Essays

Sule Emmanuel Egya

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Revolution within the Poetic Revolution

Unlike most poets in Nigeria, Osundare did not publish a collection of poetry until he was through with his formal academic studies and had secured a place as a lecturer at the University of Ibadan. This may seem of no consequence for the making of any poet. But it seems to bear some significance for Osundare who burst onto the scene in the early 1980s with an innovative poetic voice. One can extrapolate that, for all those years he was pursuing his higher studies, Osundare was gathering the momentum he needed to launch his voice. This is telling in that his debut collection drew overwhelming attention to him as a poet with a distinct voice. Apart from the poems “Eyekaire” and “A Wife’s Complaint” published in The Greenfield Review, and an appearance in Reebou, Osundare was not very much in the print while at Leeds and in Toronto. There were only a couple of poems in the London-based West Africa. Resounding is his absence in Wole Soyinka’s Poems of Black Africa which features the young Odia Ofeimun, a notable contemporary of Osundare.

Of the three successful poets that form the trinity of their generation (Osundare, Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide), Osundare was the last to come on board, although he and Ojaide had long established a literary dialogue that went back to their days at Ibadan. While a PhD student at York University, about the same time Ojaide was doing his graduate studies at Syracuse, USA, both of them had made their international debut in The Greenfield Review. But it is pertinent to point out that Ojaide had published Children of Iroko and Other Poems in 1973, a full decade before Osundare’s first collection appeared. In 1981, Ofeimun’s The Poet Lied appeared to tremendous fame and controversy among the literati.1 Due to its trenchant view on the gross ineptitude of Nigerian leaders and its thematic orchestration of the plight of the common people, Ofeimun’s volume is often taken by scholars and critics to be the cornerstone of the emergence of the Osundare generation.2 But perhaps Songs of the Marketplace Osundare’s first title drew more attention to the new phenomenon announced by Ojaide and Ofeimun. In their poetic praxis, Ojaide and Ofeimun sought to distance themselves from the existing tradition of Nigerian poetry in English characterised by turgid metaphors and quasi-private engagement, a result of the influences of Euro-American high culture. The modernist-traditionalist poetics of Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and J. P. Clark, vigorously challenged at this time by notably Chinweizu and others, would become unpopular with these new poets.3 The older poets mostly wrote about gods, personal cults, and myths; the new poets sought to write about ordinary people, societies, and realities. In this light, “Songs of the Marketplace” is an expression of disavowal, disconnection, and extrication from an existing poetic institution that conceived poetry mainly in the doctrine of modernism. Radical change was, in fact, paramount in Osundare’s mind as the initial title he had for Songs of the Marketplace was “I Sing of Change”.

In the initial manuscript of the collection, there was a section called “Echoes from Canada”; it was later excised due to lack of space. The first few years after 1979 when he returned to his job at Ibadan were not only dedicated to settling down as a lecturer but were also devoted to writing poetry. Most of the poems appeared in Opon Ifa, a University of Ibadan-based literary magazine newly established and edited by Femi Osofisan who was growing popular as a playwright with radical aesthetics. Osundare points out that “Osofisan’s commitment to the promotion of literature was single-minded and remarkable. I cannot tell the story of my debut as a published poet without a generous acknowledgement of Opon Ifa.”4 Osundare himself, along with Sam Asein and Molara Ajayi, was on the editorial board of Opon Ifa; and he assisted Osofisan in the editing and production of many issues of the magazine.

But drama still held Osundare’s attention. As soon as he returned from Toronto, he wrote a play that brought his name to visibility, as it was broadcast on the television. Osundare’s secondary school mate, the artist Moyo Ogundipe, who later became Manager of Programmes for NTA – remembering the talented Thespian from the school days – had asked Osundare to write a play for the events marking the twenty years of Television in Africa. Osundare was barely a week in the country, having just returned from Canada; he was staying at the Ibadan University Guest House, pending the provision of a more permanent accommodation on campus. He wrote the play in that temporary abode. Entitled The Man Who Walked Away, the play was broadcast on TV, and was favourably received by the audience. Encouraged by what he saw as the success of the play, Osundare, in 1982, wrote The State Visit, which would sink into limbo probably because of the overwhelming reception his poetry got in the coming years. It was in early 1997 that Wale Oyinlola, a very enterprising Theatre Arts student at Ibadan, decided to direct and produce it as one of the activities marking Osundare’s 50th birthday celebrations. In the following year Osundare would write another dramatic piece titled, The Wedding Car.

In the family front, things seemed to be moving smoothly for Osundare. He was not just returning finally – after an academic sojourn in Canada – to his wife and son. The family was also blessed with a baby girl, named Osuntola Ibidun, in the month of December of 1979. Osundare’s life now revolved around his family as he had to combine vital family chores with his work and his writing. Adekemi provided the support and comfort at the home front that aided these two enterprises.

1981 saw Osundare putting his poems together, convinced that the time was ripe for him to bring out a collection. Also this year, he made a mark by winning a prize, with a letter of commendation, from the BBC poetry competition with the poem “Siren”. He approached the scholar and critic Francis Abiola Irele, who would later become a famous authority on African literature. Two things were in Osundare’s mind when he gave the manuscript to Dr. Irele: the respected critic would give the manuscript the kind of judgement Osundare needed to approach a publishing outfit; further, Dr. Irele was himself the publisher of New Horn Press, a publishing company that had recently published Shadows and Dreams, a stupendously fine book of poems by Harry Garuba, then a young, new voice on Nigeria’s literary scene. Dr. Irele, with a speed that astonished Osundare, read the poems, and handed the manuscript back to Osundare with useful observations. Expectedly, Dr. Irele asked if Osundare would give the manuscript to his outfit. The answer was an enthusiastic yes. Irele then made the suggestion that the title of the book be changed from “I Sing of Change” to “Songs of the Marketplace”. So Irele it was who served as the baptist for Osundare’s first book of poems, an act for which Osundare remains grateful to this day.

The volume enjoyed good reviews. But beyond reviews, it arguably displaced the earlier poetry volumes that sought to draw attention to a new kind of Nigerian poetry and poetics. Its greatest advantage in this regards was and is the much-quoted opening poem of the collection, and the aesthetic ideology that coherently pervades the entire volume. Entitled “Poetry Is”, it became and continues to be a reference point as a metapoem that uncompromisingly sets out what the poet Osundare considers the defining characteristic of the new poetry. The poem begins by negating what was becoming an established canon in Nigerian poetry in English – the conception of poetry as an “esoteric” literary expression that is not only tediously demanding but also entrenched in what Osundare calls “Grecoroman lore”. This, in other words, is an attack, earlier launched in Chinweizu et al’s Towards the Decolonization of African Literature, on the influence of Euro-American modernist tradition on African writing. In fact, Chinweizu et al’s book partly influenced Osundare’s position. Other notable influences on him at this time were Jean-Paul Sartre’s What is Literature? and George Thomson’s Marxism and Poetry.

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