Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 15

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 15
The polemical poem
A flash of fire

With the post-colonial period being seen as an era of socio-political turmoil, it is hardly surprising to find a corresponding predominance of attention given to 'public' subjects in African poetry.1 Any consideration of the range and depth of the poetic response to the period necessarily involves an engagement with the polemical poem. Therein lies a problem. For the polemical poem is so often regarded as a type of failed experiment in the lyric form and such a view, apart from being quite illogical, is necessarily obstructive to an appreciation of much modern poetry. We need a redefinition of poetry-and-polemics, an ordered set of positions for an approach to polemical poetry as such. The ground-rules of criticism must be redefined.

We could begin by defining a polemical poem as a species of literary text which undertakes to move the reader towards the adoption of a particular position on a moral or political issue. As such, it clearly fulfils a function of persuasion. This persuasive, argumentative function has often been seen as an incursion, a defilement of the otherwise pure art of poetry.2 If we accept the notion that poetry should have no connection with socio-political persuasion, then we are led inevitably to a stance where the writing of polemical poetry is considered as a form of loathsome (or at least suspect) extracurricular activity. From this position, as Lionel Trilling has pointed out, "political life is likely to exist only as it makes occasion [for] ... licensing the counter fantasy of the poet."3 As a corollary to this essentially negative attitude towards the presence of polemical poetry there exists the question of the poet's oratorical stance. The close connection between notions of impurity in literature and the matter of oratorical presence - the way one is seen to presuppose the other - can be detected in Mallarme's remark:

The work of art in its complete purity implies the disappearance of the poet's oratorical presence. The poet leaves the initiative to the words, to the clash of their activated differences. The words ignite through reciprocal reflection, like a flash of fire over jewels.4

The emphasis here is on the autonomous activity of "words," on the absence of the poet's technical and ideological influence, and on the proscriptive notion of purity. Reinforced by the idea that an interest in politics somehow precludes sensitivity towards personal themes, this notion of poetic magic (the "flash of fire") joins forces with ideas that tend to stress the non-referential nature of poetic constructs as a whole. Some remarks from Cleanth Brooks are indicative of this view. "Poetic truth," he writes, "is too general, too provisional, too far removed from propositional truth," and (regarding the connection between poetry and reality) "... the reality treated by poetry is a reality refracted through human responses, the revelation that poetry makes is primarily a revelation of ourselves ..."5 where "ourselves" denotes individual, rather than collective, revelation. Concepts such as these have led to an emphasis on the autonomous nature of the work of art at the expense of the equally important dimension of socio-political statement and reference. In the African context, the notion of poems as verbal icons or well-wrought urns - carrying with it prejudices regarding poetic purity, relative truths, and an opposition to the poet's polemical presence - is a clearly inadequate criterion for an approach to poetry (particularly polemical poetry). Another, rather different, frame of reference is required.

The starting point for an alternative frame of reference is the recognition of the high degree of commitment in modern African writing (the sense of a need to choose between certain socio-political value systems). In a letter supporting the formation of a Union of African Writers, Ngugi wa Thiong'o has outlined the militant approach to the problem of choice in literature. After writing of what he sees as the need to "expose, assign blame to all the social forces that have manacled the total creative energy ... of our people," he maintains that African writers "must avoid the posture of neutrality and hollow objectivity between evil and good; death and life; exploitation and struggle against exploitation; destruction and creativity; robbery and creative giving and sharing." In short, writes Ngugi, "we should definitely be for certain things and definitely against others ...".6 A poem arising from these sentiments is not likely to present a 'balanced' viewpoint. By definition, the polemical poet is a writer who has made a choice, a writer who creates poetry to proclaim and ratify that choice. Nevertheless, an examination of the nature of that choice alone (an estimation of the abstract "correctness" of the ideological message) clearly does not provide a sufficiently wide basis for an approach to both the polemic and the poem. For this, we can turn to the concept of the type.

The type, as the concept has been outlined by Georg Lukacs, is described as "a peculiar synthesis which organically binds together the general and the particular both in characters and situations." What makes the type a type, writes Lukacs, "is not its average quality, not its mere individual being, however profoundly conceived." What makes it a type "is that in it all the humanly and socially essential determinants are present on their highest level of development, in the ultimate unfolding of the possibilities latent in them, in extreme presentation of their extremes, rendering concrete the peaks and limits of men and epochs."7 In this approach, criteria of coherence and typicality are substituted for notions of poetic purity; attention is focused on levels of conceptual totality (raising questions of the simplicity or complexity of the polemical thrust) within each work; the nature of the poem's individual being is subsumed (not replaced) in an evaluation of greater or lesser typicality; any possible contradiction between an appraisal of polemic and poem (message and medium) is resolved by a consideration of the work as total poetic statement,8 as an expression of socio-political insights of varying degrees of complexity. In short, the polemical poem can be considered not as an intrusive cry of individual genius (or otherwise) but as a temporally-defined expression of directed meanings. This is an approach that incorporates Roger Fowler's view that "texts of poems, and oral performances of poems too, exist as directions for the recovery of meanings"9 - in this case, the 'meanings' of the post-colonial era in Africa. It would include an acceptance of Mphahlele's incisive observation that:



Some ... poetry shows a delightful synthesis of poetry as a state of mind and poetry as a powerful language - the synthesis of a language one feels compelled to use by force of political circumstance, and that which he wants to write because he is who he is.10

We are then clearly confronted with the question of aptness to purpose: the extent to which polemic and poem coalesce in the service of polemical function (the marriage of message and medium). In terms of the purposive aptness of each poem, certain questions can be raised regarding the attempt, by the poet, to achieve imaginative consent. How, for instance, is such consent required or demanded? What is the nature of the poetically-directed call for consent? Here we are considering such factors as direct statements of ideological choice, and the often less easily discernible features such as tone (where tone is seen as resulting from a particular combination of authorially-selected formal features). These issues lead to an examination of the projected socio-political values or interpretations that are set up for reader consent or rejection. From this group of ordered positions we can then proceed to an estimation of the greater or lesser degree of typicality of each work within the particular historical situation of modern Africa.

If we turn to specific poems, this set of approaches can be tested. Lenrie Peters' untitled poem that begins "The man on the podium barks" serves to clarify the way in which a polemical poet, through the creation of a developing series of statements, can build and direct a persuasive line throughout a work.11 The use of the term statement is not meant to imply, necessarily, a string of direct authorial comments (for example, "All politicians are hollow men") but rather a gradually unfolding picture of, in this case, the politician-figure through a directed release of information. Certain physical features are isolated and then (through a process of interconnection within the poem) posited as being characteristic of the type-figure presented. A particular view of "the man" is established through the use of selected image-reference and adjectival emphasis:

The man on the podium barks

hollow shrill creature in the night

his searchlight eyes blanket the audience

but do not penetrate.

It is a process where each selected characteristic works, in the phenomenological sense, as a sign (a sign carrying with it the possibility of accumulating reference); a process wherein each sign "arouses certain expectations which are asserted, modified, or negated as we read on."12Ê In the polemical poem, the necessity for a strongly-developed control of these signs (and of their overall direction) is clearly a prerequisite for building and sustaining the particular view that will emerge from the work. In Peters' poem, this authorial control operates to enforce the connection between physical details ("saliva moated/on red curtain of tongue" and "lustful greedy pouches/of swollen eyelids") and the nature of the politician's public utterances. Thus, the politician's rhetoric is described as "braille cornices of lies," and the thunder of applause is seen as drowning not his comments but his "further imbecilities." Each sign (or, taken together, each developing statement) works to consolidate the projected polemical view.

Having firmly established his limits of reference within which "the man" is to be considered, Peters then modulates the tone of his approach from heavy condemnation to satiric deflation. We find reference to "Hallux major well dug in" while "the other toes frisk over the keys/disharmonious muddle of sincerity" - where the use of Hallux major (more commonly known as the big toe) emphasises the pretentiousness, albeit muddled sincerity, of the man. The close juxtaposition of "seedy split tomato" and "Francis Bacon" (tomato and bacon) works in the same way. Francis Bacon hears the politician's cry "ultrasonic to the sky" and the careful selection of that word "ultrasonic" (not only implying extravagance but, more exactly, the creation of sound waves of such pitch as to be beyond the threshold of human audibility) is evidence of the satiric thrust. Francis Bacon - the English philosopher-king, the imaginative creator of scientific utopias, the man who saw rhetoric as the application of reason to imagination - has clearly been selected for the ironic implications that the use of his name releases. The other name invoked by the poet is that of a rather different philosopher ("Mao") who believes that "power flows from the barrel of a gun," with Peters' man being further defined as not having the honesty to admit to such a belief. We then find a recurrence of directed definition by adjectival emphasis:

... wayward, uncontrolled

this significantly empty

sad fellow, the Politician.

Through the placing of a print-level sign (capitalisation), this empty fellow - while being subjected to a withering polemical sympathy - is, at the same time, "elevated" from individual to archetypal significance. The reader is subsequently presented with an appropriately universalised view of the Politician as he digs

... one hole

to seal another

all the way round

from Korea to Patagonia

while, in the final lines of the poem, Peters punches home the general polemical indictment by introducing the concept of "a final gap," a gap that the Politician

... will not, cannot

dare not contemplate,

or care a rap.

That thought, presented as a trinity of negatives (will not, cannot, dare not), completes Peters' coherent picture of the politician-type.

It can be seen that this poem, as a whole, evinces a considerable degree of what I have termed aptness to purpose (where polemic and poem coalesce in the service of polemical function). It is, as one would expect, a poem carefully guided towards its target: a general consideration, leading to a directed view, of politicians and their role in society. It is a poem not directly concerned with pointing the way forward. Yet, by the attempted exposition and polemical denunciation of negative political features (dishonesty, expediency, opportunism), the poem clearly fulfils an educative function that is, itself, the chief characteristic of literature from committed writers. More importantly, this poem reaches after typicality. The tendency towards typicality is embodied in the general attempt to answer the questions: what does it mean to be a politician, in this era? what is the relationship between rhetoric (ideology) and practice (action)? While the poem contains no specifically-stated African reference, it is when one considers the relevance of the work's polemical thrust to certain aspects of the African political scene (particularly to those leaders who speak under the banner of African socialism) that the question of typicality is brought to the forefront. To elucidate this point we can turn to Ayi Kwei Armah's survey of the relationship between ideology and action in the African context, where he directs attention to the fact that

... in a very radical sense the nationalist leaders of Africa have found themselves sucked into the role of hypocrites, actors involved in a make-believe situation. The task of the leadership has been to take a manifestly evolutionary situation and to pretend that it is revolutionary ... a historic mission demanding histrionic talents of the highest order ... .`13

If we approach the matter of the politicians' role from this standpoint, those lines from Peters' poem, where "the Politician" is seen in a position of not wanting, not daring, not being able to contemplate "the final gap," take on renewed significance. The gap can then be defined as the historically-determined impossibility of a reconciliation between the words of the politicians and the actions towards which they are directed. The leaders will not close the gap because to do so would threaten their personal position in the power structure. The leaders cannot close the gap because of the basic contradictions inherent in their historical position within an evolutionary process. The leaders "dare not contemplate,/or care a rap" because, if they did move towards a meaningful implementation of their rhetorical passion, they would be stepping outside the very socio-political context that enables their rhetoric to pass for commitment. The poem by Lenrie Paters raises these issues and (by the polemical treatment of its concerns) consequently approaches the Lukacs concept of the type, where all the socially essential determinants are presented on a high level of development and where an attempt has been made, through poetry, to render concrete the peaks and limits of the politician-figure in the modern era.

Within the range of expectations that has been generated here concerning polemical poetry from Africa, there are inevitable differences in the handling of the polemical thrust (a natural phenomenon resulting from individual variations in poetic style) and in the nature of any projected socio-political "solutions" posited by particular poems (stemming from varying political ideas held by individual poets). But in an approach to polemical poetry as literary performance it would appear more important to point not to the nature of socio-political "solutions" but to the unity (or otherwise) of poem and polemic. This can be clearly demonstrated by a reading of Mbella Sonne Dipoko's long poem "My People."14 The poem begins:

My people are in the villages all over Africa

Tillers of the soil, fishermen of the rivers and the seas,

Nomads wandering about with their cattle ...

and concludes:

I will not disown

Even the scared presidents

Because of whose security

Armed guards go terrorizing the people

Even though I approve only of the socialist revolutionary

Who fights for a better day.

However accurate as an analysis of political needs "My People" may be, it should be acknowledged that the work is a most ineffective polemical poem. The overt nature of the poet's socialist solution detracts from the effectiveness of the poem as a whole. A general examination of polemical poetry suggests that the particular identity of the projected way forward (whether it be socialism or any other concept) is not an inhibiting factor in terms of polemical effectiveness. What is decisive, however, is the manner in which the polemical line is guided. In "My People," rather than a developing argument being present, we find a closed ideological thesis; rather than an accumulation of emphasis and cross-reference, a static and unilinear structure; instead of a display of meanings, an imposition of meaning. By comparison, Okot p'Bitek's "Song of Lawino"15 (for example) is a most effective polemical poem. Not surprisingly, in Okot's work, there is a constant dialectic of tone and reference with twin (competing) polemical strands producing not an imposed order but a seemingly inevitable formal coherence.

"Song of Lawino" is a text that illustrates the striking effects that can be achieved when developing strands of argument are skilfully integrated within the total form of a polemical poem. The work, a long narrative lament that runs through thirteen separate movements, represents an extended dramatic monologue with the lamenting argument coming from the wife of Ocol, a chief's son. Ocol has thrown his wife (Lawino) aside for a 'modern' girl named Clementine. It is important to note, however, that while Lawino's lament is aimed primarily at her husband (in the first instance) the poem, as a whole, works as a comprehensive satiric assault. The assault, as Ngugi has pointed out, is "on the African middle-class elite that has so unabashedly embraced Western bourgeois values and modes of life."16 Thus "Song of Lawino" operates within both an individual and a collective frame of reference, with Lawino's biting comments constantly extending the arena of polemical debate away from her husband (the initial catalyst) and towards a general critique of the traditional-modern confrontation in Africa.

The generalising process can be seen at work in a section where Lawino lashes out at her husband's sexual neglect of her, seeing this neglect as evidence of a wider problem:

For all our young men

Were finished in the forest,

Their manhood was finished

In the class-rooms,

Their testicles

Were smashed

With large books! (12, p.208)

Here the personal experience is widened into a critique of a whole generation. Larger questions regarding the concept of manhood, the significance of 'book-learning', are brought into play as part of the poem's polemical thrust. Lawino's criticism proceeds from an affirmatory stance that projects traditional values (compared with the modern) as being meaningfully coherent values, values that should retain their place in contemporary Africa. All that Lawino asks is that her husband should stop his insults, should "stop being half-crazy,/And saying terrible things about my mother," that he should consider her view:

The ways of your ancestors

Are good,

Their customs are solid

And not hollow

They are not thin, not easily breakable

They cannot be blown away

By the winds

Because their roots reach deep into the soil.

(2, p.29)

Within her deprecation of modern African ways, Okot p'Bitek allows Lawino to ask some pointed political questions: what is the meaning of Uhuru? why do the political parties of the post-Uhuru period, who both claim to fight for peace and against poverty, split the nation (Uganda) into hostile groups? why do they not join hands? The poet leads Lawino to a strikingly effective metaphoric summation17 of the situation:

And while the pythons of sickness

Swallow the children

And the buffalos of poverty

Knock the people down

And ignorance stands there

Like an elephant ... (11, p.196)

allowing Lawino (as socio-political observer) to conclude that if only the parties would fight poverty with the fury with which they fight each other, that if only disease and ignorance were assaulted with the deadly vengeance with which "Ocol assaults his mother's son," then "The enemies would have been/Greatly reduced by now." Okot's use of Lawino as poetic persona, carefully handled,18 is the enabling device that allows for sustained satiric comment on the whole range of contemporary issues. Lawino's attack on the values of Ocol (and of those he represents) operates on what could be termed the overt level of polemical argument within the poem. On that level alone, the satiric shafts from Lawino hit their target.

Yet the polemical thrust of Okot's poem is double-edged in form, with a covert polemical strand running beneath Lawino's argumentative lament. When Lawino comments on various facets of her husband's behaviour, and attempts a comparison of modern and traditional ways, the reader senses a measure of naivety (a certain 'either-or' dichotomy) at the root of her remarks. In a section such as that where Lawino attempts to summarise her attitude:

I do not block my husband's path

From his new wife

If he likes, let him build for her

An iron roofed house on the hill!

I do not complain,

My grass thatched house is enough for me

(2, p.29)

it becomes apparent that the main polemical line is not completely identifiable with the details of her lament. On the contrary, an evident clash is registered between what is being said and how it is said. This sustained tension within the work proceeds from Okot's manipulative use of his persona (Lawino as self-interested observer). A dialectic of tone and reference is created, resulting in a position where Lawino's own statements are being constantly undercut and satirised. It is a considerable part of Okot's skill in organising the poem that one inevitably detects this clash of manner and substance. The existence of the twin (overt and covert) polemical lines, each working as dynamic cross-references to the general socio-political issues raised, is the formal device that allows an adequately complex perspective to be maintained. The reader (or listener) is thus confronted not by a projected affirmation of Lawino's stance but by a constantly argumentative frame of reference that results from competing polemical strands.19 "Song of Lawino" is a text that significantly approaches a position of typicality (in the Lukacs sense of the term). By careful control of the twin polemical strands, Okot successfully broadens the traditional-modern debate into an area where a possible reconciliation of competing life-styles can be considered.

Another, strikingly idiosyncratic, polemical poet is Taban lo Liyong. His poem that begins "the filed man laughed and said"20 - characteristically untitled and eschewing any punctuation - presents an imaginary press conference, or ministerial briefing, with "the filed man" (for whom government is a translation of slogans into edicts) pontificating on socio-political matters while his "functionary" (the good party bureaucrat) automatically reports "done" to each simplistic statement.21 The filed man laughs and says:

nationalization is the answer

a reported jested

what is the question

the filed man laughed and said

neocolonialism is the problem ... .

Apart from the implicit comment on the relationship between omnipotent politicians and their audience, Liyong's satiric wit hits at easy dichotomies between "west" and "east", friends and enemies. A cynic declares that "westerners from the east are friends in deed" and again the filed man laughs and says "from the east friendship only flows." The poet clearly reserves the bulk of his scorn for the facile notion that nationalisation answers every problem. We see Liyong directing the poem's polemical line towards a laconic statement that is, at once, absurdist climax and high-point of implicit anger. After carrying through the nationalisation of all industries, all banks, all thoughts, the call is to "nationalize even that which has not been nationalized for it/also comes from the west." Whereupon the functionary reports "we have at last nationalized POVERTY... ." At this point, Liyong moves the poem towards a summation of the socio-political attitudes that have been presented. The text enforces the connection between decision-making (as it is shown to exist) and the political structures that sustain the activities of Africa's filed men. Liyong's leader-figure inevitably laughs "the last laugh" while maintaining that

we can triumph over all our difficulties

when you follow your leaders

nothing will go wrong

and then, with the poet's ironic voice sounding strongly behind the lines, comes the self-congratulatory remark that emphasises the slide into one-party rule:

our present success shows what can be achieved

with a little effort

with the right leadership

the one leadership.

Despite the facade of levity (resulting from the blatant nature of the caricature), the steady satiric force of Liyong's polemical line wipes away the easy smile. The poet's witty, bouncing style penetrates the seriousness of the socio-political concerns but does not reduce the satiric impact. On the contrary, the polemical thrust is enhanced by this process. Liyong's text affirms no clear alternative way of leadership. Indeed, that is the key projected notion that underpins the poem's political statement: there is no easy solution, no easy ways forward. Least of all those of the filed men.

As a final demonstration of potentially effective approaches to polemical poetry, the work of Wole Soyinka can be considered. One of the poems in Soyinka's collection A Shuttle in the Crypt is a work concerned with the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War.


Do not cover up the scars

In the quick distillery of blood

I have smelt

Seepage from familiar opiates,

Do not cover up the scars

The tuber of our common flesh, when

Trampled deep in earth embattles

Death, new-girthed, lunges at the sun

But lest it prove a hollowed shell

And lest the feet of new-born lives

Sink in voids of counterfeiting

Do not swell earth's broken skin

To glaze the fissures in the drum

Do not cover up with scabs

And turn the pain a masquerader's

Broken-tongued lament

Its face a painted mask of veils

Its breath unmoistened by the run of bile

A patchwork heart and death-head grin

To cheat the rigors of


Paint cracks. Bequeath

The heartwood beat alone

To new-born

Followers of the wake.22

The poet makes clear his rhetorical (persuasive) stance from the beginning: do not cover up the scars! This is to be a poem of advice, a poem of statement. The first stanza, taken together with the title, indicates that this is a polemical poem concerned with examining some facet of a post-war situation. We also note the beginnings of a multi-stranded image chain proceeding from the basic metaphoric concept of the body-politic. The poet ("I") makes an observation in regard to his personal experience ("I have smelt"), yet, because of expectations generated by the evident heightening of the level of diction, we are led to anticipate possible collective (national) implications from that observation. As the poem unfolds it becomes clear that certain notional attitudes towards the post-war situation are being presented and analysed. They are being presented through the poetic handling of key correlative dichotomies (injury-recovery, stability-turmoil, death-rebirth) that attach themselves to the body-politic metaphoric situation. Thus, on the most obvious level, "scars" and "blood" become identified with the socio-political wounds of the war. It is apparent that both individual and collective experience is under scrutiny. While the text retains the immediacy of personal testimony, Soyinka pitches the polemical debate into communal areas of injury, into communal attitudes towards recovery.

Very early in the poem one can detect what has been called "that sense of language assembled under the pressure of creative intelligence."23 Perhaps the most striking feature of this text is the manner in which certain words (inevitably connected with life, death, and injury) are assembled and deployed as constituent links in the image chain. Note the placing of "quick" in the first stanza. Apart from working as adjectival elaboration of "distillery of blood," the use of this particularly word (as sign) carries forward the polemical consideration of the injury-recovery situation. For "quick," of course, does not only have the meaning of fast or rapid. It carries with it connotations of life and death (the quick and the dead) and, more significantly, a reference to that tender part of a wound where healthy tissue begins to grow. A similar point could be made regarding the use of "bile": a bitter fluid secreted to aid digestion. In the context of the poem ("unmoistened by the run of bile") the word clearly contributes to implications of a necessary anger, an anger that should not be avoided, an anger that is necessary for a meaningful "digestion" of the war-experience. There is, then, an effective integration of the poetic and the polemic on the level of the individual sign.

Soyinka's skill in the handling of conceptual imagery (particularly that which is drawn from Yoruba tradition) allows him to make subtle reference to various notional reactions to the war. A consideration of the phrase "fissures in the drum" will clarify this point. The drum, the traditional message-medium, has been cracked by the violence of war. The straight-talking of the drum (symbolically affirming coherent societal values) has been made discordant and ineffective by war. So the drum must be made whole again. Within the poem's frame of reference, the question being asked is this: how should these "fissures" (socio-political rifts) be healed? An answer to that question has already been foreshadowed: do not cover up the scars, do not look for short-term means of repairing the ravages of civil war. In the third stanza, the poet introduces the masquerade-figure to reinforce this persuasive line. The masquerader could accommodate (formalise) the pain by ceremonial action. That solution is firmly rejected by the text. For to put a "death-head grin" on the real face of suffering would be to short-circuit the path to a meaningful recovery. It would be just a ritualistic scab temporarily cheating the rigors of exorcism. The "heartwood heat" - an acceptance of the significance of the war as historical experience - must be given to those "new-born" elements within the nation who face the task of charting the way ahead. While "Apres la guerre" could be seen as a dirge-like variation on a lest-we-forget theme, such a definition would deny the affirmative, forward-looking stance of the poet (while inflating the significance of the work's threnodic elements). Soyinka pleads not for the dead but for the living. The poem, through an imagistic rendering of socio-political statement, urges acceptance of that plea. Evidencing the poet's ability to dramatize sensuously his concerns,23 this text is witness to the fact that, while Mallarme's dictum (words igniting like a flash of fire over jewels) is a largely irrelevant criteria for assessing the total significance of polemical poetry, there is no reason to conclude that the projection of meaning through the accumulation of poignant images is necessarily alien to the polemical form. In modern African polemical poetry the words still "ignite". But the flash of fire is over more than jewels.


1. See Donatus I. Nwoga, "Obscurity and Commitment in Modern African Poetry," African Literature Today: No.6, Poetry in Africa, ed. E.D. Jones (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973).

2. A view that has been concisely summarised by C.M. Bowra, in Poetry and Politics 1900-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966).

3. Trilling, Beyond Culture: Essays in Literature and Learning (1966; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), pp.82-83.

4. Mallarme's dictum is cited by Michael Hamburger, in The Truth of Poetry (1969; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), p.85. In an anthology of African poetry, Wole Soyinka's introduction includes a reference to "avoidance of the Mallarmean extreme, the occidental indulgence which gives an autogenetic existence to the expression of the symbolic-mythic world of the creative imagination, severed arbitrarily from other realities" [Wole Soyinka, ed., Poems of Black Africa (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975), p.14]. The emphasis is mine.

5. Cleanth Brooks, "Implications of an Organic Theory of Poetry," in Literature and Belief: English Institute Essays, 1957, ed. M.H. Abrams (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp.76-77.

6. Cited in "Ch'Indaba = Colloquium," Transition, 9 (vi), No.50 (October 1975/March 1976), 5.

7. Georg Lukacs, Studies in European Realism, trans. Edith Bone (London: Merlin Press, 1972), p.6.

8. In turn, the total poetic statement is made up of contributory statements. Lionel Trilling's conception of a series of statements is important here: "Whether we deal with syllogisms or poems, we deal with dialectic--with, that is, a developing series of statements..." ["The Meaning of a Literary Idea," in Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (London: Secker and Warburg, 1951), p.283].

9. Fowler, "The Structure of Criticism and the Languages of Poetry: An Approach through Language," in Contemporary Criticism, ed. M. Bradbury and D. Palmer, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 12 (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), pp.179-80.

10. Ezekiel Mphahlele, Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), p.117. Emphasis in the original.

11. Lenrie Peters, Katchikali (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971), poem no.44.

12. H.G. Ruthrof, "Reading Works of Literary Art," The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 8 (1974), 78.

13. Ayi Kwei Armah, "African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific?" in Presence Africaine, No.64 (1967), p.28. Italics in original.

14. Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Black and White in Love: Poems (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), p.45. In an Author's Note, the poet states that "My People" was first written as a prose poem "which I have now shortened into verse form."

15. Okot p'Bitek, Song of Lawino (1966; rpt. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973).

16. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, "Okot p'Bitek and writing in East Africa," in Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), p.74.

17. The technique of metaphoric summation is evidence of the close formal relationship between Okot's work and an oral (particularly Acholi) tradition. Ngugi, having pointed out that Okot "has borrowed from the song in the oral tradition," maintains that the African song "gets its effect from an accumulation of details, statements and imagery, and in the variation of the tone and attitude of the poet-reciter to the object of praise" (Homecoming, p.75).

18. Argument from a poetic persona (compared with seemingly direct authorial statement, as in the Dipoko poem) allows the poet a wider scope for ironic, argumentative reference.

19. A similar frame of reference is found in Okot's later work "Song of Prisoner" [Two Songs (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1971)] with its constant refrain:


"Do you plead



Not Guilty?" (pp.12,30, et passim).

20. Taban lo Liyong, Another Nigger Dead (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), p.8.

21. Throughout the poem, emphasis is placed on the automatic nature of the response to statements from the filed man. The response echoes that evoked by certain lines from Genesis I, for example:

"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light" (3).

22. Soyinka, A Shuttle in the Crypt, p.84.

23. A phrase that occurs in an article by Edwin Thumboo, "The Universe Is My Book: Lenrie Peters," in African Literature Today: No.6, Poetry in Africa, p.98.

24. An ability that is seen, by Jon Silkin, to be a necessary attribute of a committed poet's work. See Poetry of the Committed Individual, ed. J. Silkin (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), editor's introduction, p.37.

New: 13 May, 1996 | Now 2 April, 2015