Looking back, the best decision I took was the courage to study English literature for my A-Levels. It has paid off for me as a journalist and a writer who drank from the “Pierian Spring” as popularized by the poet Alexander Pope in his poem “An Essay on Criticism” (1711): “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;/Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.”
I read Pope at school. I enjoyed and learnt poetry and wisdom from one of the greatest Englishpoets celebrated for his wit and satires like “The Rape of the Lock.” I also studied William Wordsworth, the poet of nature who said poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” From Wordsworth I learnt the power of simplicity which he says “is the real key to the heart.” So immersed was I in poetry that I thought I was going to end up as a poet. But journalism stole me like a slave stolen from Africa and transported across the mighty Atlantic Ocean. And in journalism, I found solace in literature which helps me to easily string words together with literary flourish and flavour.
I believe literature is the backbone to every profession—be it art or science.Lord Denning, the leading figure in English Jurisprudence attests to that. I am reading his book, “The Discipline of Law” where he writes that having read English literature at the Elizabeth Grammar School, it provided him with “a wide vocabulary of words, and understanding of the meaning attached to them by the masters of the language.”
IF you are a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Latin American literary giant, Nobel Prize winner and author of the 1967 landmark novel “100 Years of Solitude”, the title of today’s column will resonate with you.I am not about to take you back to Macondo, that solitary, fictional city of mirrors whose fate somehow reflects themagical realism of the world today at the peril of being wiped out by coronavirus—just like Macondo was entirely wiped out of the world map by a gigantic windstorm.
Hey, I am sitting here in a limbo, listening to old Jimmy Cliff, the reggae king before Bob Marley. Two weeks have passed in this quarantined “House of Exile” and an extra two weeks have just been added as part of a grandglobal strategy for ensuring that we stay at home to avoid being infected with the fearsome coronavirus.
All around me I am surrounded by solitude and quietude—the very thing a poet needs. Oh, I love this solitude. Everywhere is calm and quiet. Graveyard quietness.No church bells on Sunday. No muezzins calling the faithful to worship at dawn. No itinerant Nigerian “John or Jane the Baptist” armed with a mobile loudspeaker, ringing bell, disturbing the solitude of dawn, waking you up with messages of repentance and hellfire. No danfo drivers and bus conductors noisily seeking passengers. No loudspeaker blaring loud music in the neighbourhood by party people. All over the world, quiet reigns. All is quiet on the Western Front—check out Erich Maria Remarque’s novel on World War One. Everywhere, doors are locked. Businesses are closed. Churches and mosques are padlocked. Hospitals have become theatres of death. People watch their parents dying and they can’t even hug and kiss them goodbye for fear of coronavirus. This is one pandemic no one has experienced before. In the past, the church would have been the place of refuge. Not now. Today, it’s the era of “social distancing.” No closeness. No shaking hands. No singing together “Nearer my God to thee.” The coronavirus devil has taken over in a coup de la monde—pardon my French.
In times like these, I “go to the poet”—like the title of an old school song by Hues Corporation. I just sit down to imagine what my favourite poet would have written on this global pandemic pandemonium. Pablo Neruda is one poet I cannot stop reading. Gabriel Garcia Marquez rightfully describes Neruda as “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language.” What would Pablo Neruda have written about a world blighted by coronavirus? What did Neruda write about solitude?
I don’t have an answer to the first, but I know what Neruda said of solitude which can still be applied to the world in the era of coronavirus.
“There is no insurmountable solitude,” Neruda said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song—but in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”
Next, what would Maya Angelou have said or written about this solitude, this rampaging death that keep rising defiantly one day after the other, like a devouring monstrous fire? On solitude, Maya Angelou tells us: “We need to remember to teach our children that solitude can be a much-to-be-desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, at times it is positively to be wished for. In silence, we listen to ourselves, and in quietude, we may even hear the voice of God.”
My dear reader, I agree with Maya Angelou that to hear the still, small voice of God, you need some quiet, you need solitude. On death, Angelou says: “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away to the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other/ That, we still are…I am but waiting for you. For an interval.Somewhere. Very near. Just round the corner. All is well.”
At a time when we are racing against time to find a cure to coronavirus, Maya Angelou speaks from the grave saying: “In this moment, we gather to stand, kneel, sit, squat, and crumple here, knowing that, when the medical geniuses have done their best, when the Nobel Prize Winners have used their most powerful energy, we have You. Creator…Heal, we pray. Heal us all, we pray.”
My prayer, like that of Maya Angelou, is that now that man has reached the end or the limit of his medical and scientific knowledge, may the Good Lord have mercy on us and heal our dying world.
Last words. Who better epitomizes solitude than this picture of Nelson Mandela, the man who spent 27 years in prison and came out not bitter, whose island prison in Robben Island I once visited with my late friend Dimgba Igwe and our wives? It was our last holiday together. May the souls of all those departed, past and present,plus those killed by coronavirus rest in peace. And may God have mercy on us, we running from the deadly virus in these Two Extra Weeks of Solitude whose end no one knows.