I love seeing artists supporting artists, and today we have Shola Balogun’s review of the book Immortal Poems of the English Language edited by Oscar Williams! Read his take on the book and then go check out the book as well!
This is a review of Oscar Williams’ anthology, Immortal Poems of the English Language -by Shola Balogun
Immortal Poems of the English Language Edited by Oscar Williams
Immortal Poems of the English Language, the anthology edited by Oscar Williams, provides a highly wide-ranging flavour of poetic souls from Geoffrey Chaucer to Dylan Thomas. It crisply re-presents and depicts an ideal blending of the British and American celebrated poets and poetry, taking the reader into the classical culture with its songs and ballads, to the mighty lines of Christopher Marlowe, to the mystical poems of William Blake, to Edward FitzGerald’ s admirable translation of the Persian Omar Khayyám’ s the Rubáiyát.
In the introduction to the anthology, the editor Oscar Williams, the American poet and admittedly a distinguished anthologist, having quoted Robert Frost that, “It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound- that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry, as in love, is perceived instantly. It hasn’t to await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but we knew at sight we never could forget it”, states,
“A poem is immortal not only because it continues to be read by generation after generation of readers but also because each sensitive reader, having once experienced the poem, absorbs the experience and continues to feel it always, and further, because a true poem expresses an immortal human truth. Anyone who knows how to love, or to suffer, or to think, anyone who wishes to live fully, needs and seeks poetry” (“Introduction” p. 9).
The expression of poetry is not limited or restricted to any single language. It is factually visible in traditional societies whose indigenes, though are not ‘readers’ of poems, can still tell when what is essentially collective is poorly personified or modified. A poem can be the work of a single creator but the expanded experience must be collective. And that is where the permanence in poetry lies. That is the proof that a poem can never be forgotten. In poetry, for the agonizing experience of love or suffering to be impressed on the minds of others, it has to be remarkably recalled, decidedly intense and creatively emotional.
Interestingly, the anthology with its 637 pages absorbs every piece of what constitutes living arts from the best of poets. The timelessness of poetry gives me the impression that this anthology, though published in 1952, is still much relevant today. The purpose of this review is to celebrate the 68 years of the Pocket Books printing of this anthology in memory of Oscar Williams (1900-1964), poet and editor of this anthology.
Williams, Oscar, ed. Immortal Poems of the English Language. Pocket ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952. 637 pages
ISBN: 0- 671- 49610-7
Author of Review:
Shola Balogun is a Nigerian poet, playwright, filmmaker, and literary critic. He studied Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Balogun is the author of Praying Dangerously: The Cry of Blind Bartimaeus and The Wrestling of Jacob. He also screenplayed The gods Are Liars, Wrestling with Shadows and Deliverance from The Rod of the Wicked, based on the messages of Dr. D.K.Olukoya, which have been made into short films. His work has appeared in journals and anthologies, most recently in Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City and The Tau: The Literary and Visual Art Journal of Lourdes University. Balogun lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
Banqobile Virginia Dakamela, Bulawayo wrote a compelling review for Ndaba Sibanda’s book, As If They Minded. It is a book that is very relevant these days, and Banqobile gives a glowing description. I encourage you to go take a look.
Book Review by Banqobile Virginia Dakamela, Bulawayo
As If They Minded
Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light cannot do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love cannot do that”. Ndaba Sibanda’s poems are dedicated to what is left of peace and honesty. Indeed they advocate for peace and honesty through a wide range of concerns and subjects that vary from gender relations, nostalgia, nature, politics, race relations to social responsibility. The tone in most of the poems is scathing, satirical, animated whilst the pieces maintain and sustain an alluring rhythm.
In ‘Family Time,’ the poet is nostalgic as his desire to fly on a plane and tour the world is replaced by an ache to spend time with his family.
they say jewelery is timeless and can be
passed down from generation to generation
but now my treasure is quality time with family
There is use of anaphora in the poem ‘l Hear A Nearness’ as the poet ruminates, choruses the personal pronoun I at the beginning of each line.
I listen to the silence of her storms
I listen to its close remoteness
He also expresses the frustrations of a long distance relationship in the poem, ‘A Solid Impression’. The poet expresses his love for nature through the idyllic journeys to places of attraction. He is mesmerized by the beauty of the Namibian lands, the incredible rivers, waterfalls and beaches of Angola, the majesty of the Victoria Falls, the grandeur of Matopo Hills, the mystery of the caves and the splendor of the Esigodini Hills. The poet uses similes and hyperbole in his depiction of the impressiveness and uniqueness of African landscapes.
Visiting Namibia is like taking an excursion
To a heaven of deserts and wildlife reserves;
It is like exploring the lovely curves of a lover.
A rich experience that transports and transforms,
And leaves one mesmerised tenfold times ten!
Poetry in this book is interspersed with wordplay and figurative language. It is one of the ingredients of this publication, and by extension, the signature of the author. For example, the poem ‘Just A Jostling Village’ is alive with humor and wit from the first line to the last one. The poet places together contrasting and contradictory concepts, and this association helps the reader to perceive a deeper level of truth and tour and savor different layers of semantics. For example, the presence of an oxymoron is discernible and delightful when the poet talks of police stations that are robbed every day. When he compares purity to mud, poverty to praiseworthiness, surely the crescendos and innuendos have reached paradoxes of comical proportions!
they say they do not want to live in a city
where police stations are robbed every day
where marriage counsellors are in the habit
of filing for divorce, where working is not working for many
where flameproof fire stations have an appetite for burning down
where purity is as clear as mud, where love is cash, poverty is worthy!
where normalcy is as sweet as seeing pregnant virgins high on the pill!
Relations between men and women are scrutinized in a number of poems. These are marked by either passion or conflict. In ‘ Hotel Music ‘, the persona fails to sleep because of a couple’s passionate love- making sounds which he finds distractive. In ‘ Romance Tourism’, a couple’s love and intimacy is explored in what can be summed up by the axiom, ‘ shooting birds with one stone ‘. Whilst they explore their romance, they also get to appreciate and experience the tourism of a country. On a profounder note, the poet bravely casts lights on the racialized, exoticized, and hypersexualized stereotypes involving local men, usually in Africa, the Caribbean or in Asia and the female tourists from economically well-off countries, usually in Europe and North America.
Rich older women in the young loving arms of poor local men who received gifts and cash
They seemed to enjoy succulent seafood and topped it off with beer and romantic carousing
In ‘House Number 12 Foot Street ‘, a bitter wife is tipped off on her husband’s shenanigans and she exposes the illicit affair. Like a number of pieces in this collection, this particular one is a shape poem.
Sibanda’s poems also touch on social responsibility. In ‘Fierce Fiesta’, people are merry-making and indulging excessively in food and drink. The poet plants a reminder that in the midst of all the fun people should not forget about the future and different fees that have to be paid. The poetic device at play here is alliteration, as evidence by the following lines:
Families feeding paunches
People party without leftovers forfees and future
In ‘Listening To A Guest On The Radio,’ the poet is raising awareness on the need for a healthy lifestyle while in ‘From Scars To Stars,’ he is encouraging the inhabitants of a certain city to move away from the hurt and pain of political marginalization to working hard to improve or free their lives. In poems that forge for social responsibility, he is also pushing the audience to frown on all forms of immorality and laziness but to find responsibility in hard work, creativity and resilience.
The poet also touches on the importance of one`s identity, heritage and history in the poem, ‘That Is Where My Umbilical Cord Is’. The persona speaks with pride and passion about his city of birth, Bulawayo. The ‘Umbilical Cord’ represents an extended metaphor of one`s birthplace and a sanctuary of memories and beginnings.
Today you stand tall in defiance of all the challenges
Right in the southern western part of the country
Just like in the year 1893 when a Union Flag was raised
As the huts of King Lobengulas capital were up in flames
Did Dr Leander Starr Jameson not congratulate himself
For scoring a British South Africa Company`s victory?
Some of the poems also speak on challenges that writers experience in their careers. In ‘ Roar To Life ‘, editors encourage a young writer to write quality work. In ‘Hallmarks Of Unprofessionalism ‘, a female writer is frustrated by the insensitivity of her publishers who fail to give her royalties for the work she has done. Some of his poems have a rousing touch to them. In ‘Crazy, Be Really Crazy Young Man ‘, the persona is reinvigorated to take up writing not only as a career, but as a challenge to reach dizzy heights.
the profession of writing chose you
like birds building their nests on trees
the prophet said sorry young man
I cannot exorcise you without
getting hurt myself and my conscience
because that`s your forte and science
The poet further probes into race relations, where he questions some sections of the white race’s half -hearted acceptance of the black race. In ‘Is There Dignity In That Immensity,’ the poet lambasts those who are still imprisoned and driven by blind feelings of supremacy, narcissism, unilateralism, bigotry and greed instead of embracing values of common humanity, shared vulnerabilities, decency, democracy and unity in diversity.
The bulk of the poems in the collection are an attack on the political terrain of a country. The poet mocks the self-centeredness of a dictator. In the poem, ‘As If They Didn’t Know,’ he mocks the lavish lifestyle of a dictator who preaches patriotism and progress, yet he gallivants about to foreign lands while the masses are forsaken in peril and poverty. In this instance again, the poet manages to use literary devices with dramatic effect. The richness of language is evident. The persona is used as substitute for something else– a croaking frog, an object, an idea or name it is associated with. For example, while the repetition of the term frog is metonymic, the mere mention of the word croak is onomatopoeic. From another perspective, one can say, the word frog is used for literary effect because it evokes an image of a bullfrog idling and howling in foreign swamplands. There is a lyrical feel to it too. The comicalness of this poem is masterfully amplified to a certain climax or artistic dimension by use of a thread of well-placed rhetorical questions.
was our unkind king frog
gregarious in nature?
they asked when
he was unable to croak
he travelled with countless frogs
to many foreign ponds and lakes
he liked lounging in the exotic
meadows and wetlands too
did our unkind king frog
have a sensual soprano voice?
as if they didn’t know
he was active in the evenings
and at night :inflating his throat
pouch about the urgent need
to protect our lakes and ponds
did our unkind king frog
protect our lakes and ponds?
as if they didn’t know
The poet has unkind words for a claimant who pretends to be better than his predecessor, yet in practice he is just a product of the same undemocratic and tyrannous regime. In the poem, ‘Of Sycophantic Peacemakers,’ the inheritor pretends to be sympathetic and peaceful yet he is the engineer and perpetrator of the hatred, chaos and division in a country. When the country seeks to make a fresh break with its scared past and is in need of a true reformer, sadly an antipode takes over. In ‘Haunted By His Mentor’s Disastrous Ghost,’ the poet also ridicules the successor for pretending to be different from or be better than his prototype. The poet also laments the state of the dilapidating economy. In the poem, ‘Finally’ he shows a country going through the worst economic meltdown in years.
In the petite but pregnant poem ‘Bhalagwe’ the use of an extended metaphor is historically significant and instructive. Bhalagwe is a disused mine shaft where shallow mass graves lie. Contextually speaking, the word Bhalagwe denotes crimes against humanity that were recently acknowledged as a genocide. This is a pictogram of overprotected, unchecked, and unattended injustices. In ‘Of Policies And Capacities’, the poet exposes and satirizes corrupt tendencies that he blames for bringing the country to its knees. The poem has an interesting end rhyme scheme. It is a rhyming couplet.
this economy has whiskey how can it be so drunk and risky?
the poor say the prognosis is easy for this country has a terrible leprosy
termites and maggots of corruption and governance constitute its destruction
There is a spiritual dimension to the presentation of his poetry. In the face of gloom and doom, the poet paints a picture of hope, vitality and victory. For example, in ‘A Done Deal’ there is a biblical allusion of Isaac.
the view could be blurred by
roaring and furious mists over
high mountains and sharp rocks
the road could be filled with thorns
and bottomless potholes and explosives
like an eagle–Thembani—soars beyond
the hurdles and prevailing situation around him
like an eagle he knows that as he soars the snakes
he is clutching in his fist are a done and defeated deal
like one Isaac he is prospering in the face of adversities!
The transformative power of literature is in its aesthetics, politics and poetics. Ndaba Sibanda has proved once more that he is a socially, culturally, spiritually and politically conscious poet who is a voice for the voiceless. His poems are a pleasure to read. They are a must-read for both leisure and academic purposes. Sibanda uses language in a gripping fashion because he breathes life into his words. For Betsy Perluss in Wilderness Guide says, “If language is our way of describing the world, poetry gives it life.”
Biography of the author Nominated for the Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net, Sibanda is the author of Notes, Themes, Things And Other Things, The Gushungo Way, Sleeping Rivers, Love O’clock, The Dead Must Be Sobbing, Football of Fools, Cutting-edge Cache, Of the Saliva and the Tongue, When Inspiration Sings In Silence, The Way Forward, The Ndaba Jamela and Collections and Poetry Pharmacy.
Banqobile Virginia Dakamela, Bulawayo is a writer who hails from Zimbabwe. She has written a story that was published in an anthology which was studied at high schools and is a set book in a local university. She has written extensively and is in the process of publishing some of her novels.