A Plural Imagination: On Being A Nigerian Poet

“…literary periodization [is] a messy business… [Once] time-lines are drawn
and writers are placed within them, the intuitive clarity of the lines blur, as
writers who should be within the period by nature of their preoccupations and
styles fall outside and others within very clearly pronounce their unbelonging.”[i]

                    —Harry Garuba

I am of the mind that the poetic imagination tends toward plural manifestations instead of singular constructions. Thus, it is possible for a Nigerian poet to write in iambic hexameter, speak of corrupt leaders, write in abstractions, use difficult language, be elliptical, use clear language, be purposefully apolitical, and still be the same poet. If some major figures of each poetic movement in Nigeria had kept this in mind, perhaps their rejection of their predecessors’ poetic tendencies would not have been so categorical. One finds it a wonder how poets become so absolute in their rejection of other poets’ methodologies, especially when the doors to poetry are infinite. That said, I will begin by providing a short discourse on Nigerian poetry, discuss how current delineations of Nigerian poetry collapse upon themselves by showing how key properties that mark a generation are utilized by others as well, and make a case for inclusion as the primary matrix out of which my own poetics evolve.   
Poet/critics such as Tanure Ojaide, Ezinwa Ohaeto, and Chin Ce use the notion of “generation” to make sense of the trends in Nigerian poetry. But, as Harry Garuba mentions in his essay, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Re-Figuring Trends in Recent Nigerian Poetry”, this concept of “generation” is itself sometimes an “ambiguous, unstable one” (52).[ii] Still, Tanure Ojaide, one of Nigeria’s foremost poets, utilizes the concept of “generation” in delineating one period of Nigerian poetry from another. In his essay, “The Changing Voice of History: Contemporary African Writing”, Ojaide asserts that “[there] is a gradual parting of ways between [Nigerian] poets directly influenced by Western, especially English, modernist poets and the younger poets who are highly influenced by traditional African poetic techniques and are preoccupied with socio-economic matters and contemporary political issues” (Ojaide 59). Ojaide does not care much for establishing exact dates in his consideration of these two groups of poets; he does say, however, that “a dichotomy can be drawn between poetry written from about 1960 to the mid-1970s and from then to the present” (60). Thus, Ojaide delineates two currents to Nigerian poetry that seem to move in different streams. For the earlier generation, who came onto the literary scene, around the time of the country’s independence, the testimony of culture “is a major thematic preoccupation” (60). In the essay, he points to Wole Soyinka’s long conversation with the Yoruba god of Iron, Ogun, in Idanre and Christopher Okigbo’s near-transcendentalist poems in Heaven’s Gate as examples. 

Other characteristics Ojaide gives of “old” Nigerian poetry are that they are difficult, privatist, and often apolitical poems that are overly influenced by Western poetic traditions. In his above-mentioned essay, Ojaide states that “[on] many occasions Okigbo made music at the expense of meaning” (65). And, “Wole Soyinka wrote such difficult poetry as if for a coterie” (65). In citing Lewis Nkosi, Ojaide asserts that “among [those] Nigerian poets the initial enthusiasm for Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot and pound seems…vastly excessive” (qtd. in Ojaide 66). “[In] Okigbo’s generation, a generation weaned on Eliot, Pound and the Classics, a certain notion rapidly gained ground that to be taken seriously at all poetry not only had to be made ‘new’ in the Poundian sense but that it had to be made difficult as well” (qtd. in Ojaide 66).

However, unlike the Soyinka generation of poets, who wrote “for a coterie” and are “weaned on” Western poetic aesthetics, the new poet of the later generation “is public in his treatment of themes, conscious of an audience, is unpretentious, clear and simple in expression. In fact, he is ‘unpoetic’ in the old way because he employs the syntax of prose” (66). As a side note, one has to wonder why to be “unpretentious” in one’s poetry is equated here with using “clear” and “simple” “expression.” Still, Ojaide makes clear that “[unlike] the occasionally stilted poetry of Clark and Soyinka[,] [the] new [Nigerian poet] models his work on traditional African poetry, whose syntax is not much different from that of prose and in which what makes poetry is the intensity of verbal expression and not archaisms and other ‘poetic’ mannerisms” (66). So, unlike Okigbo who sometimes wrote “poetry without any meaning in mind”, “the new poet sets out to make meaning” (66) (Italics mine). Ojaide cites Niyi Osundare’s poem, “Poetry is”, as a “kind of poetic manifesto of the emergent group.” Here’s an excerpt from the poem:


not the esoteric whisper
of an excluding tongue
not a clap trap
for a wondering audience
not a learned quiz
entombed in Grecoroman lore

Poetry is
a lifespring
which gathers timbre
the more throats it plucks
harbinger of action
the more minds it stirs…

When Niyi Osundare released his first poetry collection, he meant for it to be in conversation with the works of the major Nigerian poets he had read while in school. In addition to rejecting the idea that poetry is “…quiz/entombed in Grecoroman lore”, Ojaide argues that a major departure between the first generation and second generation of poets is in the second generation’s belief that poetry is a “harbinger of action/the more minds it stirs.” Or as Odia Ofeimun asserts, [iv] “[literature] has to follow what is happening in the society, in order to be effective in the process of either transformation or conservation of what exists” (Ofeimun 151). Perhaps the great achievement of this group, as seen with Osundare, is what Biodun Jeyifo [v] calls “‘demystification’ of the language of poetry” (Jeyifo 610). Jeyifo maintains that “while the older poets generally deployed a diction and a metaphoric, highly allusive universe calculated to exclude all but a small coterie of specialists, the new poets have taken the language of poetry…to the market-place, to the popular daily press even” (610). This “revolution”, Jeyifo claims, “in the attitude to the received poetic diction…[is] the defining poetics of Osundare’s writings” (610). And, if Osundare’s “Poetry Is” is meant to be a manifesto of/for the later generation, then one can assume that, in addition to poetry carrying a social function, demystified language is also a “defining” characteristic of the poets Ojaide claims to be of the second generation.

Chinweizu, a Nigerian poet and critic, who has been vocal about the first generation of Nigerian poets, holds quite firmly that inaccessibility is one of the failures of their literary corpus. He blames this feature of their poetry on “unsuccessful mimesis” of Hopkinsian poetical tendenciesor as he famously calls it, “Hopkins Disease” [vi] (Chinweizu 172). Chinweizu calls this group of poets the Ibadan-Nsukka [vii] poets and called their poetry “old-fashioned, craggy”, full of “unmusical language; obscure and inaccessible idiom” (165). So unpoetic are these

Hopkinsian infelicities [such] as atrocious punctuation, word order
deliberately scrambled to produce ambiguities, syntactic jugglery with
suppression of auxiliary verbs and articles, the specious and contorted
cadences of sprung rhythm, the heavy use of alliterations and
assonances within a line, and the cliched use of doubleand triple-

that their materialization in the works of the Ibadan-Nsukka poets is proof of those poets’ undiscerning utilization of borrowed techniques used by the Modernists. He references Soyinka’s “Dawn” as incomprehensible, precisely because it is full of such Hopkinsianisms.

For Chinweizu, linguistic ingenuity is not enough, a poem “must do a good job of communicating” (qtd. in Ohaeto 150). “[The] more accessible the diction the more effective the style, the more important the material the more relevant the subject” Chinweizu maintains (150). “A poem cannot just be, it must also mean” (Chinweizu 166). In other words, Chinweizu asserts, “a good practitioner of poetry” must get rid of all ambiguities. Yet, in the same interview with Ezenwa-Ohaeto when asked about his own two poetry collections Energy Crisis and Invocations and Admonitions, where he “portrays different issues and even different poetic strategies” and was asked how he “[accounts] for these differences”, Chinweizu simply states that “[every] work has its own theme and modes of exploration” (qtd. in Ohaeto 150). He goes on to say that with different poems, “it will be surprising if the strategies [used] in them are the same” (150). In other words, no poet should shackle himself/herself to only one mode of expressing his poetic vision. If this is true, as Chinweizu mentions in his interview with Ohaeto, why, then, was he so categorical in rejecting ambiguity and other modes of linguistic playfulness as viable gateways into the poetic landscape? Also, if it is true that each theme has its own mode of expression, why must all poems mean?

Rejection, however, is not unique to the “second generation” of Nigerian poets. The first generation of poets themselves did not write in a poetry-vacuum when they came into prominence around 1960. In fact, while some poet/critics such as Ojaide view Nigerian poetry as having two generations with two distinct poetic trajectories, others, such as Chin Ce, claim there are three generations. Chin Ce places the Soyinka-Okigbo generation behind the Dennis Osadebay generation. In some of his poems, Osadebay spoke to the anti-colonial sentiments of his time. Consider the following excerpts from his poem “Young Africa’s Plea”:

Don’t preserve my customs
As some fine curios
To suit some white historian’s tastes…

Let me play with the whiteman’s ways
Let me work with the blackman’s brains
Let my affairs themselves sort out…

Those who doubt my talents
In secret fear my strength
They know I am no less a man…

Not only is the language straight forward, the tone is defiant. Given their primacy on social dialogue and accessibility, surely Chinweizu, a poet of the Osundare generation, would have raised few qualms with this poem of identity.

In his 1973 interview with Bernth Lindfors, Michael Echeruo, who is very much of the Soyinka generation, articulates that “his greatest ambition [was] to attain a finality of expression, in the tradition of the great poets, without in the event sounding like anybody else” (qtd. in Lindfors 6). In addition to this, he specified that “…the cult of the seventeenth century metaphysicals, of Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Auden, meant that there was a surer sense of judgment among [him and his colleagues] then, and a definite preference for strength, complexity and originality in poetry” (qtd. in Lindfors 7). Thus, we have movement toward “originality” and “complexity” as modes of poetic expression. If this was the intention of the poets of the Soyinka generation, why, then, was Chinweizu, and other poets of the Osundare generation, so vocal in their rejection? What is wrong with wanting to write like great poets or seeking a finality of expressionwhatever that is or might be? One answer might be Echeruo’s equation of “strength” to “complexity.” [viii] Chinweizu argues that, in truth, there is no “strength” in their complex poetical constructions and that “their slim and overrated output is apprentice work stunted by early and too much praise” (Chinweizu 195).  

Such, partially, is the discourse in Nigerian poetry. Yet, this discourse resists closure, precisely because many of the characteristics used to define each poetry generation only holds upon initial consideration. Further exploration of each poet’s work over time shows that the particular poet often abandons characteristics with which his work is defined only to adopt those associated with poets whom he, in the past, has criticized. For instance, Osundare, whose poem, “Poetry Is”, contains such lines as

Poetry is
a lifespring
which gathers timbre
the more throats it plucks
harbinger of action
the more minds it stirs

and is a manifesto of the “second generation” of poets, would eventually write Moonsongs, a poetry collection full of private imagery. Yet, the poem remains “a lifespring/which gathers timbre” even though only one “throat plucks” and it is no “harbinger of action.” Of course, one might argue that Osundare intends for the poems in the collection to be harbingers of action for a particular individual with a particular concern – in which case, one has to wonder why Osundare’s private address should be any less than Echeruo’s or Soyinka’s. Osundare confirms this movement away from his initial poetics (or manifesto) in his interview with Stephen Arnold. Arnold asks

On January 10, 1987, thugs attacked you in Ibadan and left you for
dead. The poetry that you have published since then has been labeled
...as surrealist and existential, not poetry for the masses as before.
Was your near-death experience traumatic for your poetry? Have you
abandoned poetry for the masses?
(Arnold 437)
to which Osundare replies

It's true; the experience was traumatic in many ways. This was a
negative milestone, indeed. It was a life experience that created a
stylistic change that people have noticed in my poetry. It started with
Moonsongs... [ix]
(Arnold 438)

The same Osundare, whose “enthusiasm [for poetry] soon fizzled out” after reading the complex, early, works of poets of the Soyinka generation and who, “[when] [he] started writing, [that] negative influence was in [his] mind and [he] felt it was the duty of the new generation of Nigerian poets to bring poetry back to the people…” (qtd in Ohaeto 103), is the same Osundare whose Moonsongs contains a poem like “Phase IV”, which is one of the truly fine poems to come out of Nigeria. The point here is not whether the poems in this collection are first class or not. They are! The point is that, despite the clear language, many of the poems are not socially-driven. In fact, “Phase IV” has its moments of multi-barreled neologismsa characteristic Chinweizu identifies as prevalent in Soyinka’s poetry.  

In his interview with Ohaeto, Osundare further rationalizes this shift in his poetics by saying “when you take the entire harvest of a writer into consideration, often what we arrive with is a range, a spectrum of styles and nuances” (Ohaeto 66). He goes on to say that “Soyinka who wrote Idanre one of the most difficult collections to have been written in [Nigeria] also went ahead to write Ogun Abibiman” (Ohaeto 66). What is also true about Ogun Abibiman is that it is an accessible collection in which Soyinka unequivocally advocates an anti-apartheid position. These considerations fracture the single narratives that Chinweizu, Ojaide, and Osundare himself have, in the past, used to define and argue against Soyinka’s poeticsprecisely because, Ogun Abibiman is socially-driven, clear, and, if we are to follow Ojaide’s equation, unpretentious, as evident in the following lines from the collection’s third section:

We shall not vie in sickness with that world
Whose rhetoric is sightless violence
But press the purity of our claims that dwell
Inward in our being, outward in knowledge
Of the world, transcending dust that was
Johannesburg, the rubble of Pretoria
(Soyinka, 19)

One must not, however, make the mistake in assuming that poet/critics like Ojaide, Chinweizu, and Osundare do not understand that even the Nigerian poetic imagination, which is often inundated by disturbing and poignant political realities, does not only tend toward singular constructions but that it tends also toward plural manifestations. In fact, the excerpts I have provided from their criticism and interviews should show that they hold quite firmly that the plural imagination is a creative right. Because, Osundare confirms, in his above mentioned interview with Ohaeto, that “[he] [has] a way of outgrowing a work when [he] [has] finished it … [After that work][,][he] start[s] seeking new frontiers” (Ohaeto 74). These writers understand that the act of grouping Nigerian poets under particular dichotomies is, as Garuba says, “messy” and that such dichotomies only provide initial considerations. They know quite well that true work begins immediately after one understands the prescribed delineations. Yet, instead of plurality as a secondary consideration, might it not be more useful if discourse of a poet’s work begins with a realization that as long as the poet has breath there is the possibility that he/she will move eventually toward new beginnings and fresh directions? How less categorical, and less caustic, would the rejection, by some poets of the Osundare generation, have been of Soyinka’s poetics, if they had simply kept in mind that Soyinka, himself, was/is still evolving? In fact, we must not see the imagination as a concretized reality, but as a flexible field that allows movement in directions those that engage it might find surprising.

Osundare is right when he says we should “take the entire harvest of a writer.” And it is precisely this idea of the manifold that informs my poetics. Only a few times, do I begin the writing process knowing exactly what I am going to write. Often, I wade through unsure beginnings only to arrive at uncertain ends. Because I am Nigerian does not mean I must follow Chinweizu in saying “the more accessible the diction the more effective the style, the more important the material the more relevant the subject, the more acute the insight the better the work is” (Ohaeto 150). Nor does it mean I should seek “a finality of expression” as Echeruo did. I like to think of myself as a quiet experimentalist, who sees no contradiction in being elliptical, abstract, playful, and serious. I explore homosexual themes, give life to fruits, and adorn donkeys. I write prose poems, utilize the line, and, if I choose, write traditional verse.  

Some might argue that inherent in poetry is the act of rejectionthat to write a poem, the poet must reject some of the options available to him. Perhaps! But, there’s a difference between rejection in this context and selection. For me, rejection implies the total denial of a phenomenon’s applicability. Selection, on the other hand, implies that while a tool is not being used now, it might be utilized later. My poetics of inclusion demands that, instead of turning my back on certain modes of poetic expression, I see them as possibilities that might be useful in part or whole when I’m working on my own poems. Thus, my fundamental position is not to impose a prioris upon poems I come across or to throw up my arms and call them non-poems but to understand the poeticity of each poetic expressioni.e., the vision behind the work, what makes each poem a poem, and then assess how close the writer comes to his/her intent. Thus, with my poems, I assert my unbelonging to any poetic discourse that denies plurality and becomes categorical upon consideration of singular narratives.

That said, let no one suggest that this idea of prioritizing plurality over singular narratives is new to Nigerian poetry. J.P. Clark, in his 1965 essay, “Poetry in Africa Today”, in talking about the “use each [poet in Africa] puts [his] tool” uses the metaphor of the orchestra to make his point.

An orchestra does not contain the paino alone, overwhelming as can be
the harmony or discord from black and white keys. It also has room for
several more instruments, some woods and wind, others brass and
more, if the piece of music it is playing must attain its maximum body
(Clark 18)

Integral as plurality is to my poetics, it is a state of mind that makes me skeptical of adjectives, see individuals as manifold, and hold that most categorizations cannot do justice to a poet’s literary corpus.

notes & bibliography

ABAYOMI ANIMASHAUN is a Nigerian emigre, whose poems have appeared in African American Review, Southern Indiana Review, 5 A.M., and Diode. He is the winner of the 2008 Hudson Prize for his collection of poems, The Giving of Pears, which is available through Black Lawrence Press.