Ikeogu Oke's The Heresiad - A return to traditional poetry

Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad – A return to traditional poetry?

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad, a traditional poem that attained popular acclaim when it won the 2017 ANA Prize for Poetry could subtly imply that a revolution for a return to traditional form of poetry has begun

Poetry has not always been the way it is today; poetry has quite a close affinity with music for poetry was formerly meant to be sung. We know that Iliad and Odyssey are poems composed by a blind poet known as Homer and recounted to the accompaniment of a lyre (a musical instrument). The advent of writing has seen to a gradual separation of the twain (poetry and music) so that poetry today; almost; no longer resembles what it used to look like of old. Yet, true poetry is best realized when spoken!

The breakaway from a traditional style of poetry began, perhaps, with the Romantics who emerged after the French Revolution (1789-1799), who in a bid to breakaway with the strict and (what was deemed) logical style of poetry of the Neoclassical age harped on the fact that true poetry is that inspired by an emotional outburst “recollected in tranquility”. These Romantics shifted the focus of poetry from its formalistic aspects such as rhyme, rhythm, wit, and logicality to focus on the emotions and feelings engaged by such poetry.

However, it was the Modern age (late 19th to 20th century) which was to witness a total separation from traditional poetry, the world moved from versified poetry to an age of free verse. This was also a time when the British Empire had so expanded that it was said that “the sun never sets in the British Empire”. African poets would come to favour the free verse as it is more in tandem with their mother tongue which is not stress timed as the English language and could permit the reproduction of the poetic styles of their mother tongue using the English language.

This was how free verse came to be established and popularized so much that some are beginning to forget that there was such a time when poetry depended on rhyme and rhythm to make sense. While rhyme and rhythm are not the only constituent of musical beauty in poetry, they help to make a poem sonorous and create great musical effect in a poem.

So when I encountered Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad, I was forced to smile. The effect was therapeutic as it has been quite a while since I engaged poetry in its raw and traditional form as I find with Oke’s The Heresiad. And what better way to meet traditional poetry than in its sublime form, the epic!

Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad follows the tradition of Homeric poetry to offer to us an epic poem with great musical quality (no wonder Oke subtitles the collection: “Operatic Poetry”). The choice of the iambic pentametre couplet is a great one and reminds me of the poetry of Alexander Pope–meticulous attention is paid to rhythm and rhyme.

The poem consists a total of two thousand, three hundred and ninety two (2,392) lines divided into four parts (Cantos). Canto I begins a story about Zumba (an author) who has committed heresy by writing against the doctrines of a particular faith, he is to be punished by a monarch (symbolizing death) who sends out his “Faithfuls” (Doom, Avenger, Sword, Machete, Axe) from his subterranean kingdom to locate Zumba on earth and bring him in for punishment. The Faithfuls leave for the earth and agree to torture Zumba to death if they ever set eyes upon him.

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In Canto II, Zumba fearing his demise in the hands of the monarch’s Faithfuls calls on Reason (another monarch in an extraterrestrial, sublunary kingdom) and pleads that he intercedes on his behalf. Reason hears his plea and quickly does he dispatch his five subjects, the Stalwarts (Stone, Panther, Care, Bluff, and Smithy) to thwart the monarch’s plan and ensure no harm comes to Zumba. The Stalwarts leave and argue against meeting their foe (the Faithfuls) with arms and agree on winning them with words.

Meanwhile the author has pleaded for forgiveness from the monarch and the monarch is willing to hear his plea so he sends his page (servant) to call back the Faithfuls who already in Canto III are beginning to disagree on how the author should be punished. This argument divides them into two groups with one insisting on having the author punished while the other group pointed out that the monarch should be allowed to determine whether to punish Zumba or not. The monarch’s page arrives at this point to tell them that they must return for the monarch no more wishes to harm Zumba but three of the Faithfuls disagree on the message and insist on finding Zumba still. In the process, they encounter the Stalwarts and capture them demanding Zumba as ransom before the Stalwarts are released.

Reason intercedes; in Canto IV; taking Zumba before the monarch while arguing for tolerance and that man should not use differences in religious beliefs or differing opinions as a yardstick to prescribe death for another. The monarch forgives Zumba as Reason sues for peace.

The poem preaches religious tolerance and the need to accommodate those with differing opinions. The poem is perhaps most relevant to us (Nigerians) as a nation of various religion and religious sects who fail to see eye to eye on certain issues. It is a fine epic which employs linguistic dislocation and an almost archaic diction to achieve a musical effect.

Yet must we ask, how epic is Ikeogu Oke’s epic poem; The Heresiad?

Yes, while Ikeogu Oke might have attained a great feat in linguistic colouration, one wonders how true he has remained to the tenets of forging epic poems. Let us see.

Epics are known to begin in media rex (the story begins from the middle, moves back to the beginning, then gravitates towards an end), this seems to be missing in Ikeogu’s work. His is a chronological rendition.

Secondly, in the epic poems of old, there is usually a supplication to a muse to inspire and invigorate the poet to render his words in verse. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost for instance, that muse is the Holy Spirit while in Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad, the muse the poet appeals to is Poetry.

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We must not forget to mention also that epic poems do set out their aim and objectives at the beginning of the poem, John Milton in Paradise Lost claims his wish is to “justify the ways of God to man” while Ikeogu Oke in his The Heresiad claims that what he wants to do is:

To explore a moral posture deemed perverse,
And resolve a conflict in the bounds of verse.

*        *        *

I shall sing of how, eschewing strife,
Gracious Reason saved an author’s life.

Simply put, the poet’s objective is to tell us how “Reason” saved a writer’s life. Was this objective attained? I do not think so. The poet blew every chance he had to show us this. Maybe I expected too much but I expected to see the Stalwarts and Faithfuls in a heated argument that would prove whose stance was wrong or right, such a part would have been the climax of the poem and also added suspense to the work but it never happened. The Faithfuls were quick to conquer the Stalwarts and we never saw how that happened. I also expected Reason to come up with cogent reasons why the author does not deserve to be punished before the monarch but no, this was not to happen, Reason merely passed on his reasons for supporting the author to his page (servant). I even looked out to see if the author would stand to defend himself before the monarch but that also never happened. More so, considering the fact that we do not know exactly what it is that the author (Zumba) wrote that makes him guilty of heresy, suffice it to say that the poet fails to reveal to us a few important things in the poem. And I would rather not have this blamed on the husbandry of words that is constant with poetry for what we have at hand is an epic poem; I would consider it a slight on the author’s part.

Now, let us meet some of the characters in the poem, we begin with Zumba. The author (Zumba), is too passive to attract our attention, he is hardly the epic hero one expects to meet in an epic poem. Zumba is contented with hiding away from the Faithfuls and making entreaties from his hideout. Most of the scenes he appears are seen from his dreamy state and he is not an active participant in the story (his character his quite flat). His voice is seldom heard and he hides away in fear as others fight on his behalf. Instead of Zumba, it is Reason we see trying to steal the show. Maybe I am infected by the traditional definition of the epic poem as a long narrative poem recounting the great deeds of a legendary hero, and yes, these heroes are usually men or women with supernatural powers such as Beowulf for instance. Maybe this is why I cannot accept Zumba as an epic hero or consider him a great man by society’s standards, just maybe. I prefer to see this as a flaw in the characterisation of the epic hero.

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On the two monarchs, I think Ikeogu Oke drank too deep into European mythology and failed to reflect his roots in his poetry. The first Monarch and his Faithfuls would almost fit the description of the Greco-Roman god of the underworld, Hades, in his subterranean realm while the second Monarch (Reason) would fit the description of Zeus in his Mount Olympus realm, even with physical appearance, page and all. While this needs not be condemned, I do not like it that the poet could not come up with images of god-like monarchs who look African like himself and myself.

As for the Stalwarts and Faithfuls, they remind me of the old medieval morality plays such as Everyman and John Bunyan’s puritanical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress where characters bear names that reflect their roles.

Lastly, the idea of using allusions to drag in sub-plots that are redundant to the story just to gain currency or align the poem with some of the issues bedeviling African nations is totally unacceptable, and perhaps illogical; an example is that on page 52 and 53. The poem’s story, if anything seems far off from the African shores in setting and those allusions do not make it come any closer.

Nonetheless, Ikeogu Oke has utilized the beauteous language of poetry to appeal to humanity to be more receptive (rather than being hostile) to those who hold differing opinions or views, especially in religious matters. More so since every idea was first condemned before they came to be regarded as being valid or true, the case of the German Martin Luther is a case study.

Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad is a traditional poem that has attained popular acclaim since it won the 2017 ANA Prize for Poetry in a stiff competition. Does this then imply that a revolution for a return to the traditional form of poetry has begun or that this work will inspire other poets to seek rhyme and rhythm in their poems? Or maybe Ikeogu Oke might just be another Robert Frost who insists on hearing “the beat” in his poetry in an age that has become attuned to the free verse style of poetry? You should get your copy of The Heresiad, read, and return to give us your thoughts on these questions.

Wait, do not tell me you read all these to this point? Your patience could really cook a stone you know? Hahaha!

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2018

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist.

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