To dissect African poetry from its Unafrican counterpart is delicate, and even until the moment of writing this article, I would have thought it was impossible. So to attempt this, these discourse, it is a matter of common sense to tackle it from the retrospective scope; the time I believe there really are notable differences between them. The first poem to review then is Eye Of The Earth by Niyi Osundare, the joint-winner of Common Wealth Poetry Prize 1986 and winner of the 1986 Association Of Nigeria Authors’ poetry prize.
And I really was impressed by its African vitality and infectious enjoyment with words. Now, the main subject of this discourse is not to devalue the so called ‘modern African’ poetry but simply to state unequivocally the derailment, or impending derailments, of what makes African poetry ‘African’.
To get the scopes of what I refer to African poetry, I must quote its metaphorical philosophy: “It [Negritude] aims amongst other things to reassert and revive, through literature, the cultural values, identity and authenticity of Africans, and to extol the ancestral glories and the beauty of Africa, partly through a RENUNCIATION of WHAT IS WESTERN and PARTLY through a RE-ORDERING of IMAGERY”1.
The main aim of Negritude is to insert, or reassert, the efficacy of Africa and its values in the world. It is a form of resistance sparked by the zeal to sustain one’s dignity and pride in the face of overwhelming numbers of opposition – the fame of westernization for example, and other foreign philosophies which are unrelated with, or to, African. But that is not the bleak story; the bleak story is the neglect, or rather preferably, in aspect of dictum, relegation or the classification of the ‘old’ poets from Africa as archaic, which makes their subject theme irrelevant, lackadaisical to the now prevalent themes in this ‘modern’ Africa. And it is sad that this is the conclusion I’ve come to, not by my own volition but by the evidence of the literary works, especially poetry, I see around me, in the intellectual domain, which to state in litotes are the LGTBQIA, feminists, misogynists, and etcetera.
What the ‘old’ poets of the past fought against was colonialism, and the further perpetration of the African values by the colonialists’ culture. But, according to a reply I got on Facebook, why should we stop preaching Africanism when the once physical colonialists’ ideals and way of life had metamorphose into mental captivity? A celebrated captivity. A proud chains even.
And that is the basis of my admiration of Soyinkaism on religion; religion has classified some of our African culture and custom as bad in a primitive way. Like the misrepresentation of Esu as Satan, the Jewish evil god. And several other gods in Yoruba myths as devilish, thereby making them unpracticable. detrimental to humanity.
This is just a mere deviation, a mere elucidation of one of the several values which leads to the neglect of African values, of neglecting the African poetry with its theme, subject, mood and language.
The reasons for this subtle neglect – even though have taken their non-conform to a peak, to making it conspicuous, to say Ohh… the environment I’m in dictates to me Westernization than Africanization. Or it’s because I read more of Fantasies – but, thank God, Nnedi Okorafor has been labeled a writer of African fantasies; are, the relegations of African morals and customs.
Now, speaking of African morals and customs, the question of health-for humanity arises, whether the sacrifices, both humans and animals, in each African tribe is healthy. No! It is not. It is not healthy, but as we strive for the growth of this ‘modern’ society, isn’t that how we should strive to blow the chaff from the wheat and not dispose of the wheat and the chaff, raising our famished lips to a wanderer-bird with strips of bread.
Below, I’ve put forward two short poems. While the general reader might think the point of this discourse is singularly identifying native words as the symbol of native works, poetry, these examples will definitely prove him wrong, because writing African poetry is not a leisurely activity, it is the experiment of deep-rooted knowledge into lines. Our knowledge inevitably is subtly noticed by the general reader, while conspicuously outlined by the critical reader – which is why understanding Africa and what it entails is a compulsory obligation for the common African man.
Note: these poems, I will tag them ‘Poem A’ and ‘Poem B’, while ‘Poem A’ is an example of the European, and ‘Poem B’ is an example of the African.
Here, dead chrysanthemums grow backwards
Into Mother’s scars – names of places she’s lived;
Infants she had quietly tucked to bed,
Where their mothers hold their breath.
Nibbled camwood in adieu, regal with staid steps
Water skittering barkwards into scraggy sockets –
Faithful old-age bearers;
Headless infants, in indigo-colored dust, in hollow sarcophagus.
I am going to give a review of these poems, POEM A and POEM B, and to the reader, I would give the freewill to dissect the Africanness and Unafricanness in them.
Chrysanthemums sometimes called mums or chrysanths are flowering plants of the genus Chrysanthemum in the family Asteraceae. They are native to East Asia and Northeastern Europe. As an avid reader, for me to understand how effective chrysanthemums are, or how they look, react to deadness, would take some certain time of fruitlessness. It would have been better if a poet from China or any of the countries in East Asia or North eastern Europe to write about the dead chrysanthemum and if done masterfully, I would have felt the same way the poet had felt about the flower, how much it represents different thing entirely to his/her mind. But an African who’s never seen such flower writing about it is a sham, mostly leading to misrepresentation in his poem or craft. The same with the style in POEM A; I class styles as that as foreign, Unafrican at least. Before being called a sectionalist, I would highlight how African poetry or what seems to be recognized and revered by it sprouted up; it was through ballads. Oral songs. Night tales. Hunting escapade. Myths… etc. and even though British Imperialist system might have eliminated the better parts of it, the way out would be to follow the steps of our forebears whose work was to ‘re-order their imaginations’.
And that was part of the exceptional quality of Nigeria, et African, frontiers of poetry composition, Christopher Okigbo, a poet presumed to be so complex that “Africa cannot afford too many Okigbos… cannot afford too many verisifiers whose poems are untranslatable and whose genius lies in imagery and music rather than conversational meaning”2
Even though Dan Izeubaye has well tackled it in a journal3 yet for clarity on the generalized perspective on complexity as a major tool in the composition of Africa’s poetry (even though Joseph Kariuku and others proved otherwise); complexity is not a ‘major’ tool, it rather is the force behind Africa’s poetry – kindly take note the difference between complex dictum and poetry complexity which is Abstract Verse3
In the then South Africa, when her cultural pride was subdued and her arts and its preachers were sent on exile, the book which rejuvenated her cultural values, through the arts, was the book, Black Poets In South Africa which was formerly titled ‘To Whom It May Concern’ published in 1973. In the introductory part, Page 7, this is what the editor, Robert Royston, had to say about the poets in the anthology:
“[Their] jauntily colloquial and aggressive [rigid] use of language alone reveals a self that feels confidant to order its world and its experience as it thinks best”4
As already discussed, one of the features which separates POEM A from being classified as African is its lack of rhythm and its mention of chrysanthemum, an untypical plant which is modern, strange, to Africa.
Having settled the point of complexity and the analyzing of the first poem, POEM A, it is now safer to move to the analyzing of the second poem, POEM B. Analyzing the second poem requires understanding, of the poet, of what he seeks to achieve, of his relationship with his craft. To understand, I have to take out words which I believe are notable, related to African.
CAMWOOD: An African hardwood tree, baphia nitida, which is a form of sandalwood
INDIGO: A blue dye obtained from certain plants (the indigo plant woad), or a similar synthetic dye
The terms are related to the African culture, or perspective. And this similarity in its Africanness will process the mood into the reader. And reading cannot be fully understood if you are hesitating to garner knowledge about the Yoruba culture, African, in whose infallible spirit the muse for the poem had sprang up. Poetry, if done well, will not only invite the reader to the reality to which the poet dines, it would also tell him to wash in the cool spring and set to the bounty of the game. What I have done is write about a rite of passage for the infants, on promenade ground, but mere reading, and even understanding, I’ve given the reader the choice to relate the poem to whatever events he would, but not until he begins to intertwine with my African beliefs, he would always be one-step farther from understanding my reaction to the theme of the poem.
The first line signifies a rite of passage, a procession, which as the poet, I’ve intentionally concealed to be the promenade grounds, but which a Yoruba indigene could easily relate with that ritual such as tossing infants back to the other realm has to be on the shore of the ocean.
The second line is my imagery of the widows of these infants, weeping, standing aside.
I unveiled as mothers in the third line, which afterwards I will explain how the grammatical meaning collides with understanding the Yoruba custom; the African custom.
The third line unveils the infants as victims of brutal circumstances, ‘headless’, clasped in hollow sarcophagus. More like coffins built for infants that look like pods of groundnuts.
Indigo is related to most African rituals, and in the last line, I’d ‘re-imagined’ it to be a souvenir for the rite of passage. Almost as dwellers trapped in the gulf of transition.
Camwood symbolizes the spirits of these dead infants, in stealth procession of the rite of passage. In Yorubaland, and even some African culture, it is believed that every dead person will dance to meet his ancestors5.
While Old-Age bearers signify two things: Palm trees and mothers. In Yoruba antics, it is believed that palm trees were once mothers and still are, witches, which in Yoruba are appraised Iya mi Aje, Aro’gbaso mo bale, and they are seen as the pillars of the world. But in this poem, POEM B, I’ve used them as mothers.
Now, how do you feel? How would a non-african feel about analyzing an African poem? After this elucidation, won’t the general reader feel drawn to the African root? Won’t the reader smell Africa, the rich fervor clasped in her soil? This poem is produced by the author of this article, ADEPOJU Isaiah Gbenga, which means that this specimen is not the best there could be; it may not even level up to the top hundreds. But imagining reading something better than POEM B is even a blessing, an African blessing.
The deal is to peak the Unafrican to search for knowledge in the shallow grounds, and hills, of Africa. And to remind to the core the African reader the authenticity in Africa and her poetry. Snow does not fall in Africa; the Africans’ imagination shouldn’t let it, lest it brings to naught the pride of Africa.
I will close this article with TS Eliot’s words:
The African struggles against HERESIES is “to concentrate, not to dissipate; to renew our association with traditional wisdom; to re-establish a vital connection between the individual and the race”6
1). – A Selection of African Poetry – introduced and annotated by K.E Senanu & T. Vincent. Page 23 ©Longman Group Ltd. 1976 ISBN – 0 582 60141
2). Professor Mazrui Ali A. “Meaning Versus Imagery In African Poetry”, Présence Africaine, No 66, 2nd Quarterly 1968. Ibid P. 57
3). –– Critical Evaluation Of African Literature – From Reality To The Dream: Christopher Okigbo [Dan Izeubaye] Page 123 © 1973 Edited By Edgar Wright Defines Abstract Verse As Verse which Is Unintelligible Because It Is Imagistic Rather Than ‘Coversational’.
4). Black Poets In South Africa; Introduction by Robert Royston: Page 7 © 1973
5). Foreword, Death And The Kings’ Horseman, By Wole Soyinka, For My Father Who Lately Danced And Joined The Ancestors.
6). Ts Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer Of Modern Heresies (Faber, London, 1934) P. 48