UNDERSTANDING LENRIE PETERS’ ‘THE FENCE’-CONTENT ANALYSIS BY MOLLUSCO
The poem is an artistic chronicle of the poet-persona’s irresoluteness on real, temporal and abstruse issues affecting human lives. He presents different hypothetical junctions at which contrasts meet; he then goes on to express his fence-sitting at each.
He examines the temporal meeting of the ‘dim past’ and the future, proclaiming his lying at the rendezvous of the past’s and future’s ‘nebulous hopes and aspirations’. We can infer from this first stanza of the poem that the poet-persona does not accept people’s common view of the supposed certainty of the past, and, being in the present (where the past and the future meet), he does not see the hopes or aspirations which the future is imbued with with any particular clarity.
There is an endless battle between ‘truth and untruth’. Human beings are naturally inclined to tell lies when only the truth is called for, especially if truth-speaking will not be to their advantage. The poet-persona makes us understand that he contends with these moral forces too.
The third and fourth stanzas take us on forward-backward journeys of time. Time moves forward and the ‘body ages relentlessly’; but, it also moves backward whenever a ‘feeble mind’ wanders back, summoning memories of the past. The poet-persona is amazed by it all, soul and all. Of course, he does not know what to make of it.
From the fifth stanza, we begin to see the effects of the constant mixing of ‘opposites’ on the inner senses of the poet-persona. He is confused and completely disoriented, feeling and acting like a drunk. He has not been drinking, but, he could ‘feel the buoyant waves’, and he staggers.
In the very next stanza, we see what could have fed the disorientation of the poet-persona. The world ‘has changed her garment’ but he has not changed with the world. He has ‘not crossed the fence’, remaining undecided.
The change in the world gives expression to a moral conflict: should we do what is right or not? ‘Doing good’ may sometmes seem foolish in certain circumstances; yet, there’s moral justification for it. Thus, the poet-persona stays irresolute.
REVIEW By African Soulja
In the whole length of the poem, Peters describes conflicting scenes or instances and his indecision on them all. In fact, the title of the poem alludes to the English expression ‘Sitting on the fence’ which most surely supplied the inspiration.
In the first verse, he talks about ‘the dim past and future’ and makes it apparent that he lies at the mingling point of their ‘hopes and aspirations’. He uses two words that make emphasise a general sense of uncertainty – ‘dim’ and ‘nebulous’. He ends the stanza with a crisp ‘there I lie’. He has plunged himself in the middle of the confusion.
In the next stanza, he lies at the place where ‘truth and untruth struggle’. He uses the word ‘untruth’ because it would create an unintended pun if he says ‘truth and lie’. But for us the readers, we can extrapolate this idea to affect the last line of the stanza where he says ‘there I lie’. The pun is created without intention. He lies. What exactly does that mean? He is telling a lie or he is lying down at a point? The antagonism between truth and untruth here is referred to as a ‘combat’, both ‘bloody’ and ‘endless’. He may have made the right choice to abstain.
The next stanza draws a parallel between time moving forward and backwards with no stop. I have little idea what he means by time moving backwards but he may have used this to highlight the greater conflict that makes him decide to stay on The Fence. Time moves back, time moves forward. What can he do than stay aloof?
Now he personalizes the conflict and claims that it is like the body aging ‘relentlessly’ and only the ‘feeble mind’ can bring back memories of youth. His soul meanwhile is amazed.
In the fifth stanza, Peters tells us that he stands in a point where all the opposites meet. In that meeting, they confuse him and plague his inner senses. He cannot make a decision and his irresolution eats him up. He tries to control his spinning head, to find some sort of reason in the midst of all the confusion. He tells us ‘I have not been drinking’ but he goes on right afterwards to use words that churn up the thought of a drunk man – ‘I feel the buoyant waves; I stagger’. His supposed drunkenness should be coming from his many worries! He is drunk on his troubles. A look at the larger structure of the poem, written in a centred format, should give a picture of his confusion. The writing style mirrors the state of his mind as the sentences come and go.
The stanza that unlocks the meaning behind this poem is the sixth. Peters reveals that everything around him has changed. The world as he knew it is no more. ‘The world has changed her garment’ is his claim. But he tells us that it he who has not crossed the fence. The indecision comes from a conflict between his past and his present. The world as he knew it and the world as it is now. This conflict affects a lot of people today in its most nuanced form. Most vivid is the difference in a family where parents were born and raised in a far-away village and now are raising their children in a cyber-world. The conflict may be pronounced for a man who knows not how to use these gadgets and stares blankly as he is confronted with them. This may not be the best picture but it is a mirror enough of the kind of conflict that Peters draws our attention to. ‘So there I lie’, he concludes.
After explaining his conflict to us, Peters goes back in the last stanza to his complaining ways. I like to think that final stanzas should bring out more intensely what the poet is saying – the denouement. So in the middle of this stanza, Peters enlightens us. His whole misunderstanding with the world comes from the world’s noble intents for all things ‘good’ and the actual ‘doing good’. Many people know what is right, talk about what is right and advocate for what is right but never actually do what is right themselves. The need for good and the actual doing good! There he lies.
The poem is a brilliant piece. I wouldn’t call it melancholic or protestant. It reflects more of a mental junction than about anything to worry about. Strangely, I find it a bit humorous. A masterpiece it is.
The poet, Lenrie Peters was born (1st September 1932) Lenrie Leopold Wilfred Peters in Gambia to a Sierra Leonean Creole of West Indian or black American origin and a Gambian Creole mother of Sierra Leonean Creole origins. He schooled in Sierra Leone where he gained his Higher School certificates and then went on to a BSc. from Trinity College, Cambridge. He was awarded a Medical and Surgery diploma from Cambridge in 1959 and then he worked for the BBC on their Africa programmes from 1955 to 1968.
At Cambridge, Peters baptised himself in Pan-Africanist politics and became the president of the African Students’ Union. He also started work on his only novel, The Second Round, which he later published in 1965. Among other medical and professional associations including the Commonwealth Writers Prize Selection Committee 1996 and the Africa Region of the Commonwealth Prize for fiction, judge 1995, he served as the head of the West African Examinations Council from 1985 to 1991.
Peters is considered one of the most original voices of modern African poetry. He is a member of the African founding generation writing in English and has shown extensive pan-Africanism in his three volumes of poetry although his single novel received critique as being more British, accusing of African cultural decline and less African overall. His poetry was mixed with medical terms sometimes and his later works were angrier at the state of Africa than his first volume of poetry.
Peters passed away in 2009.
Peters was born in Bathurst (now Banjul) in to Lenrie Ernest Ingram Peters and Kezia Rosemary. Lenrie Sr. was a Sierra Leone Creole of West Indian or black American origin. Kezia Rosemary was a Gambian Creole of Sierra Leonean Creole origin. Lenrie Jr. grew up in Bathurst and moved to Sierra Leone in 1949, where he was educated at the Prince of Wales School, Freetown, gaining his Higher School Certificate in science subjects.
In 1952 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences, graduating with a B.Sc. in 1956; from 1956 to 1959 he worked and studied at the University College Hospital, London, and 1959 was awarded a Medical and Surgery diploma from Cambridge. Peters worked for the BBC from 1955 to 1968, on their Africa programmes.
While at Cambridge he was elected president of the African Students’ Union, and interested himself in Pan-Africanist politics. He also began writing poetry and plays, as well as starting work on his only novel, The Second Round (published in 1965). Peters worked in hospitals in Guildford and Northampton before returning to the Gambia, where he had a surgical practice in Banjul. He was a fellow of the West African College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Surgeons in England.
Peters was President of the Historic Commission of Monuments of the Gambia, was president of the board of directors of the National Library of the Gambia and Gambia College from 1979 to 1987, and was a member and President of the West African Examination Council (WAEC) from 1985 to 1991.
He died in Dakar, Senegal, aged 76.
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