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Ben Okri's "They Say"

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 "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
Looms.

They say
Courage looms
When the fear
Of never loving again
Disappears
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.

Commentary

This piece offers a technically brilliant drama that underscores the power of the soul in the face of devastating danger and impending death.

First Versagraph: Straw Men and Weasel Words

They say
Love grows
When the fear of death
Looms.

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. "They say" is a weasel phrase that often sets up the rhetorical fallacy known as a straw man argument, wherein the speaker concocts an allegation that has not actually been made in order to refute it.

Straw Men

The former president of United States, Barack Obama, is a master at straw man construction and weasel word employment. Regarding the straw man argument Mytheos Holt, in his article “Can You Guess How Many Straw Man Arguments Were in Obama’s Speech?” at the Blaze writes about Obama’s second inaugural speech:

. . . another characteristic was also in evidence in Obama's speech: namely, his tendency to argue against positions that nobody holds (and by extension, to mischaracterize his opponents' views so as to make them easier to argue against). In logic, this unfortunate tendency is referred to as a "straw man fallacy" and it was well-worn in President Obama's speech today - so well-worn that at times, he seemed to cough up a new straw man fallacy with every sentence. How many of these arguments in bad faith did the President use?

Answer: Holt then reveals a grand total of nine straw men arguments in the speech.

Weasel Words

In his article, “The Surveillance Speech: A Low Point in Barack Obama's Presidency” in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf explains,

By observing Obama's condescension, I don't mean to suggest tone was the most objectionable part of the speech. The disinformation should bother the American people most. The weasel words. The impossible-to-believe protestations. The factually inaccurate assertions. They're all there. (My emphasis added)

Friedersdorf goes on to elucidate a whopping twelve passages that include those “weasel words,” “impossible-to-believe protestations,” and “factually inaccurate assertions” that he believes “should bother the American people most.”

The Demands of Poetry

If what Ben Lerner says is true, “poetry is the purest expression (the way an orange expresses juice?),” then poetry demands a more uncompromising language than engagement of straw men and weasel words. 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. Fortunately, 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. Thus, by the skin of his teeth, this speaker rescues himself from the straw man/weasel word argument and lands fairly safely in the purview of the poetic art he is attempting to practice, unlike the erstwhile president and his faulty rhetorical flourishes.

Second Versagraph: Motivation to Fight

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

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: The Immoral Future

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.

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."

Sources

Ben Okri Reading Selected Poems

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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