In Defence of Nigerian Poets and the NLNG Prize


Ikeogu Oke

Few things I have read in my nearly thirty years’ close association with poetry has elicited empathy for one’s fellow talented, hardworking but unsuccessful human beings – those whose promise is inhibited by their environment – like this quatrain from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “Full many a gem of purest ray serene,/The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:/Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

The quatrain conveys a message similar to that of Jesus in the parable of the sower: about seeds which – not of their own making – fell by the roadside, on rock or among thorns, and so either could not germinate or germinated but could not grow sustainably and eventually withered. Also, its purport is similar to that of the remark by the character in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart who said that “those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble.”

But here lies the uniqueness of poetry: it says something similar with language sculpted to perfection, in that telling and moving manner that makes it the heart and jewel of literature – the most sensitive and beautiful exemplification of belles-lettres.
Truly, one cannot be a poet and be disposed to insensitivity, let alone cruelty. Both are symptoms of a malevolent heart; and a poet must have a good heart. For Gray could have chosen to tell us that the world’s population of failures are those receiving their desserts for their “laziness, and mediocrity” – two charges a certain Nigerian critic has levelled against Nigerian poets – and who deserve the contempt of the successful. But he preferred, with such insight that perhaps only a poet can possess, to use their plight to draw our attention to the fact that among such people are those who would have been successful but for the harsh fate imposed on them by their environments.

In two related internet publications, the said critic pilloried Nigerian poets and the Nigeria Prize for Literature instituted by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG).
First, in a publication entitled “The NLNG Prize for literature: Honouring phantom books, laziness, and mediocrity,” he remarked that “just TWO” (his emphasis) “of the eleven books” shortlisted for the 2013 edition of the prize dedicated to poetry “were available for sale online or anywhere,” and then declared: “It is quite simply appalling, no, disgraceful, that the NLNG Prize is in danger of being given to a book that no one else but the judges has seen….It is a mockery of literature and a huge farce that the NLNG will spend $850,000 annually to honour what amounts to laziness on the part of book publishers and writers….It is hard to justify giving $100,000 to an author for a book that only 20 or fewer people have read.”

In a further excoriation of the prize and its administrators that incorporates abuse, he said: “I know Nigeria honours patriarchy and gerontocracy but the NLNG prize does not have to replicate such foolishness. There is nothing wrong with having one or two elderly professors on the judge’s panel but …I am saying include someone really young and knowledgeable….”
Then he had this to say about two of the works shortlisted for the 2013 edition of the prize: “I am sure that Nnadi’s and Ogochukwu’s are … drop-dead gorgeous, offering awesome writing and deeply profound vision. It is just that we have not seen them.” How can a “critic” say he is “so sure” of the beauty and profundity of the vision of books he confesses not to have seen and yet expect to be taken seriously by anyone interested in objectivity?

Then, he begins a subsequent publication focussed on the 2017 edition of the prize with a snide remark about “the NLNG Prize … for Nigerian writers … with its attendant farce,” and explicates: “This year, it is the turn of ‘poets’ to fight over a whopping $100,000. Approximately 200 Nigerians pretending to be ‘poets’ have applied for the $100,000. Of course, you don’t need a special certificate to be called a ‘poet’ … just staple a bunch of words together, stamp an ISBN on it, voila you are a poet. I am pleasantly surprised to learn that we have 200 ‘poets’ in Nigeria. It would be great to see the list of these beautiful souls. Of course, it’s all malu droppings…Yes, $100,000 is an absurd amount to waste on just one individual. For what? What have they written?”
Indeed, as a Nigerian poet and someone who takes poetry seriously enough to consider it his occupation, I take exception to being characterised singly or together with my work among the said critic’s malu (cow) droppings. I don’t think we should ignore those who belittle or insult what we believe in. But beyond this, I am aware that a close scrutiny – as I engage in here – of his criticisms of the NLNG, its prize and Nigerian poets can reveal their utter lack of justification.

First, by trying to discourage the NLNG from awarding the prize to what he calls “phantom books” because, according to him, “only 20 or fewer people have read” them, he unfairly transfers the blame for systemic problems of poor reading culture and book distribution to Nigerian poets and the NLNG whose prize can actually contribute to solving these problems by engendering literary creativity, facilitating the discovery of literary talent, and uncovering hidden gems of writers and literary works a la Thomas Gray, whose subsequent exposure by other relevant stakeholders can improve access to such works and their readership.
Besides, a book can enjoy wide distribution, depending on the clout and resources of the author and publisher, without having literary merit, and vice-versa. And the NLNG insists that its prize is awarded strictly for literary excellence. Any criticism of the organisation or the prize outside this frame of reference is misplaced.

Then, disparaging such a “high” population claim of Nigerian poets with a scornful remark that one does not need a special certificate to be a poet reflects inadequate understanding of how the world works. For instance, you also do not need a special certificate to be a marathoner. And 45, 000 people entered for the 2016 New York City Marathon, and annul event, which had a prize money of over $800,000, of which the male and female champions each received $100,000 like the winner of the NLNG prize. And if such a far higher number of uncertificated participants and prize money, which may be won by an obscure athlete, does not elicit gripe from the said critic, why would a similar case involving Nigerian poets and the NLNG prize?

Curiously, even having someone born in 1970, now 47 years old, among the judges for the prize this year could not dissuade him from recycling his criticism of the prize as “supervised by gerontocrats”. The truth, however, is that age and the attendant experience are assets rather than liabilities in the adjudication of literary prizes, since an old and experienced scholar, writer or poet is more likely to have read more vastly and so more likely to properly assess any of the wide range of entries usually submitted for such prizes.

It is true that our country desperately needs improvement across sectors. But I don’t think the way to achieve this is by subjecting individuals, groups and organisations sincerely trying their best to create value with such criticism that offers as much hope as a venomous bite. If we choose not to love, commit and build, we would never lack something to complain about. This applies to our personal relationships as to our relationship with our country.

Anyone who lives in our country and so has had a first-hand familiarity with socio-political developments in it in the past two years would admit that it is one peculiar place where positive change can be difficult to bring about despite the good intention, commitment and hard work of whoever may wish to do so. But then the critic in question, Ikhide Ikheloa, does not live in our country.
Oke, a poet and public affairs analyst, lives in Abuja.