Nigerian poetry and the lost/ careless generation – Part 2

Nigerian-poetryHowever, in trying to play the umpire, or, better yet, hold brief for the Soyinka school of Nigerian Poetry, D.I. Nwoga, himself a poet belonging in the same generational cohort, wrote a famous essay entitled ‘Obscurity and Commitment in Modern African Poetry’ in which he notes that Soyinka and his ilk ‘are struggling to give expression to an elusive vision in a situation which they, as well as the intellectual elite which I consider their chief audience, find quite confusing’ (emphasis added).

The apparent difficulty felt by these poets to communicate ‘an elusive vision’ (whatever that means) derived principally, according to Nwoga, from an incipient or fledging linguistic interface context which required the poets to yoke together by violence English, a stress-timed idiom and, say, Yoruba, a syllable-timed language.This dilemma of usage was exacerbated in no small measure as ‘The Modern European poets to whom our modern poets apprenticed themselves were difficult to understand and therefore even more difficult to imitate because their technical complexity could more easily divert the reader and imitator from the essential character of their poetry and their underlying perception of life and art.’ In a more straightforward appraisal of the Ibadan-Nsukka poets, Nwoga, in the same essay, berates them for what he terms ‘a lack of communication.’

This same technical flaw in the poetry of Soyinka and his fellow poets has been criticized negatively by Derek Wright as ‘failure of craft’ (see Soyinka Re-Visited) and Lewis Nkosi, in the same connection, puts the lapse of rigour down to a ‘failure to communicate’ (Tasks and Masks). Niyi Osundare, a leading-light of the so-called ‘Alter/Native Tradition’, goes a step further in flagellating his precursors by poetizing their well-advertised quirks of expression. In the poem captioned ‘Poetry Is’ (which may be considered Osundare’s ‘Ars Poetica’) he muses that: Poetry is/not the esoteric whisper/of an excluding tongue/not a claptrap/ for a wondering audience/ not a learned quiz/ entombed in Grecoroman lore (Songs of the Marketplace 3)

As though Soyinka needs sympathisers to come to his defence, he has, nonetheless, never lacked admirers and passionate supporters. Odia Ofeimun in his poetry collection entitled The Poet Lied finds space and time to cut Chinweizu and his co-travellers to size, accusing them of doing injustice to poetry through their ‘pronunciamentos of ignorance’ (Soyinka’s phrases). Ofeimun also traduces the Bolekaja Troika in his book, In Search of Ogun: Soyinka in Spite of Nietzsche.

According to Ofeimun, ‘The notorious case in relation to Soyinka’s art is the stumble-and-fall performance of the troika, Chinweizu, Madubuike and Jemie in their Toward The Decolonization of African Literature…, a polemic in which they make too much of a meal of the Euromodernist influences in the poetry of Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J.P. Clark and Michael Echeruo. Segun Adekoya, himself an accomplished poet, a foremost Soyinka critic and Professor of English at Ife, in his 30-page poem captioned ‘Kongi’, clearly dedicated to Soyinka, goes to great lengths to lampoon Chinweizu et al for what he regards as their blinkered vision and defective understanding of the true nature and character of poetry qua poetry (see Chamelions and Chimeras, 10-40).

It is instructive to state at this juncture that the touchstone of poetry, as David Crystal argues in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language is the writer’s handling of language, or, in our own context, poetic diction. Crystal further asseverates that there are two opposing camps regarding poetic diction, namely: those who prefer simplicity of language and those who favour a more hard-going and hermetic style. He, therefore, concurs that all dealers in symbols and imagery, notably poets, abhor banality, hence their penchant to transgress to linguistic codes in search of freshness of vision and novelty of insight. Literary history furnishes us with William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rift with the ancien regime established in the neo-classical period by the likes of Pope, Dryden and Johnson who championed in their writing artificiality, the cult of Poetic Diction, the virtual apotheosisation of Reason, inter alia.

In contradistinction to the neo-classical citified aestheticism, Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads, does not only create “a reform of language’ but also inaugurates what T.S. Eliot calls ‘a revolution of language.’ Talking about T.S. Eliot, the archpriest of modernist poetics, in his poetry, especially The Waste Land makes a virtue of obscurity and ideational ecumenism. Writing in defence of obscurity, Eliot quips that: ‘The difficulty of poetry (and modern poetry is supposed to be difficult) may be due to one of several reasons…’ Among these reasons, according to Eliot, are ‘personal causes’, the reader’s preconceived misconceptions about the work under analysis, or ‘there is the difficulty caused by the author’s having left out something which the reader is used to finding.’

In an essay entitled ‘Singers of a New Dawn…’, Niyi Osundare provides a typology of modern Nigerian poetry: he identifies the following sensibilities, to wit (1) the nationalist poets (2) the so-called ‘Wasted Generation’ a la Soyinka, (3) the Angry Generation, that is the third-generation in which he himself belongs and (4) the Anxious Generation including the likes of Akeem Lasisi, Uche Umez, Chiedu Ezeani, Sola Osofisan, Maik Nwosu, Austyn Njoku, Joe Ushie, Obi Nwakanma and Bassey Nnimmo. Thus, as far as Niyi Osundare is concerned, these four generational cohorts are sufficiently distinct from one another in terms of their thematic foci and stylistic and ideological choices and peculiarities. Tanure Ojaide, however, has denounced his successors as mere copycats, aping and parroting Osundare and himself. He does not think their poetry is fundamentally different and, therefore, distinguishable from Osundare’s and his. The result, in Ojaide’s opinion, is that the so-called Fourth Generation is a continuation of the Third Generation. Ojaide who wrote his PhD thesis on the poetry of Wole Soyinka has resolutely repudiated the cult of obscurity in his own poetry by championing the Udje Song-Poetry tradition of his native Urhobo. The resultant directness and simplicity of style has been unsparingly pilloried by the likes of Ode Ogede and Stewart Brown, two critics of Ojaide.

Holding brief, however, for Tanure Ojaide, who himself has accused Lasisi and his ilk of slavish mimicry and dilettantism, Tayo Olafioye writes: ‘The problem with new poetry today is world-wide. The matter of looseness or lack of intricate intensity or “vision” is not Ojaide’s alone nor should he be held an exemplary heretic of literary criminality, assuming that the critic himself is accurate and convincing in all his charges… poetry has largely diminished in narrative intensity… The poet emotes everything, orates every hue, hardly leaving anything to the imagination of the audience. The mysteries of distinction and quest are subverted in simplicities.

If the poetry of established voices like Ojaide and others in the Third Generation and most of the so-called ‘Anxious Generation’ is said to betray looseness of structure and other egregious marks of juvenilia, we need to sound the alarm to alert the world to the tumultuous invasion of a burgeoning rash of pseudo-poets and poetasters who have colonized the literary scene at the moment. Enter the “Lost/Careless Generation” of Nigerian Poetry. They are found among secondary school students, university undergraduates and postgraduates, freelance ‘writers’ and Journalists, literature teachers at both secondary and tertiary levels, civil servants, and the artisan class-truck-pushers, maiguards, wannabe musicians, household items hawkers, and, of course, Area Boys!

For this group of ‘poets’, not for them the Vatic or Masonic nous of an Okigbo or Soyinka, the eclectic erudition and intellectual catholicity of an M.C.J. Echeruo, Pol. Ndu or Kalu Uka; the meticulous logistics and the contemplative urbane grace of an Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Esiaba Irobi or Funso Aiyejina or the lyrical ebullience and the philosophic depth – experience of an Osundare, Okimba Launko (Femi Osofisan) and Odia Ofeimun. No, this new breed is a ragtag gang on the fast-lane, precipitating to an instant and instantaneist Fame and fortune, disoriented and dazed as they are by, on the one hand, what Sigmund Freud calls “The Discontents of Modernity”, and, on the other, by the centrifugal forces of the post-modern condition: the primacy of the fragment, or the fragmentation of experience, alienation, rootlessness, exile, speed/haste, the cult of virtuality, play and fantasy, indeterminacy, decentered consciousness, the delegitimation of grand narratives of Truth, Beauty, Reason, etc.

Worse still is the globalization of kitsch, particularly on the internet. As a consequence, what you have is a “factory-line”, mass-production of cut-and-paste generation of literary pretenders and philistines intent on assaulting all the time-honoured values of high taste. Like the present breed of tertiary institution students who DO NOT READ at all, these pseudo-poets as well have got no time for the good old habit of solitary laborious study for hours on end.

Rather, they share their time between listening to music on their phones and visiting salacious sites on the net to salve their prurient and reprobate appetites. Thus, barren of path-breaking or, even fresh ideas, these “writers’” language is dismal at best and their vision, regrettably is abysmal, as they violate all the norms of grammar and syntax for the wrong reasons. To be certain, these pretenders lack the knowledge of life’s important issues, and, on rare occasions, when they do, their understanding of the issues of life is shallow and sophomoric. They have no idea of poetic technique whatsoever as their “poetry” ranges between jigsaw-puzzle and what has been described as “versified intelligibilities” – or the prosification of inanities dressed in stanzaic patterning.

Sadly, puerility is, therefore, passed off us “orality” (the most abused term in our parts), or, better still, “performance poetry”. And, moreover, without the benefit of ruthless but frank criticism, these pseudo-poets rush to self-publish, thereby endangering public artistic health.

In a sense, art, in this regard, has become a trope for the perennially ailing postcolony where lawlessness and self-help is the norm. Very little would be gained by naming names of culprits, but suffice it to say that this “Lost or Careless Generation” who are also very active on the internet came to limelight sometime in the middle of the first decade of the New Millennium, and are waxing stronger as we speak… The consolation, though, is that, it is within the ranks of these pretenders that the likes of Dami Ajayi, Benson Eluma, Chike Ofili, Niran Okewole, Amatoritsero Ede, Richard Ali, Unoma Azuah, and, the greatest of them all, Tade Ipadeola have emerged. Like Nazareth, everything good will come out of the “Lost/Careless Generation”. CONCLUDED

• Dr. Christopher Anyokwu teaches in the Department of English, University of Lagos.

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D.I. NwogaNigerian poetry
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