Kofi Awoonor (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Contemporary Samples of English-Speaking African Poetry," in The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975, pp. 193-225.
[Awoonor is a Ghanaian poet, editor, critic, novelist, and educator who has stated that his work "takes off from the world of all our aboriginal instincts." In the following excerpt, he discusses Kunene's incorporation of Zulu oral traditions in Zulu Poems.]
Modern poetry from Africa has [focused] … on the tension between the traditional and the modern world. Its themes have ranged from Negritude's race proclamations to the hymnal verse inspired by the patriotic sentiments raised by the anticolonial struggle of the postwar years. Most of the poets took their direction from external sources;… Negritude borrowed heavily from French symbolism and surrealism, while the English-speaking poets of the immediate postwar generation borrowed from Victorian verse and Methodist hymnology. The later poetry in English-speaking Africa derives from Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the modern imagists, who make up the English and American literature syllabuses of the new African universities.
A few of the poets, however, owe their growth in style and language very largely to the genius of traditional oral poetry. One of these is the Zulu poet Mazisi Kunene, who has worked both in his native Zulu and in English. He insists upon a communal and oral quality in his work, which he sees as flowing directly from the Zulu oral poetic tradition. The Zulu poetry perfected during the reign of Shaka in the first half of the nineteenth century is an example of the Bantu oral traditions that have been largely preserved in spite of the brutal assault made upon the Bantu societies of southern Africa by white supremacist regimes. Special institutions such as competitions in the art of storytelling enabled the poets to continue their work within the fold of the community. Mission schools with their Christian dogma failed in their attempts to discredit the calling and art of poets as part of a disgustingly barbaric age when the people knew not the "true" God.
In the introduction to his collected poems, [Zulu Poems], first written in Zulu and later translated by him into English, Kunene writes: "These are not English poems, but poems directly evolved from a Zulu literary tradition." Kunene's use of that tradition embraces the techniques of the poetry and the philosophical features of its thought. In one of his earlier poems, "Elegy," his use of the Zulu epic form and dependence on ideas taken directly from his vernacular poetic tradition are intricately woven into the beginnings of his own personal style. It is, however, impossible to think of him as anything other than a Zulu poet whose art, even though written, owes its impact to the oral traditions.
The poem "Elegy" captures those elegiac feelings, expressed in understatements, calculated to disguise the intense sense of loss which the death of a particular man engenders and the meaning and impact of the symbolic death that the clans have suffered:
O Mzingeli son of the illustrious clans 1
You whose beauty spreads across the Tukela estuary
Your memory haunts like two eagles
We have come to the ceremonial ruins
We come to mourn the bleeding sun 5
We are the children of Ndungunya of the Dlamini clan
They whose grief strikes fear over the earth
We carry the long mirrors in the afternoon
Recasting time's play past infinite night.
O great departed ancestors 10
You promised us immortal life with immortal joys
But how you deceived us!
We invited the ugly salamander
To keep watch over a thousand years with a thousand sorrows
She watched to the far end of the sky 15
Sometimes terrorized by the feet of departed men
One day the furious storms
One day from the dark cyclone
One day in the afternoon
We gazed into a barren desert 20
Listening to the tremendous voices on the horizon
And loved again in the epics
And loved incestuous love!
We count missions
Strewn in the dust of ruined capitals 25
The bull tramples us on an anthill
We are late in our birth
Accumulating violent voices
Made from the lion's death
You whose love comes from the stars 30
Have mercy on us!
Give us the crown of thunder
That our grief may overhang the earth
O we are naked at the great streams
Wanderers greet us no more. 35
Kunene's debt is more to the elegiac tradition than to the epic one, even though the latter also comes into play. The poem begins with two lines of praise to the dead man, Mzingeli. The "illustrious clans" of line 1 establishes the dead hero's ancestry firmly in the tribe; line 2 describes his beauty, employing the typical Zulu style of linking the abstract concept with natural phenomenon, here the Tukela estuary, which suggests the brightness of waters and their many arms spread at an estuary. Line 3 links him heraldically with the eagles, brave predatory birds of dazzling strength. Line 4 emphasizes the desolation that has swept over the place of ceremonies, suggesting that when a sacred abode is destroyed, the ultimate abomination over-takes the people. Mzingeli is seen as the "bleeding sun," red with blood at its setting. So far, all the images, as in traditional Zulu poetry, are derived entirely from nature, emphasizing the link between man and the universe. In these images the related aspects of nature do not retain their own autonomy, but exist as elaborate features of the man they represent. Ndungunya is the immediate ancestor of the mourners of the Dlamini clan. Note that throughout the poem the poet uses the "we" of the traditional poem. "Where individualistic societies read 'I,' this philosophy [traditional Zulu thought] requires one to read 'I on behalf,'" Kunene states, insisting upon the communality of the poet's work. Lines 6 to 9 express in very visual and dramatic terms the image of the mourners in their fearful grief reflecting in their sorrow the "infinite night" of despair and dispossession. The mirrors reflect the sorrows of the past beyond the afternoon. This concludes the first section of the poem, illustrating an adherence to the Shakan form of the statement, its extension, development, and conclusion, as it deals here with the elegiac theme. Lines 10 to 12 use the voice of chastisement for the departed ones, a voice very common to the poetry of prayer and libation, which is independent of the dirge but tends to be incorporated within it, as can be seen in the Ewe dirge. These three lines are treated as a separate segment within the poem; it, however, leads to the fourth segment to which it is united by the reference to the departed men. This segment, lines 13 to 20, stresses the sorrow. The "ugly salamander" shares the myth of creation,...
(The entire section is 3072 words.)