It’s taken me many years to fully appeciate poetry. For a long time it’s always seemed slightly out of my reach: hidden meanings lost inside elegant language that I couldn’t decipher; that my IQ or levels of sophistication weren’t enough to really understand poetry. Years of perseverance have changed my mind, and I have discovered the poems of TS Elliot, EE Cummings, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and seen how poetry can reach in and grab the soul. But I will never forget the first poem that I fell in love with.
I was sitting in a GCSE English class, anthology open, divided into groups to discuss the meaning behind the poem we had been allocated. Our group had been given ‘Vultures’ By Chinua Achebe. He was an author and poet I had never heard of before (although at 15 there were a lot of gaps in my literary knowledge). He had written Things Fall Apart 40 years before my GCSE year, and Vultures, which appeared in the anthology, Beware, Soul Brother, 13 years after that, but this was my first encounter with his work.
For those of you who haven’t read this poem, I urge you to. It is about the boundaries between good and evil, how often these things are not simple black and white, but varying shades of grey. How even the most evil characters have the capacity for love inside of them.
Achebe talks of the vulture, his grotesque appearance and behaviour.
bashed in head, a pebble
on a stem rooted in
a dump of gross feathers.”
“Yesterday they picked
the eyes of a swollen
corpse in a water- logged
trench and ate the
things in its bowel.”
Yet, the vulture’s feathers are “inclined affectionately” towards that of its mate.
The language is so strong, from the description of the vultures themselves to the idea of love tidying up a corner of a charnel house and falling asleep and the “fumes of human roast clinging rebelliously” to the hairy nostrils of the Commandant at Belsen. It is dark, both in subject matter and in style, with the “greyness and drizzle of one despondent dawn” being almost pathetic fallacy, the personification of the themes of the poem.
It ends with the eternal battle between optimist and pessimist: do we celebrate because there is love inside all of us, no matter how small, or do we despair, because love can be overwhelmed so easily by hate. A question which resonates as much in our modern society as it did in Nigeria in the 70’s.