The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The work of Christopher Okigbo, a Nigerian poet, is extremely difficult to approach, because it incorporates both the African and European traditions. This blending is evident in the imagery and allusions that rely interchangeably on the two heritages. It also distinguishes the technique, which not only reflects the indigenous literature and religious incantations of the Igbo people in Nigeria but includes as well the ritualistic language of Roman Catholicism and Western poets ranging from Gerard Manley Hopkins to T. S. Eliot.

The four numbered parts of “Siren” constitute what might be called Okigbo’s artistic credo. Here the poet—noted for his reluctance to discuss his own work—is “Suddenly becoming talkative.” Part 1 of “Siren” employs an essential ingredient of the Igbo religious ceremony, the incantation, as the poet invokes the goddess with her traditional trappings, “A tiger mask and nude spear.” Having undergone his “cleansing” through this quasi-religious ceremony, he is ready to express his Africanness through poetry.

In the second part, Okigbo draws an elaborate metaphor in which he traces the development of a poet’s career, starting as “a shrub among the poplars”—that is, an aspiring writer among those already established. He sees writers as “Horsemen of the apocalypse,” which is a typical reaction in Africa where the writer considers himself and is considered by others to be the conscience and...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The lyricism, economy of expression, stark imagery, and emotional intensity of “Siren” draw not only from the indigenous forms of Igbo poetry but also from modernist European poetry, with which Okigbo was familiar. Such allusions as “weaverbird,” “palm grove,” “he-goat-on-heat,” and “My lioness” are very African. At the same time, lines such as “So we must go,/ Wearing evemist against the shoulders,” bring to mind the opening of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Yet the poetry is not derivative; rather, it makes striking use for its own purposes of the poet’s divided heritage by echoing African and European texts.

Some readers of Okigbo’s work have observed that it does not really matter whether every line of the poems can be grasped intellectually and their exact meaning explained. The imagery, so much of it drawn from the African experience, both traditional and contemporary, may at times mystify the Western reader. Yet even when the density seems overwhelming, pure lyricism dominates and provides a poetic experience more emotional and aesthetic than cerebral. The fourth part of “Siren,” for example, while undeniably obscure in its allusions and abbreviated expression, still brims with a poetic intensity that succeeds in itself.

A passage from the third part of “Siren,” exemplifies Okigbo’s technical virtuosity at its best. Five lines consist simply of “Hurry on down,” each...

(The entire section is 540 words.)