Tanure Ojaide’s recent designation of the poets of this generation as copycats has generated a great deal of irascible and impertinent sputtering in certain quarters of the contemporary literary establishment. It is as it should be. Different generations of poets have always detested and pilloried certain elements in each other’s works from time immemorial. But I hope Ojaide did not include in his sweeping castigation the female poets, I mean the very best of them: Promise Okekwe, Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Angela Agali-Nwosu, Lola Shoneyin-Soyinka, Biodun Idowu and some others. If he did, then it is unfortunate. It says much about our mindset when it comes to discussing issues, especially literary matters.
I believe the female poets have written better poetry than most of their male counterparts. Their poetry is less self-conscious – at least as far as language goes, direct and straightforward, pared of all meretricious rhetoric, overblown lyricism and contrived diction. But the female poets are not the subject of this essay. I shall treat that in a forthcoming essay. Let me address myself directly to the general issues that the poets of this generation should be concerned with. If it is true that every generation of poets tries to build on or completely avoids what it perceives as certain inadequacies in the works of his predecessors, then it is in this light that Ojaide’s denunciation must be construed as a wake up call, nay an unwitting attempt at calling the attention of the poets of this generation to the weaknesses in the poetry of his own generation, and they are many as can be found in the poetry of every age.
However, there are some of them which the realities of the present times have since rendered threadbare and cast in stark relief, namely: the poet’s assumption of the town-crier role-in this age or anointed spokesman of his people, his preoccupation with politics, his strident and self-righteous sermonisations at the populace and its leaders, his continued ornamentation of his poetry with the gewgaws of a bygone age and other poetic baubles, his extravagant use of metaphors and alliterations and finally, his prolonged and orchidaceous symphonisation of workaday themes. All of these can still be found in our contemporary poetry in grosser detail and plenitude.
In spite of all the brickbats and angry denials, the Niyi Osundare generation has had a far greater influence on this generation of poets than the Soyinka generation. As they say, you can tell the dominance of a school by the preponderance of bad versions of it. This is in no way surprising. Every generation of poets has always had a greater access and displayed a closer affinity with the works of its predecessors than those of the other generations, and hence, takes its departure from it. This precisely is what our contemporary poets have failed to do.
The literature of every generation is not created by the mere coming on to the stage of a group of younger writers at certain intervals of the passing years, but by that age at which the writers’ sense of perception and apprehension of the world with which they are coming in contact is keenest and profoundest. We know that the world into which a child grows is always substantially different from that of his fathers, not only in terms of its physical changes, mores, attitudes and temperaments but also in terms of other subtle but substantial qualities to which his father has been desensitized as a result of the latter’s extreme intimacy with the world. It is the recognition and apprehension of these qualities that make literary generations.
The contact that the Soyinka generation had with the world differed from the one the Osundare generation had with it. Hence it elicited from them two different reactions. And these of course happened while the masters’ sensibilities were still young and tender. Each of the two generations of poets was governed by the conditions of its own times and each drew from them its own strengths as well as its own weaknesses. If this is true, then the point becomes clear enough: that it is imperative for every generation of poets to create its own world in which it must find its abode, and which its readers upon entering it, must immediately recognize. It is from its own created world that every generation of poets derives its sustenance by which it lives.
It has been almost thirty years now since the advent of the Osundare generation. It is almost twenty years since the present generation of poets can be said to have started. The only distinguishing quality between the two generations remains primarily the age difference. Our contemporary poets have written excellent verses strictly in the modes, formats and aesthetics of their predecessors. It is high time we woke up. I reiterate the point I made sometime ago: that however loving the relationship between a father and his son is, however strong the connection, there will come a time when the son ceases to see himself as a mere extension of his father, and even begins to assert his independence, although he still possesses in his system some of the genes of his father.
That time has long arrived. Only we are yet to wake up to it and welcome it. The question that should begin to exercise our minds now with increasing persistence is; what will the next generation of poets say of us? We cannot afford to remain a mere codicil to the Osundare generation.
The apparent immobility of thought and perception in our contemporary poetry is, I think due to the fact that our economic and socio-political conditions have remained largely unchanged from those of our forebears in the early seventies and eighties. If anything, they have become worse. But need our poetry be tied rigidly and monocratically to only a certain part of our contemporary experience? Need we continue to repeat what our elders have said so well? No poetry progresses on the monorail of politics and socio-cultural vapourings.
Our preoccupation with our existence in a hostile, insupportable environment has since acquired all the deadening effects of a habit. So caught up are we in our existential realities that we seem to have lost that sublime sense of wonder and curiosity of a child to see that there are a million other things and more, right here in our environment to excite us into serious poetry, and that these things are so diverse and multitudinous that a whole generation of brilliant poets cannot exhaust them.
I believe if the present generation of poets is to make a complete break – if that’s possible – from the Osundare generation, one of its hallmarks will have to be in the comprehensiveness of its themes rather than style. Right now, that meditative spirit – a bequeath of the Soyinka generation – that sees and questions everything almost with child-like curiosity, has been thoroughly exorcised from our poetry, and what is left now is almost public speech in which one sees all the élan, éclat, flair and purple of a highly trained public man. The real man seems to have receded into the shadows. I think one comes before the other. I think it desirable, that order be maintained not only in the evolution of ourselves as poets but also in that of the society at large.
Now is expiation of what I have just enunciated above, let me at this juncture come out more boldly with what I have been crudely endeavouring to say. I’m sorry, the comments I’m going to make may be construed as prescriptive or even provocative. I assure you I have no such intention. However, time being the ablest critic, and alone has the prerogative of the final judgment, shall judge.
And I pray, I am I wrong. I have discovered that each time I have taken a journey through the vast and hallowed hinterlands of African literature, I have always arrived at the same destination, namely: that the substantial part of our literature has been characterized by preoccupations with man only as a cultural and socio-political entity within the context of his times and environment. In other words, our literature has barely proceeded beyond depictions of men as conditioned by their times to true portrayal of man. Our literary productions have been more about man as he ought to be -according to fashionable ideas of his times – and less as he is all times.
That sense of eternal human values which should pervade our depictions of the customs, norms, attitudes and passions of our time, is at the minimum in the larger part of our literature, especially in our poetry, except of course, in some of the works of the greatest of our poets/writers. Man is much more deeply varied than he has been portrayed yet in our literature. His inner life, struggles, psychological and spiritual battles, his dilemmas, despairs, dreams, and hopes, his sexual traumas and guilt, his vices and weaknesses, his follies and conceits have not been portrayed adequately and with enough intensity in our literature.
Every generation of writers in seeking to tell, interpret and interrogate certain truths of its own times as it perceives them, must bear in mind that there is no ultimate truth to be found anywhere, not least in ideas or ideology, except in man. He is the only truth worth telling, the truth which he denies but that which can elevate him. Being an externally enduring entity, it is no wonder we find him in all the world’s greatest poetry. Man is the measure of all literatures.
This might seem an immense task and labour to impose on our contemporary poets. But at least, we can start from somewhere. It is true we are still young and yet to attain our full maturity. We need not chastise ourselves for this. We shall get there if we work hard at it. We have two great generations behind us from which we can learn and take our departures; the one with its preoccupations with its own private worlds, the other with the public. I can see some Hegelian synthesis somewhere.
It is time to set the process underway by trying to display more fidelity to the realities of our times, language, mores, attitudes and temperaments, to our rootless peregrinative existence -which ironically may well be to our advantage – ideas and convictions while maintaining the naturalness of our thoughts and feelings. And other things will be added unto us.
Having said all these, I must concede that there are already some lights to be glimpsed on the horizon. Some of our poets are beginning to discover their true voice. Obi Nwakanma is one of such poets. Helon Habila is another, though he seems now to have abandoned poetry. Tolu Ogunlesi, a new entrant and Ebereonwu (of the blessed memory) are worthy of mention, and some of the female poets I mentioned earlier. But I must make a particular mention of Uche Nduka. He is the first of our contemporary poets to have found his true voice. When I look at the almost total critical neglect of this remarkable poet, I cannot help but be filled with despair as an upcoming poet.
This is a poet with all the markings of a world-class poet, except its acclaim. But it is not the critics that shall celebrate this man. It is the next generations of poets who shall find a great deal to learn from him. For the time being, he and to a lesser degree with some very of his contemporaries, have set off a bang!
Not a bang that has reverberated across the rooftops of the world, but a still and silent bang that has created a hot little pool in which all manner of complex molecules are yet in a state of flux; in which the dim formations of an emerging world can be discerned. With time, all the right combinations shall fall in place and a new world shall emerge in which some of the genuine poets that would have emerged in the first and half decades of this century shall find their rich and ample abodes. I suspect though these poets will continue to await their true greatness as long as this country remains a potentially great nation.