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Mick Delap Wrote The Plights Of Nigerian Poetry


Even when we cry with our eyes full of tears, we can still see things.

The scripture says: my people perish because they lack knowledge. If such is the plight of Nigerian poets, it would have been better but Nigerian poets have the needed knowledge and they know the truth but refuse to let it set them free.

Nigeria is one among the developing nations of the world. A fact none can dispute but why should such affect the right recognition of Nigerian contemporary literature? Why should such affect the status of Nigerian contemporary poetry amidst the world poetry?

UK poets are well recognized (both classic and contemporary), US poets are well recognized (both classic and contemporary), Canadian, Australian, Indian, South African poets are as well accrued their due recognitions (both classic and contemporary). It is no hyperbole to mention or state how popular urdu, tanka, sijo, haiku, sestina, sonnet, etc. have been in nomenclature of poetic styles. For close to 30years now, when you speak of Nigerian poets, the old 25eggs are only still recognized in the basket.

Irrespective of the national emergence, colonial dates, independent calendars, technological states; among other things, it is known that the age of poetry amidst nations is said to be so thin. Why is Nigeria still having a minute number of recognized contemporary poets?

Addressing the issue, Mick Delap nailed it in his article titled: Nigerian Poetry- Black Star or Black Hole?

He said, "Niyi Osundare, just turned sixty, and a Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, has ten or so published poetry collections to his name, plus two “Collected’s”, four plays, and a large body of critical work. His first collection, Songs of the Marketplace, came out in his native Nigeria in 1983, and his poetry since then has provided a powerful exploration of what it has meant to be a poet in Nigeria during the troubled 1980′s and 1990′s. But Osundare – and his fellow Nigerian poets of the last forty years or so – are virtual unknowns to even the better read British poetry readers and editors. How many of us know, for instance, that the title poem for Matthew Sweeney and Jo Shapcott’s innovative anthology, Emergency Kit, is by the excellent Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide? Judging by how few other contemporary Nigerian poets have ended up in subsequent UK anthologies, very few. Not a single Nigerian poet, let alone a poet from the African continent, in either Staying Alive or Being Alive, for instance. Given the range and vitality of Nigerian poetry in English, this neglect is scandalous. The continuing lack of contact between these two very different poetry communities, the UK and the Nigerian, sharing a common language and entangled by history, impoverishes both.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1950′s, as Nigeria prepared for independence, young British university lecturers were helping to establish a network of Nigerian universities. The new institutions kick-started a flood of Nigerian writing in English, in both prose and poetry. Nigeria was Africa’s most populous nation (current population approximately 140 million). By the time independence arrived, in 1960, Nigerian novelists, playwrights and poets were beginning to attract UK interest – and, crucially, UK publishers, who introduced them to a world audience.

These were the years of Chinua Achebe’s first novels and Wole Soyinka’s plays. The two giants of Nigerian literature are still writing for a world audience: Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 (the first African laureate), and Achebe’s failure to follow him onto the Nobel stage is greeted each October with outrage by his admirers around the world (who suggest his sharp criticisms of white literary racism are the reason). Achebe’s novels are much superior to his poems, but Soyinka’s poetry, especially in his first collections, is as powerful a statement of what it meant to be a citizen of a newly independent Nigeria as his plays. In the 1960s and 1970s Soyinka was joined in British poetry magazines and on British poetry lists by poets like John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, and the short-lived but remarkable Christopher Okigbo.

Okigbo died in 1967 fighting on the Biafran side in Nigeria’s civil war. Until the civil war, Nigeria’s emergent poets had tended to grapple in their poetry with the existential problem of being among the earliest Nigerian poets to be recording their poetry in written form and in English. Nigeria’s many African language societies are centuries old, with a rich orally based culture which gives a central place to the public performance of poetry, a performance traditionally accompanied by singing and the playing of stringed instruments, horns and drums. The poet’s role in these lively, mainly rural, Nigerian societies was to be both guardian of the culture, and stubborn defender of its core values, in the face of whatever challenges contemporary events might throw up. In Nigeria’s various oral traditions, being a poet meant playing a prominent and very public role. But when Soyinka, Achebe, and their student colleagues left their African-language home towns and villages to attend the new English-medium Nigerian universities, they were introduced to the very different norms of the British model of English literary culture – as practised and taught in the Britain of the 1940s and 1950s. And mid-century British poets overwhelmingly chose private, not overtly public, subjects for their poetry.

Those young Nigerians who chose to express what it meant, at this crucial time, to be Nigerian, whether in prose or poetry – Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo and all the rest – were the first generation to attempt this task in English and in written, rather than oral form. As they wrote, the influence of the British writers of the UK canon, as taught in the English departments of the new Nigerian universities – literally, from Beowulf via Shakespeare and Marvell to Tennyson, Eliot and Auden – was almost overwhelming. Inevitably, much of their early output was derivative. In the struggle to draw a creative balance between exploiting the newly revealed riches of a literature written in English and the need to be unmistakably Nigerian, the first of this new breed of Nigerian poets largely chose to turn their backs on the African languages and the traditional structures of their own oral cultures. Nigerian poetry of the 1950s and 1960s explored all the tensions of Nigeria’s postcolonial circumstances – but in English, and in the poetic idiom of the English literary canon, which eschewed overt political comment.

That choice of subject matter soon changed under what Seamus Heaney has elsewhere called “the brutal onslaught of history”. The Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1971 was the watershed. It was precipitated by the first in a series of army coups, that entrenched the generals and their civilian allies in power for the next thirty years. In spite – or perhaps because of – the transformation of Nigeria into a major oil producer in the 1970s, the plight of ordinary Nigerians worsened steadily, as corruption and incompetent leadership despoiled the country. By 2000, all the basic services – health, education, law and order, even a regular supply of electricity, water and (amazingly) petrol – had been disastrously run down. Nigeria might be oil rich, but ordinary Nigerians were among the world’s poorest. Faced with this catastrophic misgovernment, Nigerian poets reacted by taking up the role their poet predecessors had played for generations in the African-language oral cultures they had been born into: the responsibility of stubbornly articulating a public – and published – resistance to the steady, often savage erosion of freedom and justice taking place around them.

Soyinka and the active poets of the 1960s and 1970s were the first to switch the focus of much of their poetry towards such pressing public, political issues – and were the first to pay the often considerable price for their courageous stand. They were followed by a new cohort of politically aware poets who emerged in the 1980s – among them Niyi Osundare, whose first collection, Songs of the Marketplace, came out in 1983. Another enduring Nigerian talent, Odia Ofeimun, had produced The Poet Lied three years earlier and Tanure Ojaide (of Emergency Kit fame) was also active through the 1980s. The 1989 collection from which Emergency Kit appeared, the endless song, has a dedication from a Pasternak poem that ends, “here art stops, / and earth and fate breathe in your face.” The trenchantly political Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is another strong influence often acknowledged by Nigerian poets. read the rest story"

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