Poetry, without a doubt

A WAY OF BEING FREE by Ben Okri Phoenix House pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Ben Okri has a conception of what art and literature are and the larger place they should occupy in society. A few very general things can be said about this at the outset: Okri thinks that artistic creation - "poetry" - is the most important thing in the world, and that we must do everything to guard and nurture it among us. He believes that "story- telling" makes us human, and that it alone can make our world a happier place.

But when we get to the details things get a little harder; for if these essays have a leading idea, it is that one cannot articulate, in prose, the sort of insight art delivers, or explain, in the language at the essayist's disposal, what makes it so vitally important. Okri could, of course, just point to his novels and say "there you are; this is what literature is; that is why it matters". But in these 12 short, elusive, fragmentary essays, he instead attempts to say the unsayable - to give some shape to experiences that exist "beyond words".

In saying that the sort of experience which art and literature offer defies articulation, Okri means much more than the truism that the paraphrase of a novel won't be identical with the novel; his point is that art and literature take you into a "magical", "divine", "surreal" world, one that has a logic all of its own: either you have experienced this world, and hence have some feel for it, or you have not. If our day-to-day lives are full of words but short on meaning, art offers access to an epiphanic world, somehow profound and yet abstract: "when literature works on you it does so in silence, in your dreams, in your wordless moments".

Reading is indeed, on Okri's account, like dreaming: it transports you to a universe of new and liberating possibilities; it opens you to the "vastness that lies behind all reality". The writer is the opposite of the politician: the one lives in a world of familiar meanings and fixed conventions; the other in one of surprises. The one thinks that stories are fantastic, the other knows that they create a deeper reality. The one believes that to produce serious work you have to be serious; the other understands that the best, most serious poetry is produced from a spirit of play: "It is curious how sometimes the biggest tasks are best approached tangentially, with a smile in the soul."

It is not just, though, that the literary and literal-minded inhabit very different planets; it turns out, in Okri's account, that the two are bound to collide. "Poets are set against the world because they cannot accept that what there seems to be is all there is"; they are the enemy of conventional ways of thought, of banality and orthodoxy. This is why they are so important. Art and literature alone, Okri argues, have the power to bring down injustice; only they can weaken the narrow and prejudiced notions of "the other" which divide us. "Without fighting, stories have won over more people than all the great wars put together," he writes in one essay.

"Thoughts solidly crafted ... can shape the destiny of generations," he argues in another. Politicians or businessmen, on the other hand, take the world as given. "They dislike mysteries, for mysteries cannot be coded or legislated and wonder cannot be made into law." Because they are threatened by the possibilities opened up by poetry, politicians will always try and oppress poets - but wherever there is oppression poetry will flourish: "The greater the visible order, the greater the hidden disorder."

As a Nigerian writer living in Britain, Okri, of course, knows as well as anyone how dangerous stories are. "Colleagues have been jailed, tortured, murdered, poisoned, brutalised, hounded into exile, excommunicated, excoriated, and driven mad." One of these essays is dedicated to the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa, another to Salman Rushdie. These two writers certainly show the power of stories to upset the authorities, and remind us of the importance of letting writers say what they want even when it hurts us. Saro-Wiwa's fate, though, stands as a reminder of something Okri tends, in his desire to talk up the potential of poetry, to underplay - its limitations before force.

Okri imbues these essays with a writer's insight about the importance of writing - and he does so in an inimitably sinuous yet abstract style well suited to his theme. It's funny to think of these oblique, oneiric, rhapsodic, elliptical, unscholarly and deliberately naive essays being delivered before academic audiences, as some of them were. There is not a footnote in sight, nor a doubt, nor a qualification. Okri is all vision, no revisions. His message is an uncomfortable as well as a welcome one: art matters far more than anyone can say; we all need to be open to "the way of being free" that it provides. It's true that no one not already inclined to Okri's position is likely to be convinced by his rendition of it. But to those that are, essays like "While the World Sleep", and "Amongst the Silent Stones", offer fresh, heartfelt, hopeful statements of the liberal creed.

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