Modernist Poets

Posted by on 12/9/2005 10:29:30 AM
Post Comment Modernist Poets Nigeria

From about the late 1950s, a group of young poets, mostly professionally trained in the literary arts (English/Classics, etc.) started producing a new type of poetry which was more technically sophisticated and more artistically substantial than that of their mobilisational predecessors. The most important names in this group are Gabriel Okara, John Pepper Clark, Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka. With them, Nigerian poetry in English has matured and taken a big leap forward.

The only one of these four poets who is not a university person is Gabriel Okara. But he has obviously brought himself up most creditably and his works show a close awareness of English Romantic and nature poetry as well as some mod ernist traits.

An important theme in Okara's poetry is culture contact/culture conflict. It is expressed metaphorically in "The Snows Flakes" in the imagery of "uprooters" whose spades are dented in the process of trying to uproot traditional African culture. In "Piano and Drums", the poet expresses his perplexity and confusion at being caught between conflicting Western and traditional African cultures.

And in "The Fisherman's Invocation", the argument is whether the Back (traditional African culture) should be taken along with the Front (the imported Western ways) to form the Child-Front, which is the new projection for our contemporary situation.

Thus, although Okara expresses ideas and senti ments which are similar to those of the mobilisa tional poets, he does so in a totally different man ner, cultivating a private tone and using fresh imagery of water, fishes, birds, uprooters and dig gers, piano and drums instead of the cliches of his predecessors.

John Pepper dark's poetic landscape is similar to that of Gabriel Okara. Both of them are ljaw and they use coastal and riverine imagery copiously in their poetry. Clark has published three volumes of poetry, namely, Poems (1962), A Reed in the Tide (1965), and Casualties (1970). One of Clark's achievements as a poet is that he directs our atten tion to the details of the physical environment, and his poetry has a ring of authenticity. Early poems like "Night Rain", "Streamside Exchange" and "The Year's First Rain" provide ample illustration of this point. He is, in this respect, a great scenic poet and his poems "lbadan", "Agbor Dancer" and "lbadan Dawn" provide further proof of his descriptive power. There is also evidence of great sensuality and compassion in his poetry. In the poem "Olokun", there is a play on the senses, especially the sense of feeling and touching, aroused by the seductive mask of Olokun, the goddess of the sea. And in "Abiku" basdd on the spirit-child who under goes a perennial cycle of births and deaths, the poet's posture is one of compassionate appeal to the child to break the vicious cycle.

Clark is also a poet of warfare and its dire con sequences on society. The poems in the volume entitled Casualties were inspired by the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. In them, Clark writes of par ticular events during the war, of friends lost in the war, of remote and immediate causes of the war, of trickery and broken promises, and of the moral and ethnical collapse of the citizenry who are the real casualties of the war.

Christopher Okigbo (1932-67) wrote five sequences of poems entitled Heavensgate, Limits, Silences, Distances and Path of Thunder, respec tively. They were published at different times between 1962 and 1968 and were later put togeth er in one volume under the title Labyrinths in 1971. Okigbo has the reputation of being the most techni cally accomplished, the most tuneful, and the post eclectic and allusive of Nigerian poets.
In the first four of the sequences, Okigbo is the poet of private sensibilities, par excellence, with a persona who has been a prodigal seeking re-entry, being initiated and then taking part fully in the cere mony of cultural and spiritual rejuvenation. Each sequence is a variation on that same theme. In Path of Thunder, on the other hand, the poet drops his private tone and goes public. He is a town-crier with a message of great importance for the survival of his community. The message is about imminent war and the great destruction that will come in its wake. All this is worked out in appropriate imagery so that the dancer is referred to variously as thun der, iron-dream, and a 'nebula immense and immeasurable'; the country as the elephant; the combat machines as iron-birds; and the catastro phe itself as the elephant being struck by thunder (i.e. lightning) and falling.

Wole Soyinka's poetry is characterised by two related phenomena. First, early in his career, Soyinka adopted Ogun, the Yoruba god of metallur gy, as his personal muse and the inspiration for his poetry. The presence of the god has given focus and coherence to a great deal of his poetry.

Second, since Ogun is himself a heroic being, Soyinka has found himself writing, inter alia, epic poetry in celebration of his god, unlike most of his contemporaries.

Soyinka's poetry is, thus, broadly of two kinds, namely, poems of various life experiences and Ogunnian poems. The poems of the first category include 'Telephone Conversation", (an early light hearted response to racial discrimination), some of the poems in Idanre and Other Poems (1967), and most of the ones in A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), (his prison notes when he was detained during the Nigerian Civil War). The poems are a good index to Soyinka's humanity. They are about births and deaths (the most important being his "Abiku" poem) in which he dwells on the inscrutable nature of the spirit of death, about strange coincidences as in "A First Death Day", when a child dies exactly on her first birthday anniversary, about grey seasons as metaphors for rust, ripeness and decay, and about lone figures and the messianic plight of some of them. Many of the poems in A Shuttle in the Crypt are even more private in tone because of their gen esis. They are the meditations of a man in confine ment whose active mind wandered far and wide, about people in similar plight in history, about nature, and about the fragility and transience of life.

The Ogunnian poems include poems about death on the road and bout the massacre in north ern Nigerian in 1966. They also include the epic poems Idanre and Ogun Abibiman (1977). All these poems are celebrations in a contemporary context: of the mysteries of Ogun, the god of contraries, who is both destructive and creative and, therefore, whose unlimited resources can be used for good or for ill. The road and massacre poems showed Ogun in his most negative aspects, that is, metaphors for man or man's weapons of destruc tion eating up fellow men.

They are Soyinka's way of commenting on the senseless slaughter and wastage of human life in moments of carelessness, hatred and ethnic intoxication. In Idanre and Ogun Abibiman, however, Soyinka goes beyond the merely negative features of Ogun. In the former, he seeks a new order that will further split the Ogun godhead and release the creative flint that will be used perpetually for man's benefit. In the latter, he enlists the co-operation of Ogun to commit his unlimited resources to the liberation struggle in South Africa.

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