When I told people about my post for the #ChangeBook blog tour, so many people said the same thing:
‘I skip the poems in anthologies.’ Are you one of those people? Listen up: if you skip the poems in A Change is Gonna Come – the epic anthology which celebrates writing from diverse communities – you’ll not only miss some great poetry. The poems offer an interpretation on the theme of Change. They create a lens, which you can use when you look at the stories in the anthology.
This post focuses the poem which opens the anthology – The Elders on the Wall by Musa Okwonga. Read on to learn about Okwonga, about Elders on the Wall, and to find out how the poem allows readers to think differently as they read the anthology.
About Musa Okwonga:
Musa Okwonga was born in London to Ugandan parents and is based in Berlin. He is a journalist, musician and the author of two books about football, a poetry collection, Eating Roses for Dinner, and a contributor to The Good Immigrant. On National Poetry Day 2015, JK Rowling tweeted Okwonga’s poem Invisible Men, which speaks out against internet trolls.
Musa Okwonga’s contribution to Change encourages young people to speak out, and take control of the future. Okwonga’s work makes him an excellent role model. He is an advocate for change, and written about issues as diverse as racism and women’s rights, internet trolls and border control. A key theme of this work is the right to exist without repression. He uses different forms of communication, from spoken poetry to social media to journalism, to connect with different audiences. His material shows awareness of how everything from rhythm to movement to clothing choice can be used to communicate with an audience.
Written poetry has been an agent for change in the past. In the age of YouTube and flash mobs, spoken poetry is a form many younger people relate to. Okwonga records and performs many of his poems, and included poetry in his 2012 TedX talk.
The Elders on the Wall:
‘I wish to change the world, and the elders smirk’
A young persona stands in front of a wall. Older people ‘smirk’ as the young person stands before the wall, seeing ‘no visible places to grip’. The core theme is introduced in the opening lines. A young person wants to surmount something. Like other young people around him/her, the persona seeks to climb a wall. Not only do they receive no encouragement from their elders, there are times when the elders seek actively to knock the young back.
“You youths can reach where we are if you toil”,
They say, pouring oil down that wall’s face.
They didn’t build this edifice,
But they don’t seem aggrieved that it’s complete.
Perhaps those elders didn’t build the wall which stands in the young persona’s way, but they don’t seek to remove it. They would rather knock the young people back than admit the obstacle exists. This reminded me of recent political divides. The elders, ‘scurrying and scared’, who have voted for political change which will be disastrous to our futures. Changes which encourage division from the international community. It also made me think of economics. Of Student Loans at crazy rates of inflation, at a housing market which young people cannot hope to surmount. It is easy for elder people to believe younger generations are falling behind through some fault or laziness of their own. Far more difficult to stand up and fight for changes which will benefit the majority.
Older generations are referred to as ‘elders’. This language choice seemed almost Biblical. In the Bible, high walls are built to block out the message of God. Okwonga’s poem is secular, but there is no doubt the elders hiding behind the wall are blocking out the message of change. The image of oil running down the wall also seemed Biblical.
What to do? The Wall extends
In either direction and out of view.
My choices are two
Throughout the poem there are several short lines. These emphasise the questions the young persona is faced with, and their desperation when faced with the wall. Okwonga highlights the fact that epic journeys begin when one person makes a decision. In this instance, one young person chooses not to be deterred by obstacles put in place by their elders. Instead of giving in, or fighting their elders, the young person lengthens their journey and searches for another solution.
The persona turns his back on the wall, and runs. Phrases such as ‘roughest roads’ and ‘loneliest hills’ are used to describe the landscape. These are stock phrases of an epic journey, which emphasizes that the persona’s journey, is every bit as epic as, for example, Frodo’s quest to destroy the ring of darkness.
Perhaps the young person will find a way around the wall. Perhaps they will build their own systems elsewhere. A system can only be so broken before people refuse to play by its rules.
To lands that even maps dare not touch,
Through thoughts that scream I’ll not amount to much
Left without the support of their elders, the persona encounters self-doubt and despair. Here there are echoes of The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the protagonist journeys through places such as The Slough of Despond to reach their ultimate destination. ‘Lands that even maps dare not touch’ appears to be metaphoric of change which elders have never envisioned, or refuse to countenance. I could imagine the elders saying, ‘you dare to suggest?’ and ‘you dare to go?’ as if it were a character aspersion.
Change comes when people dare to think differently.
‘Change is hard; still, maintain the charge.
They may have the safety but the bravery is all ours.’
Okwonga’s poem dares young people to make their own futures, and to fight for change regardless of the attitudes of older generations. It advocates making choices for ourselves, but travelling alongside likeminded people in in a quest for change.
It is a fitting opening to the anthology. It dares young people to see themselves as agents of change, regardless of attitudes they might have encountered. It dares young people to think and decide for themselves. This is a great start to an anthology which deals with change – change starts when one person decides to act differently. Decides to become the change, and make it happen.