African English Poetry: Some Themes and Features

Dr. (Mrs) Jaya Lakshmi Rao V., Reader in English, Mrs. A..V.N.College, Visakhapatnam


Truthful and fruitful human experience forms the basis for written expression in any branch of literature. Conveyed through a language of international exchange, it can reach a wider audience for whom it becomes a useful reference in times of need. The English language attained international prominence due to several reasons; one of the most important being colonization. As in other countries of the Commonwealth, English was imposed on Anglophone Africa as a means of easy communication and administrative convenience. It is a historical irony that the same language serves the African writer in voicing his thoughts and feelings to the world at large. While discussing the future of English, Simeon Porter observes,

It will adopt to meet new needs and in that incessant reshaping and adaptation, every speaker and writer consciously or unconsciously will play some part. (181)

Today, the prediction of Porter came true of African writing in English. It brought strength and appeal to the English language by adding a large range of new vocabulary and usage. Writing on the problems faced by the African English writers, Chinua Achebe the famous Nigerian writer says,

The African writer should aim to use English that brings out his message without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English, which is at once unusual and able to carry his peculiar experience. (61)

It is applaudable that the writers of Africa succeeded in accomplishing the above task set by Achebe, which is by any means not an easy one. Their successful integration of native experience and expression in an alien tongue received worldwide acclaim. Their success proved, as critics like Srinivasa Iyengar pointed out,

A shot in the arm of modern English Literature has had to come from West Africans like Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Gabriel Okara. (16)

The role of poetry, in African literature, has been highly effective in providing the people with the needful inspiration and the necessary insight. The language of poetry, for the African people, is a source of learning and becoming aware of their destiny that necessitates the knowledge of their past, present and the possible future. These and several other ideas fuelled African poetry in English. For the African poets, poetry became a powerful medium through which they conveyed to the world audience, not only their

"despairs and hopes, the enthusiasm and empathy, the thrill of joy and the stab of pain..." but also a nation's history as it moved from " freedom to slavery, from slavery to revolution, from revolution to independence and from independence to tasks of reconstruction which further involve situations of failure and disillusion". (Iyengar, 15)

When we read African Literature, we should, by obligation remember that, colonization was at its harshest in Africa. As history stands proof, it was highly exploited and savaged by the ambitious 'white man'. This experience is on the minds of all thinking poets. Despite getting 'uhuru' or independence, the bitterness returns again and again. The unforgettable colonial past comes angrily alive in a poem by Kenya's poet Joseph Kareyaku thus,

It is not as you suppose, your lands,
your cars, your money, or your cities
I covet...
It is what gores me most,
that in my own house and in my very own home
you should eye me and all that's mine
with that practiced, long-drawn, insulting sneer. (quoted in Iyengar, 30)

In a poem entitled "If you want to know me" Noemia De Sousa writes ruefully of Africa, by effectively using the literary device of personification thus:

This is what I am
empty sockets despairing of possessing of life
a mouth torn open in an anguished wound...
a body tattooed with wounds seen and unseen
from the harsh whipstrokes of slavery
tortured and magnificent
proud and mysterious
Africa from head to foot
This is what I am. (Narasimhaiah, 137)

The much-brutalized Dark Continent is tellingly depicted in the following lines of a poem named "The Shapes of Fear" by Richard Ntiru.

Like an arrested breath
when breathing makes silence imperfect
and the ear cannot differentiate
between the conspiratorial whispers and the winds singing.
... a twig in the courtyard snaps
and report of a gun is understood. (Narasimhaiah, 137)

Nigerian poet , the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka's masterful irony skillfully conceals anger at the racist attitude in his famous poem, "Telephone Converstion." After negotiating for a house on rent on telephone, he tells the landlady of his being a black African. He was rudely shocked when he was 'caught...foully' by the lady's query regarding his darkness thus:

" HOW DARK...?" I had not misheard... "Are you light
OR VERY DARK..." (Narasimhaiah, 149)

The "ill- mannered silence" between the two is filled with images such as 'stench of rancid breath of public- hide-and-speak, Red booth, Red- Pillar-box, Red double-tiered Omnibus squelching tar' that subsume the age-old and still hopeless and violent colour- conflict.

The theme of English superiority glares through David Rubadiri's poem "A Negro Labourer in Liverpool":

Here his hope is the shovel
And his fulfillment resignation. (Narasimhaiah, 134)

One of the most important phases in African poetry is Negritude, a powerful literary movement founded by Aimé Césaire of Senegal. Among other things, the Negritude poets favoured the theme of glorification of Africa. They worshipped anything African in scintillating rhymes. Anger at injustice meted out to the colonized Africa is also one of the oft-repeated themes of their poetry. Here's an example from David Diop's poem "Africa."

Africa, my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs....
Is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun.....
That is Africa your Africa
That grows again patiently obstinately
And its fruit gradually acquires
The bitter taste of liberty. (Narasimhaiah, 153)

Dennis Brutus, a South African poet, was subjected to torture by a cruel regime. His writing is full of images of love contrasted with images of death thus,

Your face gleams up
Beneath me in the dusk
A wounded dove
Beneath the knife of love. (Quoted in Theroux, 2)

Great feeling for Africa is felt in Abioseh Nicol's poem "The Meaning of Africa" thus:

Africa, you were once just a name to me
...So I came back
sailing down the Guinea coast
....You are not a country Africa,
You are a concept
...I know now that is what you are Africa
Happiness, contentment and fulfillment. (Quoted in Povey, 39)

A poet's affirmation of his love for Africa shines radiantly through the following verses.

Dark Africa!
My dawn is here;
Behold! I see
A rich warm glow in the East,
And my day will soon be here. (Iyengar, 30)

Deification of Africa is a fit topic for many African poets. Perhaps this is their reaction to the self glorification and the civilizing zeal of the imperial powers of Europe. Bernard Dadie's poem attains special significance viewed in that light. He says in a poem entitled "I Thank God",

I thank you God for creating me black.
White is the colour for special occasions
Black the colour for every day
And I have carried the World since the dawn of time
And my laugh over the World, through the night creates
The Day. (Narasimhaiah, 122)

In Africa, the advent of the white man's civilizing mission displaced scores of native societies from their own cultural roots. The impact of the spread of Christianity combined with material benefits such as classroom education and well-paid jobs forced many Africans abandon their own faith and adapt the religion of the pale-faced aliens. This situation is responsible for the natives to suffer from culture shock. Nevertheless, the native is expected to owe allegiance to his own tribal culture and embrace Christianity for material benefits. This cultural confusion is well articulated by Mabel Segun in a poem thus:

Here we stand
Infants overblown
Poised between two civilizations
Finding the balance irksome. (Quoted in Povey, 39)

Gabriel Okara expresses the same sentiments in a lyric thus:

When at break of day at a riverside
I hear jungle drums...
Then I hear a wailing piano
Solo speaking of complex ways. (Quoted in Gleason, 143)

However, there are poets like Kofi Awoonor Williams of Ghana whose passion for past is expressed in his rediscovery themes with the help of extended rhythms as in the following lines.

"Sew the old days for us our fathers
that we wear them under our old garments
after we have washed ourselves....."
( The Anvil and the Hammer)
" Sew the old days for me my father
Sew them so that I may wear them
For the feast that is coming." (Quoted in Theroux, 4)

He accomplishes the same excellence of evolving extended rhythms in poems like "The Long Journey" and "My Song." Poetic excellence and rare innovative creative ability are seen in Christopher Okigbo poems such as "The Stars Have Departed." He says,

The stars have departed
The sky in a monocle
Surveys the world under
The stars have departed
And I- Where am I? ?
Stretch, stretch O antennae,
To clutch at this hour,
Fulfilling each movement in a
Broken monody. (quoted in Walsh, 48)

Images that can evoke a situation beyond hope which are reminiscent of Eliot's war poetry are visible in the following verses from K. Brew's poem "The Search."

The past is
but the cinders
Of the present
The future
The smoke
That escaped
Into the cloud- bound sky. (quoted in Walsh, 50)

Some of the poets have realized the futility of fighting over issues such as race, respect and national identity. What more can be more illuminating than the enlightened poet's words such as,

You must leave the sifting sands
of self- seeking and deceit
and erect far mightier mansions
on the rock of healthy soil. (Iyengar, 36)

Lenrie Peter's poems are short on the print but deep on one's mind like the one cited below

Open the gates
To East and West
Bring in all
That's good and best.

The memorable lines of Peter's poem "On a wet September Morning" with their sheer beauty of imagery and the underlying thought of universal brotherhood celebrate the oneness of the human family. To cite a few verses,

The echo burst in me
Like a great harmonic chord-
Violins of love and happy voices
The pagan trumpet blast
Swamping the lamentation of the horn
Then the heraldic drums
In slow crescendo rising
Crashed though my senses
Into a new present
Which is the future.

After this brief glance at African poetry, we realize that it is not simply an offshoot of British literary tradition. Despite the many disadvantages such as a scarred past, colonial trauma, expression in a foreign medium, inability to travel abroad, unstable economic and political state of affairs in their respective nations, lack of educational opportunities, the African poet has effortless creative capacity. It is an enriching combination of rich oral literature, native experience and imported tradition of writing in English that made African poetry a tremendous success both at home and abroad. The 'Black Orpheus' (African Poets) is no longer an unknown or an unwanted quantity but a fascinating and often enviable and beneficent literary marvel from what was ignorantly termed as the 'dark continent'.

Works Cited

Postcolonial Web Africa OV

Last Modified: 3 May, 2002