African Poetry Analysis

Oral traditions

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Traditionally, oral poetry was produced by specialized, trained poets who were connected to kings, chiefs, spiritual figures, or secret societies. In addition, certain groups, such as hunters, farmers, cattle herders, and warriors, had designated poets. Oral poets were often descended from family lineages. A large body of oral poems from Africa has been recorded, translated, and published. Traditional oral poets recited in indigenous languages, such as Hausa, Yoruba, Ewe, Kongo, Igbo, Mandika, Fulani, Wolof, Zulu, Tswana, Gikuyu, and Swahili. Performance artistry—memorization, improvisation, and gesture—and audience response are part of the oral presentation, which has social and cultural significance. The oral poet who recites well-known pieces can introduce self-inspired innovations.

Used to honor and criticize, the most widely discussed form of oral poetry is the praise poem, generally associated with royal courts but also applicable to other social strata. Praise poetry is designated by such names as oriki (Yoruba), maboko (Tswana), izibongo (Zulu), and ijala, poetry of professional Yoruba hunters. Among the Akan, women are known for their proficiency in the funeral dirge. Usually, the praise poem of the court poet rendered historical lineage and stressed positive characteristics, but a poem of this nature could also remind the celebrated figure of responsibilities to the community. A “freelance” oral poet can offer praise and possibly criticism of individuals of lesser status. There are a number of names for oral poets: griot (Mandinka), kwadwumfo (Asante), imbongi (southern Africa), azmaris (Ethiopia), and umusizi (central Africa). The umusizi of Rwanda recited at ceremonial occasions such as births, initiations, and funerals. The spiritual role of certain oral poets is exemplified by the Yoruba babalawo, whose verse is distinctly musical. Yoruba Ifa divination, associated with the Ifa oracle, is expressed in verses. Among the forms of oral poetry, which can be accompanied by drums and stringed instruments, are elegies, lyrics, political pieces, and children’s songs. In addition, such African epics as Sundjata (Gambia) and The Epic of Liyongo (Kenya) display oral influences. Though the authorship of older oral poetry is often unknown, certain individuals have been recognized, such as the eighteenth century Somali poet Ugaas Raage.

Early written poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The earliest written poetry can be represented by Egyptian hieroglyphs such as the obelisk inscriptions of Queen Hatshepsut, Eighteenth Dynasty. Other early written poetry by writers of African descent is in such languages as Arabic, Latin, Portuguese, Swahili, Amharic, and Hausa. Antar (sixth century) and Rukn al-Din Baibars (c. 1268-?) wrote in Arabic, suggesting the Islamic influence; Juan Latino (c. 1518-c. 1594) in Latin; and Domingos Caldas Barbosa (c. 1738-1800) in Portuguese. The Kenyan woman Mwana Kupona binti Msham (d. 1865), who wrote in Swahili, composed “Poem of Mwana Kupona” (1858), addressed to her daughter. Ethiopian Blatta Gäbrä Egzi’abeḥr (c. 1860-?), educated in Eritrea, is reputedly the first to have written Amharic poetry.

Colonial period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Paralleling the legacy of oral verse, modern African written poetry developed through a series of generations, each coming to prominence in successive eras encompassing the colonial, liberation, and independence periods. As a result of the political and cultural impact of European colonialism during the first half of the twentieth century, the path to poetic recognition involved writing in the dominant colonial languages, which influenced poetic style and form: English (anglophone), French (francophone), and Portuguese (lusophone). Some of the principal poets born between 1900 and 1930 were the Madagascan (francophone) Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo; the Senegalese (francophone) Annette M’Baye d’Erneville; Ghanaians (anglophone) Gladys May Casely-Hayford, Michael Dei Anang, R. E. G. Armattoe, and Kwesi Brew; Nigerians (anglophone) Dennis Chukude Osadebay and Gabriel Okara; the Kenyan (anglophone) Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye; and South Africans (anglophone and indigenous language) H. I. E. Dhlomo, Benedict Wallet Vilakazi (who published poems in Zulu), and Dennis Brutus. Highly recognized, Rabéarivelo employed Madagascan song forms and techniques of the French Symbolists. In 1953, Okara’s poem “The Call of the River Nun” earned for him the Nigerian Festival of Arts award. Banned under apartheid, Brutus’s Sirens, Knuckles, Boots appeared in 1963. The lusophone poets of this period include Jorge Barbosa of Cape Verde, Antonio Agostinho Neto and Antonio Jacinto of Angola, Alda do Espírito Santo of São Tomé, and Noémia de Sousa of Mozambique, the first African woman poet to be internationally recognized. North Africa also produced a number of poets, such as imprisoned and tortured Algerian Anna Gréki (1931-1966), who published in Arabic and French.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

One of the most important developments was the negritude movement, at its height from the 1930’s through the 1960’s and influenced by America’s Harlem Renaissance. The movement had Caribbean and African cadres. Decidedly francophone, negritude, a valorization of African racial identity and anticolonialism, was represented by such poets as Aimé Césaire of Martinique, Léon Damas of French Guiana, Jacques Roumain of Haiti, Édouard Maunick of Mauritius, Tchicaya U Tam’si of Congo, Birago Diop and Léopold Senghor of Senegal, and David Diop, born in France of Cameroonian and Senegalese parentage. Born in 1906, Sénghor, to become president of Senegal in 1960, emerged as one of the leading African poets writing in French. His advocacy of negritude is evident in his 1945 poem “Femme noire” (“Black Woman”): “And your beauty strikes me to the heart, like the flash of an eagle.”

Liberation period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the period in which African countries gained liberation, there emerged a dynamic group of poets publishing in English, many of whom were born in the 1930’s; some of them directly criticized negritude as romantic. This group included Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor; Ugandans Okot p’Bitek and Taban Lo Liyong; Nigerians Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo (influenced by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), Wole Soyinka (a vocal critic of negritude), and John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, who founded the poetry magazine The Horn; Malawian David Rubadiri; and Gambian Lenrie Peters. Okigbo’s first collection, Heavensgate (1962), contributed to his legendary reputation as a committed liberation poet, and indeed he was killed in the Biafran War. P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino (1966), translated into English from Acholi, was one of the most influential poems challenging Western cultural values. Awoonor authored many volumes of poetry, including Night of My Blood (1971). Among the South African writers were Mazisi Kunene (who wrote in both Zulu and English), Cosmo Pieterse, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Arthur Nortje, and Amelia Blossom Pegram. Titles such as Kgositsile’s Spirits Unchained (1969) and Pegram’s Our Sun Will Rise: Poems for South Africa (1989) exemplify the protest voice.

Many poets were published in such magazines as Présence africaine, Transition, and Black Orpheus. Certain poets have also been accomplished in other literary genres. Novelists Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Ben Okri, and dramatists Femi Osofisan and Nobel laureate Soyinka, author of Idanre, and Other Poems (1967), have published poetry of note. By the 1960’s and 1970’s, critical works and edited collections of African poetry began to appear, produced by such advocates as Janheinz Jahn, Gerald Moore, Ulli Beier, Donald Herdeck, Soyinka, and Langston Hughes. Among later editors of African poetry are Awoonor, Isidore Okpewho, Jack Mapanje, Frank and Stella Chipasula, Musaemura Zimunya, and Adewale Maja-Pearce.

Post-independence poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

With independence, African poets accelerated their poetic production. By the 1980’s numerous anthologies, representing various regions and scores of poets, had been published. Many of the poets born after World War II were especially concerned with political and social issues relating to their newly independent governments. Critical of the state, certain poets were imprisoned or forced into exile. Among those imprisoned for political reasons were Soyinka, Awoonor, Brutus, and, from the then “younger” generation, the highly acknowledged Mapanje of Malawi, who published, among other works, Of Chameleons and Gods (1981). South African poets such as Mongane Wally Serote and Frank Chipasula of Malawi chose exile. Serote’s Third World Express (1992) is an extended poem with a global scope. Representing North Africa, Abdellatif Laâbi of Morocco published numerous collections in French. Political commitment to the “nation” and beyond is a distinguishing feature of post-independence poets.

A good number of postindependence poets have come from anglophone countries. Their poetic production has been furthered by the establishment of writers’ organizations in such countries as Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. Among the most prolific and highly recognized poets are Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Chimalum Nwankwo, Lemuel Johnson, Catherine Acholonu, and Ifi Amadiume of Nigeria; Atukwei Okai, Kofi Anyidoho, Kojo Laing, and Kobena Eyi Acquah of Ghana; Mapanje, Steve Chimombo, Lupenga Mphande, and Frank Chipasula of Malawi; Syl Cheney-Coker of Sierra Leone; Serote of South Africa; Tijan Sallah of Gambia; Jared Angira of Kenya; and Zimunya and Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe. Holding advanced degrees, many of these poets have...

(The entire section is 713 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Chipasula, Stella, and Frank Chipasula, eds. The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry. Oxford, England: Heinemann, 1995. Works by forty-two women poets from eighteen different African countries reflect their shared experience of oppression by men and their determination to express their sense of injustice through their poetry. An important collection, the first of its kind.

D’Almeida, Irène Assiba, ed. A Rain of Words: A Bilingual Anthology of Women’s Poetry in Francophone Africa. Translated by Janis A. Mayes. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009. Includes poems by forty-seven relatively unknown writers....

(The entire section is 475 words.)