The form of oral poems is not limited to set patterns of lines or rhythms. A good number of them are literally songs containing poetic elements such as rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. However, when transcribed and printed in European languages, oral poetry resembles free verse. Repetition is a common device of the praise poem, whose rhythm can reflect the tonal qualities of certain African languages. Written poetry of the colonial era borrows from oral poetry and European style; there is a modernist quality to the body of twentieth century African poetry—most notably the absence of rhyme. The Hausa oral poem “Ali, Lion of the World!” uses repetition effectively, as does modernist Cheney-Coker in “The Hunger of the Suffering Man” (1980).
A functional art, African poetry in its oral and written forms has addressed a variety of themes, including worldview, mysticism, values, religion, nature, negritude, personal relationships, anticolonialism, pan-Africanism, neocolonialism, urbanism, migration, exile, the African diaspora, and patriarchy, as well as such universals as valor, birth, death, betrayal, and love. Religious poetry is exemplified by Islamic influences in such languages as Arabic, Hausa, and Swahili and in Ifa oral verses. A primary motif is the spiritual world, often reflected in a praise or evocation of ancestors.
Imagery in African poetry frequently evokes the natural environment, as in Brutus’s “Robben Island Sequence,” in which the poet alludes to...
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