Rukhaya M.K

A Literary Companion

Category: African Literature

Poetry Analysis: Gabriel Okara‘s “Once Upon a Time”

Gabriel Okara‘s “Once Upon a Time” has been published in the Edexcel GCSE anthology. In “Once Upon a Time”, Gabriel Okara speaks of a time when Africans were rooted in the simplicity of tradition and minimalism of sophistication; and how different they have turned out to be with the advent of colonialism. The very title “Once Upon a Time” points to a fairy tale existence long ago that is almost deemed unbelievable .

“Once Upon a Time” they used to laugh with their hearts and eyes in complete sincerity. The eyes are an indicator of the sincerity of a smile. Okara, here, portrays fake, unfelt smiles. A smile being the first greeting a person is received with: If the greeting itself is deceptive; the rest is to be regarded with great suspicion. “Once Upon a Time” they were children in the lap of nature. Though, now they have turned into processed products of pseudo modern existence. They now laugh mechanically with their teeth and ice-block cold eyes. The imagery of ‘ice-block cold eyes’ is suggestive of death and stagnation, and denotes lack of communication. Pictorial vehemence suggests the lurking hypocrisy.

The poet moves from expression to action.Now they shake hands ‘without hearts’ as their left hand probes the speakers’ pockets.…

Poetry Analysis: John Pepper Clark’s “Olokun”

Olokun is the divinity of the sea, and an emblem of the material prosperity worshipped by the Edo people. For the cult of Olokun, life-size groups of royal figures are still made. Olokun is personified in several human characteristics: patience, endurance, sternness, observation, meditation, appreciation for history, future visions, and royalty personified, while its characteristics are found and displayed in the depths of the Ocean. Its name literally signifies Owner (Olo) of Oceans (Olkun). Olokun also signifies unfathomable wisdom. Olokun is a Bini word, the language of the Edo people of South Nigeria.

The African Goddess symbolizes the African spiritual essence. In African culture, there exists a deep bond between Man and God. The act of passing fingers through the hair is one of extreme affection. The fingers and the hair are likened to the relationship between the weeds and the tide. Therefore, their connection is not only inseparable, but also natural. There is perfect harmony between the two entities as brought out by the metaphor. The hair of the Goddess is as dark as the night that shields the moon. The function of the word ‘darkness’ is positive here, and not negative. Rather than blocking the light of the moon, it covers the ‘nakedness’ of the moon, thereby protecting it.…

Poetry Analysis: David Rubadiri’s “A Negro Labourer in Liverpool”

David Rubadiri’s “A Negro Labourer in Liverpool” strives to highlight the plight of a negro labourer in Liverpool. The indefinite article ‘a’ points to the lack of a specific identity. They are just one among a group, one of the community, who do not necessarily possess any individual identity. They are labeled according to their work(labourer)or corresponding to their geographical location

David Rubadiri hints at the indifference of society as a whole to the plight of the labourer as he states that he ‘passes’ him. He slouches on dark backstreet pavements. His ‘marginalization’ is evident in his position ‘slouching’. Further, it is also emphasized in his being side-stepped on the pavements. Again the pavement is qualified by the phrase ‘dark backstreet’. The head is ‘bowed’ when it would have preferred to be straight. He is overcome with fatigue and totally exhausted. He is a dark shadow amongst other shadows. He has no unique identity, his life is not colourful.

The poet asserts that he has lifted his face to his, as in acknowledgement. Their eyes met but on his dark Negro face. The poet probably refers to the reflection of the speaker’s eyes in the eyes of the labourer. The eyes are foregrounded on his dark face.…

Poetry Analysis: Gabriel Okara’s “Mystic Drum”

The drum in African poetry, generally stands for the spiritual pulse of traditional African life. The poet asserts that first, as the drum beat inside him, fishes danced in the rivers and men and women danced on the land to the rhythm of the drum. But standing behind the tree, there stood an outsider who smiled with an air of indifference at the richness of their culture. However, the drum still continued to beat rippling the air with quickened tempo compelling the dead to dance and sing with their shadows. The ancestral glory overpowers other considerations. So powerful is the mystic drum, that it brings back even the dead alive. The rhythm of the drum is the aching for an ideal Nigerian State of harmony.

The outsider still continued to smile at the culture from the distance. The outsider stands for Western Imperialism that has looked down upon anything Eastern, non-Western, alien and therefore, ‘incomprehensible for their own good’ as ‘The Other’. The African culture is so much in tune with nature that the mystic drum invokes the sun, the moon, the river gods and the trees began to dance. The gap finally gets bridged between humanity and nature, the animal world and human world, the hydrosphere and lithosphere that fishes turned men, and men became fishes.…

Poetry Analysis: John Pepper Clark’s “The Casualties”

John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Nigerian poet, is the pioneer of Modern African Literature. He is considered as the most lyrical among Nigerian poets. His poetry is universal for its artistry and descriptive power; and singular for the attention that it draws to it own locality for its imagery and ideology. His poems reflect the fusion of the Western tradition he acquired and the cultural heritage he naturally inherited. “The Casualties” is named after a collection of poems by J.P.Clark. Clark, among his contemporaries is hailed to be “more simple, down-to-earth in his imagery, more visual and descriptive and less complex, and therefore more African.”
The poem points to 1966, the time of the Civil War. Biafra wanted to be free and independent. It affected the common people who were suffering endlessly. The Battle failed and the problem was silenced. The poet asserts that the causalties are not only the ones who are dead, for they are far from the devastating consequences of the war. They are not only those who are wounded though they are well on the route to death. They await burial by installments as death is the Ultimate escapism. It is not only those who have lost their material assets and property, it is also those who have irretrievably lost their near and dear ones.…

Poetry Analysis: Chinua Achebe’s “Refugee Mother and Child”

The Mother has always held a supreme position in all religions. In Islam, she holds the first and second places. In Hinduism, the Mother and Motherland are deemed greater than heaven. In Christianity, the privilege of “giving birth divinely” was also handed over to a woman.The image of Madonna with her child is supposed to be the highest paradigm of motherhood one can envisage . Here, Chinua Achebe states that even that image could not surpass the picture of a mother expressing tenderness for a son, she would soon have to forget. It is the most poignant picture one’s imagination and memory can ever record.

Chinua Achebe’s poem is titled “Refugee Mother and Child”. The adjective ‘refugee’ has different meanings in this context. One, the mother in question may be a refugee. Besides, one who flees from danger, and is in a secure and protective circle is also called a ‘refugee’. In this regard, the baby is a refugee, and his refuge is his mother’s womb till he comes out to this cruel world. Another interpretation would be the mother finding refuge from the reality of the death of her son in a make-believe world.

The air held a nausea of unwashed children with traces of diarrhea,and the stench of the emanations post–delivery.…

Poetry Analysis: Leopold Sedar Senghor’s “New York”

New York is the commercial capital of America. Therefore it stands an emblem of financial stability and exponential growth. The poet Leopold Sedar Senghor exclaims that at first the beauty of New York held him spell-bound as it was superficial. It was limited to physicality of the “great long-legged golden girls.” The poet appears to be timid at the first sight of the City of Skyscrapers. Firstly, owing to his inferiority complex as the city held him in awe. Secondly, he could not confront the “blue metallic eyes”.

The adjective “metallic” has various connotations here. The term may refer to the lifelessness of the eyes. It may also allude to the nerve of steel. Furthermore, it points to the frigidity of the eyes. The phrase”frosty smile” appears to be a simile from a consumer society. The poet refers to the depth of the skyscrapers, when he should be talking about the height of the same. The line “lifting up owl eyes in the sun’s eclipse” reveals how the warmth of life is denied to them. The adjective “sulphurous” indicates pollution.

The skyscrapers seem to defy ‘cyclones’ as if challenging the very notion of God. The stone of the skyscrapers has weathered well against the climatic conditions.…

Poetry Analysis: Gabriel Okara’s “Were I to Choose”

Gabriel Okara, a Nigerian poet, is immersed in folk-tradition and ballad. One can discern influences of native tradition and English romantic tradition and he often tries to create a synthesis between the two. He often utilizes ‘transliteration’ and thereby renders his poems regional, yet universal. His poems are often marked for their lyrical musicality.

Gabriel Okara’s “Were I to Choose” is reminiscent of Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse.” Adam toiling in the soil can be compared to the Negros working in the soil. They broke the stone themselves which was their very foundation. The red streams are symbolic of the multilingual diversity that reaches the womb Africa.

Cain metaphorically represents the next generation. ‘I’ in Okara’s poems generally refers to the tribe. The poet implies that he is currently imprisoned in the present generation and its identity crisis. The earlier generation’s gaze would not go beyond; but his does and to him, the world is looked at from the brink. Written in 1950s, the period of Nigerian Independence, the poet sees his ancestors-their slavery, their groping lips and the breasts muted by heart-rending suffering. His vision goes outside and backwards. The memory is like a thread going through his ears.

Cain was a wanderer, who if caught by anybody, would be definitely slain.…

Poetry Analysis: Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation”

Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” is an eloquent exchange of dialogue between a dark West African man and his British landlady that inexorably verges on the question of apartheid. The poet makes use of the most articulate means to air his views, through that of a telephone conversation, where there is instant and natural give-and-take. It exhibits a one-to-one correspondence between the two. The interaction between a coloured and a white individual at once assumes universal overtones.

At the outset, the poet says that the price seemed reasonable and the location ‘indifferent’. Note that as a word, even though the word “indifferent” denotes being ‘unbiased’, it is a word with negative connotations. However, as we come across the Landlady’s biased nature; the word ‘indifferent’ gains positive overtones, as it is better than being impartial. The lady swears that she lived ‘off premises’. Nevertheless, the very aspect of his colour poses a problem to her, far from her promise to remain aloof. Nothing remains for the poet, he says, but confession. It gives a picture of him sitting in a confessional, when he hasn’t committed any crime….his crime is his colour, his remorse is solutionless. He tells the lady that he hates a wasted journey.…

Poetry Analysis: Christopher Okigbo’s “Heavensgate”

The title of the poem “Heavensgate” is emblematic of man’s quest for spiritual fulfillment. This is particularly significant as the poem describes the poet’s return to his native post colonization.

The phrase “the passage” also echoes the concept of quest or search for the ultimate truth. He stands before the Mother Idoto , a symbol of the oilbean, tortoise and the python; this “water-goddess “ is a recurring motif in Christopher Okigbo’s works. The oilbean is an article to worship the Mother Idoto. The “oilbean” stands as a concrete symbol for traditional roots. He tries to lean on it, but fails. He pictures himself as the prodigal son, on whose return he finds the loss of his inheritance and riches. To Okigbo his ultimate asset is his cultural heritage. He is currently lost in the legend or ‘antiquity’ of the land. The term “watery presence” may refer to its diluted existence. It may also connote the traditional land where the poet was baptized.

The poet longs to be the child in the lap of the Igbo society. The poet first asserts that he stands naked. Then he claims that he waits ‘bare-footed.’ This points to the rawness with which he is ready to give himself up, dismissing all airs of sophistication.…

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