Generally acknowledged as one of Africa’s most exciting poets, Kofi Awoonor has been a significant presence since the publication in 1963 of his first poems, in Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier’s Modern Poetry from Africa. His work is included in every anthology of contemporary African literature and has been translated into many languages, including Russian, French, Chinese, and German. His presence at various international forums on African literature and the awards he has won to encourage his continued study of oral traditions and contemporary African literature attest his stature, and he has been invited to read his poetry and discuss his work at colleges and universities throughout the United States and Europe.
Although he is one of the most widely traveled contemporary African writers, Awoonor has maintained and continued to explore those links to his Ewe-speaking culture and language that make his poetry effective and unique. He has captured the feel and rhythms of traditional oral poetry in an English which, unlike that of such African poets as Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, is seldom obscure. In the words of one of Africa’s foremost literary critics, Ezekiel Mphahlele (in his introduction to Awoonor’s Night of My Blood), Awoonor’s verse is “the truest poetry of Africa.” As Mphahlele says, “Although Awoonor’s poetry is packed with ideas, his gentle diction carries us there with its emotional drive, its traditional speech patterns. For all that, the poetry stays on the ground, avoiding any intellectual horseplay.”
The most critically acclaimed African poet of Awoonor’s generation, Christopher Okigbo (born in Nigeria in 1932 and killed in action with the Biafran army in 1967), said that he wrote for other poets. Awoonor, however, has sought a much broader audience, emulating, within the context of African and world literature, the role of the Ewe oral poets among their own people.
Awoonor has led a life exemplary of the committed writer, saying once that he “thrives on opposition and conflict” and stating early in his career that his pet aversions are “poseurs and hypocrites and righteous men.” Always political but never doctrinaire or propagandistic, he speaks with passion about the inequities of the world in a voice that avoids stridency. Indeed, his voice is often as gentle as a lover’s, but his vision is unclouded by romanticism. His stance is closest, perhaps, to that of another well-traveled poet who addressed his verse to the common people—Pablo Neruda.
Awoonor’s greatest accomplishment may lie in his synthesis of African ideas and Western experience. He reveres the philosophy of Africa yet moves in the technological world of the late twentieth century with ease, drawing from both cultures to forge a literary voice at once genuinely African and distinctly modern. Awoonor’s language effects a similar synthesis, carrying the strong music of his native Ewe into English. (He continues to write in his native language, often doing first drafts in Ewe and producing both Ewe and English final versions.) Ewe is a highly tonal language, sung as much as spoken, with tonality determining the meaning of innumerable words. That Awoonor has made the transition from Ewe to English without sounding strained, stilted, or incomprehensible is almost an act of magic.
Awoonor’s synthesis of language and ideas strengthens his expression of that “conflict between the old (traditional) and the new (foreign)” that the Nigerian critic Romanus Egudu rightly sees as characteristic of Awoonor’s poetry. Indeed, there is a central theme that unifies all of Awoonor’s works: the search for a new tomorrow in a recently independent Africa still confused by its bitter colonial past, a search for a synthesis of Western values and technology with the basically humanistic African culture that holds Awoonor’s first allegiance. Awoonor, however, unlike many of his contemporaries, does not stop at that point of conflict. Instead, he works toward a resolution, building a bridge to a new land that may not yet exist but that his work foresees, shaped from both past and present and based on the soil where ancestors are buried but never truly dead.
Awoonor’s eloquent exhortation at the end of The Breast of the Earth serves as a concise statement of his poetic stance:Those who call for a total Europeanization of Africa are calling for cultural suicide. Those who are asking for a pure and pristine journey into the past are dreamers who must wake up. For in the center, somewhere between those two positions, lies the only possibility.
It is in that center, a center that does hold, that the poetry of Awoonor lives.
A useful key to understanding Awoonor’s poems may be found in his own description in 1971 (in Palaver: Interviews with Five African Writers in Texas, 1972) of his poetic development to date, which he divides into three phases “punctuated by my relationship to technique and my relationship to theme.” The first phase, which Awoonor calls his apprenticeship, saw the creation of work that drew heavily on the tradition of the Ewe song, especially the dirge form. These laments—which have, as Awoonor puts it, a “lyrical structure with the repetitions of sections, segments, lines, along with an enormous, a stark and at times almost naive quality”—shaped his often anthologized “Songs of Sorrow” and “Song of War.”
In the traditional Ewe dirge, the poet usually sings from the point of view of a man overwhelmed by the weight of life and by the enormity and inevitability of death. One should be careful, however, not to mistake this tone for one of total despair or hopelessness. An awareness of death is linked in African philosophy with an understanding that the departed ancestor’s spirit still cares for the living left behind, and the bridge between life and death, or—to use a metaphor that both the Romans and the Ewe understand well—the ferry that crosses the river from the land of the living is a much more visible presence to the Ewe than to a contemporary Westerner. Awoonor’s early poems fall squarely within that tradition and have images and even whole lines that are direct translations from the dirge poets of Anlo. Thus, it is with a distinctly Ewe voice that Awoonor speaks in “Songs of Sorrow” when he writes,
My people, I have been somewhereIf I turn here, the rain beats meIf I turn there, the sun burns meThe firewood of this worldIs only for those who can take heartThat is why not all can gather it.
The poem’s proverbial message is that suffering must be expected in any human life. It is only those who are able to “take heart,” who continue to strive in the face of adversity, who can collect the firewood of the world, not merely surviving within the often hostile environment but husbanding it for their good and the good of others. The catalog of woes that follows—the...
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