Poetry in Nigeria, the most populous African country, has evolved remarkably over five decades of independence. My grandfather was a poet who composed in his head and shared his culture through epic poems, employing the craft as a way of remembering oral history, stories, genealogy, and law. He, his Royal Majesty Nze Ihebuzoaju Paul Onwumere, had given poetry meaning in the village; yet most people, including this author, had little understanding what he was doing when he was alive.
Poetry is a literary genre that defies precise definition. Many poets and scholars let their muse determine what poetry is, but for the rest of us, we could use this definition commonly found on the Internet: “Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time.”
Because Africans did not record events that took place during antiquity in written form, the development of poetry is credited to the Indo-European language group that includes Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton, and its Brythonic and Goidelic subgroups. Despite the historical record, ancient Africans knew what poetry was, and they made good use of it.
From ancient India came the Vedas (which predate 2000 B.C.E.),1 but it is often claimed that the oldest surviving poem is The Epic of Gilgamesh, composed just a little later, sometime between 1300-1000 B.C.E. in Sumer (modern Iraq/Mesopotamia). Greek epics like The Iliad and Odyssey, the Indian Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar also populate the list of well-known ancient storytelling. Where is the African representation in this history? African poetry is assumed to be absent because there were no written records, but the African oral tradition at the time of Homer was thriving. African poems from time immemorial were bequeathed to the people through the oral tradition, and they still survive in African shanties, villages, and towns today.
Nigerian Voices, Then
Africa has had innumerable thinkers who have sought to determine what makes poetry distinctive as a form of art, and what distinguishes good poetry from bad poetry. These practices resulted in the development of the study of the aesthetics of poetry, otherwise called “Poetics,” a necessary field to differentiate an oral poet from a musician. Africans did that, just as the ancient Chinese (in the Shi Jing or the Five Classics), developed a canon of poetry that had ritual as well as aesthetic importance.
Without delving into the details of Poetics, one tenant of the study determined that poetry must have rules. For example, Aristotle’s Poetics describes the three genres of poetry as epic, comic, and tragic. Later, forms of poetry, such as the epic or lyric poem, were identified.
In studying the evolution of poetry in Africa and elsewhere, Nigeria must not be overlooked. In modern times, there are four generations of Nigerian poets: Pre-Colonial, Colonial, Post-Colonial, and Contemporary. Through these generations poetry has evolved tremendously, and for the better.
Multiethnic populations in the area (like the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio, Bini, Nupe, and Igala, to name just a few) had their traditional ways of appreciating poetry, long before the arrival of white colonialists. Nze Onwumere, my grandfather, for instance, was Igbo, a people who before and after colonialism delivered oral poems with nocturnal
Mural depicting Ken Saro-Wiwa in County Mayo, Ireland; his poetry is displayed (in Gaelic), as well as the names of the eight other activists of the “Ogoni Nine” who were executed in 1995 under the rule of General Sani Abacha.
voices, mostly at funerals.
Just as developments in writing and literacy changed poetry all over the world, poets in Nigeria, including Nnamdi Azikiwe, Christopher Okigbo, Dennis Osadebe (of blessed memories), Gabriel Okara, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper-Clark, amongst others, experimented in Western education. Their poetry, tainted by Western attitudes, however, acted as a cancer on the Nigerian poetry scene, leaving the Nze Onwumeres of this world behind. The poetry of these Western-educated men was mostly intended for academia; as the war between Socialism and Capitalism was then in fashion, they wrote poems designed to undermine colonialism. They represent a class of protest poems and poets that deviated from traditional Nigerian form.
Speed is violence
Power is violence
Weight is violence
The butterfly seeks safety in lightness
In weightless, undulating flight
But at a crossroads where mottled light
From trees falls on a brash new highway
Our convergent territories meet
I come power-packed enough for two
And the gentle butterfly offers
Itself in bright yellow sacrifice
Upon my hard silicon shield.
– Chinua Achebe
While in Poetics there are genres and rules that govern poetry, the end of colonialism in Nigeria ushered in new forms and styles of poetry, most of them without a defined style. Nigerian poets under colonialism followed the culture of writing poetry that they learned directly from the white colonialists; post-colonial poets changed these styles and themes. After independence, poets like Niyi Osundare, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and others wrote very powerfully in this revised art form.
In 1986, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Post-Colonial poet-playwright Wole Soyinka, solidifying Nigeria’s place in the global literature scene. Shaped by colonialism, poets of the second generation, like self-avowed Marxists Odia Ofeimun and Niyi Osundare, are leaders in the struggle for the betterment of Nigerian poetry and the removal of its colonial mentality. Harry Garuba, Afam Akeh, and Sesan Ajayi, a university professor, confessional poet, and journalist, respectively, are among the leaders of the pack of the third generation (Post-Colonial) of poets.
Nigerian Voices, Tomorrow
Today, the proliferation of poetry in Nigeria is stirred by the increasing social awareness and emotional pressure brought on by social, political, and economic issues and crises. Contemporary Nigerian poets (the fourth generation) like Remi Raji, Uche Peter Umez, Obi Nwakanma, Ogaga Ifowodo, Chidi Anthony Opara, Maik Nwosu, myself, and many others, are churning out poems virtually on a daily basis, either in book form or published on the Internet. Poets from around the world are envious of and learning from the power and fame that Nigerian poets enjoy in the country’s literary scene.
Marrakech: the grey hairs of
Atlas, streaks of the light of years,
like truth accompanied by a bodyguard.
It is not war: the fast tumble
is no war, Nadia.
Two pendants, each of hearts, and
the silvery lock leashed unto time;
Is no war: but the travesty of distance,
And this moment, a full breast glistening
out of the moon, the darkened streets
and hooded, like the lawless,
stranger or wayfarer:
It is the pod streaking with milk
smelt so close, it vanishes,
like the gecko abandoning her tail.
– Obi Nwakanma
Despite the lack of print publications open to poets and authors, this new generation of poets thrives, especially through many local poetry competitions like the ANA/NDDC Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry, Cadbury Poetry Prize, Muson Poetry Prize, and the rotating NLNG/Nigeria Prize for Literature. With the exception of the NLNG/Nigeria Prize for Literature, which has purse of $50,000, few offer financial rewards.
But as one critic said of the Nigerian poetry scene today, there is a mixed collection of talent and mediocrity, rhyme, rhetoric, and reason. Still, I believe that there is no dearth of intellectuals among Nigerian poets. Nigerian poets are great writers, visionaries, and social reformers who consistently seek to drive their point home (the same cannot be said of our political leadership). Against the backdrop of what can be described as formidable, Nigerian poets represent the opposition to the ills of the society.
Is there anything like poverty?
Is it POVERTY when a man is healthy
but not wealthy?
Is it POVERTY when a man is wealthy
but not healthy?
Is it POVERTY when a man is a rich-illiterate
but a poor-literate?
Is it POVERTY when a man has many children
but there is no money to take care of them?
Is it POVERTY when a man is rich
but has no child?
What you call POVERTY might be RICHES
to the other man.
Are there not out there financially
rich barren women
who are craving for children?
Are there not out there
financially muscled people
who do not have peace?
Are there not out there people
who are handicapped
but have handwork?
What seems as POVERTY to you
might be RICHES to the other man.
Is the success of man
determined by how successful
he is financially?
In life, man lags one thing or another
no matter how highly placed.
So, there is no RICH man, no POOR man.
What abound are gluttonous-insatiable persons
or you call them, kleptomaniacs.
– Odimegwu Onwumere
1. There is considerable debate as to the date when The Vedas were written. Here I cite: Jagadish Chandra Chatterji. The Wisdom of the Vedas (Quest Books, 2006): 3.
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