By Ismail Bala
On His Neglect of Prose
How perfect have I forgot my first love1
The one of whom I dreamt daily
Who I admired both in secret and in public
And freely showered my vows to.
The only time I remember her now
Is when wrapped in the warmth of the new2
The new that charmed and snatched me
Ere3 I or my love herself could know
When wrapped’n4 rolling in her arms
And after we are both saturated with it
And have talked all that lovers do
She—the old—comes: a sheer accident of the tongue5.
And I mention her for the first time
Since her blue moon6 began: I then remember she
Who promised me the best in life
And to whom I promised the same.
But now, new forces7 have over powered me
Since I have come of age and have known another
And if I’m permitted the benefit of self-sincerity8
I must go for the latter9; I have gone for the latter.
(from Soliloquies, Makurdi: Aboki Publishers, 2003, page 42)
A confessional poem in which the poet, who is also the speaker, confesses (privately) and with a feeling of guilt why he chooses to neglect his first love, prose for his new love, poetry. Both prose and poetry are personified as women; and preference of one over the other is likened to a romantic relationship.
A poet and a scholar, Tsenongu Moses Terhemba is the Chairman of the Benue State branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). He teaches in the Department of English at Benue State University, Makurdi. Tsenongu’s translation of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart into Tiv won a prize and is being published by Heinemann. He is currently doing his doctorate at the University of Jos on Tiv’s oral poetry.
In On His Neglect of Prose the poet, who also doubles up as the speaker, attempts to confess what he, in hindsight, perhaps considers to be wrong: a disclosing of supposedly private information on why he neglects prose and opts for poetry instead, both of which are personified as women. By so doing the poet is following an age-old tradition of identifying and describing imaginative writing as akin to dating a woman. For so many poets the creative process, the preference of one genre of literature (Prose, Poetry or Drama) over the other is synonymous with love. It calls for being passionate and loyal. Making sacrifices and enduring sudden swings of moods and even change of allegiance, say from one woman to the other until one is able to find the right lady with whom once can proudly say “I have hit the right target” and “I have got a gem, no going back”.
Right from the title, a sort of distancing-away from the crime ‘committed’ is achieved through the use of the referential pronoun “his”. But in order to drive home the importance of the confessional mode, the distance is almost immediately discarded: the poet/persona adopts a first person narration from the first line throughout the entire poem. The title does not give a hint of what the poem sets out to do, or the subject, and/or the reason of the confession; from its opening that becomes all too apparent, because the “crime” of the poet is that of ditching his first love.
The image of love and romantic relationship is shown right from the first stanza through words that are used to describe such an undertaking, words like: “first love”, “dream”, “admiration”, “vows” and “charm”. The title also belittles the extent of the crime: it merely refers to it as “neglect”, but the picture painted in the first stanza is simply beyond that: in the beginning everything about the relationship between the poet and his damsel, prose, is perfect until the appearance of the new love on the scene, poetry. Poetry, before either the poet or his love (prose) knows it, snatches him. And the poet finds himself wrapped in poetry’s arms in an ambiance of love. Such an atmosphere is so overwhelming that prose is only mentioned as a slip, which is beautifully expressed through the metaphor of tongue.
It is only in the third stanza that the poet/persona expresses a tinge of guilt and nostalgia about his crime and once happy time with prose. Having mentioned prose for the first time since meeting his new love, the poet remembers all the vows and promises, which transpires between them.
This reminiscence is not enough to make the poet go back to his first love, even though he is still nostalgic about her, simply because he has been overpowered by poetry. The overpowering of poetry is shown to be a must and inevitable for anyone who has been dating prose, and who happens to be matured as the poet now is. His coming of age courtesy of being in love with poetry is absolute: there is no chance of tracing back his steps to prose. And the poet makes a plea to his readers that he be given the benefit of the doubt, for he must go for what his heart desires, and he is going after it as the last line forcefully attests to.
Finally, On His Neglect of Prose shows how a poet could choose to (or not) identify herself with the persona; the persona in this poem is given a tone which the poet could easily identify with; while at the same time maintaining a distance from it. The poem amply demonstrates another ability of poetry to be about one thing while it is also open to innumerable interpretation: this poem is, on the surface, obviously about the poet’s preference for poetry over prose, expressed in the metaphor of love; but it can also be seen as a love poem, or even as a lyrical poem about the art of poetry; or as a short, poetic treatise on writing. From whatever perspective one seeks to see it, one thing is certain though: On His Neglect of Prose is indeed a beautiful poem that is not to be neglected.
A reference and a personification too of prose (fiction) as a woman, as opposed to poetry, which, in this poet’s case takes the place of prose.
In the company or presence of poetry which is now the “new’ love.
Archaic form of “before’.
Deviant spelling/abbreviation of “and’.
A slip of tongue.
Period of neglect when the travail starts.
Poetic forces/ the force of poetry.
The benefit of the doubt.
The latter: “poetry’ as opposed to the former: “prose’.
Department of English and Literary Studies
Bayero University, Kano