Niyi Osundare, just turned sixty, and a Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, has ten or so published poetry collections to his name, plus two “Collected’s”, four plays, and a large body of critical work. His first collection, Songs of the Marketplace, came out in his native Nigeria in 1983, and his poetry since then has provided a powerful exploration of what it has meant to be a poet in Nigeria during the troubled 1980’s and 1990’s. But Osundare – and his fellow Nigerian poets of the last forty years or so – are virtual unknowns to even the better read British poetry readers and editors. How many of us know, for instance, that the title poem for Matthew Sweeney and Jo Shapcott’s innovative anthology, Emergency Kit, is by the excellent Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide? Judging by how few other contemporary Nigerian poets have ended up in subsequent UK anthologies, very few. Not a single Nigerian poet, let alone a poet from the African continent, in either Staying Alive or Being Alive, for instance. Given the range and vitality of Nigerian poetry in English, this neglect is scandalous. The continuing lack of contact between these two very different poetry communities, the UK and the Nigerian, sharing a common language and entangled by history, impoverishes both.
It wasn’t always so. In the 1950’s, as Nigeria prepared for independence, young British university lecturers were helping to establish a network of Nigerian universities. The new institutions kick-started a flood of Nigerian writing in English, in both prose and poetry. Nigeria was Africa’s most populous nation (current population approximately 140 million). By the time independence arrived, in 1960, Nigerian novelists, playwrights and poets were beginning to attract UK interest – and, crucially, UK publishers, who introduced them to a world audience.
These were the years of Chinua Achebe’s first novels and Wole Soyinka’s plays. The two giants of Nigerian literature are still writing for a world audience: Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 (the first African laureate), and Achebe’s failure to follow him onto the Nobel stage is greeted each October with outrage by his admirers around the world (who suggest his sharp criticisms of white literary racism are the reason). Achebe’s novels are much superior to his poems, but Soyinka’s poetry, especially in his first collections, is as powerful a statement of what it meant to be a citizen of a newly independent Nigeria as his plays. In the 1960s and 1970s Soyinka was joined in British poetry magazines and on British poetry lists by poets like John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, and the short-lived but remarkable Christopher Okigbo.
Okigbo died in 1967 fighting on the Biafran side in Nigeria’s civil war. Until the civil war, Nigeria’s emergent poets had tended to grapple in their poetry with the existential problem of being among the earliest Nigerian poets to be recording their poetry in written form and in English. Nigeria’s many African language societies are centuries old, with a rich orally based culture which gives a central place to the public performance of poetry, a performance traditionally accompanied by singing and the playing of stringed instruments, horns and drums. The poet’s role in these lively, mainly rural, Nigerian societies was to be both guardian of the culture, and stubborn defender of its core values, in the face of whatever challenges contemporary events might throw up. In Nigeria’s various oral traditions, being a poet meant playing a prominent and very public role. But when Soyinka, Achebe, and their student colleagues left their African-language home towns and villages to attend the new English-medium Nigerian universities, they were introduced to the very different norms of the British model of English literary culture – as practised and taught in the Britain of the 1940s and 1950s. And mid-century British poets overwhelmingly chose private, not overtly public, subjects for their poetry.
Those young Nigerians who chose to express what it meant, at this crucial time, to be Nigerian, whether in prose or poetry – Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo and all the rest – were the first generation to attempt this task in English and in written, rather than oral form. As they wrote, the influence of the British writers of the UK canon, as taught in the English departments of the new Nigerian universities – literally, from Beowulf via Shakespeare and Marvell to Tennyson, Eliot and Auden – was almost overwhelming. Inevitably, much of their early output was derivative. In the struggle to draw a creative balance between exploiting the newly revealed riches of a literature written in English and the need to be unmistakably Nigerian, the first of this new breed of Nigerian poets largely chose to turn their backs on the African languages and the traditional structures of their own oral cultures. Nigerian poetry of the 1950s and 1960s explored all the tensions of Nigeria’s postcolonial circumstances – but in English, and in the poetic idiom of the English literary canon, which eschewed overt political comment.
That choice of subject matter soon changed under what Seamus Heaney has elsewhere called “the brutal onslaught of history”. The Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1971 was the watershed. It was precipitated by the first in a series of army coups, that entrenched the generals and their civilian allies in power for the next thirty years. In spite – or perhaps because of – the transformation of Nigeria into a major oil producer in the 1970s, the plight of ordinary Nigerians worsened steadily, as corruption and incompetent leadership despoiled the country. By 2000, all the basic services – health, education, law and order, even a regular supply of electricity, water and (amazingly) petrol – had been disastrously run down. Nigeria might be oil rich, but ordinary Nigerians were among the world’s poorest. Faced with this catastrophic misgovernment, Nigerian poets reacted by taking up the role their poet predecessors had played for generations in the African-language oral cultures they had been born into: the responsibility of stubbornly articulating a public – and published – resistance to the steady, often savage erosion of freedom and justice taking place around them.
Soyinka and the active poets of the 1960s and 1970s were the first to switch the focus of much of their poetry towards such pressing public, political issues – and were the first to pay the often considerable price for their courageous stand. They were followed by a new cohort of politically aware poets who emerged in the 1980s – among them Niyi Osundare, whose first collection, Songs of the Marketplace, came out in 1983. Another enduring Nigerian talent, Odia Ofeimun, had produced The Poet Lied three years earlier and Tanure Ojaide (of Emergency Kit fame) was also active through the 1980s. The 1989 collection from which Emergency Kit appeared, the endless song, has a dedication from a Pasternak poem that ends, “here art stops, / and earth and fate breathe in your face.” The trenchantly political Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is another strong influence often acknowledged by Nigerian poets.
But if current events have demanded a political response from Nigerian poets, the type of response has inevitably varied widely from writer to writer. Niyi Osundare throughout the 1980’s was a new, and increasingly influential voice in introducing – or re-introducing – a key ingredient that had been absent from the poetry written in Nigeria in the 1960s and 1970s: prominent reference to traditional African culture. From his earliest publications in the early 1980’s, Osundare has couched much of his poetry in terms of Yoruba traditional myths. This was partly to make political points without attracting the attention of the heavy-handed and often lethal state security apparatus. But it was clearly also to celebrate the enduring strengths of his own Yoruba-speaking culture, in the face of a growing disillusionment with the failures of the European-inspired independent nation state. In his re-affirmation of the continued significance of Nigeria’s traditional cultures, Osundare has gone far beyond a simple re-telling in English of Yoruba traditions. He doesn’t just name Yoruba gods and heroes in his poems, but also, as a kind of chorus, regularly weaves traditional chants in their original Yoruba language into his English lines. And, to further align his English writing with its Yoruba roots, he calls for his poems to be performed, in the words of the opening stage directions to the 1990 collection, Waiting Laughters, “to the accompaniment of drums, horns, and [traditional West African] stringed instruments. Medley of voices.” By all accounts, an Osundare public performance of his own poetry is a powerful multi-cultural and multi-media experience (which London audiences have sadly so far been denied).
This re-injection of traditional cultural elements directly into Nigeria’s contemporary English poetry overturned the practice of the pioneer generation of Nigerian poets, who had stuck more closely to what was regarded as conventional British poetic practice. Osundare’s embracing of traditional culture is a matter for ongoing debate in Nigerian poetry circles. It can provide an unmistakably Nigerian energy, and result in a passionate evocation of the countryside and the village-based way of life of Nigeria’s traditional cultures. Osundare is at his best here. The extended title poem of his 1988 collection, Moonsongs, is a passionate love song to rural Yoruba-land. It’s a territory he re-visits in his Magma poem, Polygamous Moon. And in public performance, this linking back into oral tradition can set Yoruba-speaking audiences alight. But by the same token, it runs the danger of distancing younger, urban-based Nigerians, and especially, non-Yoruba speakers, from the work. In less talented hands, it can become overburdened with obscure, tedious political correctness, or local chauvinism.
The ability of leading Nigerian poets like Osundare to attract audiences through public performance has become significant at a time when Nigeria’s political and economic morass has sidelined intellectuals and the academic community, closed down nearly all Nigerian poetry magazines and poetry publishers, and severely damaged the public visibility and availability of poetry. The British poetry editors and publishers who had supported the pioneering Nigerian poets had increasingly lost touch with Nigerian poetry through the 1980s. Today, Nigerian poetry is an unknown quantity in London. The decline in local and international outlets for Nigerian poetry has been accompanied by a steady haemorrhage of creative talent, as Nigeria’s writers have drifted overseas. Chinua Achebe is New York based and Niyi Osundare is Professor of English at the University of New Orleans: the US, it seems, has become more supportive of African poets than the UK. And back in Nigeria, poetry faces serious new challenges. Popular artists like Nigeria’s answer to Bob Marley, the late Fela Ransome Kuti, and now a new generation of Nigerian rappers, have rivalled poetry as a creative outlet for cultural experiment and political protest. And Nigeria’s increasingly dominant religious fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, are unsympathetic to non-religious writing, and hostile to any mention of traditional African practices and culture.
Amazingly, a whole new generation of Nigerian poets is emerging, undeterred by the many obstacles they face. Among these is the lack of the regular critical discipline provided by the whole process of getting published in small Nigerian magazines, by dedicated poetry editors.
The lack of outlets has forced many of the new generation of poets into some form of self-publication. This has kept them afloat, but at a cost. Nonetheless, Osundare, alongside contemporaries like Ojaide and Ofeimun, is today in the company of the newest cohort of Nigerian poets, those emerging in the last ten years or so – too many to name, but including writers like Lola Shoneyin, Toyin Adewale, and most recently, Tolu Ogunlesi (see Magma 35).
Meanwhile, older poets like Odia Ofiemun and Niyi Osundare continue to write. Osundare’s other Magma poem, Ode to the Sugar Cane, shows the poet still responding powerfully to the third of the three significant challenges all Nigerian poets of the last forty or fifty years have faced. First, there have been the two opposed traditions competing for the poet’s loyalty: on the one hand, the celebration of the riches of Nigeria’s own cultures and societies, past and present; on the other, the exultation of contributing, as contemporary Nigerians, to the world-wide stream of poetry written in English. Second, there has been the demand to face up as poets to the appalling costs of the political mismanagement of the last forty years: what Nigerians have done to their fellow Nigerians. Thirdly, though, there is the question of what the outside world has done, and continues to do, to Nigerians: Europe’s role in the slave trade, Britain’s colonial mastership, and the postcolonial toll of the last fifty years. Osundare ends Ode to the Sugar Cane by asking, “Rasp-throated one,/ ….. What did History whisper in your ears/ last time you met in the green furrows?” Throughout his writing career, with poetic force, and with wit and learning, he has been asking his readers to consider Nigerian answers – to this question, and to all the others.
Two poems by Niyi Osundare
A polygamous moon cannot manage
Her plague of husbands
Nodding claims stand stiff
In lunar closets, or hang limp
On the tree of a penitent wardrobe
Jealous rays unravel
The chastity of the night
Desire bathes her wrinkles
In the pitcher of a pagan milk
Night so dark, so hot
Even nouns forget their names
A retinue of adjectives plays
Clown in the courtyard of liquid shadows
Flowing back, fl owing forth
Like the robes of eating chiefs
The moon, polygamous still,
Her roster crowded with passionate longings
Her sweat scented with nameless things
Knowing not what to do with the night’s
Inky consort, and a bevy of stars
Winking coquettishly at her waiting stallions
Ode to the Sugar Cane
How many oceans groaned under your feet
On your journey to this land
What winds abetted your prowl
How large your sail of leaves
What idiom broke your silence to a stolen soil?
Your pidgin prattle; grating grammar
Of your mastertongue when History stammered through
Your text, mouth crowded with missing vowels
The segmented stanza of your song,
Its juicy joints, eloquent rings multi-
Plying like the green gossip of talkative moons
The syrupy drawl of your orders
Chaffy echoes of extracted lives
Sticky fingers at the water’s edge
And the mansions which festered on your sweetness
The bitter joy of their rooms
Banks which farmed their fortunes
In the swineyard of your lust.
You sun-slaying, blood-chewing
Bone-sucking runner on shoeless shores
You pallid phallus of empire
Of rapier thrusts drilling through
The innocence of bewildered twilights
Whips whistled to please your ears
Bent backs pronounced your height
Your armada sailed on oceans of sweat
Shallow-rooted cousin of the millet
Brother of the elephant grass
Though roughly rich, your clumpy tribe
Your I-land of strangered selves
Your archipelago of floating husks
Drifting theatre of dreams in flight
Stiltdancer, your shadow,
Chattel hands flailing in the wind
Blacker than the feverish fear of sunset fires
Cutlassed into courtesy, imperial fronds bow
To earth, ever so mindful of the fragile distance
Between dripping wounds and the open sore
Where did you put the sky
Where did you leave the sea
What did History whisper in your ears
The last time you met in the green furrows?
Niyi Osundare’s Pages from the Book of the Sun: New and Collected Poems, was published by Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ) in 2002.
Osundare is one of the more prominent contributors to the Nigerian section of The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, 4th edition 1998, ed. Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier . Other key Nigerian representatives include Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, John Pepper Clark, and Odia Ofeimun.
Tanure Ojaide is published by the Malthouse Press, Ibadan and Oxford.
Tolupe Gbenga Ogunlesi’s Listen to the geckos singing from a balcony was published in 2004 by BeWrite Books, UK
Robert Fraser’s West African Poetry, a Critical History, Cambridge University Press, 1986, is essential and inspiring reading. As is Letter to Patience, a remarkable sixty page meditation on Nigeria and Nigerian poetry in terza rima by John Haynes, Seren, 2006.