Wole Soyinka’s poetry reflects the contradictions in his heritage. His religious beliefs are tribal, specifically the Yoruba pantheon of gods, and Christian, and his cultural upbringing draws from African traditions, opposed to modernization, and Western traditions. Although he celebrates the complexities that are Africa, he does not romanticize his native land. He writes about the beauty of the land and the value of the African traditions and myths, and he condemns Africans for their materialism and politicians for their corruption. His poetry ranges from lyrical to satiric, from sad to humorous. He writes in English and is known for his complicated syntax and often unusual word choices. Much like T. S. Eliot, Soyinka uses allusions from mythology and history as key elements in his poetry. Some critics state that Soyinka’s poetry is unnecessarily complex, often obscure, and unreadable. However, his poetry embraces a wider world beyond Africa and speaks about the human condition, of triumph and despair, of cruelty and compassion.
While a student at Ibadan, Soyinka began writing poetry. His first poem, published in 1962, was “Telephone Conversation,” a humorous, yet savage satire on racism. It details the conversation between an English landlady and an African student looking to rent a room. The speaker, the student, has almost completed a transaction over the telephone to rent a room, but realizes he must reveal he is African. The announcement is met with silence; finally the landlady asks, how dark. His reply “West African sepia” is meaningless to her. The rudeness of the landlady elicits a respectful yet detailed reply from the student that includes the fact that his bottom is “raven black.” Soyinka’s message concerning racism and its absurdity is concealed in humor. Other early satiric poems include “The Immigrant” and “The Other Immigrant,” which creates a portrait of a sharply dressed black student who dons dignity with his suit. The poem is an ironic statement about imitation and social pretension. Soyinka’s early poetry was not restricted to satire. “Requiem” introduces ideas developed in later poems: the sadness of death and the fragility of life.
Idanre, and Other Poems
Soyinka’s first book of poetry, Idanre, and Other Poems, introduces the Yoruban god Ogun, a reoccurring figure in his poetry. Ogun is the god of iron and metallurgy, of exploration and artistic skill. He is a hunter and embodies the creative spirit. Ogun is also a god of destruction, of war and death. Ironically, modern Yurubans worship Ogun as the guardian of highways. The first section of the book focuses on the theme of the road, which is used to convey sudden death as well as the cost exacted by technical progress in Africa. The concept of creativity and violence are reflected in the poems, such as “Death in the Dawn,” which ties the death of a white cock, hit by a speeding car, to a dead man. The much-discussed “The Hunchback of Dugbe” portrays a lonely man who lives on the fringe of society, yet his apartness points out the weakness of a modernizing world. “Abiku” is based on the Yoruba belief of the changeling child “who dies and returns again and again to plague the mother.” The poem can be viewed as a metaphor on the unchanging nature of pain and the continuous cycle of suffering and death.
“Idanre,” the title poem, interweaves the legend of Ogun, Yoruba god of violence and harvest, with that of Sango, the god of lightning and thunder. The poem shows how something creative can come from destruction. Although written before the Nigerian Civil War (Biafran War), it reflects Nigeria’s experience of bloodshed and hate. Despite the violence, the poem ends hopefully, with a new...
(The entire section is 1554 words.)