Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds This is a shortish one, and it’s called “The Core.” “I looked so much I could not see, and in everything I looked at only saw me The sky isn’t really blue, you know. Leaves of grass are not really green. I want to drink in all the beauty in the world, especially the things not seen.” “Many of the stars I see are not really there. Waves of light move in a way not entirely clear. I watch the birds ‘till I stop thinking about flight. I gaze at the river ‘till I’m lost in light. What was I afraid of always hiding my eyes. I’ve got to face my truth and my lies. I’ve got to stop wanting to be in control.
Skip to 1 minute and 1 second Being at peace is a much better goal. I’m just learning what eyes are for. To see with the heart, see right to the core.” I just want to start by talk– well, I want to talk about your poetry. That’s what I want to talk about. When did you start writing poetry? Poetry was the first thing I began writing.
Skip to 1 minute and 28 seconds When I wanted to write, which I didn’t know when that was, I just found myself writing. The first thing I did was write poetry. I’ve since discovered that two things. That it’s natural for people to want to write at a certain stage in their life. In other words, it’s a natural desire to express something, whether it’s grief, whether it’s love, whether it’s just understanding your environment. At some point in your life, there’s this need to express on paper, if that has been part of your education in any way. The other thing I discovered as well is that the poems that I began writing were love poems.
Skip to 2 minutes and 15 seconds And it turns out that love poems are secretly seduction poems, and seduction poems are really some of the oldest poems in poetic history. So, yeah. Began writing poetry because I fell in love, I suppose. Were you aware I mean, do you write sonnets? Are you worried about technical stuff? Do you write odes? Is there any sort of formality in the way that you write or does it just free flow? Both.
Skip to 2 minutes and 47 seconds I like the technical difficulties. I write some sonnets and then I desonnetise them and I write odes. But mainly I like the constriction. And now I impose my own constriction on myself. I like the tension between what it is you want to express and the form in which you have to express it. And so I’m moved now more towards greater and greater brevity, not to say more and more, if you know what I mean. I do. And let me just take you back to love poetry and sonnets, because I love Shakespeare’s sonnets, and most of them are love poems.
Skip to 3 minutes and 23 seconds And you talked about constriction of form, and I’m quite fascinated by how many of our great poets do like the rigour of a sort of tight form. The couplets and the stanzas and the couplets at the end. But I’m fascinated, because I’m not a poet. Why?
Skip to 3 minutes and 42 seconds How does that help you in terms of formulating a love poem? It helps because without any rigour, without any formal structure, you really could go on and on and on. And we need– Good point. We need the discipline of tightness in order to express a lot. It’s not just the discipline of the tightness of the forms. Also the discipline of the rhyme and the discipline of the iambic the actual beat. You inherit these forms, and into these forms you pour your personality. The way in which you pour your personality into these forms is what makes it individual.
Skip to 4 minutes and 29 seconds So when you ask, why do we need these forms, it’s the same reason that we need our houses to be in the shape that are. They can’t just be funnel-shaped and go off into infinity. We need spaces– defined spaces in which to live infinite lives. Our cars are defined spaces. The shoes that we wear. Even our clothes follow the mould of our body. And I think the form ought to follow the mould of that which best amplifies. I think it’s all about amplification. I think the more tightly coiled a thing is the more it amplifies.
Skip to 5 minutes and 6 seconds I’m very interested the word composition and composed because I think we can compose ourselves to read a poem and we can compose a poem but I’m interested in whether there’s a sort of concentration that poetry demands of us. What I’m interested in is can that concentration slow us down. Can our breath slow down can our blood pressure slowdown can we take a time a moment out to– a time to sort of reflect like reading mindfully, I suppose, like being in the moment. Do you feel poetry has a role? I think. I don’t know I’m sort of ambivalent about this I’m not so sure that it’s concentration that poetry really requires.
Skip to 5 minutes and 50 seconds And I think the myth of the concentration required for poetry is what has put a lot of people off poetry. It’s made them think oh, poetry is so difficult. I need to really concentrate. I need to think very hard to understand it, and therefore it’s going to be so obscure. I don’t think it’s concentration. I think it’s– What is it more heartfelt? I think it’s more listening. I think it’s more surrendering, actually. I think it’s more immersion, more entering into. I think it’s more moving into the world, into the space of a poem. I think it’s C. S. Lewis who said we read poetry not to feel alone.
Skip to 6 minutes and 31 seconds And something that’s come up over and over again in the course is people saying I don’t feel alone, because sometimes we don’t have the words to say, but someone else has the words. And you suddenly have that moment of recognition, that sort of Eureka moment of, I feel like that. Have you had an experience of reading a particular poem where you just thought, it’s like that for me? I would put it another way. I’d say, what really great work really good poetry does is it coalesces that which you did not know you were feeling into a body of feeling and words.
Skip to 7 minutes and 8 seconds So it’s another way of saying that we’ve got 1,000 unformed poems inside of us which great poets bring alive from out of our experience, like the conjuring of a vase in the air. In a way. So yes, frequently, Shakespeare does it for me often. Rilke does it. Neruda does it. Whitman does it. It doesn’t always have to be a whole poem. Emily Dickinson would do it sometimes with two lines. She’s got a wonderful poem whose the name I can’t remember which is really just words in a landscape. And when the first time you read it you think what connects all these words? But then you go for a walk and you connect all those words.
Skip to 7 minutes and 57 seconds It’s a persona Emily Dickinson’s almost abstract painting where you supply from out of yourself the only things that can make those words, put so close together, live in their context. I love that about great poets and great poetry. That they don’t say everything for you. Ben. Just tell me about the poets that you like or have influenced you. Is there anyone you want to talk about? Yes there are many poets. I’ve spoken about Emily Dickenson and Neruda and people like that. But there are also wonderful poets like Christopher Okigbo who is a Nigerian poet who died during the civil war who was a– I wouldn’t use the word big influence, but it’s just I discovered him when I was 23.
Skip to 8 minutes and 48 seconds I went back to Nigeria. I went to this shop and it just had this sunburnt copy of his book called Labyrinth. And I stood there and opened it and was transformed by it and transfigured by it. And it began with these words. “Before you mother Idoto.” Mother Idoto is a river, so think of this river. “Before you mother Idoto, naked I stand. Before your watery presence a prodigal, leaning on an oilbean lost in your legend.” He’s a poet of great rhythmic beauty. Very cryptic poet and a poet who also believes in the power of ritual in poetry. Then there are poets like Wole Soyinka, who’s also very, very, very powerful.
Skip to 9 minutes and 41 seconds There’s another poem of his which I learnt when I was very young, had a big influence on me.
Skip to 9 minutes and 48 seconds “I anoint my flesh.” Isn’t that lovely? “I anoint my flesh” thought is hallowed in the lean oil of solitude. I call you all upon terraces of light. Let the dark withdraw.” Yeah, so there are very many very beautiful African poets that I thought I’d speak about as well. Can I ask about your poetry now? Shall I read a poem instead? Please read a poem. OK. Shall I read a stillness poem? Yes, please.
Skip to 10 minutes and 24 seconds This poem is called “Piano.” “Out of the shining wood, out of the quiet light of its sounding, a blue bird emerges, soars and touches the sickle moon that rides a crescent cloud in the darkness of a blue sky. And then, a tender music fills the dream of an Italian evening in the hall where a child dances alone before the sea of light. Out of the bright mirror, a clear world stands waiting. Do we dare enter or follow the strange call to a new shore where time is more? Where to dream is to love and to love is to give? There are no spaces but are full of unheard melodies, colours of spirit.”
Skip to 11 minutes and 25 seconds “Arches mirror the curved universe within as the sky mirrors our secret eternity. Out of the drawing, she sits as on moonbeams of delight. All things are made of a divine music, you know. When we’re happy, doesn’t it show? We glow as if the primal word plays so in us, shining through our transparent flesh. The god in us singing to the god about us.” Could you give us a bit context about the poem– I love the flow show I mean, it it’s so musical. There isn’t much of a context. I was on holiday with a– [LAUGHTER] I was on holiday with a friend.
Skip to 12 minutes and 12 seconds It was the last night of the holiday and we were sitting in the lobby of the hotel looking out to the sea. And a beautiful breeze was blowing in. And I felt that rare state of pure happiness. And there was a paper on the table. My friend had been drawing. And she left a lot of spaces around the drawing. And I just wrote the poem around the spaces. And it’s just a poem just written out of a mood of rare happiness. That’s all. Do you mean piano as in it’s soft? I mean piano as in soft, and piano as in piano, and of course, piano was playing in the background. It was about absence and presence. Really beautiful.
Skip to 12 minutes and 54 seconds But also so musical, just the internal rhymes. You see, I don’t– Are you conscious of that when you write or do you– It is what the poem becomes as you write it. The poems I write secret rhymes. In many ways, inner music. I think it’s really important to stress that I’m trying to give a voice to happiness there, to tranquillity, to peace, to stillness. And there isn’t any concrete way you can do that, except through evoking music and these sounds like a lot of O sounds and “ach” and “ah” So I have to use an “ah” and O sounds.
Skip to 13 minutes and 42 seconds Gentle words. I don’t use too many harsh words, because it’s meant to be a musical piece as well. It’s a wonderful poem. Would you like to read another poem? Of course. OK.
Skip to 14 minutes and 2 seconds This is a much shorter poem.
Skip to 14 minutes and 8 seconds This one is called “The World is Rich.” “They tell me that the world is rich with terror. I say the world is rich with love unfound. It’s inside us and all around. Terror is there, no doubt. Violence, hunger, and drought. Rivers that no longer flow to the sea. It’s the shadow of humanity. There is terror in the air, and we have put it there. We have made God into an enemy, have made God into a weapon, a poverty, a blindness, an army.” “But the world is rich with great love unfound. Even in the terror, there is love, twisted round and round. Set it free. River, flow to the sea.” It’s beautiful. Beautiful.
Skip to 15 minutes and 14 seconds I could say a million things about that, but the word terror now is loaded. The word terror is loaded. So much. When did you write it? In the time when terror became loaded for us. They’ve kind of ruined that word, haven’t they? Terror is a very powerful word. It’s a powerful word. And powerful in an open way, and now it’s got powerful in a very closed and narrow way. It has. Because it’s got linked– But, the war on terror– War on terror– What does that mean –or terrorism. I don’t know what or terrorism. Yeah. Yeah. You start to say the word terror, and people’s minds immediately goes to terrorism. So it’s like we’ve lost terror and gained terrorism.
Skip to 15 minutes and 52 seconds But in that poem, I’m echoing resonating that, of course, but I’m also saying that terror is part of life. The darkness is part of life. And it’s important that we have a sense of it and have the courage to dissolve it at the same time. You reading that reminded me of when I gave a lecture in Los Angeles just after 9/11. And a lot of people said that they turned to Jane Austen out of a need for an ordered existence, a life far removed from terror. Something you said earlier connects what you were saying just now, and I think it’s worth really stressing it, and it has to do with inner life.
Skip to 16 minutes and 33 seconds When you talk about literature, people turn to Jane Austen They’re not turning to a comfort blanket In times of stress like that. What they’re turning to– They’re turning to literature because it’s one of the most public ways– or let’s just put it another way. It’s one of the ways that we know most in our times as a way of getting us back to the inner life. Terror, terrorism, news stories, horror stories on the front pages of newspapers, the fear and the stress– what it all does is it constantly makes us live on the surface and the external aspects of ourselves, and that increases our stress.
Skip to 17 minutes and 15 seconds And what the best literature does is it returns to us our quietness, because reading, especially reading privately, actually is an act of consciousness. It’s an act of the empowerment of your truest individuality. Your soul, your mind, your heart, your spirit, your being. It’s given that its primacy again, it’s given that its nourishment. One of the worst things that a climate of tyranny and a climate of poverty does to people is that it robs them of precisely the nourishment of that inner life, the life of the spirit, the life of the imagination, the life of the heart, the life of stillness. Do you think the best of poetry can restore that or bring us back to that? It reminds us.
Skip to 18 minutes and 2 seconds The best poetry reminds us. Something really wonderful happens when you read. I notice that with people. I watch people read a lot, and they do something like this. They start to read something and then they pause for a minute and then look up like that. There’s sometimes a word or a dialogue or a line has sent them off into a space, into a memory, into their past lives, into an experience, into a loss that was love into grief into someone they haven’t seen for a long time, an experience. They go off into this other world Reverie. Into this reverie. And so they’re– what I’m trying to say is that there are two things.
Skip to 18 minutes and 49 seconds There’s the act of reading and there’s what reading does to the mind and to the consciousness and to the spirit. Do you think that’s different to other art forms like looking at a painting or listening to classical music. Is there something about words? Yes, there is something about words. Music is wordless and speaks of the wordless part of us. You hear a piece of music– unless, of course, you associate it with an experience in the past– you don’t start thinking of trees and Atlantis and journeys and leaping off bungee jumps. You don’t do that. You just enter into the wordless world of music itself. And with a painting, the painting immediately confronts your eyeballs. It’s an immediate act of visuality.
Skip to 19 minutes and 38 seconds And of course, it can remind you, but the first thing that a painting does is that you see it in its completeness, whereas with a word, you see the word, but your mind sees what the words is referring to? Do you get what I’m saying? But other things are happening too because you’re heart is responding and your spirit and your imagination so it’s all of those things where I think you’re right with the visual sense. It is very immediate and it can be very full on, but I think you’re right about words because it’s layered. It is layered and also words are loaded. There’s an archaelogy of words.
Skip to 20 minutes and 15 seconds There’s a structured archaeology of words, but then there’s our own private archaelogy of words and the word tree or stress that you encounter in a poem would do totally different things to me than it’ll do to you. So we have our own private resonance with these words. Words stand in a wonderful symbolic relation with life.
Skip to 20 minutes and 42 seconds It’s constantly about that resonance. And it’s not a resonance really is a resonance inward. It really is. It’s like throwing a stone into the– pebble into the sea into the quiet lake of one’s being of one’s consciousness of all of one’s rich internal life. Sometimes rich internal sleep in life, because there’s a lot in us that sleeps. There’s so many aspects of our lives we haven’t woken up to, haven’t asked questions about. We wake up in the morning. We rush through our days. We have things to do. We don’t have much time to just stop and ask these big central questions upon which our whole life hangs. Why are you living? What are you doing?
Skip to 21 minutes and 26 seconds Why you getting up in the morning and rushing through the day? What is the purpose of your day? What is the purpose of your life? One day follows another and before you know it, you are at the very door of death itself. What have you been doing? Why are you living?
Skip to 21 minutes and 43 seconds We very rarely– Unless grief attends us, a relative dies, a mother or– in my case, when my mother died, my goodness– very rarely do we get things that wake us up in that way, stun us into suddenly having to ask those deep, resonating, fundamental questions. And that’s what literature does. It does it very slyly. It says “hey let’s go for a walk” it appears to be at a party it appears to be entertaining and then bam. It plants this thing and for– You’re never the same. You are not the same. You’re never the same. When you ask me what does literature do? What does reading do that’s what it does. It gives us a parallel life. And we need it.
Skip to 22 minutes and 30 seconds The great poets often tell us that you can’t rehearse life. Bam. You’re right in it. You don’t get a chance to say, OK, if I get a chance to … This is how I live. This is– you just like bam. You’re in it. You go to school, and then next thing, you finish school, then You get married. Get a mortgage, have a house. You have kids. My goodness, I haven’t had time to rehearse this. I’m just in it. But literature gives us this parallel opportunity. This alternative life gives us a chance to slip outside our own life and enter into another or enter into a poem.
Discussing poetry writing with Ben Okri
In this video, we speak to poet and novelist Ben Okri about his approach to writing poetry.
Like Stephen Fry, Ben talks to us about the importance of poetic form in shaping and amplifying the content of a poem. He discusses a number of his favourite poets, including Emily Dickinson, Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, as well as sharing three of his own poems with us. For Ben, the value of poetry, in an increasingly frantic and fearful modern age, is its ability to return to us our inner lives.
The first poem that Ben shares with us is entitled ‘The Core’:
I looked so much I could not see
And in everything I looked at only saw me.
The sky isn’t really blue you know
Leaves of grass are not really green.
I want to drink in all the beauty in the world.
Especially the things not seen.
Many of the stars I see are not really there.
Waves of light move in a way not entirely clear.
I watch the birds till I stop thinking about flight.
I gaze at the river till I am lost in light.
What was I afraid of, always hiding my eyes?
I’ve got to face my truth, and my lies.
I’ve got to stop wanting to be in control.
Being at peace is a much better goal.
(I’m just learning what eyes are for.
To see with the heart, see right to the core.)
Later in the video, Ben reads two more of his poems for us, ‘Piano’ and ‘The World is Rich’:
Out of the shining wood
Out of the quiet light
Of its sounding
A blue bird emerges
Soars and touches
The sickle moon that rides
A crescent cloud
In the darkness of a blue sky;
And then a tender music fills
The dream of an Italian evening
In the hall where a child
Before the sea of light.
Out of the bright mirror
A clear world stands
Waiting. Do we
Dare to enter,
Or follow the strange call
To a new shore
Where time is more?
Where to dream is to love
And to love is to give?
There are no spaces
But are full of unheard
Melodies, colours of spirit.
The curved universe within,
As the sky mirrors our
Out of the drawing she
Sits as on moonbeams of delight.
All things are made
Of a divine music, you know.
When we’re happy
Doesn’t it show?
As if the primal word
Plays so in us
Through our transparent flesh
The god in us singing
To the god about us.
Ben’s final poem is called ‘The World is Rich’:
The World is Rich
They tell me that the world
Is rich with terror.
I say the world is rich
With love unfound.
It’s inside us and all around.
Terror is there, no doubt:
Violence, hunger and drought;
Rivers that no longer
Flow to the sea.
It’s the shadow of humanity.
There is terror in the air.
And we have put it there.
We have made God into an enemy,
Have made God into a weapon,
A poverty, a blindness, an army.
But the world is rich with
Great love unfound:
Even in the terror
There is love, twisted round
And round. Set it free.
River, flow to the sea.
Ben Okri poetry is reprinted/used by permission of The Random House Group Ltd.
© University of Warwick