Subject matter does not concoct poetry — imaginably derisive to structure, it could evolve itself into a strange genre — the expression is what raises the subject to a poetic level.
And in giving expression to his theme, the poet must make a vigorous search for fresh language and original imagery.
In a world of many worlds, I like to state it an obligatory ritual of any self-respecting African writer.
In any mode, no one, even the most anesthetized of cultures, can or should afford the forfeiture of the richness of creative existence and inner sensibilities, simply for a fraud of expression.
To undermine the carriage, potent of the expressive culture to instigate, would be to — denoting Chinua Achebe to whom we are all habitual — ‘live in different worlds’.
An African, thoroughbred, must conceive the image of Africa, the most original, and express it.
It becomes an intuition of the spirit. Only from within that exercised wont can a relevance of any peculiar literature then emerge.
To lighten prolixity, let me recommend a quick skim-across on a section of the Paris Interview with Achebe. He had been asked what he thinks about the nature of the image of Africa in the Western mind. He answered:
‘I think it’s changed a bit. But not very much in its essentials. When I think of the standing, the importance and the erudition of all these people who see nothing about racism in Heart of Darkness, I’m convinced that we must really be living in different worlds. Anyway, if you don’t like someone’s story, you write your own. If you don’t like what somebody says, you say what it is you don’t like…’
When the ‘how-is-a-poet-African’ debate then rises, I tender a brief thought: expression is the only non-negotiable basis; it’s a self-revised dictum, claimant. For every writer, black or white, is encased in a world, a general world compartmentalized by requisites of his own expression. Take that to play, I vehemently exemplify the quality in Camara Laye’s Black Child; this book (like Things Fall Apart) reflects the most natural rigours of an African touch; but just as one would quickly categorize it as ‘African’, still, it bears such universal appeal.
Analogously, you have it reverse in the case of James Patterson’s Cross-Cities or Voltaire’s Anti-Semite; if you haven’t read these, what I basically mean is that situation where an American, French or Asian can adapt potential expressions attuned to the African setting. Then, yours is the disturbing quandary of pondering. Perhaps it’s why certain theorists instruct that there shall be nothing as an ‘African writer’, only an abstract unhinged notion.
Nonetheless, my notion is: image shows the writer forth, or in my own thread of matter, indicates what it really is a poet shall be represented by, in personality terms.
He just has to stick to one world, his own world; maybe, merge the two worlds, yes, but elope with the strange?
It would be a literary taboo. Achebe, of course, wasn’t a racist; he only loathed the sanctimony of Conrad’s expressive quality, the ‘Animal Image’ his colonial book bestowed on Africa; worse of it, the severance it did to the author’s expressive origins. Achebe respected Conrad’s poetry—he taught his books too, acquiesced to the anti-imperialism axiom— but strongly despised the subject matter. Why? Expression it was.
Or how do you suppose African literature survives, I mean, amidst the otherworldliness of the older literatures? It’s simple. It survives in the valley of its saying. It’s why we need to tell our own stories, resurrect the mummified mythologies.
I revere the duo, influenced by the works of Femi Osofisan and Wole Soyinka, in trending the latter feat. I dare proclaim the Black Histories as a most crucial and sacrosanct Muse to the most contemporary African. You see, Soyinka might not have won the Nobel if he had chosen to write ‘New York’, instead of ‘Ake’.
So…for me, when reading the ‘most contemporary’ Nigerian literatures and some I find on Facebook, from compelling poets all-over, I seek the expression before subject matter—original imagery and line rhymes; for which I must admire Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, a consistent concierge of the components of general traditional poetry, which are progressively weakening in the thrill of modernist pens— and just ago, I read a poem from a different poet; well, still akin to Kukogho’s expressive styles, but Kingsley Ayistar, in my reach, certainly promises to be an enjoyable poet and enjoyable most typically, by the disheartened ilk. I have read so much of the young poet and his collections come to me as a ‘motivational genre’. But his ‘A Peddling Stranger’ is different, a brief-paced, sentimental poem where I saw a new face. And that new face is the resonating awareness of environment and intimate reality.
Kingsley Ayistar’s ‘A Peddling Stranger’ tries to attain the wistful proportions of Grail Armattoes’ ‘The Lonely Soul’. But just as G.A speaks of an enigmatic loner (an old woman) ‘on lone country roads’; Ayistar pictures, in all sustainable insouciance, the escapade of a loaf-seller, an early morning agege-bread hawker as is portrayed in the clear realist images of the poem.
While the strutting rooster crows
Early in tandem with sunlight
When I rise and open my window
She’s the first human on sight (4)
One could say that the first stanza was a way of telling the poet’s mere routine (pinpointing his prompt attitude to work) or a lead-in into the life of an unknown female outsider; but with a workable suspense, in the ensuing seven stanzas, he continues to hint on his subject instead of directly addressing it—just as in Grail’s with the passing old woman.
The words she zealously scream
Rouses me to wonder
If this had been her dream (8)
Of course, not! What can a woman do to survive in a roaring heartless economy? This is perhaps not as intricate as it would seem, but it expresses the pathetic sense of loneliness, tedium and predictability. The ideas are to be found in various sequences of the piece, where the poet says that his ‘day starts with her chorus’, ‘she sells bread to make bread’ and ‘she comes just as she goes’ from ‘unknown places to places unknown’.
It’s a doleful sort of concern that bothers the poet, just as it should to an average sensible tax-paying, pledge-reciting Nigerian. It seems like in our nation, everyone is just a peddling stranger to the next. In the poem, the speaker notes that he patronizes her, ‘eats from the stranger’, and yet, doesn’t know her name. He only stares at her from the window and ‘watches her opera’. This way— this personal concentration— expresses the sentimental emotions about a loss of community.
To avoid the myopia of too much worry, the main interest of the poem consoles itself in the seventh stanza:
One may scoff at what she does
And yearn never to be like her
But tis okay to be content
With the labour one finds to bear (28)
A natural feeling arising out of hope. It tells one the price of satisfaction. But, sadly, beyond a common window-opener’s strength, we cannot tell merely by the smiles of peddling strangers what broils within. Not much longer, ‘with not much haggling/ She moves on peddling’.
I am a member of the WRR editorial team.