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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2952

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...

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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.

Early period

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 loss of children, the extinction of great households, the fall of leaders (“the tree on which I lean is fallen”)—is thus intended as a realistic appraisal of the worst events that might befall one. Knowing that these things can happen, the person of resolve should be inspired to strive that much harder.

“The Sea Eats the Land at Home”

“The Sea Eats the Land at Home” also draws on the tradition of the lament, but it is a more original poem, one that points toward Awoonor’s mature style. Blending wide personal experience with ancestral rhythms, the poem describes with photographic accuracy the erosion that has so often threatened the existence of the town of Weta. It captures the living presence of the sea, a capricious deity that men may propitiate but can never control. Awoonor has witnessed its capriciousness more than once (there are destroyed remnants of half a dozen breached seawalls in front of Fort Prinzenstein in Weta), and he has made it visible even to those who have never been to the coast. There is nothing vague or unclear in the poem. It moves with a slow, inexorable dignity that echoes the movement of the sea, ending with lines that resound like the ebb and flow of the waves: “In the sea that eats the land at home,/ Eats the whole land at home.” It was a remarkable achievement for a young poet.

“The Weaver Bird”

Awoonor’s poems never operate on a single level. As in the traditional Anlo poems, where a leopard is never merely a leopard but may also be a number of other things, including death, an enemy, or the Ewe cult, Awoonor’s references to nature are symbolic. Nowhere is this more clear than in “The Weaver Bird.” These birds are found throughout Africa. In Ghana, they are brightly colored and raucous birds that make large colonies of finely constructed hanging nests. Beautiful yet obstreperous, creative yet crowding out the other birds in the environment—what better symbol for the colonizing European? At first, in Awoonor’s poem, the weaver seems little more than a bird, even though it “built in our house/ And laid its eggs on our only tree.” When the bird begins “Preaching salvation to us that owned the house,” however, it is obvious that it represents the Christian missionary presence in Africa, a source of confusion for the true owners of the house. Awoonor’s poem offers a powerful image of that clash of cultures in which the African is forced to conform to a European value system: “Its sermon is the divination of ourselves/ And our new horizons limit at its nest.” Nevertheless, though their traditional ways have been sullied by the invaders, the poet and his people have not been defeated; indeed, the last lines of the poem might serve as an anthem for postcolonial Africa:

We look for new homes every day,For new altars we strive to rebuildThe old shrines defiled by the weaver’s excrement.

Second phase

The second phase of Awoonor’s poetry is hinted at by “The Weaver Bird.” Influenced by his study of Western literature, and particularly by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Butler Yeats, Awoonor began to write poems that embody in their linguistic texture as well as in their themes the collision of Western and African values.

In his second phase of poetry, Awoonor has said, he dealt “continuously with the theme of the conflict of cultures.” The poetry is meant to be a commentary on the way the poet was torn in two by his allegiance to that side and his allegiance to this side, without this conflict ever being resolved.“The Years Behind” and “We Have Found a New Land” are two excellent examples. The former begins with lines that have the tone and diction of an English lyric, flowing with an almost artificial ease: “Age they say cannot wither the summer smiles/ nor will the trappings of our working clothes/ change into the glamour of high office./ Twenty-eight seasons have passed/ and the fleshy flushes of youth are receding/ before the residuary worm’s dominion/ in the house of the fire-god.” At that point, though, one third of the way into the poem, something begins to happen; the imagery leaves England far behind: “On the sacred stone with the neglected embers/ the cock-offering has fluttered and gone./ The palm-oil on the stone gods has turned green/ and the gods look on concerned and forgotten.” The focus of the poem, then, is not on the poet’s own approaching age but on the condition of his people and their gods, their culture. Though still alive, that culture is in neglect, while the speaker himself is in exile “among alien peoples whose songs are mingled with mine.” What, then, can be done? The answer comes in the last four of the poem’s twenty-three lines, with the beat and the wording of a traditional Anlo song. Neither working clothes nor the robes of high office are the proper garb for the poet. He must have a garment that is at once traditional and newly made, much as the famed Ewe weavers make kente cloth from the fine imported threads of England, embroidering it with old symbols that have proverbial connotations:

Sew the old days for me, my fathers,Sew them that I may wear themfor the feast that is coming,the feast of the new season that is coming.

“We Have Found a New Land”

A similar movement can be traced in “We Have Found a New Land,” with its ironic image of “smart professionals in three piece” who find this Western costume inappropriate for their tropical homelands and begin “sweating away their humanity in driblets.” They think they have “found a new land/ This side of eternity/ Where our blackness does not matter/ And our songs are dying on our lips.” In their view, it is the poet—who wears traditional dress and speaks of the old ways, despite his Western education—who has “let the side down,” their language reflecting their British overlay. The poet weeps for them—and for that part of himself which has not yet been reborn, for those who “have abjured the magic of being themselves.” The conclusion of the poem again holds out a hope for a renewed future by looking to the past: “Reaching for the Stars we stop at the house/ of the Moon/ And pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers.”

Third phase

In Awoonor’s third phase of poetry, his political vision obtains a sense of urgency. Almost absent are poems in which he chooses only to reflect with a sense of detachment on politics, history, and culture. Most indicative of this change are the poems in The House by the Sea, which stem from his incarceration at Ussher Fort Prison (the “house” in the title referring to the prison). His words seem inspired by a larger vision, an experience of political repression and cultural genocide, and he urges action in word and deed.

In this phase, his stylistic preference turns to the long poem. In the more than four hundred lines of “The Wayfarer Comes Home,” the imprisoned poet looks far beyond the borders of his native Ghana to witness a worldwide struggle for human dignity. Like Awoonor’s other long poems, “Night of My Blood” (which retells the story of the Ewe migration), “I Heard a Bird Cry,” and “Hymn to My Dumb Earth,” “The Wayfarer Comes Home” makes great use of Ewe rhythms, at times even breaking into the native language itself. Like “Hymn to My Dumb Earth,” the poem modulates between a prose rhythm tone and a stress rhythm, but this is not a departure from Awoonor’s traditional roots. Interestingly enough, this seemingly modern structure, with something like reportage flowing into song (reminiscent of the works of Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg), characterizes the Ewe technique in poetry, whereby the cantor makes his address to the audience and then swings into the story.

The unifying image of “The Wayfarer Comes Home” is the “evil animal,” the creature that has been created by colonialism, by the misuse of power, by human greed. The poet sees his mission as destroying that beast and prophesies its demise. At the end of the poem, when the poet-hunter—whose vision has ranged throughout the world seeking that empowering feminine presence that is his one true love and his native land—predicts his eventual triumph, it is a triumph for all humanity, one which all human beings should strive for and celebrate.

Until the Morning After

Until the Morning After collects a range of Awoonor’s poetry from his earliest published work, Rediscovery, and Other Poems, through The House by the Sea and contains nine previously unpublished poems, some of which are translations of works originally composed in Ewe. These new poems mirror Awoonor’s lifelong preoccupation with “life’s tears” or “life’s winds and fate.” In typical Awoonor and Ewe dirge tradition, there is hope beyond death. Life itself is seen as the ultimate “act of faith.” The collection also includes a brief autobiographical appendix explaining his relationship with language and writing. Until the Morning After helps trace Awoonor’s development as a poet, from his early lyrics about nature and heritage, through his politically oriented period formed by his experiences in prison. The title of the volume is based on Awoonor’s belief in the basic human need for freedom, and two of his later poems explain that freedom is so important that death will be postponed “until the morning after” it is finally achieved.

Latin American and Caribbean Notebook

Awoonor’s role as a foreign diplomat and his travels in Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua inspired his collection titled Latin American and Caribbean Notebook. He takes a defensive and self-accusatory tone here, calling himself “the braggart loudmouth boastful/ uncertain diplomat” (“Rio de Janeiro: Fearful and Lovely City”) who serves other countries while his own is being wrecked by corrupt politics and criminals. His feelings of displacement among victims of the black diaspora in other lands—for example, Brazilian squatters or African gardeners in England—is palpable. He notes an ironic solidarity with those who have fallen from the regal ancestral glories of their African heritage “down the vast saharas of my history.” Coupled with his self-scrutinizing pieces are those that adulate revolutionary heroes of Nicaragua and Cuba and a number of poems that are nostalgic love lyrics (“Time Revisited,” “Distant Home Country,” “Lover’s Song,” “Readings and Musings”). In the love poems, he reflects on time and aging and melds childhood memories with the everyday business of a diplomat, condemned to lonely beds in distant cities.

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