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...
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of bloodshed and hate. Despite the violence, the poem ends hopefully, with a new dawn “of bright processions” and harvests, as corn, eggs, and fruit “burst over throngs of golden gourds.”
A Shuttle in the Crypt
Soyinka was a suspected sympathizer of the Biafrans, who attempted to separate from Nigeria and form their own country. He was arrested in 1967, and although he was not charged with any crime, he was imprisoned for more than two years. He smuggled two poems out of prison: “Live Burial” and “Flowers for My Land.” “Live Burial” describes his situation, as he measures his cell and strives to maintain his sanity. “Flowers” compares floral images to the nation’s soldiers, sacrificed in a civil war. Soyinka looks at what is lost and a loss of hope, “I do not/ Dare to think these bones will bloom tomorrow.” These two poems were published in the pamphlet Poems from Prison and later included in A Shuttle in the Crypt.
The image of the shuttle represents the poetic imagination in its relentless movement, weaving a tapestry from the experience of the imprisoned poet, as well as the struggle of the poet, looking to create meaning from his experience. In “O Roots!” the poet asks for roots to be his anchor, to keep him from despair, and to find in the earth “new sustaining draughts.” Another poem with the comic title “Conversation at Night with a Cockroach” reflects his isolation; Soyinka spent much of his prison time in solitary confinement.
“Four Archetypes,” the second section of the book, portrays the visionary, the exile, and the intellectual, through the characters of Hamlet, Joseph, Gulliver, and Ulysses. Their plights reflect Soyinka’s; like him all are lonely seekers of truth and ideals. Like Soyinka, Joseph and Gulliver are imprisoned. Ulysses experiences a number of difficulties in his travels, echoing Soyinka’s hardships during the Nigerian crisis, and Hamlet reflects treachery against innocent individuals. The characters speak of false accusations, reflecting Soyinka’s situation. Joseph has been falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife. In “Gulliver,” Soyinka compares Lilliput to Nigeria and Blesfusca to Biafra. Like Gulliver, the poet tried arbitration to solve difficulties between the two “countries,” but the Lilliputians, like the Federalists of Nigeria, were committed to wiping out the enemy.
The section “Chimes of Silence” is central to the book and to Soyinka’s witnessing the death of five fellow prisoners. “The Processional” details the hanging of these men, whose “hands are closed on emptiness.” Soyinka, shut in his cell, able to see only through a small chink in the door, is there for the men, “Pall-bearer to hereafter.” Like other poets, he is a recorder of their deaths and must live to reanimate these men through his words.
Ogun Abibiman was inspired by the acts of Samora Machel, president of Mozambique who stood against the minority white regime of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before the war of liberation. Ogun is the Yoruban god, and Abibiman stands for “the Black (Abibi) Nation (man), the land of the Black People.” In the first section, Ogun leads his people to battle to destroy white racist power in southern Africa. The second section shifts from the gods’ involvement to that of the Zulu king, Shaka, a warlord who never lost a battle. Together Ogun and Shaka lead black Africans against the colonial regimes in southern Africa. The final section affirms that war is not to promote vengeance or hate, but to create justice and hope for long-oppressed people.
Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems
Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems contains poems expressing Soyinka’s continuing concerns: the abuse of power in postcolonial Africa, the continuation of poverty and atrocities, and the persistence of hope. The first section focuses on Nelson Mandela and his long imprisonment. Soyinka marvels at Mandela’s strength and questions whether he is more a symbol than a man. The fourth section, “New York, U.S.A.,” takes the form of a travelogue, as the poet travels though the airport and is faced with the reality of racism, rigid immigration controls, and lurid but deceptive advertising. Soyinka compares American society with that of the ancient Roman Empire and details the corruption of the American Dream through references to the Ku Klux Klan, genocide, slavery, and capitalism. Poems range from a discussion of the trivialization of events in “The Most Expensive Anchorman in U.S.A” to the life of the junkie in “Columbia Circle, N.Y.”
Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known
Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known includes poems of mourning as well as outrage, and beneath the satire is a persistent sadness as Soyinka comments on the situation in Nigeria. Poems in the first section, “Outsiders,” protest Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. The Abacha regime (1993-1998) was responsible for the hanging of world-famous writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists. The book also reflects on Nigeria’s return to Islamic fundamentalism. “Elegy for the Nation” states that “our nation is not dead, not clinically/ Yet.” Soyinka writes about the past, when “our gazes roamed the land, godlike,” but the past is dead, and “hate clerics” evoke the “murdering tyranny of Creed.” He describes a “cairn of stones” in the public square, ready for “a female scapegoat” to be sacrificed to keep woman “obedient to the laws of man.” “Vain Ransom” is a memorial for African victims of the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings. Soyinka comments that the “price their forebears paid” was not enough, reflecting back to those sold into slavery, the “manhood of a continent/ Lost to white knives in a Brave New World.” This, according to Soyinka is not enough, and the “rage of blood” continues.