On Ben Okri, listening and quietness

By Metsavend (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ben Okri

In late May 2015, Michael Cathcart interviewed Ben Okri at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Their conversation included reflections on Okri’s novel The Age of Magic. In the novel, one of Okri’s characters says: ‘It’s easier to be clever than to listen.’ Okri told Cathcart that listening is hard, it is ‘one of the most difficult things that we do.’ Why? Because ‘it is difficult to still the ego’. Listening, says Okri, is ‘a metaphor for general and profound attentiveness’.

Writing a blog can be a bit like feeding the ego, but I’m hoping the process will also still mine. I’m hoping it will provide a space to record some of the things that have drifted to the surface of my mind through listening and stillness.

I wasn’t at the Writers’ Festival to hear Okri in person. At the time of the interview, I was sitting in the car park of a hardware store. I happened to turn on the radio and hear Okri’s voice sounding over the airwaves. He was reading from his poem ‘More Fishes than Stars’. He was reading slowly, very slowly.

I’m simple as a melody
I’m plain like water or like rain
I sit still like an oak tree on a hill
Open to the all like a window in a wall.

After hearing this snatch of poem, I did two things. First, I went home and listened to the whole interview. (You can find it here, on ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts website). And then I went to the National Library of Australia and made two book requests. One was for Okri’s poetry collection Wild (which includes ‘More Fishes than Stars’) and the other was for Ben Naparstek’s In Conversation: Encounters with 39 Great Writers.

Cover image

Among Naparstek’s 39 encounters is one with Okri. Their conversation took place in London’s up-market Langham Hotel in 2007. Naparstek writes that Okri is a technophobe and he is dubious about Naparstek’s use of two voice recorders for the interview. ‘I’ll show you something’, says Okri. He pulls out a pen and paper and starts to write quietly. His action leaves a 30-second gap on the recording devices. Okri poses a question: ‘A computer can’t pick that up, can it?’ Then he adds, ‘silence is the highest action’ (105). The two Bens go on to talk about ambition and simplicity, story and philosophy, dreams and reality.

My request for Okri’s Wild takes a few days to fulfil. The National Library doesn’t hold a copy of the book, but it is borrowed on my behalf from the University of Adelaide’s collection. I open up to the poem Okri read in Sydney, trying to read it as slowly as he did. I fail. I turn to other poems. Magic appears across the pages—I mean, literally appears—the word ‘magic’, and its derivations, finds its way into many of the poems.

I settle into a poem called ‘As Clouds Do Drift’. It is in eight parts; this is how it begins:

1.
As clouds do drift above our heads
As dreams do flit above our beds
So time sieves through our lives.
Where does it go?
When it has passed
What do we have to show?

2.
We can plant deeds in time
As gardeners plant roses or thyme.
We can plant thoughts, or good words too
Especially if they are noble and true.
Time is an act of consciousness:
The source of fruitfulness.
To master it we are called;
It’s one of the greatest forces
Of the material world.

3.
We ought to use time, like
Emperors of the mind;
Do magic things that the future,
Surprised, will find.

Out of listening and quietness, I will use this blog to plant the thoughts from my idle hours. Perhaps, from time to time, there will even be magic.

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