Towards A Revaluation of Nigerian Poetry


No valuation of any nation’s literature is final. There invariably comes a certain period in a nation’s evolution in which a call for the revaluation of that country’s literature is in order. Revaluation, as Andor Gomme (1983:401-428) enlightens us, “enables us to discover how the literature of the past is alive in the present, and the present is always changing”. With Nigeria’s return to democracy, there has been a kind of renaissance in the public space, most notably in the entertainment industry and in literature, the very contours of the nation are changing, and there appear to be slowly emerging in the country’s literature – poetry in the present instance – new directions that the arbiters of our literature have yet had an opportunity to study.

This paper, therefore, proposes to do three things: one, to raise a number of questions in the light of certain developments in the country about certain critical assumptions that we have inherited from earlier critics of Nigerian literature, concerning the canons of Nigerian poetry; two, to negotiate a space for contemporary poets who hitherto were not given the kind of critical and scholarly attention they deserve, despite the technical depth, rhetoric and power they bring to bear on their poetry, and lastly, to tentatively hint at the context in which these new poets are to be located and appraised.

…after Pope there was no one who thought and felt nearly enough like Pope to be able to use his language quite successfully; but a good many second rate writers tried to write something like it, unaware of the fact that the change of sensibility demanded a change of idiom. Sensibility alters from generation to generation in everybody, whether we will or no but expression is only altered by a man of genius. A great many second-rate poets in fact are second-rate just for this reason, that they have not the sensitiveness and consciousness to perceive that they feel differently from the preceding generation, and therefore must use words differently. –T.S. Eliot

Perhaps, it is appropriate to preface this essay with T.S. Eliot’s assertion above for I owe a huge part of my argument in this essay to that famous passage. Also, I might as well own, right in advance, that this essay is a sort of ‘space-clearing gesture’; for I am, as a poet, implicated in this call for the revaluation of the canon of Nigerian poetry. Is not this a tradition with poets from time immemorial? It is often the case that when a poet criticizes the works of his predecessors, it is a way of justifying his own kind of practice. This perhaps accounts for the slightly informal and rather polemical note of this essay. Nonetheless, I hope, I will be able to justify my own position against the masters, not by setting up my own predilection for certain kinds of poetry as the general rule but by drawing attention to certain poets of the present generation whose works I feel deserve to be brought under our critical and unbiased scrutiny, if not for anything, at least to discover how the poetry of the past is alive in the present. Moreover, I shall have very sharp remarks to make about the poetry of my own generation; for if our literature is to be developed, some measure of objectivity is called for.

We must concede that whenever there is a change in the public space, it brings with it a change in public taste and judgement, and that as Eliot opines, ‘sensibility alters from generation to generation’. It would therefore seem that whenever a new generation of writers emerges, it must, if it is not to become a mere codicil to the preceding one, do three things: one, it must view the literature of its forebears with new critical eyes, on its own terms and in the light of its own values and mores, preferences and prejudices, perceptions and cognitions and so forth; two, it must seek to reinvent that literature, and lastly it must define itself against the achievements of its predecessors. What part of these achievements the new writers choose to align themselves with, reject or correct will be predicated on their having “the sensitiveness and consciousness to perceive they feel differently from the preceding generation.”

It has been almost two decades since our country’s return to democracy and a kind of renaissance seems to be taking place in our public space, most notably in the entertainment industry and in our literature. It seems our public space is being cleared for new innovations in our verse, new themes and concerns in our prose and new directions in our drama. Calling at this time for our literature – poetry in the present case – to be reassessed in the light of the present generation’s needs is therefore in order. In calling for this revaluation, we must ask hard questions, jettison empty, unreflecting homage and put our critical faculties to the proof. The revaluation of any nation’s literature is seldom ever done by scholars or critics but by the writers themselves who at least initiate it. Scholars are often content with teaching and writing about literary texts over and over again, producing such anatomised readings that with time they become desensitised to the texts as their evaluations become increasingly mechanical and normative and decreasingly critical. Our writers whose intuitive judgements, because of the nature of their intense sensitivity, could be trusted in such a case appear to evince a puzzling reluctance or perhaps are simply content with drowsily intoning their bilabials in the roar of the masters’ gutturals.

In Nigerian poetry, we have had two great traditions from which the present generation of poets can, and have been fruitfully drawing: The Okigbo and Soyinka generation and the Osundare and Ojaide generation. I need not rehash here how the two generations came into being but to point out the surprising fact that in discussing the evolution of modern Nigerian poetry, there has been a tendency among critics to view it in diachronic terms; in other words to view the poetry of the second generation of poets as though it were the summit of Nigerian poetry. I find this quite baffling. But the grounds had been prepared for such a tendency. The contentions of Chinweizu and his group of critics against the poetic practices of the first generation of poets, which to some extent are valid, and the inebriating atmosphere of the times led to the subsequent embrace of the poetic models sanctioned by the critics by the second generation of Nigerian poets. These poets were later adopted by other critics who lauded them to high heavens with such wild ecstasies from which they are yet to recover ever since. In fact except I err it has seemed to me at times that scholars have found poetry in which the genre has been made a ready pulpit for the dissemination of advocacy and social criticisms a much more convenient subject of discourse than poetry of introspection and self-discovery. The vast amounts of laudatory scholarship that exist about the generation would seem to attest to my argument.

It appears then impossible, however much one hesitates to draw the deduction, to avoid asserting that scholars and critics alike, especially those of the third generation in our universities, who continue to rehash the evaluations of their precursors, display a puzzling reluctance or is it scholastic phobia? – to confront the critical challenge that the first generation supposedly poses, a generation who decided – rightly in my view – that “poetry for all” is hardly poetry at all, and so ignore them in preference for the second who decided in their practice of true and classical Marxism to take poetry to the marketplace, proud no doubt that it be subjected to the intricacies of demand and supply. Does one any longer wonder that in the words of Mabel Segun ‘If you throw a pin into the marketplace, it is bound to land on a poet?’ It might seem a bit of a hyperbole to say that the second generation of poets is responsible for the market place of our poetry teeming with innumerable poets, who finding poetry demystified pay tribute to it by trying their hands on it without the requisite afflatus and self-searching industry. Nonetheless, the scholar casting a perfunctory glance over the scene, and seeing the prevailing badness, quickly abandons it to the indulgent perusals of the newspaper columnist, turns his back and continues to churn out scholarly works on a generation he is most comfortable with.

Perhaps I have made much of my point above. Nonetheless the polemical tone of this essay would scarcely be called for if there were not certain orthodoxies that have for a very long time dominated our critical establishment, which, I think in the light of the retrospective insights that the passage of time yields us, a new set of emerging scholars in our universities must look at again to see how much abiding validity still resides in them. It is to these new scholars I look in hope to set in motion another process of canon formation. For there appears more than ever before a crying need for a re-shifting and reshaping of the components of our literature in relation to certain conditions of our times, so that we can at least hazard a tentative finger in the horizon for which it is headed.


Ojaide (Image courtesy: uncc.edu)

Now, let us examine one of these orthodoxies, and I shall put it sharply: between the two great poetic traditions we have had, which has the potential to command a more lasting interest, or rather whose poetry has begun to curl at its edges? My answer shall be a bit devious. I present an example that exemplifies succinctly the argument I am crudely attempting to formulate: Christopher Okigbo and Okot p’Bitek are two of the greatest African poets that have exerted an enormous influence on the second generation of Nigerian poets. There are astonishing parallels between these two poets: both were iconoclasts, both were affected by the conditions of their times, among which was the so-called ‘cultural conflict’ and both died tragically young at the peak of their powers. Now, while p’Bitek’s Songs of Lawino and Ocol remains one of the prime texts that any serious student of African poetry must study, Okigbo’s Labyrinth has stepped out of the classroom and continued to inspire generations of poets. The essential difference between the two poets is the difference that W.B. Yeats points out in his famous quip to the effect that ‘out of the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry, and poetry made out of our quarrel with others results in nothing but rhetoric’.

I cannot re-read p’Bitek’s Songs of Lawino and Songs of Ocol without being overcome with a sobering sense of wonder, and asking myself, ‘What was the noise all about?’ A poem in which the poet orates on current events, emotes conventional sentiments and rehashes the popular opinions of the day can seldom be enduring. It will at best have some vividness of appeal lent to it, some spurious liveliness until, with time, it begins to appear like a period piece which, in fact, it must be. This is the fate that has befallen much of the poetry that p’Bitek wrote. It was not that Okigbo wrote ‘better’ poetry than p’Bitek. It was because in his treatment of the principal issues of their day, Okigbo was able to transcend them and imbue them with that true and exciting innerness that is the hallmark of all great poetry.

It is this p’Bitek’s failing I find in much of the poetry written by the second generation of Nigerian poets. And there are others: their self-righteousness, their capacity for self-drama, their abstraction of intellectual thought from our verse – what began propitiously as a revolt against the Soyinka, Echeruo and Kalu Uka school of modernist poetry but ended sadly in the substitution of it for bare, run-on-the-mill-homilies. What makes their didacticism patently obvious is that in expropriating some of the aesthetics of our orature, they adopted wholesale the mannerisms and style of the African traditional poet who thunders at you his moral dicta, little remembering that a verse bedecked with such poetic furniture is hardly ever likely to elicit returning echoes in the bosom of the subsequent generations because “sins like arts are subject to the changes in taste and trends.” Apologies to Aldous Huxley. A much more nuanced approach would have made their fine sentiments more subtle, more effective and inevitably more powerful.

Moreover, poetry written with the idea of an audience in mind, as opposed to the individual, isolated reader, always entails a bit of a performance; for one always acts out something before an audience. In such poetry, the real man recedes into the shadows, and the informing consciousness of an actor-politician takes over. I am of the school that believes poetry and the idea of an audience should never be coupled. The latter should be placed where it truly belongs – drama where a willing suspension of disbelief is quite in order because one prepares one’s mind towards the performance. When one approaches poetry, one does so with a different attitude and belief without the least expectation of seeing in a poet’s work frantic attempts at playing at being a poet! Aside from this, there is also the question of a certain linguistic extravagance of their verse – what with their profuse use of adjectives, metaphors, alliterations and similar ornaments that try one’s attention. It is the absence of these failings I find in some of the poems that have been written by poets I consider the best of the present generation – a desirable departure from the poetic practices of the masters. I shall devote the second part of this essay to the study of some of them.

Still with the second generation of Nigerian poets. Tradition establishes Ojaide as ranking next in importance to Osundare, if not in fact at least in assumption. However, the precise nature of this importance has never been truly established. Who are the major poets of the period? Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Odia Ofeimun, Chimalum Nwankwo and Okinba Launko who has at least four volumes of poetry to his credit. The last two are the least studied. Why this is so continues to baffle me. Is it because their poems display more restraint and the least impulse to elaborate or explicit language? Or is it because they have been among their contemporaries the least prolific? It is time we brought the poetry of that period under our intense scrutiny to discover whose voice reaches us now with the truest poetic accent.

Let us return now to the first generation of Nigerian poets to question another set of orthodoxies. Who have been named as its major poets? Okigbo, Soyinka and Clark with Okara occupying some ambiguous position among them. Most critics pare down the list to Okigbo and Soyinka as two of its greatest, and I concur with them. But whose poetry between the two can be considered ‘greater’? The word ‘great’ when used in relation to poetry holds a wealth of confusing and sometimes contradictory connotations. Words and phrases like ‘haunting’, ‘magnificent’, ‘complex’, ‘mythopoeic’, ‘richly-layered’ ‘slim but terrifying’ are all embedded in the word ‘great’ that has been applied in the description of the poetry of either poets. It is here I come into difficulties – caught as it were in a web of contradictions. As a poet, I with rapturous directness cast my vote for Christopher Okigbo as being the country’s premier poet, but as a lover of poetry with critical pretentions, I evince a little more tardiness and circumspection in assenting to my own view. Let me elaborate a bit on this apparent contradiction. There can be no doubt that Okigbo’s poetry appeals to us more immediately than that of Soyinka. For me to describe how I find Okigbo’s poetry would be repeating a surfeit of superlative applause that has been bestowed upon it by scholars with bigger brains than mine. Numberless attempts have been made by scholars and critics alike to explain why Okigbo’s poetry continues to exercise such a hegemonic, and near mysterious hold upon our imagination. Most of them are convincing, I think, except the fact that they are not convincing enough. Yet we know Okigbo has some very gross weaknesses, some of them bordering on blatant plagiarisms that Chimalum Nwankwo recently pointed out. In fact, this revelation almost makes me feel the great poet conned me into saccharine adulation of him. Despite the squeaks of protest in certain quarters, Professor Nwankwo has done our literature an invaluable service. His discovery has brought starkly home to me that one cannot lie in poetry without being found out. Some future scholar somehow, somewhere will find you out. Well, I guess one of the questions some future Okigbo scholar must eventually settle for us is whether for a poet to have a durable reputation in literary history, he must die at the peak of his powers.

I turn now to Wole Soyinka, Okigbo’s greatest rival for the top echelon in the nation’s pantheon of poets. It is with this poet, more than any other, I am brought into the crude awareness of certain critical assumptions that we have inherited from earlier critics of our literature that we have yet had an opportunity to interrogate. An immense cloud of misconceptions, prejudices and sheer bigotry has over the years grown around this poet’s verse that has blinded us from seeing his achievements in verse as outstanding, evidential feats in the tradition of world’s greatest poets. Again we are confronted with the challenging criticisms of Chinweizu and his co-critics, which I again concede are valid to some extent. Nonetheless we continue to parrot these criticisms forgetting that no evaluation is ever final, and that the poet perhaps in response to the criticisms has since modified his style somewhat, and therefore deserves to be reappraised. Besides, an excursus through the whole range of our nation’s poetry, reveals promptly to me that it boasts of two epics, ‘Ogun Abibiman’ and ‘Idanre’, both written by the same poet – Wole Soyinka. Also if we allow our gaze to stray further afield, beyond the shores of our homeland, we shall again soon make another discovery – that the poets who have over the centuries enjoyed the greatest applause and durability in literary history are poets who have written or attempted epics. Aside from the prime examples of Homer, Dante, Virgil, Milton and others, there are Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’, Pound’s ‘Cantos’, Hart Crane’s ‘Bridge’, William Carlos William’s ‘Paterson’ and so forth. Many of these poets did not begin to enjoy widespread critical attention until their attempts at writing epics.

Now I concede these modern-day epics have not been universally acknowledged as successful. As Allen Tate enlightens us, the reason is not far to seek: it is impossible to write an epic in all its true classical sense in these modern times because of the disintegration of a single universal belief system whose myths and history the poet can seize upon in telling his story. Therefore, modern epics will continue to remain personal and subjective. It is actually this lack that serves as a serious stumbling block for our fullest appreciation of Soyinka’s epics – epics based on a belief system that the society no longer believes in.

Let us for the sake of arguments, grant that no epic can be successfully written in these (post) modern times, and that Soyinka’s epics are at best what some critics have designated them – heroic failures, yet it does seem to me, by the force of his verse and the unmistakable stamp of its genius, that we must cleanse our minds of all the impressions we have hitherto received, and view his verse from fresh perspectives, before the true significance of this great poet can be grasped. There can be no doubt that Soyinka’s poetry requires ‘a getting used to’, and once this is achieved, the rewards are immense. Our study should not  necessarily be predicated on the poet’s ideology, language, personality or even the relative success of his verse, but characterised or routed (for a lack of a better phrase) around the ‘errors of rendering’ within a larger context of the poet’s whole work. For though stiff, rocky and crusty, it may appear on the surface, if we but endeavour to dig a little more deeply, we shall soon find an expanding world of real gems, opening before us – an incredibly revelatory goldmine for any seriously aspiring poet in search of images and ideas in which to glimpse and articulate his searingly inchoate feelings, and get his bearing. A poet’s poet one might say. It is therefore in this wise that my preliminary study of this man’s verse has revealed to me that apart from the fact that he has attempted more, bringing an amazing expanse of material and narratives into our verse, that in originality and wealth of images, in symbolic and rhetorical devices, in rich allusions and intellectual heft, he towers head and shoulders above every other Nigerian poet in the twentieth century. The common criticism often levelled against his verse is basically of the same nature as the poetry of the two most influential poets that this country has yet produced: Okigbo and Osundare, that is linguistic – the one that tires or distracts attention because of its forbiddingly dense language, and the other that draws too much attention to itself because of its prettified, overtly adorned language.

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