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Anis Haffar Writes | Tips for students writing African Poetry (WASSCE 2009) - by Anis Haffar

Mon, 25 Aug, 2008

This piece is a toast to the success of all students writing African Poetry in the WASSCE 2009. Africa needs your diligence and skills. Begin now to prepare yourselves for grade A. The following Authors / Poems are slated to be examined:

  1. Gabriel Okara (New Year’s Eve Midnight);
  2. David Diop (Your Presence);
  3. Kwesi Brew (A Plea for Mercy);
  4. Kofi Awoonor (Rediscovery); and
  5. Ladé Worsonu (The Master Brewer)

 

Let’s begin with some selected hints for studying Poetry:

  1. Read each Poem quietly, at first. Then, hear the sounds by reading it aloud often - to yourself, a friend, or the family.
  2. Be active, and “hands-on” about it. Start by writing “My Impressions”: What you think, feel, or find attractive, refreshing and insightful. Relate Poem to any aspect of your life or experiences, or someone else’s. That is the prime requisite. You may choose to discuss your impressions with other people. You may ask what they think too.
  3. Engage with each Poem in your own way first, before you consider the “study notes”. In an exam situation, you are more likely to remember your own thoughts faster. Cambridge examiners, in particular, caution against that “certain sameness to the answers [and] interpretations” where students merely “parrot” study notes and pre-packaged answers. Never put yourself in a position where another person’s ideas pre-empt yours. You could be the genius.
  4. In Poetry, unlike Mathematics, there are no right or wrong answers per se. Poetry allows you the freedom to express yourself; so, state your views and impressions boldly; but most important, be prepared to defend them with clarity, conviction, and sound logic. That is the gateway to the assertive “personal responses” that entice examiners.
  5. Poetry is synonymous with parenting. Like they say, almost anyone can have a child; but to be a parent, you must love, support and take responsibility for the child. Poetry is similar. Bear beliefs, views, opinions or even suspicions. But the key is the ability to support those thoughts.
  6. In your responses, select and use key words, phrases, or very brief quotes from the Poem to show knowledge of the text. Shorter is better because they are easier to remember.
  7. Unlike some forbidden fruits, Poetry is not for adults only. It is for anyone sensitive to his or her own feelings (and the outlook of others) – the visions, aspirations, moods, fears, etc. Remember what the ancients said of self-knowledge: “Know thyself!” Empathy can be therapeutic, especially where we develop healthy sensitivities and relate them to others. When we feel and share other people’s pains or successes we ourselves become buoyant.
  8. By all means, experiment with words, phrases, new meanings, etc. That helps us to develop and discover “verbal magic”. The Literary Devices (Symbolisms, Metaphors, Imagery, Irony, Alliterations, Assonance, etc) are keys to the creative appreciation of Poetry, Prose, and Drama. First, the devices help to identify and appreciate what is there; Second, they help us to discern our own creative sparks.
  9. Even where a particular Poem may seem difficult at first, do not be shaken unduly. Begin to think, state, and share reasons why it is unclear. And then be assertive and creative: Suggest ways in which that piece could be amended, adapted, or made more accessible. Literary reviewers are great at a genre of literature called “Literary Criticism”. You cannot be passive in these “high profile”, “critical thinking” aspects. They call for creative engagement with various styles and types of readings and texts, with you in the driver’s seat.
  10. Bottom line: As you develop the mindset to meet any passage undaunted, you can’t possibly lose. For example: where you don’t see exactly what is there, ask yourself: What can this particular word, phrase or line possibly mean in the context? Experiment, explore, make mistakes; but never be passive in the pursuit. Even at worst, you still learn and benefit where you say: When I read this Poem, so and so mean such and such to me, and that is why I suggest these views or draw my conclusions.
  11. With Poetry, we learn to think, be ourselves, and be reflective. As Albert Camus, the Nobel laureate, put it, we are “obliged to understand rather than to judge”. That is the key to lifelong learning and satisfaction.
  12. The greatest thoughts are cast in few words. Welcome to the club as you glean these charms: “A rose by any other name”; “A friend in need”; “Love thy neighbour”; “Bread upon the waters”; “Vengeance is mine, said the Lord”; “To thine own self be true”; “The way of all flesh”; “Puzzles wrapped in mysteries”. It is impossible to recast these gems any “tighter”. It’s all about the Poetry!

 

Now, let’s explore the meaning of the title of Gabriel Okara’s Poem, ‘New Year’s Eve Midnight”. Let’s start from scratch, and even assume you have never seen the Poem itself. An examiner may pose the question: “What does the title of the Poem mean to you?” Or “Explore the possible meanings of the title.”

 

First of all, “New Year’s Eve Midnight” can mean a multitude of things. For one, the title indicates a “transition”: the process of changing from one state to the other: from a teenager to an adult; from a woman to a mother; from a man to a father; from a colonized country to an independent nation, etc. You may also single out personalities on the verge of history, and who made a great transition.

 

For example: What was Kwame Nkrumah thinking when he stood on the Polo Grounds in Accra proclaiming, “Ghana, your beloved country is free for ever?” Consider how he managed to found a new nation, when others denounced him and demanded that he should wait. Was he right in ignoring them? What would you have done?

 

We know, by now, what Nkrumah’s vision and aspirations for Ghana, and Africa are: continental government and economics, a united voice in international affairs, a personality of selflessness, mass education, etc. Though the founder dreamt big dreams with great conviction, he was only human. So consider “the conspicuous absences”: What could have been Nkrumah’s fears, or apprehensions? To do justice to such analyses, it is essential that you walk, subtly, in the founder’s moccasins, and unravel the mysteries there. That is the rub!

 

A Second lead: The title also suggests the crossroads: You are in the process of leaving the past to enter the future. One cannot afford to stagger at such opportune times. From earlier anxieties, how does one resolve to be steadfast? Consider also any “wake up calls” that the title may suggest.

 

A Third: At critical times one has to state a position, and abide by it. If you sit on the fence, you could be idling. You may then resemble a passive onlooker. As they say, “There are people who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who ask, What happened?” Where do you stand?

 

A Fourth: Relate to Shakespeare, if you are familiar with Hamlet’s classic soliloquy: To be or not to be. Reflect on life’s uncertainties. Consider also the typical “Catch 22” situations: Damned if you do; and damned if you don’t.

 

A Fifth: New Year resolutions: Are they necessary? Why do people make them? Do they follow them? Do they work? Did you make one last year?

 

A Sixth: Take care of the present and the future will take care of itself; like preparing for the 2009 examinations today without waiting for a teacher or parent to ask you to. The saga of the “missed present” breaks fortunes. Okara’s title suggested that we prepare for the future beginning now.

 

The glitzy French may allude to Okara’s title ”New Year’s Eve Midnight” as a “vignette”, a decoration designed to introduce a classy poem. The Internet (Wikipedia) may call the title “a stub”, and ask that you explore the possibilities of clothing a naked thought. Poetry disdains aloofness like nature abhors a vacuum. Be alive! Once you stir the imagination, there’s no telling where you’d fly.

 

Having discerned that many possibilities from Okara’s title alone, imagine the potential of the whole Poem! Well, get started. Okara, Diop, Brew, Awoonor, and Worsonu are some of Africa’s brightest. We are honoured by their lives. Stimulate your mind as you explore theirs. Good luck. Get an ‘A’ on the WASSCE.

Source: if YES FileName

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