Tabloid tradition and modern Nigerian poetry
The body of writings known as modern Nigerian poetry owes its origins to the oral literary traditions which are predominant in Nigeria. In pre-literate Nigerian societies, folktales, fables, songs, epics, myths and legends, among others, were narrated and enacted by the mostly itinerant bards. These oral literary traditions evolved to stand the test of time. Today, we have the Ozidi epic of the Ijaw people, the Udje song-poetry of the Urhobo, the Ijala of the Yoruba, among innumerable others, as testimony to our oral literary heritage.
With the coming of literacy and the written tradition, Nigerians explored the new opportunities they were presented with and soon after, they started writing works of literary merit. These works were first composed in indigenous languages and they include Pita Nwana’s Omenuko, Daniel Fagunwa’s Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀ and Abubakar Imam’s Magana jari ce. It did not take long after the advent of literary works written in indigenous languages before Nigerian writers started writing in English in order to capture the growing Nigerian educated audience across ethnic blocs.
The development of written poetry in Nigeria, unlike other genres, can be traced mainly to the influence of the tabloid. This essay, therefore, examines how the tabloid tradition has given impetus, shape and voice to modern Nigerian poetry from its earliest inceptions till contemporary times.
The word “tabloid” owes its etymology to the London-based pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome & Co., that marketed pills known as “Tabloid pills” in the late 1880s. The word was soon used to connote small compressed items and in 1902, the London-based Westminster Gazette newspaper used the term to refer to newspapers. Overtime, this word has evolved to connote a broad range of related publications which include newspapers, magazines, journals and pamphlets, among others. Drawing from this, we have such terms as “tabloid journalism”, “tabloid poetry”, “tabloid fiction”, etc. We are particularly concerned with tabloid poetry in this essay. The tabloid form has proven itself as an easy means for poets to reach out to a wide range of audience.
The involvement of tabloid forms in literary publications can be traced to the 17th century when newspapers were used to announce the publication of new books. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the role of newspapers in literary publications further metamorphosed to the publication of reviews in other to help readers select from an ever increasing body of literary works. Some of these early tabloids include Les Journal Des Scavans (1665), Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres (1684), The Spectator (1710-1714), The Tatler (1709-1711). Later in the 19th century, literary journals evolved that published mainly poetry and short stories. One of the earliest of these journals was The Dial (1840-1844). Other major ones were North American Review (1815), The Granta (1889) and The Sewanee Review (1892), among others.
In Africa, newspapers that published poetry and reviews include The Sierra Leone Weekly News (1860) and The West African Pilot.
Modern Nigerian poetry was birthed in the decades covering the 1920s and the 1940s. This period coincided with the founding of secondary schools across the newly amalgamated nation. A growing class of literates sprung up and many of them went to schools in England and other Western countries. There was, therefore, the need for the publication of newspapers to suit the growing audience. Newspapers were also used as vehicles for nationalism and propaganda. The earliest Nigerian poets utilised these newspapers to publish their poems which have been described as propagandist, amateurish and simplistic.
Some of these newspapers were The Anglo-African, The Lagos Observer, Lagos Standard and Lagos Weekly Record. The Nigerian Magazine, which was established in 1927, paid more attention to literary development with its publication of “Literary Supplement”. The literary supplement contained poems, reviews, short-stories and interviews. Godini Darah, in his article titled “Literary Development in Nigeria”, says that The Nigerian Magazine was “among the publishing institutions that nurtured and preserved Nigeria’s creative literature, the greatest, perhaps…” The reason behind his assertion is not farfetched. These early poets, most notably Dennis Osadebay and Nnamdi Azikiwe, set the pace and pioneered a new Nigerian poetry in English that, unlike its oral antecedents, mirrored the socio-political atmosphere of the time. Dennis Osadebay is renowned today for his biting satire of the colonial masters and the nationalist undertones of his poetry.
His poem, “Young Africa’s Plea”, thematises the hypocritical preservation of African ‘customs’ as ‘fine curious’ by the colonial masters in order to suit their own tastes. The poet further argues that the African way of life is supreme and that Africans are far more intelligent than the whites who try to denigrate them. This is shown in his often quoted lines “Let me play with the whiteman’s ways / Let me work with the blackman’s brains”.
The experimentations with the newspapers and magazines provided a flourishing ground for literary magazines and journals to spring. By the late 1940s, the publication of magazines was fast becoming a tradition in most secondary schools. The first generation of Nigerian poets nurtured their poetry using these magazines. Some of them were The Umuahian, a publication of the Government College, Umuahia where Chinua Achebe studied and wrote his early poetry, The Mermaid, a little magazine in Kings College in Lagos, The Interpreter which was published by Aggrey Memorial College in Arochukwu and The Pathfinder. These high school magazines were primarily almanacs and yearbooks but doubled as literary magazines where short and witty poems were written. Wole Soyinka also nurtured his poetry writing skills when he was a student at Government College where he published in the college magazine.
The 1950s can be said to be a remarkable decade for Nigerian poetry in tabloid. This was primarily due to the establishment of the University College, Ibadan, the first university in Nigeria, in 1948. Many of the promising students who finished as literary prodigies from their various high schools were admitted as students of English, Classics and other allied courses. These new students further expanded their literary prowess and engaged the tabloid form to publish their poetry. Students clubs and societies were formed and these societies published various magazines which were utilised by amateur poets.
The University College, Ibadan, bubbled with thriving magazines and the first generation poets such as Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Mac Akpoyovwaire, Gordon Umukoro, Christopher Okigbo, Mabel Segun, Omolara Leslie-Ogundipe, Pius Oleghe, Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, Aig Higo, Dapo Adelugba, Bridget Akwada, Nelson Olawaiye, among others in the Ibadan poetry circle, employed these magazines to leap to fame and nurture their growing poetic skills. Some of the magazines that thrived at the time were The Beacon, The Horn, Aro, Catholic Undergraduate, The Bug, The Eagle, The Criterion, The Rag, The Scorpion, The Wasp, Tear Gas, Leepsteeck, Blow, The University Voice, Oke’Badan, The Abadina Unibadan, Horizon, The Sword and The Weekly. Greatest in influence among these, was The Horn.
The Horn was first published in January 1958 and was inspired by Martin Banham, a literature lecturer in Ibadan then, with J.P. Clark-Bekederemo as its founding editor. Banham’s idea was born out of the desire to replicate what was obtainable at Leeds University where he graduated from. In 1957, J.P. Clark-Bekederemo set up a committee of three which included Higo Aigboje and John Ekwere to begin work on the magazine. Some of its earliest editors included Abiola Irele, Dapo Adelugba, Omolara Ogundipe and Onyema Ihema. The Horn published poets who later turned out to be some of Nigeria’s finest poets.
On the pages of The Horn, can be found the experimental tendencies of Nigeria’s first generation writers; the Hopkinsian syntax of Christopher Okigbo in his “Idoto”, the grandiloquence of Wole Soyinka, the allusiveness of Gabriel Okara, the imagism of J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, the linguistic experimentations of M.J.C. Echeruo, and a host of others. This magazine proved itself to be a fertile ground for new and experimental poets as they fashioned out a unique literary identity. Most of them adopted Western literary conventions but with further experimentations and maturation, they started to carve a truly Nigerian poetic identity. Okigbo’s “Idoto”, one of the poems published in this magazine, thematises the poet’s transcendental experience with the goddess, Idoto, in the style of European modernism which influenced the first generation writers. In the poem, we encounter the use of syntactic jugglery in the lines “Before you, mother Idoto, / naked I stand” which should ideally have been “I stand naked before you/ Mother Idoto”. This jugglery is imitative of the modernist poet, Gerald Manly Hopkins, who influenced Okigbo.
Black Orpheus was launched in 1957 and it was, perhaps, the greatest influence in modern Nigerian, and African, poetry. So great was its influence on the African continent that Sunny Awhefeada, in his article titled “Development of Modern African Poetry”, asserts that “The various conferences on African arts […] and the introduction of African literature into the curriculum of African Universities and schools, all owe much to Black Orpheus”.
The title was adopted from Jean Paul Sartre’s essay “Orphee Noir”. Ulli Beier served as the pioneer editor of this magazine. Nigerian poets and poets from other African countries utilised Black Orpheus to publish serious poetry. Apart from the publication of poetry, the magazine also published criticisms and reviews and all these effectively propped up the Nigerian literary tradition. The first generation poets used this magazine to propel themselves to continental fame and acclaim. J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Ibrahim Salahi, Gabriel Okara, among others, wrote poetry while Ulli Beier and Janheinz Jahn published criticisms and reviews. Other African poets such as Kofi Awoonor, Lenrie Peters, Ezekiel Mphalele, Dennish Brutus and Vincent Kofi also utilised this medium effectively.
According to J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, these magazines were a way of “join(ing) those already fighting to preserve our heritage and to ‘arrest subtle colonialism’”. This aim was achieved with such poems as “Ivbie” by Clark, “Idanre” and “Death in the Dawn” by Soyinka and the poems of Okara. Without the agency of Black Orpheus, modern Nigerian poetry may not have attained the height it has reached today. This is why Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough, in their book titled The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, assert that Black Orpheus is “the doyen of African literary magazines”. The poetry published in The Horn and Black Orpheus were soon anthologised as testimony to their pioneering role in modern Nigerian poetry. Martin Banham selected some of these poems and published them in the anthology titled Nigerian Students Verse (1960).
The individual poets themselves published collections that first appeared in the tabloids and among these collections are Okigbo’s Heavensgate (1962) and Limits (1964) as well as Clark’s Poems (1961), among others.
Nigeria gained independence in 1960 and it became imperative for universities to be setup in order to accommodate the growing number of students and to further produce graduates who can take over the mantle of affairs in the newly independent nation. The University College, Ibadan, was taken over by the Federal Government as University of Ibadan. New universities were founded. They include the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; University of Ife, Ile-Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and the University of Lagos. The University of Benin was established in 1970. Later in 1976, universities were set up in Ilorin, Calabar, Port-Harcourt, Jos, Kano, Sokoto and Maiduguri. Students of these universities quickly adopted the Ibadan literary tradition and started the publication of magazines and other tabloid forms. Each of these universities nurtured poets who now dominate the Nigerian poetic space. At the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Pioneer was first published in 1961 and was quickly followed by The Muse in 1963. The Muse was a publication of the English Students Association that acted as a catalyst for poetic induction at Nsukka.
It was on the pages of this tabloid that poets such as Pol Ndu, Okogbule Wonodi, Bona Onyejeli, Uche Okeke, Sam Nwajioba and Romanus Egudu, were first published. This magazine was a brainchild of Peter Thomas who took his cue from the Ibadan experiment by Banham and Beier. It also served as the foundation for a later coterie of writers who discovered and distanced themselves from Eurocentric tendencies and started to fashion a distinctive Nigerian poetic identity.
At the University of Ibadan, The Horn, now defunct, was soon replaced by Idoto and it continued to serve its function as a cultivation plot for the apprentice writers on campus. At the University of Nigeria, Fresh Buds, now defunct, was replaced by Omabe. In the early years of the University of Ife, some little magazines were published in order to nurture creative talents. Some of them include Ijala, Sokoti and Ife Writing. By the 1970s, new magazines such as Nsukkascope, which was the brainchild of Chinua Achebe and housed in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, were published. At the same time, Okike (1971) was also launched. On the influence of Okike, Bernth Lindfors, in his essay titled “African Little Magazines”, asserts that it is “Africa’s finest extant literary journal”. This magazine published poetry and its criticism and became a mouth piece for several poets within and outside Nigeria. It became one of Nigeria’s magazines to break from the ‘Ogbanje Syndrome’ which Niyi Osundare decries in his article titled “African Literature Now: Standards, Texts and Canons”. The influence of Okike can be seen by the sheer strength of poetic voices from Eastern Nigeria. The likes of J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, Catherine Acholonu, Obiora Udechukwu, Ossie Enekwe, Dubem Okafor and the rest whom Funso Aiyejina and Oyeniyi Okunoye dub as “the Nsukka poets.” As Okike expanded, its influences gradually spread to cover poetic output from other regions as well. The poetry of Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Remi Raji, Tanure Ojaide, Femi Fatoba, and a host of other writers of the 1970s and 80s, were all published in Okike.
This magazine, thus, played a pivotal role in encouraging poetic output from the new poets as of then. At the University of Benin, Oyiya was launched by the creative writers workshop alongside with Akpata. The influence of the Benin magazines can be seen in the calibre of poets it has produced. Among these poets are the likes of Esiri Dafiewhare, Sonnie Adagboyin, Ogaga Ifowodo, Godwin Uyi Ojo, Ezenwa Ohaeto and Maik Nwosu. Ogaga Ifowodo, in particular, has won many awards for his poetry and he has earned an indisputable canonisation in the third generation of modern African poets.
His mastery of the art can be traced to these Benin magazines in which he attained maturation. At the University of Lagos, the magazine, Iju Omi, was launched in 1984. According to Awhefeada, “aspiring poets have also tested their prowess.” On the pages of Iju Omi. This magazine has produced Hope Eghagha, one of the formidable poets on the contemporary scene who, in 1984, was running his M.A. degree at the University of Lagos. At the then Bendel State University (now Ambrose Alli University), there was Ivie which was first published in 1991 by the Poetry Club. The magazine was a starting point for Charles Omoife, a poet that has started making waves.
At the University of Port Harcourt, there was Ofirima. At Ahmadu Bello University, there was Kuka, Saiwa and Work in Progress. Delta State University, Abraka, was not left out as the students floated Afflatus and Ebi Yeibo, Alex Omoni, Charles Okorodudu ventilated their fledging poetic talents on its crispy pages in the 1990s. The magazine was succeeded by Abraka Voices which was founded in 2005 and it published young poets such as Peter Omoko, Stephen Kekeghe, Emmanuel Esemedafe, among others.
The magazines are the sole catalyst of Nigeria’s status as the hotbed of African poetry in the 1980s and 90s. The influence of these magazines is reflected in the second, third and fourth Nigerian poetic renaissance of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Many of the poets that turned out to be the great names attained maturation on the pages of these magazines.
Apart from the proliferation of these magazines, the newspapers also played pivotal roles in developing Nigerian poetry of this period. The Guardian, in particular, was quite sympathetic to poetry. Through the pioneer editorship of Femi Osofisan, “The Guardian Literary Series” was floated and it catered for the needs of the new poets who needed a means to air their voices.
The advent of the Internet also created a new window of online magazines for poets to publish their poems. This development shows how poetry evolves with contemporary trends. The internet poets deserve an essay of their own for their place in contemporary Nigerian poetic development. It is apt, however, to mention that some of these online magazines include Africa-Writing, Saraba, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sentinel Poetry, The New Gong, and Farafina. These magazines publish more frequently and some also publish criticisms. Some of the poets that have utilised this medium are Jumoke Verissimo, Chuma Nwokolo, Tade Ipadeola, Chika Unigwe, Obododinma Oha, Joe Ushie, Rome Aboh, Sefi Atta, Peter Omoko, Stephen Kekeghe, Sade Adeniran, Mathias Orhero, Goodnews Eruemare and a myriad of many apprentice and career poets in Nigeria.
• Iroro Orhero is a postgraduate student of African Literature at the University of Uyo. He writes from Okpara-Inland, Delta State, Nigeria.