Forms and themes

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

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...

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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 “the blood on the light sand by the sea,” ironically blending imprisonment and seascape. Neto implies the hardships of colonization in “The African Train” through the image of “the rigorous African hill,” and another lusophone writer, Sousa, suggests pan-Africanism in “Let My People Go,” with references to “Negro spirituals,” Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson. Negritude is observable in U Tam’si’s “Brush Fire” (1957): “my race/ it flows here and there a river.”

Furthermore, the sometimes problematic experience of westernization is echoed in Macgoye’s “Mathenge” (1984), which juxtaposes cultural memory and Western modernity: “the neon light, the photo flash.” Similarly, Zimunya contrasts the urban and rural in “Kisimiso,” which describes a son “boastful of his experiences in the city of knives and crooks.” African poets have also mined their experiences outside the continent, suggested in Anyidoho’s “The Taino in 1992” (1993), which remembers “a hurricane of Arawak sounds” in the Caribbean.

Gender themes appear in a line from a Zulu woman’s oral self-praise poem, “I am she who cuts across the game reserve,” and in the straightforward poem “Abortion,” by an Egyptian poet born in the 1960’s, Iman Mirsal, who evokes the image “lots of foetuses.” Acholonu’s “Water Woman” blends orality with natural imagery evoking a “daughter of the river.”

Although most of the poetry in European languages uses standard grammar, Nigerian Ezenwa-Ohaeto composed “I Wan Bi President” (1988) in pidgin; earlier poets Casely-Hayford and Nigerian Frank Aig-Imoukhuede also wrote in africanized English. For the most part, African poets writing after the independence era have remolded free-verse forms and have borrowed or incorporated elements of oral poetry, using folklore, songs, rhythms, words, or concepts from indigenous languages. Osundare uses animal imagery in Waiting Laughters (1989):

Ah! Aramonda [wonder of wonders]The mouth has swallowed somethingToo hard for the mill of the stomach

Furthermore, certain poets, who valorize African languages, compose initially in indigenous languages, such as Kenyan Gitahi Gititi (Gikuyu) and Eritrean (Tigrinya) Reesom Haile.

Modern African poets have strived for a poetic voice that recognizes orality and evocative metaphors, demonstrating how the imposed colonial languages along with African mother tongues can be honed to express relevant social and cultural images. Because written poetry may also be performed, African poets have worked for a balance between abstract and accessible metaphors in order to continue the functional and communal art of their poetic forebears.

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