Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Somali Poetry - The Way Forward

I have to thank Dorothea Smartt for pointing me in the direction of a wonderful Radio 4 show on Somali poetry (link only available for the next five days).

The programme asks: 'What could Britain learn from Somalia - a country where poetry is nothing less than the main means of cultural communication?'

And it's an interesting question indeed. Because Somalia lacked a written language until 1972, poetry was the main form of cultural dissemination. Through spoken word, cassettes and radio, Somalians conveyed news and information through poetry. Thus the poets of Somalia take on the role of traditional bards. They stood in for newspapers, TV, books.

I find this wonderful. A nation where poetry is the economy of knowledge, and where the tabloid press has no sway.

Of course, Somalians do now have a written language, but the status of the poets is still one of reverence and social privilege. It makes me wonder what the UK would gain if poets set the cultural and news agenda, rather than Rupert Murdoch and the paparazzi?

The programme also asks if, instead of a poet laureate, we had an army of poets engaging creatively with the nation and responding to society's needs. This is a wonderful idea, if a little whimsical, and I hope tonight I can dream about it. It would be tremendous.

Maybe through blogs, poetry, Twitter, Facebook, pamphlets handed out on the London Underground and graffiti we can transform Britain into a nation of poets like Somalia? This is the challenge I lay down for all budding writers out there. Whether you take it or not is up to you. But why not give it a try?

Go on. Let's make our world just a little bit more beautiful.


  1. I like your suggestion, and the idea of not a poet laureate but a team of poets engaging with current affairs.

  2. Thanks :) I think it's a good idea too. Why should we have one 'official' voice for the nation? I'd prefer a band of troubador poets any day. x

  3. From SAM ELMI via email: That was a really interesting show. Gaariye is a living hero for all Somalis and for his tribe he is a major boast (which is a feat in of itself since his tribe are traditionally renowned for strong poetry and poets). One feature of Somali poetry a future program could explore is the importance of women in the development of Somali poetry, and that the female poets not only contribute greatly to the national/tribal streams of poetic life but are the guardians of an independent poetic culture of ancient folklore and folk song recited ceremoniously and in day-to-day life; an art that passed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Interestingly, the similarities between Homeric and Somali poetry continue in that the more lyrical folk poetry heavily utilises the chorus/narrator structure where the audience recites the chorus parts and one woman (usually a respected elder) narrates. I thoroughly enjoyed the program and learned lots about the complexity of forms aside from the focus on aliteration. Maybe we should start a chain poem ourselves? :)

  4. Hi one and all,
    This is somewhat of a random request, and I am fully aware that I appear like a stalker, but I am looking for a way to get in touch with Sam Elmi and I have hit several walls. I knew Sam some years ago and have missed him ever since, any leads on how to contact him would be great. Thanks!

    P.S. great blog, glad I stumbled on it during this random quest to find an old friend!