CONTEMPORARY POETRY: A Panoramic Survey
Now having cleared the space somewhat, I turn to contemporary poets to take their measure among the masters. Contemporary Nigerian poetry is alive and well, though still in an evolving state. The scene remains extremely varied, fraught with some complexity and confusion. The trajectory it has followed has not been a tidy and straightforward one; while it has been clear and plain-sailing in some places, it has been winding and tortuous in others. Nonetheless, as critics and scholars alike begin to study the present generation of poets, some of this initial murkiness will disappear. One is however certain the country’s return to democracy will to some extent determine the direction of our verse. Goodbye to all that rage and declamation of the eighties and nineties. Welcome fresh ideas, new verbal dexterity, new musicality, new takes on the traditions of the masters.
A survey of contemporary Nigerian poetry will reveal that enormous chunks of poetry have been written since the late eighties and early nineties. Most of them lifeless and imitative. There is, however, Harry Garuba’s very influential anthology, Voices from the Fringe: An ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry (1988). The anthology is significant in many ways. Some of the poets whose works were published in that collection have over the years become dominant on the scene. Some of these poets are Ogaga Ifowodo, Uche Nduka, Maria Ajima, Remi Raji, Sanya Osha, Nduka Otiono, to name but a few.
However, the first major poet to emerge from those heady, rage-suffused times with a clear unmistakable voice of his own was Uche Nduka. Though he asserts in one of his terrifying sonatas in ‘Chiaroscuro’ (1995), that
I won’t have to out drink the fish
and out smoke the chimney.
I will pull you to where poems
quell the rage of booze and smoke.
Nduka handles his rage with admirable art in his poetry. In ‘Chiaroscuro’ he transmutes his increasing solitariness and estrangement from the political ideology and praxis of his homeland into a long sequence of enchanting short poems, inevitably narrativizing the collective fate of a whole generation of Nigerians at one particular period of the country’s history. Nduka is in love with language, and he exploits it for new levels of verbal inventiveness and rhythms, that one gets carried away by the sheer music of the verse rather than by its literal sense. Here is a piece from his collection If Only the Night (2005)
MUSIC OF A WOUND
For the first time I see the black bird
For the first time I hear the black beat
Leave the knees. You are sucking
Make a gift of fea-time to your hair
Make a gift of chant-time to your hair
Leave the grass your over coal is covering
I understand the milk of your mind is drying up
I understand you always see me in
Your wet slim-bowl
Leave the fussing butt you are kicking
You’re not unforgiving in the very least
You’re not prone to italicising your ease
Leave the storms you’re calling
Play the apostles – play them real good
Play Fela’s Afro beat – play them in the hood
Leave the ropes you’re skipping
Read the sassy lyric of a pink sky
Read the stubborn music of a wound
Bisis, Daughter of The River
Has become Bisi, Mother of a Rover
She frames me for all the lies of the moon
The surreal images, the slang, the portmanteau words, the litotes, the startling occasional rhymes and half-rhymes when we least expect them, the sheer surging rhythm makes the above verse an enchanting piece. Nduka is a poet par excellence. His verse is prospectively a critic’s parfait – most aesthetically and intellectually nourishing. He has published enough body of distinguished verse – Flower Child (1988), Chiaroscuro (1997), The Bremen Poems (1995), Belltime Letters (2000) and If Only the Night (2003) to merit his inclusion among our country’s finest poets.
Another poet that seems in love with language and music in verse, though less playful and inventive than the poet above, is Chiedu Ezeanah. It took him a long time to have his first volume out. He is a very self-conscious artist, very sensitive about his art. One frequently encounters his poems on the pages of newspapers, journals, etc. He is at his best when not trying to sound profound and intellectual. Some of his poetic pieces are just wooden, dignified bombast. He has written ‘political’ poems but they have been less successful than say those of Ogaga Ifowodo’s. Nonetheless his great lyrical powers are yet to be equalled by any poet of the present generation. These he blends admirably with a certain narrative realism in one of his best poems, ‘Vistas’. It is a poem of five parts, tonally and thematically connected. The poet with great descriptive and narrative skills, presents a peripatetic poet-persona – a wanderer-image that is becoming very ubiquitous in the poetry of this generation –, out in the world, witnessing and responding to diverse incidents typical of life in Nigeria, and registering and describing landscapes, reacting with disgust, with pleasure, in meditation and in recall, and sometimes with wry, amused detachment. The scenes are vivid and beautifully rendered. The poet has the habit of shifting from descriptive, lyrical language and adopting a colloquial, narrative style, and then bouncing back to ‘literary speech’ without the slightest change of tone. Language in Ezeanah’s hand shimmers with sensual images, lush with quiet music. Here is an excerpt from the poem:
A smile climbs uphill to fountain head
Of running pure white warm and cool
Inscrutable water ties
Kingshipping of water
Flowing downhill like twin tempers of ages
Water also springs unions of contraries
Like marvels, numinous, not to be understood?
Ogaga Ifowodo and Remi Raji are perhaps the most successful ‘political’ poets writing at the moment. They are successful because they seldom allow their engagements with political themes to slip into railing explicitness, sheer self-drama or ireful griefs. In Madiba for instance, Ifowodo adopts a lively narrative style – clinical in his detachment and lacerating in his ironic treatment of the personalities he parodies. It is this quality that makes his denunciations much more devastating than they would otherwise have been by rather explicit statements. Here is an excerpt from the poem, ‘The Day too Bright’ in which the poet parodies a tyrant:
The day too bright for my blood shot eyes
I crave the eternity of night
All is well then, truest sound my lies
The sun steals the shine from my shoulders
Dims my swords and stars to a dead light
All is gloom then, when the sun smoulders
Holding loaded guns and shooting blind
Dead to death, I see the victim’s fright
All is right then, taking all I find…3
Ifowodo writes with a certain neatness and clarity of style, and his verse continues to show an on-going engagement with the issues of power and corruption in the country in volumes such as Homeland and Other Poems (1998), Madiba (2003), and The Oil Lamp (2005).
Remi Raji is a poet as well as a scholar. In him the two roles are distinct and separate. Compared to Ifowodo’s, his verse has a certain lyrical accent because he appropriates the idiom and rhythms of his native language (Yoruba), neither allowing it to soar in thundering sonority nor dissolve into drippy mushiness. Compared with the verses of other poets who exploit the same cultural fount as he, his verse strikes us with a softer, lyrical eloquence. Here is an excerpt from a piece of his called Wind Song:
Wind of wind
Slave to fire, master of rain
Come in your spiral beauty
With dancing dust;
Come in the sweeping likeness
Of bellowing brooms
When you left, I heard
Only dry whimpers of woe
For the bee has lost its bearing of petals
And there is no promise of pollen and honey…
Remi Raji has several collections of poetry to his credit, among which are A Harvest of Laughter (1997), Webs of Remembrance (2001) and love song for my wasteland (2005). No doubt his achievements in these volumes make him one of the major poets of this generation.
Obi Nwakanma, Isidore Diala, Ladi Soetan, Maik Nwosu, Nduka Otiono and Obu Udeozo are poets different both in styles and in temperaments: from the calm, spare and riveting poetry of Nwakanma to the densely-imaged language of Nwosu; from the wide-ranging allusions of Ladi Soetan to the ‘heterogloxia technique’ of Otiono in Voices in the Rainbow (1997), these poets all share one thing in common: they write with a certain intellectual alertness. One needs some measure of rational distance to be able to analyse some of the bizarre things that are happening in this country. Indeed, these poets are with varying degrees of success, restoring intellectual thought in our verse that seems to have disappeared with the second generation of Nigerian poets.
It is impossible due to the limitation of space to attempt in an essay of this kind an all-including exhaustiveness in an era brimming with talented poets. It takes a certain quirkiness almost indefinable of a truly gifted poet for one to get noticed. But here are some poets that deserve some attention: The late Izzia Ahmad’s poetry bears a close resemblance to Chiedu Ezeanah’s in that both poets employ sensual imagery in their respective poetry. There is the lucid and lyrical style of Afam Akeh. His love poem To The Women I Have Loved is probably among the best love poems that have been written in recent times. There is also the light and whimsical verse of the late Ebereonwu, the personal and highly subjective verse of Toni Kan Onwordi; the self-searching lyrics of Segun Akinolu. These poets alongside Helon Habila, Sola Olorunyomi, Austyn Njoku, Tolu Ogunlesi, Uche Umez, Sunday Ayewanu and the late Esiaba Irobi, write with a certain clarity of style, charm and wit. Their themes are about love and romance, death, loss, and loneliness. One thing that probably connects these poets is that their lyrics are infused with a certain urbanity and elegance and an intense sense of self, sometimes amoral and at other times self-denigrating, angry and mocking. Folu Agoi writes in both pidgin and Standard English but his pidgin poems seem to come off better, and have a sharper satirical edge. From the North of the country, we have E. E. Sule’s enchanting condenses, Ahmed Maiwada’s typographical experiments and Denja Abdulahi’s adoption of a wandering traditional praise-singer in his volume ‘Mairogo’. The last is an important Northern poet whose achievement in his volume leads me inevitably to another contentious issue.
There is a certain school of poets who exploit through and through the Alter/Native tradition or rather certain aspects of it with little critical discrimination and restraint, so that their poetry strikes one as ‘utter Native’ – something exotic that you visit in your occasional attacks of gay negritude. But Abdullahi’s verse strikes me as something different. This is a poet who in so far as his expropriation of some of the resources of his own culture, has been clearly influenced by Osundare. But the poet differs from the master in two important respects – in clean, unadorned simplicity of language use and in devastating humour. Here is an excerpt from his long poem ‘Mairogo’.
They stop to swallow the blackmail in my voice
‘Give to the needy if you want from Allah’
Some give without giving me a glance
Others give and look deeply into my evasive eyes
As if in their giving their sins have taken flight
I only chuckle after their hypocritical backs
Mallam, Allah knows ‘Mairogo’ will do nothing else
But eat ‘kose’ with your coins
No matter how hard you try
Your sins remain your sins
You cannot hang it in Mairogo’s neck
Just because you gave ‘kose’ money
‘Kose’ in my tummy
Crowned with sleep-inducing ‘koko’
I chase away a dog under the ‘Dogonyaro’ tree
Spreading out my literary frame
Snoring away the sleep of the just
Dreaming of paradise and hour-filled dwelling
Waking up to tales of homelessness
Told by the cows emerging for the day’s pasture
Cows needing to be kept. 8
In the above poem, the poet employs the motif of a traditional praise-singer wandering around the city gates and mosques and begging for alms. The poet tells his story with a narrative deftness and lightness of tone. The social conditions he describes conform precisely to a prevailing reality, and arise objectively out of the structure of the society he represents – without the least temptation of setting it against some romantic or exotic background. The protagonist of the poem is not cast in the mould of a hero, neither does he have the mantle of a prophet cast over him. Yet because we see him inside out – through the poet’s effective use of the first person point of view -, we know he is both, and much more – a victim, a reproach, the inevitable type that emerges in any society where can be found an emasculating ideology such as prevails in the North.
Now I pose the question: Is Abdullahi, given his style, of the nativist school? The situations he describes seem contemporary, and the precision and directness of the voice we hear in the poem sounds very close to a voice we would hear in a conversation, yet we know the speaker is far from being modern. Which other poets can be said to have written in this tradition? Tunde Olusunle, Pius Adesanmi, Akeem Lasisi and some others with Uduma Kalu attempting to do in verse what Chinua Achebe did in fiction. But I will like to single out Akeem Lasisi not only because he has been the most outstanding among the poets but also because he has been the most consistent in his use of the tradition. Let me confess, I can hardly be fair to this poet, not only because I know he is unquestionably brilliant but also because I know he is much more culturally rooted than I. In fact, it is with him among the poets of my generation that I am most sensitive, and find myself in a profound slough of self-analysis for the simple reason that we are both of the same cultural provenance. See how one’s ethnic background colours everything one views in this country!
I have often asked myself these questions: What informs my ambivalence towards Lasisi’s poetry? What makes Denja Abdullahi’s verse, if the poet could be categorized as belonging to the nativist school, excitingly new to me? Is it because of a human weakness for the exotic or the consequence of my possible alienation from my own culture? Does my easy reception of Abdullahi’s verse have anything to do with the fact that he has adopted a style that scarcely has been employed in poetry in that part of the country, and so resonates with me with the novelty of the new? Are Lasisi’s language and rhythms things I have not heard ad nauseam? Here is an excerpt from his much celebrated poem. Iremoje.
Today, a litmus intrigue for a teething poet
Far above a wedding song
Far farther than a naming hymn
I robe in cultic apparels
To dialogue in dirge with departed beings
From his stardom of funeral song
My eyes intrude into the pit of the dead
I dabble into alluvial grapevines
See a chagrined earth writing an informal letter
To her distant sky.
The excerpt above has all the poetic furniture we have seen before – purple adjectives in almost every line, elaborate metaphors and declamatory rhythms. Indeed, the little piece is a thesaurus of all the poetic baubles one can think of. It would seem that Lasisi’s poetry has the same cloying density that we find in the poetry of Osundare. And so the questions inevitably arise: Is there something about the richness of an African language, and in our present case, Yoruba, that necessitates both poets’ strenuous attempts to capture its distinct thought-patterns as close as they can possibly be in English by a lavish use of adjectives and metaphors? Are these thoughts, transposed thus, ever successful in English? One may experience a momentary delight at seeing some of the resources of one’s language transposed into English, but the pleasure soon dissipates not necessarily because these resources work ill or differently in English but because the aimed effect is ruined by the florid oratory of the verse. I believe Osundare is at his best in poems in which he has employed minimal ornaments, and there are quite a few of them. As to Lasisi’s verse, to accuse him of imitating Osundare would be gross injustice as both poets – it can be argued – draw from the same cultural fount. There are even certain stylistic experiments, and extensions of the tradition as it were in the works of the younger poet such as we have not found in those of the elder’s. And here arises my dilemma. But then T.S. Eliot clears the air for me about certain poets ‘not having the sensitiveness and consciousness to perceive they feel differently from the preceding generation, and so must use words differently’. (emphasis mine)
Before I turn to female poets, let me make a couple of concluding remarks concerning the whole traditions of our poetry. One, that despite one’s contentions against the Alter/Native tradition, it remains a part of the Tradition that any aspiring poet may afford to ignore only at the forfeiture of a sure enrichment of his verse. The neo-modernist poetic practices – for which one has a predilection – need not be the only paradigm of Nigerian poetry; two, that the use of orality or oral literature for which the second generation of poets has been deservedly eulogised, has – in definitions of the concept we encounter in most African literary criticisms, been frozen in a temporal spatial and semantic fixity; scarcely has its essence been made usefully discursive – extended from the past for instance to include the resources of the language we actually speak at the present – be it English or our mother tongue. Our young ones do not go about speaking in proverbs and metaphors, yet they have other aesthetic and auditory ways of making their meaning clear and their voices heard. At any rate the renown that the poets of the second generation continue to enjoy today was not because they were the first to exploit our orature in poetry but because at a certain period in the past, they were obliged to use our orature in quite a new way; accommodating it to reality, making it to incorporate many elements of a living environment and bringing it closer to a language they rightly felt was contemporary and real. And lastly if by our definition of oral literature we refer to the sum total of our myths, legends, narratives, proverbs and so forth including the spirit and rhythms of our language (mother tongue), then there remains one aspect of it that has not been sufficiently exploited, that is the narrative. I refer here more to its form rather than its contents. One may understand why our poetry seems thin on epics, but one is rather puzzled why it should be so on narratives. This is quite astonishing when one considers the fact that we often encounter most of the gems of our orature in this form. The voices and rhythms that we have heard in our verse have been ratiocinative vis-à-vis the first generation of poets, and declamatory vis-à-vis the second; scarcely has a true narrative voice been heard.