Senghor, Léopold Sédar (Poetry Criticism)
Léopold Sédar Senghor 1906–
(Has also written under pseudonyms of Silmang Diamano and Patrice Maguilene Kaymor) Senegalese poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, critic, and editor.
An influential statesman who served as President of the Republic of Senegal for twenty years following its independence from France in 1960, Senghor is also considered an important poet and essayist whose work affirms the rich traditions of his African heritage. He is perhaps best known as one of the most outspoken proponents of négritude, a literary ideology that urges black people worldwide to resist the cultural manifestations of European colonialism and to reclaim and embellish their African past. A recipient of many honors and literary prizes, Senghor became the first black member of the Académie Française upon his election in 1983.
Senghor was born in the predominantly Islamic province of Joal, French West Africa. Raised as a Roman Catholic, he attended French missionary schools in preparation for the priesthood but abandoned his religious studies in favor of the classics and modern literature. Upon graduation from the Lycée of Dakar in 1928, Senghor earned a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, he met the West Indian writers Aimé Césaire and Léon Gontran Damas, who introduced him to the works of such Harlem Renaissance authors as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. In 1934, with Césaire and Damas, Senghor founded the literary and cultural journal L'etudiant noir, which helped delineate the principles of négritude and published the works of other francophone writers.
After serving in the French Colonial Army during World War II, Senghor became active in politics. In 1946 he began serving his first term as Senegale député in the French National Assembly in Paris, and in 1948, he formed the socialist party Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais in his own country. During the early 1950s, Senghor served as French delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. He was elected the first president of the new republic of Senegal on September 5, 1960. During his long rule, he continued to publish poetry and political essays, and won several international awards for his work. He resigned from the presidency in 1979 and four years later, he was the first black African elected to the Académie Française.
The poems in Senghor's first major collection, Chants d' ombre, were written during the 1930s. Although largely
traditional in structure and meter, these pieces also evoke the intricate rhythmic patterns of compositions by musicians in Senghor's native village. Published in 1948, Hosties noires reflects Senghor's growing interest in Pan-Africanism and contains some of his strongest attacks on French colonialism. The majority of the poems in this collection relate his experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war while serving in the French Colonial Army during World War II. Nocturnes contains a series of elegies discussing the nature of poetry and the role of the poet in contemporary society. During the 1970s, Senghor published Elégie des eaux and Lettres d'hivernage, which expanded on his earlier themes. In recent years, he has revised several early volumes of verse, including Poèmes, which features a cycle of elegies dedicated to his deceased son as well as other meditations on life and death.
Many commentators have noted elements of both European and African culture in Senghor's poetry, attributing this synthesis to his French education and his long service in the French government. He is often praised for his deft imagery, symbolism, and the rhythm of his language, which is often compared to the sounds of African drums. While some critics notice a lack of tension in his work, some appreciate its lush sensuality and positive message that attempts to celebrate African heritage and culture. In fact, critics agree that Senghor's poetry often serves to bridge the chasm between African and European literature.
SOURCE: "L. S. Senghor: The Mask Poems of Chants d'Ombre," in African Literature Today, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, Africana Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 76-92.
[In the following essay, Peters explores the way in which African aesthetic sensibility influences Senghor's work]
Critical judgement of Leopold Senghor's poetry is fraught with a number of problems, not all of them literary. As the poet-President of Senegal there is a distinct temptation for admirers of his versatility to be overwhelming in their praise by eulogising the politician instead of judg ing the poet. In addition, as the most eloquent champion of Négritude there is the tendency for novitiates as well as loyal adherents of long standing to extol the leader's poetry because he is a good and faithful leader rather than because he is a good poet.
On the other hand, those who criticise Négritude as a strait-jacket in so far as it tries to impose a form and style of Negro-African writing instead of allowing the artist's imagination free rein are apt to see in Senghor's poetry nothing but propaganda and racism, or what Sartre in his celebrated essay, Orphée noir, written as a preface to Senghor's black poetry Anthologie of 1948 [referred] to as 'racisme anti-raciste'.
These two kinds of problems—adulation and scorn—cast a shadow over assessments of the real value of...
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SOURCE: "Leopold Sédar Senghor's Poetry," in A Celebration of Black and African Writing, edited by Bruce King and Kolawole Ogungbesan, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 102-11.
[In the following essay, Reed offers a positive assessment of Lettres d'Hivernage and suggests a literary context for Senghor's poetry.]
Towards the end of a long essay which is still the best introduction to Senghor's poetry, Armand Guibert reflects that Senghor, who had recently become the President of his country, was perhaps already at the end of his career as a poet.
As this problem of the coexistence of political leader with poet has been posed it is worth noting that circumstances have already slowed down the career of the poetry which has been the subject of this essay. In the last five years, only five elegies have been added. Will the demands of public life in the end have the better of the inward man? Strictly every poet carries the rank of prince, whether he is a cut-purse like Villon or a ploughman like Burns. But if the Prince also holds real temporal power, he will envy cut-purse and ploughman the obscurity that guarantees their freedom.1
Guibert was writing in 1961. Senghor's last new volume of poetry was Ethiopiques, published in 1956. The recent Nocturnes (1961) was really a revised version of Chants pour...
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SOURCE: "Politics and Poetry—The Subjects of Senghor," in African Culture and Integration, Oriental Institute in Academia, 1976, pp. 46-81.
[In the following excerpt, Klima examines how Senghor's poetry is informed by his politics and the political situation in West Africa]
Léopold Sédar Senghor's activities have been examined from various points of view. For the last thirty years he has kept his reputation of one of the major poets in Black Africa. As a leading representative of Négritude, whose evaluation has not yet been completed he has affected the political and ideological life of West Africa. Outside Africa, he has been widely recognized as a champion of African cultural values. His Négritude has become a kind of official doctrine in Senegalese culture. Dakar, the capital of the country, was often a meeting place of black artists; the World Festival of Negro Art and Culture was organized there in 1966.
Senghor has studied contemporary ideological trends and his variant of African Socialism has represented chiefly his reaction to Marxism. Those who are interested in modern ideologies of Africa should pay attention to his criticism of Marx's opinions, which reflects in a symptomatic manner the obvious retardment of class differentiation south of the Sahara and the survival of idealistic thought in those regions. Senghor's philosophical views are, of course, hardly separable...
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SOURCE: "Recall in Léopold Sédar Senghor's 'Joal'," in The French Review, Vol. LVII, No. 5, April, 1984, pp. 625-33.
[In the following essay, O'Keefe discusses the influence of Senghor's early environment on his work, maintaining that "if the eponymous subject of this poem lies at the heart of Senghor's artistic material, what is true for 'Joal' will be informative about all his poetry."]
As both thinker and doer, Léopold Sédar Senghor has been an influential presence globally. The prominent roles that he has played include theoretician of négritude, member of the French Assemblée Constituante (in 1945) and Chambre des Députés, a delegate to the Council of Europe, to the UN, and to UNESCO, and the first president of the Republic of Senegal. One might think that the poet in him would derive much inspiration from all that the intellectual and the statesman have achieved and seen. Yet Senghor has made the striking statement that almost all his poetic material comes from the small area where he spent his childhood: "Et puisqu'il faut m'expliquer sur mes poèmes, je confesserai encore que presque tous les êtres et choses qu'ils évoquent sont de mon canton: quelques villages sérères perdus parmi les tanns, les bois, les bolongs et les champs."1 For those interested in Senghor's art, this imposing restriction invites thought.
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SOURCE: "The Language of Flowers in Senghor's Lettres d'Hivernage," in French Studies in Honor of Philip A. Wadsworth, edited by Donald W. Tappan and William A. Mould, Summa Publications, 1985, pp. 29-39.
[In the following essay, Spleth delineates the function of the flower imagery found in Senghor's poetry collection.]
Published in 1973, Lettres d'Hivernage constituted a new phase in Senghor's poetic career which had hitherto been dominated by works that, on some level at least, carried a strong political or cultural message. Every previous collection illustrated various facets of the writer's theory of Negritude or recounted one of the stages in Africa's postwar identity crisis. In Lettres, however, the dominant inspiration is the poet's love for a woman, and, while not entirely abandoning the familiar dichotomies of black and white or African and European, he relegates the social issues to the background and concentrates instead on the expression of emotions which are common to us all. R. J. Sherrington describes the new orientation of these poems as "… une véritable rénovation, d'une poésie plus personnelle quoique moins ouvertement autobiographique, plus intériorisée et partant plus authentique; ce qui ne l'empêche pas, bien au contraire, d'être aussi plus universelle."1 Not only does this collection differ from its predecessors in its subject matter, but,...
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SOURCE: "Thoughts about Poetry," in Romanian Review, No. 6, 1986, pp. 72-6.
[In the following interview, Senghor discusses his creative process, stylistic aspects of his poetry, and the role of politics in his life.]
Léopold Sédar Senghor. Before writing them, I live my poems. This lasts for a couple of days or weeks and sometimes even for whole years. There are poems I have lived for a long time now but which I have not written yet. When I experience a strong emotion, I am sure I'll write something …
Marin Sorescu: And you begin courting that emotion, that experience.
Yes, that's right. I seek to preserve it carefully, to capture its vibration … I am rather a musical than visual person.
We have arrived at the thorny question of inspiration. All your poems are characterized by musicality, by a particular rhythm. Your pen relies on a generous resonator: Africa. The whole of Africa. It has bequeathed to you ancestral echoes.
Not long ago, I wrote a paper on inspiration. I never make notes on a poem. Let me give you an example. When my friend Pompidou died, I suffered a lot. I would have liked to write a poem. I hesitated, perhaps it was a matter of inhibition, too, thinking that it would be something too political. But, one morning, I suddenly started to write the elegy on Pompidou which I finished at Madras...
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SOURCE: "The Political Context of Senghor's 'Elégie pour Georges Pompidou'," in Critical Perspectives on Léopold Sédar Senghor, edited by Janice Spleth, Three Continents Press, 1993, pp. 217-28.
[In the following essay, Spleth contends that Senghor's poem denotes his expanding political horizons.]
Senghor's early poems are united in their political vision by the challenges and dreams characteristic of the end of the colonial period. They focus on the injustices of a specific political system and look forward to the creation of a new egalitarian society. With the coming of independence to Senegal in 1960 and the restructuring of the global political reality, many of the constraints that shaped the old visions had weakened or disappeared entirely, and it is only to be expected that in his later poetry, the poet-president, reacting to this transition, would reflect new political perspectives and begin to develop a new vision of the future. The volume of poetry entitled Elégies majeures and published in 1979 shortly before Senghor's retirement as president of Senegal contains six fairly long poems written during the period since independence, including the "Elégie pour Georges Pompidou."1 This eulogy for France's leader contains some moving and memorable lines on the subjects of friendship, courage, and death, but woven into the text—sometimes incongruously and even a bit...
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Pappageorge, Julia Di Stefano. "Senghor Re-evaluated." In African Literature Today, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, pp. 54-67. New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1973.
Lists the weaknesses of English translations of Senghor's verse.
Senghor, Léopold Sédar. "Poetic Inspiration, Its Sources and Caprices." Hermathena, No. CXXXVI (Summer 1984): 8-20.
Discusses various sources—historical, literary, and autobiographical—of poetic inspiration.
Additional coverage of Senghor's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Literature Criticism, Vol. 54; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; DIScovering Authors: Most Studied Authors Module; DIScovering Authors: Poets Module.
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