Poetry: An Invitation to Dance
- Imruh Bakari
Judging by my own experience, the most likely question to be asked about a poem is, what does it mean? When this question is posed in relation to my own work I am usually speechless. A poet at a loss for words is a paradox. But strange as it seems that is usually my reaction. I am always caught off guard by the question. What I do become aware of is that the motivation behind the questions assumes that there is a hidden or essential meaning to a poem. The presumption seems to be that the poem is a kind of code that has to be cracked.
In my view a more interesting question would be to find out why was the poem written? An assured answer to this question is more likely. After this, it is possible that a more comfortable approach to the question of meaning could be revealed; not as a definitive or absolute statement, but in relation to the sensibility of the person who asked the question.
The Sufi Sheikh, Inayat Khan says, “the distinct work of the poet is to prepare the heart to receive […] light…”. If this is taken in the widest and most ordinary way, the question of meaning is not foremost. The underlying idea seems to be the presence of a sense of submission, adventure and receptivity. It is in this way that I would suggest that essentially, poetry rather than saying something that has a meaning; is an invitation to dance!
This may sound idealistic and the question of meaning will no doubt still persist. This is so because of the confusion about art and its function. Suffice to say that all works of art have multiple meanings. Sometimes different meanings can be contested all at the same time. Equally, accepted meanings can become irrelevant and obsolete. The case of traditional African art in European museums illustrates this very clearly. In other circumstances a specific meaning can gain prominence depending on the occasion or the time.
In poetry there is the case of the poem “If we must die”. It is known that during WWII, Winston Churchill used this poem in one of his speeches to rally the British people against Hitler. It was effective. Little did they know that this poem had been written in 1919 by a Jamaican poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay. The poem has its origins in a response to the lynch mobs that operated in the USA against black people. This was not the reference point for its importance in the utterance of Winston Churchill. Still, the reputation of this poem makes it clear that as an evocation, as an invitation to dance, it served the same purpose.
The invitation to dance is an invitation to a mutual feeling. It is an invitation to an exploration, which is inevitable in any encounter with the unknown. It is only through this that the idea of meaning can become apparent. Dancing as would be appreciated is dependent on hearing. On what is heard. That is why people of different cultures dance differently even to the same music. Of course steps, movements and styles can be learnt, but the meanings will most definitely be as personal and varied as the perceptions and personalities involved. However, if the dancer has an understanding of the context and motivation of the act, dancing can indeed become an interesting dialogue or conversation. In fact the dance can assume a poetic quality which is present in all facets of life. Poetry expresses this quality through the use of words in language.
Language is the material of ordinary speech. Poetry however, is by no means ordinary. In its use of language, its evocation, its dramatisation, words take on a new poetic quality. The invitation to dance is the encounter and the exploration that is encouraged by poetry. It may be understood as an act of trying to speak the unspeakable. Where this succeeds, it is here that the heart is touched and prepared to receive light! And if Pablo Neruda’s confession that “poetry arrived in search of me” can be taken with sincerity, then there is the assurance that meaning will be revealed without any presumption or precondition.
Dar es Salaam
16 June 2007