Poetry, as a genre of literature, serves different purposes for readers and writers alike. Sometimes, it is used to convey emotions in extraordinarily beautiful ways. At other times, it is employed in revisiting the past, or reminding the world of existing realities that they should not ignore.
There are no clearly defined parameters for determining the best poetry, so award shortlists are not only far from unanimous, they often attract divided opinion. The 2017 edition of the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature is based on poetry, and there were questions as to the credibility of the bards who made the final shortlist. I wanted to have a piece of what the fuss was about so when I stumbled on the works of one of the nominees, I swore to read it.
Ogaga Ifowodo is a lawyer, columnist, poet and rights activist. His poems have been published in a number of anthologies and magazines, including The Times Literary Supplement, The Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse, and The Dalhousie Review. He has also previously published three prize-winning poetry collections; Homeland and Other Poems, Madiba, and The Oil Lamp.
“A Good Mourning” is a collection of 26 poems of varying length, stretching across 78 pages. In these verses, Ogaga tackles quite a number of issues, from history to war, from despair to hope, from dead heroes to economic instability.
In “History Lesson”, Ogaga explores younger years as a schoolboy where he wished for his father’s car to break down so he could take a longer look at the hills and rivers, “Ten Hours” describes a surgical operation, “One Plus One” highlights the beauty of weddings, and “Rather Than Burn” dwells on the pressure to marry vis-a-vis lustful desires. “Sixty Lines By The Lagoon” is an ode to Odia Ofeimun, “The Frightened Tree” contains verses in honour of the late Bola Ige, “To Name A Hero” is for the late academic Festus Iyayi, “The Heavenly Gun Club” deals with war, and “A Good Mourning” eulogises the late M. K. O. Abiola. “Freetown”
It’s not all about the home front for Ogaga though. Some poems here take us on journeys outside. “Freetown” and “Liberation Camp” dwell on the perils of being in war-torn countries, “A Rwandan Testimony” refers to the 1994 genocide, while “Book Burning In Darfur” deals with religious tensions in Sudan.
In “A Good Mourning”, Ogaga’s verses are well scribbled, but at one point or the other, you are left wondering who he is really talking to. Again, there are no set rules for writing poetry, but it is counter-productive to write in a way that appeals to intellectuals, while alienating the larger reading community. Ogaga’s style in this book will be lost on impatient readers trying to find meaning between the lines, this isn’t the 1960s anymore! Sure enough, this is award season, and we cannot decide a poet’s target audience, but Ogaga may want to broaden his scope a little.