Nigerian poetry and the lost/careless generation – Part 1

Illusration-OnuThe concept of Nigerian poetry is at once as interesting and problematic as that of the Nigerian post-colony itself. Interesting because, regardless of its unstable and amorphous constitution, it has continued to subsist, defying, as it does, the law of gravity; and, problematic in one breath because its very definition and its constitutive properties vary from habitus to originary habitus with particular reference to ethnic claims and, hence, epistemic afflatus.

Given this problematic conceptualization of “Nigerian Poetry”, it has become something of a lazy, if normalizing, sleight-of-hand to speak, descriptively. The poetries emerging from within the geographic province of the nation-state as “Nigerian Poetry” is a group of ethnically-informed, religiously-nuanced and culture-bound verse-making whose critical appraisal must be conducted from within its specific socio-cultural ideational matrices.

But, like everything “Nigerian”, seeking to critique this body of dissimilar but inter-related poetries from an ethnically-informed prism would be misconstrued and denounced as an assault on logic, or, in political terms, as heretical, if not downright unpatriotic. But since the business of scholarship authorizes research as re-search, it therefore behooves us to rethink and re-conceptualize and, ultimately, re-operationalize the notion of Nigerian poetry with a view to properly situating its heuristic and hortatory potentialities. If, indeed, we take ourselves seriously in our determined pursuit of the truth about the integrity of the phenomenon of “Nigerian poetry”, we should be speaking of it in the plural, to wit, Nigerian poetries (in other words, Yoruba-English Poetry, Igbo-English Poetry, Urhobo-English poetry, Ika-English Poetry and so forth!).

To do that would, of course, create the uncomfortable impression of an “enemy national” out to put a knife to that which holds us together as a (homogenous?) people (‘Though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand, the defunct National Anthem proclaimed!). But beyond the political correctness of a pan-Nigerian posturing and/or the feel-good, anodyne shibboleths of patriotese, the prickly truth of the heterogeneity of our poetries continues to stare us in the face. What, in concrete terms, does, say Wole Soyinka’s poetry have in common with Christopher Okigbo’s poetry; or what communion has Niyi Osundare’s verse with Tanure Ojaide’s poetry? To venture an answer here, however, it is pretty straightforward to stress the point that these poets all hail from the same country, write in and speak English, the country’s official language, and, to that extent, are all united by factors of context, that is, Nigerian polity, and language, that is, the English language. But if we take the trouble to interrogate the linguistic and the contextual minutiae of their work, it would become quite apparent that what divides these literary avatars are more deeply-entrenched than what unites them.

The troubling and vexatious details of the strife-riven ethnically-charged Nigerian politics do not only shape their linguistic ideology but, far more significantly, colour their reading of history and the relationship between poet and polity. To speak a bit more about language, it is common knowledge that every writer from a postcolonial country wrestles with the English language, especially one from an Anglo-phone nation-state (cf: T.S. Eliot’s “intolerable wrestle with words”). As Niyi Osundare typically brilliantly posits in the case of a Yoruba-born Nigerian poet, when two languages meet, they kiss and quarrel. Does this apply to both the Igbo-born poet and the Yoruba-born poet in equal measure and in every material particular? Not quite, we daresay: for Igbo and Yoruba, though both of them, tone or tonal syllable-timed languages, have phonological, syntactic, morphological and, thus, semantic features unique to each of them.

Embedded and deeply-ingrained in each language is a particular philosophy of life which, in turn, invariably permeates the social values, the patterns of thinking, religious outlook and the epistemology of that particular ethnic group. Yoruba is Yoruba, Igbo is Igbo. What, therefore, comes through as Soyinka’s poetry, for example, is an admixture of Yoruba oral tradition and western poetic tradition. By the same token, Okigbo’s poetry is steeped in autochthonous Igbo orality and a welter of foreign-derived literary traditions.

Using both Soyinka and Okigbo as template, we can very easily analyse the socio-cultural features of any Nigerian poet. Therefore, just as it has become increasingly difficult to speak of African literature due largely to the multiplicity of nationalities, ethnicities and communicative idioms which make up Africa, so does the description of Nigerian Poetry as a single, homogenous body of writing leave much to be desired. What is being proposed here, for whatever it is worth, is that, in the light of present realities, geopolitical and all, it may be more intellectually rewarding and, of course, more factual to take another, more dispassionate look at the criticism of Nigerian poetry, and, this time, from a decidedly ethnically-informed perspective.

The merit of this procedure is that, shorn of the lie of cultural homogeneity, the critic is more equipped and better informed to plumb the depths of any Nigerian writing under analysis as he or she is required to situate the work within its socio-cultural milieu and, thereafter, stake out its proper place within the larger Nigerian social life. Poetry originating from the so-called minority ethnic groups would have their day in the sun. We can then have, say, Efik-English poetry, Esan-English Poetry, Isoko-English Poetry and Nupe-English Poetry and so on. Beyond showcasing the vast cultural diversity of Nigerian Poetry as a whole, these poetries from hitherto suppressed and marginalized social groups would be brought to the fore coupled with the fact that their academic or discursive respectability would be established. To this extent, therefore, uprooted scholars and prodigal researchers must recognize the need to return home to their villages and localities to collaborate with their unlettered townsfolk who are the custodians of their artistic patrimony lest they die out with their artistic heritage. To be sure, the importance of this town-gown synergy cannot be overstated, particularly against the backdrop of the depredations of globalization.

In talking about what we have referred to as the “Lost or Careless Generation” of Nigerian Poetry, it is important to clear the deck from the viewpoint of periodisation before we delve into the nitty-gritty of the modus operandi, the distinguishing features as well as the triumphs and troughs of the emergent tendency. Many scholars and historians of literature over the years have tried to furnish what in their considered views could be regarded as the definitive periodisation of Nigerian Poetry.

Some of these scholars include Harry Garuba, Biodun Jeyifo, Donatus Ibe Nwoga, Senanu and Theo Vincent and Tijan Sallah and Tanure Ojaide. Jeyifo remarks, for example, that: If there are now about five distinct generations of writers, critics and scholars of modern African literature, the first two generations came into their own in the epoch of the high tide of decolonization while the last two generations have been confronted with the specters of arrested decolonization, failing or collapsed states, economic stagnation, widespread autocratic misrule and the delegitimization of the grand narratives of emancipation which held that the liberation of African peoples in the modern world is indissolubly linked to the liberation of all the oppressed peoples of the world.

In spite of the perceptive and near-accurate analysis of Nigerian literary history given by Biodun Jeyifo, it appears far more accurate and, indeed, intellectually rewarding to stick to the periodisaton provided by Sallah and Ojaide in their jointly-edited anthology of African poetry entitled New African Poetry: An Anthology. According to these African poet-critics, there are three distinct generational cohorts in Nigerian, nay, African poetry, namely (1) the Nationalist poets such as Nnamdi Azikiwe and Osadebe who wrote poetry in imitation of the 19th-century British poets, as part of the momentous anti-colonial struggle and the agitation for self-determination; (2) the Independence Generation, that is, African poets who came of age during the heyday of political independence across Africa; and, in the Nigerian situation, this refers to the so-called Wole Soyinka-Clark-Okigbo coterie; and (3) the group of African poets who had cut their teeth on the works of their immediate predecessors but dissatisfied with their precursors’ performance, saw the need to steer a different course, thus inaugurating at once a thematic and formal sea-change in Nigerian verse-making.

Sallah and Ojaide, both among this coterie of African poets, identify some characteristic features of this school/tendency/sensibility, features which include limpidity of diction, a clear class consciousness or poetic ideology, a sense of propaganda, instrumental orchestration of poetry, otherwise known as “performance poetry”, antiphony, the adroit incorporation of indigenous oral poetic forms (in the Yoruba context, such as oriki (panegyric poetry), ofo (incantations), Ijala (hunters’ chants, ese ifa (Ifa Divination poetry); iremoje (valedictory verse); owe (proverbial lore) alo apamo (riddles and jokes) and epe (curses/imprecations). Additionally, these poets regard themselves as agents of change – radical, progressive and revolutionary change – poet – prophet/seers, social gadflies, ideologues, notably left-leaning revolutionary arbiters of taste and social health. Among these poet seers are Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Okimba Launko, Funso Aiyejina, Obiora Udechukwu, Ossie Enekwe, Catherine Acholonu, Afam Akeh and Harry Garuba.

The impression has been created in much critical commentary that the third generation of Nigerian poets emerged out of the frustration felt by the readership over what has been variously described as the ‘obscurantism and eurocentrism’ of most of the [second] generation of modern Nigerian poets. Or, what Chinweizu et al characterize as ‘Euromodernism’ or ‘The Hopkins Disease’; or, to further flesh it out, ‘Hopkinsian syntactic jugglery, Poundian allusiveness and sprinkling of foreign phrases, and Eliotesque suppression of narrative and other logical linkages of the sort that creates obscurity in “The Waste Land”. This cultivation of obscurantism is also excoriated by Biodun Jeyifo when he comments that ‘The Older poets [i.e. the Soyinka coterie) generally deployed a diction and a metaphoric, highly allusive universe, calculated to exclude all but a small coterie of specialists…’

Given the fact that the second generation of Nigerian poets was to produce the first major body of poetry for sophisticated critical engagements, it was not surprising that their works have attracted in equal measure both high praise and acerbic denunciation, a vilification that came to a head with the publication of the Bolekaja Troika’s vitriol. Typically, in what he has called ‘Responses in Kind’, Soyinka has equally fought back pound for pound, taking his traducers to the cleaners in such mordant rejoinders as ‘Neo-Tarzanism: The poetics of Pseudo-Tradition’, ‘The Autistic Hunt; or, How to Marxmize Mediocrity’ and ‘Barthes, Leftocracy and Other Mythologies.’

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