Ben Okri's "They Say"

Ben Okri


An African Elegy

An African Elegy Paperback
An African Elegy Paperback

Okri's first published poetry collection.



Ben Okri's "They Say" explores the relationship between love and fear in the face of overwhelming adversity. By employing a brilliant contrast between what, at first, seems mere weasel phrasing, the speaker remains non-committal, but by the final versagraph (free verse paragraphs) gains the audacity to make a definite, declarative statement.

The poem consists of three versagraphs of varying lengths, from only four lines in the first versagraph to a bulging eight lines in the middle, to a compromise of six lines in the final versagraph.

First Versagraph: "They say"

In the first versagraph, the speaker begins with the common noncommittal claim, "they say," a phrase often used to set up a vague assertion, when the speaker cannot think of anyone who has actually voiced the impending notion.

It is a weasel phrase that often sets up the rhetorical fallacy known as a straw man, wherein the speaker concocts an allegation that has not actually been made in order to refute it. The current top executive of United States, President Barack Obama, is a master at straw man construction and weasel phrase employment.

But unlike politics, poetry demands a more uncompromising language than engagement of straw men and weasel phrases. If the poet uses a weak phrase like "they say," he had better be prepared to back it up with some profound imagery or other heavy metal poetic devices and claims. Ben Okri does not disappoint.

The speaker has come to understand, albeit through the undifferentiated grapevine of "they say," that "[l]ove grows / When the fear of death / Looms." This thought is the opposite of what the other side of the "they say" crowd insists: instead of filling the heart with hatred, this speaker has heard that love grows in the face of death.

Second Versagraph: "They say"

In addition to saying that love grows in the face of death, they also say, "[c]ourage looms" when frightened individuals doubt they will ever be able to love again. When an adversarial force is destroying the individual's mind and perhaps property, the individual is motivated to do only one thing: "We can only fight."

The human instinct to run from danger does not apply in the face of severe devastation. What the speaker has heard, it becomes clear, is not from some vague "they," but from the deepest recesses of his soul. The "they" to which he refers is the holy trinity of each human being's profoundest self. The physical, mental, and spiritual triune being is electrified to stand its ground and blaze through the "smell of the enemy" who would incinerate its existence.

Third Versagraph: "Love and courage grow together"

By the third versagraph, the speaker is prepared to state unequivocally that the melding of "love and courage" at the time of harshest, darkest tribulation so stimulate the body, mind, and soul that even in the "distorted . . . nightmare" the individual is capable of realizing "the possibility / Of a future." Even in the face of the most harrowing death, the soul springs forth with the good news that there is no death and that there is always "a future."

Ben Okri reading selected poems

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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