Subject matter does not concoct poetry—in fact, defiant to structure, subjects can evolve themselves into strange genres. However, expression is what raises the subject to a poetic level; and, in giving expression to his subject, 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”.
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An African, thoroughbred, must conceive the image of Africa; and, in whatever form or manner, express it. It becomes an intuition of the spirit. Only from within that exercised wont can a relevance of any peculiar literature then emerge. In an interview with The Paris Review, Achebe resonates the import of this notion. The novelist had been asked what his thoughts were about the nature of the image of Africa in the Western mind; and he had 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…”
Whenever the “how-is-a-poet-African?” debate then rises, I persistently tender a brief thought: expression as an equitable litmus test. It’s a self-revised dictum. For every writer, black or white, is encased in a world, a general world compartmentalised by the requisites of his own expression. Taking that to play, this condition is illustrated in the example of the quality of expression in Camara Laye’s Black Child. This book—like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—would reflect the most brooding rigours of the African imagination; but just as one may quickly categorize such work as “African”; still, it bears such universal appeal in subject.
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Analogously, one encounters the reverse in the case of James Patterson’s Cross-Cities or Voltaire’s Anti-Semite. Works like these are another demonstration of a peculiar paradox: it is the situation of aesthetic exchange where the American, French or Asian can adopt potential expressions attuned impeccably to the African setting. Then, yours becomes the disturbing quandary of pondering. Perhaps, this is why certain theorists posit that no such thing shall exist as “an African writer”, but only as 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.
The poet, in this vein, therefore, only has to stick to one world, his own world; maybe, merge two worlds, yes; but elope with the strange? Such would birth tragic outcomes. Of course, Achebe, in famously criticizing Joseph Conrad, was not a racist. What the African novelist did loath, however, was the sanctimony in 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, acknowledged their anti-imperialism axiom—but strongly despised the subject matter. Why? Expression it was.
So, for me, as I read some of the most compelling works of the “most contemporary” Nigerian poetry, I seek the quality in expression before subject matter – 0riginal imagery and, not compulsorily but amusingly, line rhymes; a characteristic for which I must extol the poet, Kukhogo Iruesiri, a consistent concierge of the components of general traditional poetry, which are progressively weakening in the equally magnificent thrill of modernist pens.
Sometime ago, I read another poem from a different poet. Kingsley Ayistar’s works would appear akin to Kukhogo’s expressive styles. He, however, in my view, promises to be enjoyable most typically by the disheartened ilk; as a larger bulk of his oeuvre comes to the critical mind as predominantly motivational. But his poem, “A Peddling Stranger” is different. It is brief, fast-paced, and sentimental. In the familiarity of expression, a new face shows itself. 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 Armattoe’s “The Lonely Soul”; but, just as the latter echoes the silence of the familiar; the former presents the opera of the strange. In her poem, Armattoe tells the story of an enigmatic loner (an old woman) “on lone country roads”. In a similar manner, Ayistar pictures, in all sustainable insouciance, the escapade of a Nigerian loaf-seller, an early morning agege-bread hawker, as she is portrayed in clear imagery:
While the strutting rooster crows / Early in tandem with sunlight / When I rise and open my window / She is the first human on sight
There are two dimensions to which this prologue can unfold: one is to consider it a hint into the watcher’s attitude to work, or, again, a lead-in into the life of an unknown female strutting on the outside world. With a well-spawned suspense, however, in the ensuing stanzas, the poet continues to create sable transparencies around his subject instead of directly addressing her—just as did Armattoe with her passing old woman.
Ageegee breead! The words she zealously screams / Rouses me to wonder / If this had been her dream
In response, the question bares itself: are dreams made of broken wings or crawling limbs? This is perhaps not as intricate as it would seem; yet the poet’s wonder, within its own vacuum, refracts a sense of lone, tedium and predictability. These ideas are to be found in various sequences of the story, 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 is a doleful sort of concern that bothers the poet, just as it should the average Nigerian – citizen of a country and most crucially, of humanity. In the poem, the watcher notes that he patronizes her, “eats from the stranger”; and, yet, does not know her name. He only stares at her from his window and “watches her opera”. It is as if Ayistar is calling on a world to watch itself, to watch its peddling strangers across the street of deprivation; and, from their opera of struggle, draw significance out of the seemingly insignificant. In this way—in this lost art of empathy—the poet expresses his sentiments 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
A natural feeling arising out of hope. It cedes one the strange bounty of contentment. 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”.
Photo credit: Olusanya Olamide