Soyinka: Engaging the African world

In an old introduction to African poetry, Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 comments on some of its themes and characteristics.  “The poems embrace most of the experiences of the African world –  modern and historic… Modern African poems which betray traces of an internal dialogue are often accused of alien affectation, but an examination of traditional poetry reveals that it too is built on a densely packed matrix of references (and not, as is sometimes claimed to the contrary, on simplistic narrative).  This progression of linked allusions towards an elucidation of the experience of reality is the language of all poets.”

Interestingly, that comment can be readily applied to the work of Soyinka himself, whose poems and plays directly engage the African world, both modern and historic, and make very profound artistic use of traditional poetry and other factors of the traditions.  This can be seen in some of the works which analyse issues confronting modern Nigeria, colonial West Africa and the ancient traditions of the Yoruba religion.

Soyinka has been the leading literary personality of West Africa as a dramatist, poet, prose writer, critic and strong political commentator.  His outspoken resistance to undemocratic political regimes and human rights violations has brought him into serious conflicts with governments.  He was imprisoned at the time of the Biafran civil war and at another time fled Nigeria into exile to avoid the consequences of his open dissent under a military dictatorship which persecuted fellow writers like Ken Saro-Wiwa who was sentenced to death by General Sani Abacha in 1994.  At other times he was an academic at the University of Ibadan and the University of Ife (later changed to Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) where he led a group of radical writers who formed The Positive Review.

He was involved in fairly early African literary movements in the 1960s and wrote extensively on issues involving colonialism, race and the implications of the Yoruba religion in modern Nigeria.  Some of his plays, like The Road and his greatest masterpiece to date, Death and the King’s Horseman, address the last named issue.  He draws on traditional ritual which he values immensely and is able to employ it in effective theatre.  His long poem Idanre has Ogun as a central focus.  Ogun is the Yoruba god of iron, metal, war, the hunt, fire, the road, and is the patron saint of blacksmiths.  He is often pictured with his machete, sometimes one in either hand, and has a reputation of a capacity for rage and violence.

Soyinka’s poem Idanre explores Yoruba mythology and engages the interior dialogue mentioned by the poet.  It is of the order of a possession experience and a dialogue with the myth, with the ethos of the Yoruba tradition.

Excerpt from Idanre

IV The Beginning
Low beneath rockshields, home of the Iron One
The sun had built a fire within
Earth’s heartstone. Flames in fever fits
Ran in rock fissures, and hill surfaces
Were all aglow with earth’s transparency

Orisa-nla, Orunmila, Esu, Ifa were all assembled
Defeated in the quest to fraternize with man

Wordlessly he rose, sought knowledge in the hills
Ogun the lone one saw it all, the secret
Veins of matter, and the circling lodes
Sango’s spent thunderbolt served him a hammer-head
His fingers touched earth-core, and it yielded

To think, a mere plague of finite chaos
Stood between the gods and man

He made a mesh of elements, from stone
Of fire in earthfruit, the womb of energies
He made an anvil of peaks and kneaded
Red clay for his mould. In his hand the Weapon
Gleamed, born of the primal mechanic

And this pledge he gave the heavens
I will clear a path to man

His task was ended, he declined the crown
Of deities, sought retreat in heights. But Ire
Laid skilled siege to divine withdrawal. Alas
For diplomatic arts, the Elders of Ire prevailed;
He descended, and they crowned him king

Who speaks to me in chance recesses
Who guides the finger’s eye

The poem narrates the story of Ogun becoming a king, but it is to be noted that it also adopts a style common in traditional poetry.  It is also a praise song of Ogun with recurring repetitions of attributes and lineage.  Soyinka’s verse here shares the “densely packed matrix of references” and the “progression of linked allusions” with traditional poetry.  Note the references in the traditional Yoruba poem about Ogun, below.  It refers to the deity’s reputation of violence and warlike behaviour by the refrain “you are not cruel,” and to his association with the blacksmiths with the way he “strikes his hammer upon his anvil repeatedly”.

(from) Traditional Yoruba Poem
Now I will chant a salute to my Ogun
O Belligerent One, you are not cruel.
There were initially sixteen chiefs.
In the town called Ilagbede, of these the paramount chief was
Ejitola,
Ejitola Ireni, Son of Ogun,
The blacksmith who, as he speaks, lightly strikes his hammer
upon his anvil repeatedly.
Son of He who smashes up an iron implement and forges it
afresh into new form.
Son of He who dances, as if to the emele drum music, while
holding the hollow bamboo poles used for blowing air upon the
coal embers fire in his smithy. He who swells out like a toad
as he operates the smithy’s bellows.
I will chant a salute to my Ogun.
O Belligerent One, you are gentle, the Ejemu, foremost
chief of
Iwonran, He who smartly accouters himself and goes
to the fight.
[Excerpt]
* * * * * *  * * * *

Walcott’s drawings

Last week we focused Derek Walcott the artist. Here is a further note, particularly on his drawings.

It is to be remembered that the great poet-dramatist Derek Walcott has produced quite a large volume of paintings and drawings over the years.  Many of these depicted scenes and characters from the plays, especially Ti Jean and His Brothers, but also including Omeros, The Odyssey and others. These pieces are in two categories.  There are watercolour paintings of scenes and characters but there are other drawings which used to be stored away in archival collections such as the Folk Research Centre in St Lucia or which have been mentioned by Walcott biographer Bruce King.  In the archives are a number of sketches made by the playwright in connection with some scripts.  For example he did drawings of Japanese landscapes which show similarities between the Japanese countryside and that of St Lucia in studies for his one-act play Malcouchon, which is much influenced by the No theatre of Japan.  These are drawings of bamboo, other trees and peasants working in the fields.

According to King, Walcott on occasions made sketches of aspects of set, costume and the representations of characters to assist in the design of plays on stage.  For example, he had sent such sketches of The Joker of Seville to the Royal Shakespeare Company to give them ideas of what the play should look like since it had been written for them.  They had commissioned him to write an adaptation of Tirso de Molina’s El Bourlador de Sevilla.  The play ended up not as an adaptation but a new drama on the story of Don Juan.  Walcott was very particular about the style in which he was writing and wanted to give them precise impressions of its design.

Derek Walcott, then, has produced quite a volume of work as an artist, covering oil and watercolour paintings, drawings and work-book sketches.  Enough work exists to justify a major exhibition.  These pieces at this time are very valuable and treasured possessions.  But this is so not because Walcott has become a great visual artist, but because of his fame in other disciplines, and what the art can contribute to knowledge.

Although his early ambitions included painting and he has turned more to it in recent years, art is still not his primary focus.  However, he told the BBC in an interview on his birthday (January 23, 2010) that he now paints quite often.  And even if his paintings and drawings were more impressive than they are in reality, they might still have been overshadowed by his poetry, theatre, critical and theoretical works.  The stature of his art works remain little more than an amateur pastime, and is not going to be taken any more seriously by critics.

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