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Difficult works of literature



When I first read TS Eliot’s iconic poem called ‘The Love songs of J Alfred Prufrock’, I was in school.

I must confess that I understood nothing even with a re-reading and a third and even fourth reading!

I have always known that some works of literature, passages or whole books, can be very difficult to comprehend. I now know that difficult literature is sometimes referred to as opaque, inaccessible, obscure etc.

Much later and with a lot of hand holding from my mentors, I gradually woke up to the realisation that ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot is the inner monologue of a city gentleman who is stricken by feelings of isolation and inadequacy and incapability of taking decisive action.

He goes through community, through rooms full of women as if he is about to declare his love but rambling on and on about either his memories or his expectations. The difficulty is that the unwary reader does not know what exactly this man’s journey is about. The poem begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

You read and say, why is the voice in the poem inviting us to make a visit that leads us into asking the so-called “overwhelming questing.”

As the poem continues, you find out that ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ is driven by a persona who is constantly very self-conscious with his thoughts flowing forward, backwards and sideways, sparking various psychological associations.

He goes to and fro the streets insisting that there will be time to do virtually all things that we want done in life but you wonder what all these things would be. There are also here obscure yellow smoke revisions and revisions:

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

When you eventually get used to it, you may find out that this poem is an examination of the tortured psyche of the prototypical modern man—overeducated, eloquent, neurotic, and emotionally stilted.

Prufrock, the poem’s speaker, seems to be addressing a potential lover, with whom he would like to “force the moment to its crisis” by somehow consummating their relationship.

You may actually start to like the so called Prufrock and feel that he is in fact an aged man who is very concerned with the way people may think about what he thinks is his not so appealing appearance.

Meanwhile he is thinking about proposing love to a woman. He constantly addresses himself while he is in one spot.

He imagines himself straying into various rooms where there are many women who could easily pass negative comments about him. Finally he undertakes no physical journey at all, having already travelled mentally.

At that point you notice that had this poem not been part of your school set texts, you may not have travelled this far listening to a narrator who appears dreamy and hesitant.

You go back to this difficult poem simply because of the examination in the end. You plod and suffer.

Prufrock finally goes out to the beach and takes a restless walk, still holding mental debates within himself.

It is apparent that the use of the interior monologue in this instance is difficult to a new reader as it captures the mind of the individual who fails to come to terms with a practical reality and ends up living in his mind. In literature this tends to dramatise the neurosis of the individual in modern society.

Christopher Okigbo (born August 16, 1932, Ojoto, Nigeria—died August 1967, Nigeria), is considered one of the best and most widely anthologized African poets.

But his poetry is sometimes considered dense and inaccessible.

You learn that he is what is called a poet’s poet! Okigbo’s blending of Western ideas and techniques with a Nigerian perspective has distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries but also making it difficult and impenetrable to many others.

You eventually learn that despite his father’s devout Christianity, the late great Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo had an affinity with traditional Igbo Gods or deities.

You are told that he actually came to believe later in his life, that in him was reincarnated the soul of his maternal grandfather, a priest of Idoto, an Igbo deity.

Idoto is personified in the river of the same name that flows through Okigbo’s village, and the “water goddess” figures prominently in Okigbo’s work. In his poem ‘Heavensgate’, Okkgibo writes that:

Before you, mother Idoto, naked I stand
When you read that poem Heavensgate away from the concept of Nigerian Gods, you may actually get lost. It is a poem that has to be read with the use of footnotes so that you don’t bring in the wrong meanings! Your teacher tells you that this is a re-incarnation of Okbibo’s maternal grand-father, who used to be the priest of the shrine called Ajani, where the Idoto, the river goddess, is worshipped and that Okigbo, should carry on his duties. In most of his poems, Okgibo takes a deep religious stance and it is after a re-reading that you access all this crucial information. Left on your own, you may put Okigbo aside and find other things to read.
In another of Okigbo’s poems, “The Passage” the reader meets the “oil bean” symbol. You are told that among the Igbo traditions, the oil bean tree is regarded as a totem, and legend has it that the spirits of little children stay there to wait for kind women that would become their earthly mothers. It is a sacred tree found in most shrines in Igbo land. There are some other trees which are equally considered sacred. In this poem, the protagonist is seen:
leaning on an oil bean,
lost in your legend
under your power wait I
on barefoot,
watchman for the watchword
at Heavensgate.

You also learn that Okigbo death came when he was very young during the Nigeria/Biafra Civil War (July 6, 1967 – Janaury 12, 1970) in the service of Biafra soon after enlisting in the secessionist army.

You then realise that Okigbo was blamesd for being inaccessible and he even once remarked sulkily to delegates that, “I don’t read my poems to non-poets!”

Another difficult poem is by an English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. He uses what is called “sprung rhythm,” making it sometimes elusive.

His poem called “The Windhover” is written in the “sprung rhythm,” a metre in which the number of accents in a line are counted but the number of syllables does not matter.

This technique allows Hopkins to vary the speed of his lines so as to capture the bird’s pausing and racing. Hopkins goes:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

With lots of assistance, you eventually learn that the windhover is a bird with a rare ability to hover in the air, essentially flying in place while it scans the ground in search of prey.

Much like the African eagle! The poet describes how he saw (or “caught”) one of these birds in the midst of its hovering!

The bird strikes the poet as the darling (“minion”) of the morning, the crown prince (“dauphin”) of the kingdom of daylight, drawn by the dappled colours of dawn. It rides the air as if it were on horseback, moving with a steady control like a rider whose hold on the rein is sure and firm.

In the poet’s imagination, the windhover sits high and proud, tightly reined in, wings quivering and tense.

Its motion is controlled and suspended in an ecstatic moment of concentrated energy.

The other poem of Hopkins called “God’s Grandeur” begins with the surprising metaphor of God’s grandeur as actually an electric force!

The figure suggests an undercurrent that is not always seen, but which builds up a tension or pressure that occasionally flashes out in ways that can be both brilliant and dangerous:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Hopkins is defiantly affirmative in his assertion that God’s work is still to be seen in nature, if men will only concern themselves to look.

Refusing to ignore the discoveries of modern science, he takes them as further evidence of God’s grandeur rather than a challenge to it.

Dambudzo Marechera of Zimbabwe’s novella of 1978 called House of Hunger is an iconic piece of work in African literature. But it can make your head spin, if you read it unaided for the first time.

The novella is about an extremely sensitive young black man growing up in colonial Rhodesia with its racist laws and its oppression that gave black folk very limited space. Doris Lessing says reading The House of Hunger is “like overhearing a scream.” It is very dense and impenetrable.

House of Hunger is also about the struggle for physical and spiritual spaces. That is why; maybe, the word ‘house’ is used in various ways in that book. House means the physical home and its troubles.

It also stands for the mind of the individual as that space with turmoil. Finally ‘house’ could stand for troubled Rhodesia which is permanently in the background to this story.
In this book, Marechera adopts a style that is modernist and not linear.

Which really makes reading difficult. The story shifts constantly and in a seemingly irregular manner between home, school, home and bar. If you manage those sudden shifts, you will be able to enjoy and understand the story.

The only physical space that is travelled realistically is the journey from the point the nameless major character (who is the narrator throughout) packs all his things, leaves the house in anger and goes to the nearby bar and you may fail to come to terms with this story.

From that point onwards, the story goes ahead in series of the narrator’s reminisces, colliding in and out of one another.

At each point when an old acquaint comes into the pub, Marechera’s narrator takes us back to his old days with him or her, but always comes back to the present.

This demonstrates Marechera’s very close experience with modernist literature especially with the writings of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Kafka and others, who felt that only a disjointed style would best describe a disjointed experience.

Throughout the novella, we observe that the nameless narrator is a vulnerable individual.

At home he is a victim of the violence of the father, mother, brother and others.

He is also morally assaulted by the township experiences for example his observation with other children of the man who rapes his wife openly and in broad daylight.

The narrator’s response to this violent society is to write. He tries to respond creatively and his first short story is about the prostitute with the drip.

The prostitute is, for the author,a symbol of Rhodesia.

Difficult texts make some people give up on a story.

When I first read Soyinka’s novel, Season of Anomy, I actually could read and comprehend the simple words but I felt the ennui or boredom underlying the text.

Its essentially a feeling of detachment from the surrounding society and its mores, often due to living in a period and or place where things are stagnating, often coupled with a general boredom with everything and everybody.

The ennui in that novel was so overpowering that I almost dropped the book.

I could only continue when a colleague told me that the novel was written in such a way that the reader should feel the anomy in the society itself and that this was actually deliberate on the part of the author and not an artistic fault! Ah, the difficult texts of literature!

Memory Chirere

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