Ben Okri's "They Say"

Updated on October 17, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Ben Okri


Introduction and Text of Poem, "They Say"

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.

They Say

They say
Love grows
When the fear of death

They say
Courage looms
When the fear
Of never loving again
In the smell of the enemy
Who crushes us so much
We can only fight.

Love and courage grow together
When the flesh is rawest
And the spirit charged.
And distorted within the nightmare
We see the possibility
Of a future.


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


Submit a Comment

No comments yet.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)