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Towards A Revaluation of Nigerian Poetry

Lola Shoneyin (Image: Harald Krichel via Wikimedia)
Lola Shoneyin (Image: Harald Krichel via Wikimedia)


Turning from the poetry written by the male poets to that written by their female counterparts is like – pardon the metaphor – coming away from the speech emanating from a platform to listening to a voice in conversation next door – the voice is intrusive, playful, insistent, passionate and assured of its logic. The voice charms not only because it flows from the heart, a bit aggressive perhaps to be heard and understood, but also because it is blithely unaware that it is actually being listened to outside the door. One of the perennial differences between the poetry written by male poets and that written by female ones is as W.H. Auden succinctly puts it: ‘The difficulty for a man to avoid being an aesthete; to avoid saying things not because they are true but because they are poetically effective. The difficulty for a woman is in getting a sufficient distance from the emotions’. It is only in men’s poetry one encounters something as treacly as this:

Here in this sequestered loom of textured shadows, (2)
I weave tangible silhouettes with threads of rainbows

And only in women’s poetry one sees something as mawkish and pedestrian as this:

I live a life, for the one   (3)
Who made
My life
And in this life
Some make decisions and omissions
And I have made a decision
To omit living, and die for
The one
Who made
My life (51)

One can hardly explain what accounts for the difference in language use between the poetry written by male poets and that of their female counterparts, but only suggest that women with their instinctive sense of reality prefer direct statement of facts rather than embroidering them in euphonious adjectives and colourful metaphors.

Little wonder then that some of the best female poets of this generation have managed to avoid the meretricious rhetoric we find in male poetry, and evolved not a ‘poetic language’ in its strictest sense but something as close as possible to the language we actually speak. Two examples will suffice to prove my point:

I told P. I would like to strangle her…
When her tongue burrows into dark tunnels…
But, still her dimpled dreams hold me back,
Her aching visions fixed in ‘the summer of 69”
I told Ila that I could not stand at times
When those immobile moods swing left to right
But still, in quiet moments of divesting thoughts
A flame, I think burns in her soul… -Angela Agali-Nwosu

Here is another example. Two beautiful creatures, a poem written by Promise Okekwe

It was night I met you
Bessie Head, Mariama Ba
On the night so misty the leaves danced
Between the pages of your life
The many broken pieces of your tales
And your dry laughter in the wind
I saw through the ‘ogirisi’ light before me
Through the flaming eyes of your wounds
Your sighs as they hurry away
I touched the lingering lilt of your dreams
The burnishing corals of your aching absence
And I inhaled your beauty from a troubled grave (4)

What is immediately discernible in the above poems is the lively conversational tone the two poets have adopted – no profuse use of adjectives and images; no flamboyant display of overwrought metaphors and alliterations.  The poems have almost the deliberateness of prose, but the effect we get is that of poetry. T.S. Eliot enlightens us in his essay, ‘The Music of Poetry’ where he opines thus:

There is one law of nature more powerful than any of these currents or influences from abroad or from the past: the law that poetry must not stray too far from the ordinary everyday language which we use and hear

The female poets, it would seem, have heeded Eliot’s admonition by rescuing our language from the tumid, saw-ridden and dinosaurian arrest in which it appeared to have been lodged and set it free to mingle in the streets teeming with lively innumerable voices.

It is astonishing the number of female poets writing at present. The list is almost endless. Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Angela-Agali Nwosu, Promise Okekwe, Lola Shoneyin, Nike Adesuyi, Jumoke Verrisimo, Biodun Idowu, Maria Ajima, Eugenia Abu, Unoma Ngemo Azuah and so many others. As Remi Raji rightly asserts:

Nigerian women’s poetry of English expression has reached a remarkable degree of self-expression and has successfully faced up to the challenge of poetic expression…

He even theorizes this as:

…the progressive symbolism of the erasures of silence and self-effacement, a significant gesture towards a new textual means of self-representation (2000)

In no other time in the country have we had such a vast array of brilliant female poets, and in no other time have they spoken out with such determined power and rhetoric as now. Their verse is marked by some kind of ‘double consciousness.’ First, they are as citizens alienated from the political ideology and praxis of their homeland, and second, they seem to be acutely aware they are women still living in a patriarchal society. It is not surprising therefore that we find in the poetry written by female poets greater attempts at self-exploration and self-redefinition than in the poetry written by their male counterparts who seem to evince a greater predilection for ‘grander’ political issues. In a word there has been in the female poetry a bold substitution of the collective ‘we’ for the emphatic ‘I’. Some of them have done this not only through their bold assertiveness but also through their appropriation of sexual imagery. We see this in the poetry of Okekwe, Shoneyin, Adesuyi and others. Here is a poem by Shoneyin:

I read your lust between the blurred print
Of the dailies’ Saturday Special
I sniff his pussy-smitten finger
In the middle spread
In the horoscopes
I picture you locked
In the embrace of Saturn Sodom
I nobly observe
dull khaki-green jealousy
In your aesthetic imagery
Rapist of truth
Collector of idle promises
And forsaken notes
Skate down the centre-fold invisibility
Or spread yourself around
A multi-coloured porno (17)

i-am-memory-verissimoToyin Adewale-Gabriel is, alongside Okekwe and Shoneyin, among the best poets, both male and female writing at the moment. As E.A. Babalola has rightly pointed out, she appears to have profited from the two great traditions behind her – both thematically and aesthetically. In some of her poems, she employs complex images with concision and sophistication, and in other poems one senses the traditional rhetoric for which the Osundare generation has been eulogised. But she has yet another style of her own – clean, lucent and intelligent. Her poetry evinces not only the feminist drive but also socio-political concerns. For instance her short lyric, ‘Olayinka’ is a poet’s attempt at self-definition which in its images and invocatory tone is reminiscent of the naming ceremony of a new born child or the recitation of a man’s oriki (cognomen) in the traditional Yoruba society. ‘Safari’, a poem she dedicates to Ogaga Ifowodo, clearly shows her political concerns. She writes:

When I read my poems,
Dripping with fires and gutters
They asked me ‘don’t you
Write about trees and constellations?
And I said, ‘In this land we love with pain
Even the trees feel like whips
I cannot lie that the blood in
My mouth is tomato sauce (10)

From the North too, a galaxy of brilliant female poets has emerged: Maria Ajima, Fatima Widi Jallo, Hauwa Sambo, Nana Aishatu Armad, Cecilia Kato, Binta Mohammed and so many others. Their belated appearance on the poetry scene may be ascribable to the religious ideology that prevails in that part of the country. It is however something of an irony that despite the much more challenging circumstances that these poets face, they seem to be less assertive, compared to their southern counterparts – shy, demure, religious and self-deprecating. As yet one has very little to say about them. Remi Raji has with great depth written about them in his essay, Season of Desert Flowers: contemporary women’s poetry from Northern Nigeria (2001:426-443).

In summary, women’s poetry is in a healthy and virile state, and signals a new diversity in Nigerian poetry. Despite the varied styles and temperaments of these poets, they all assert a common political purpose – to create a distinctively female presence in the male-dominated literary and political space.

Obakanse S. Lakanse
Obakanse S. Lakanse
Obakanse Lakanse, poet, teacher and literary essayist holds a B.A in English and an M.A in Literature-in English. He has published his poems and essays in some of the country’s best-selling newspapers and on


  1. This is amazing! Our wonderful, intellctual, brillant and contemporary Africana’s giant poet, i say, keep it up, more greese to your elbow.

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