Reading Caroline Nderitu

Caroline Nderitu is, arguably, Kenya’s most public poet. As the Profile in her collection Caroline Verses notes, since August 1996 her “unique brand of original performance poetry has become a regular feature at government, corporate, educational and charity functions. She has “a poem for every occasion.” I am boggled by Nderitu’s 15-year career as a poet. Simultaneously, I’m fascinated by how she has done it: becoming a commercially successful performer of what is often discussed (and dismissed) as “occasional verse.” Nor is Nderitu only commercially successful: President Kibaki presented her with a “Head of State Commendation medal,” for her contribution to Culture and Art locally and abroad.” Nderitu is the face of Kenyan poetry.

Many Kenyan writers and poets, too many, do not take Nderitu seriously. I can only speculate on why this is so: the blend of her conventional femininity; the positive tenor of much of her poetry (she focuses a lot on hope and love and achievement, a kind of optimism deemed “improper” by “serious” Kenyan writers); her commercial and mass success in a Kenyan where noted poet Tony Mochama insists that all poets “read T.S. Eliot,” on the one hand, while many other performance poets root their works in a politically-calibrated Sheng aesthetic—they may not use Sheng, but their work speaks to “real issues” anchored in class disparities; her use of conventional formal strategies that tend toward doggerel, for instance, “Friends are those / Always on their toes” (“That’s a Friend,” lines 1-2) or “One way to be a fighter / Is to be a writer” (“To Be a Fighter,” lines 1-2). Formally and affectively, Nderitu is ideologically suspect as a writer of what might be termed “sentimental poetry.”

The blend of affect and conventional form in Nderitu’s work enables it to be dismissed as “sentimental,” as what poetry scholar Melissa Girard describes as “formless.” Discussing the “sentimental modernist” poet Sara Teasdale’s work, Girard writes,

[Teasdale’s poems] are deeply affective, perhaps even “sentimental” . . . As a result, I suspect they are particularly vulnerable artifacts. Sentimentality, in common parlance, signals a kind of futility—a diffuse failure to enact material change within the social—a moment when feeling slips inward onto itself rather than propelling outward into the world. My intent . . . [is] to reconsider these familiar objections lodged so frequently against predominantly or excessively affective poetry. . . . I will argue that Teasdale’s grief-stricken [WWI] expressions provide us with a crucial opportunity to rethink the value of affective poetry in a time of trauma. (“How Autocratic Our Country is Becoming,” 46)

Girard’s important work on Teasdale and other so-called sentimental modernist poets has been instrumental in my deciding to take Nderitu’s work seriously. Girard asks that we embed what appear to be conventional, affect-laden, feminized poems within their sites of historical production, that we complicate the modernist boast (still with us) that historical engagement and political critique takes place primarily through “innovative” form and/or overtly political poetry. And she asks that we consider the “value of affective poetry in a time of trauma.” How might we “rethink the value” of Nderitu’s poetry by embedding it within its moment of production?
First published in 2001, Caroline Verses is a selection of Nderitu’s work written between 1995 and 2000. A second edition of the book was released in 2007. In the Preface to the book, Nderitu writes,

The verses [in this book] have been reviewed, polished and refreshed for readership. The poems dwell on diverse themes from love, compassion and hatred to human rights, nature and environmental concerns.
. . .
These verses will challenge, encourage, reprimand, warn and even motivate in the same way their author has done on stage.

In situating her poems as public and performative, Nderitu emphasizes their social mission, their publicness. She argues for an affective public sphere that exists in registers other than those of rage, anger, cynicism, frustration, and helplessness, dominant feelings in the late 1990s, as Kenya was moving (very slowly) in exciting ways toward realizing the promise of multi-party politics, or, at the very least, a Kenya without Moi at its helm. Viewed as poems written in the twilight of the Moi era, Nderitu’s poems take on additional weight.

The first poem in the collection, “They Shall Live Their Day,” establishes an ongoing meditation on the future that anchors the entire collection. I cite it in full:

Some day they’ll be unveiled
Some day they’ll be made bare
These works of my pen
Offspring of my mind
Though now they sit idle
In these pages
Though now they are hidden
From the eyes of today
Though now they are quiet
Their voice is only hushed
For someday,
Time will open the blinds
And their journey shall begin
Their wings shall unfold
They shall rush
Into the light of day
These words shall float
Before all eyes about
And every ear, shall beckon them
And every mind carry them
And that, shall be their day.

Three features of this poem strike me. First, the insistence on “someday,” an as-yet undetermined future in which poetry shall “rush” into “the light of day.” The “now” of the poem is marked by an intense repression of language, an insistence that it be “hidden / From the eyes of today.” Given the Kenya Nderitu and I grew up in (we are agemates), this musing on silence and repression is familiar. One thinks of the many artists forced into silence and of the instrumental role the arts played in Moi’s country. For instance, publicly broadcast “traditional” dances became bound to nationalist spectacle as they were performed during national holidays and for political events. Less a celebration of Kenyan diversity, the culture instantiated in these dances was rendered dead, as Sitawa Namwalie recently described it to me. Like the displaced pieces of African art displayed in numerous galleries abroad, de-contextualized from their daily and ritual purposes, culture became an empty spectacle in the service of an indifferent and repressive state. (As a side note, I have yet to process the sight of a wrapper hanging on a wall in Baltimore and described as an article of clothing.) Nderitu imagines a “someday” when language itself becomes revitalized, ready to act in the public and act on the public.

Second, Nderitu’s use of “unveiled” and “bare” suggests the intense formal encoding of her seemingly uncoded verse. In Africa Writes Back to Self, Evan Mwangi argues that during Kenya’s repressive political histories, authors used metafictional strategies to encode their works, offering socio-political critiques in ways that were not easily deciphered by repressive government forces. As indebted as I am to this argument, I am also indebted to Girard’s equally persuasive argument that what looks like conventional form and affect-saturated poetry can be just as historically engaged as more formally innovative work. Socio-political critique can hide in plain sight. I am not claiming a grand political narrative for Nderitu’s work—I’m uncomfortable with the idea of “rescuing” artists by claiming their works are “political.” I am interested, however, in embedding her work within a fraught historical moment for artists. And the various metaphors of hidden-ness and confinement in this poem open into a historical narrative about art, especially poetry, in Kenya’s repressive years.

Finally, though not exhaustively, I am fascinated by the public role Nderitu envisions for her poetry: it infects “every ear” and “every mind.” Her “offspring” are, like Whitman’s, disseminated broadly. And they live long. An argument is being made here for a contagious model of memory and history. To bear language, as Nderitu has it, is akin to carrying around a fragment of a song, a tune that won’t abandon one, at the most benign; since Caroline Verses is Kenyan, I also think about parasites and disease, about malaria, for instance, as something we share, something we bear. It’s not clear whether the words that “float” once liberated are entirely benign or beneficial—clearly, they have a social use, but this use remains elusive in the poem. And while Nderitu frames her work in specific ways—“These verses will challenge, encourage, reprimand, warn and even motivate”—I would argue that her poems accomplish these, and much more.
Reading through Caroline Verses, I am struck by how often the word “tomorrow” and similar future-oriented sentiments appear. A brief sampling:

I shall wait and never fret (“Waiting Still”)

All labour and prayer
On this seed
For another harvest (“New Years”)

I am migrating to the unknown (“Onwards”)

I can’t spell tomorrow
The eye stretches
But cannot peer
Beyond the margin of this day (“I Can’t Spell Tomorrow”)

But for hope we live
Not because Mangoes swing
Ripe non the trees
But because there are seeds
Down in the soil (“For Hope We Live”)

Will my vision hold
Against the simmering tides
Of the day (“Try Your Wings”)

The examples can be multiplied.

Let me emphasize again: these poems were composed between 1995 and 2000, written during a moment of profound political upheavals, including the 1997 elections. Although many cultural innovations were happening in the Kenyan space, some of them documented in Cultural Production and Social Change in Kenya, it’s not clear to me that poetry was on anyone’s mind as social, as powerful, as worth fighting for. Poetry is conspicuously absent from Cultural Production and Social Change in Kenya. And while Kenyans would be described as the most optimistic people in the world in 2002, it’s not clear to me that the period between 1995 and 2000 was marked by unrelenting optimism. Granted, I say this neither as a historian of the period nor even as one who necessarily lived through it—I was completing my undergrad degree and trying to envision a life abroad.

Nderitu’s poetry is not unrelentingly optimistic; more often, and across multiple poems, it struggles to remain optimistic, to retain a “vision,” a belief in a better future. Her work acknowledges the difficulty of sustaining a vision, “Darkness keeps us from trusting ourselves / And darkness is all around” (“Darkness”), as it also insists on the resilience of the poet’s voice and work: “The poet’s voice / cannot be stopped” (“Never Aged”).
I started reading Nderitu’s poetry reluctantly, convinced that spending time on it would confirm what I already knew—a knowing based on feeling. This, of course, is something I teach against: one should read what’s on the page, not what one thinks is on the page. Having read her, I can say this: her work is not to my taste. Aesthetically and otherwise, we are too divergent. However, her work is important and merits far more respect than Kenyan poets and writers have been willing to grant and far more critical attention than scholars have provided.

2 thoughts on “Reading Caroline Nderitu

  1. I was on the internets (yes, internets) when I came across Nderitu. And yes, the hope and optimism in her spoken word poetry was jarring. Maybe because I came to poetry in the one term I was an English major and all I remember is Ezra Pound telling me “make it new” all the time.

    I also remember those poetry years as tortured, twisted, cynical, and, because I live in Portland, extremely quirky and ironic.

    The thing with Nderitu is: she writes from where most writers and poets can’t: hope/optimism. Compassion and hope are so hard to write about—for me, at least. But cynicism: that you can wring and knead all the way to the bank.

    There is also a way in Nderitu’s poetry (her poetry on the page) is somewhere between spoken word and the lyrical stuff—the TS Elliots and Ezra Pounds and Adrienne Richs of the page. And the reception to Nderitu’s poetry might just be writers of lyrical poems judging spoken word or anything close to it as lowbrow.

  2. Please say more about the wrapper that was an item of clothing in Baltimore.

    Also, does this not show just how subjective criticism of poetry is. To the minds of Phillistines, the simplest, most accessible may look like the highest quality, even while the trained eye sees rubbish in it.

    I don’t know how important this is to this post, but Kenya in the 1990s, especially the late 1990s was not the repressive place that it was in the 80s. I know it is fashionable to claim this but there were boys on television mocking the President and being very famous for it every single weekend.

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