to their children isn’t really the tone of the whole collection of poetry. Even if mama and papa were too busy working to get the children food, fees and clothes, to love the children enough, the persona still thinks that his mama is ‘Stronger’:
This woman I call mama/She is strong/And I’m not talking muscles here but even if I was/She is stronger than that gym instructor who got a girl pregnant and [ran] away.
Raising a Sun is quite eclectic in its take on everyday life as well as the philosophy that humans live by.
For instance, in five lines, the persona poses a deep question on what it means to be a woman in a world that is generally unsafe for women; and whether a man can really understand that sense of insecurity that many women live with.
It is such pithy observations, delivered in ordinary language, but with a philosophical punch that makes the poetry in this anthology not just readable (privately) but performable, even by the individual reader.
In some sense, one feels that spoken-word poetry has come of age in this country and should be recognised as a peer among the community of literature and art.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; [email protected]