Niyi’s ‘Literary’ Biography
Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography has a charming book cover with a posterised portrait of the poet and scholar-critic with glasses on, staring at the reader about to engage with the book, with a kind of eagle-eyed-ness. It is this kind of spirit one encounters in the pages of the book thereof – a near apotheosis of the man, except when the author escapes the part where he turns the poet into a god. Perhaps this is because the biography is a literary one where achievements are exaggerated to deify the poet. Osundare – all greatness and visibility – has a certain image in the literary community which is but a misperception, one the author tries to disabuse us of. For example, when he says in the preface, referring to Osundare, that there is ‘the tendency [ . . . ] to pigeonhole him as a political poet concerned with only socio-political realities in Nigeria’, the poet’s work(s), however, ‘is about his experience as a child growing up in Ikere-Ekiti, south-west Nigeria, as a writer and scholar at the University of Ibadan, and as a scholar-immigrant in the United States of America’.
The biography is divided into ten chapters, each chapter broken down into sections with titular phrases referencing a point or event in the poet’s life. Chapter one builds up the lore of beginnings and nativity. ‘The Gift’, the first section tells the story of how the father (Aguntasoolo Ariyoosu Osundare) gifts the son a fountain pen. And this he says to the son: ‘I have bought this for you to use when you have advanced in your education. It is a pen. I do not know how to use it, but I know its power’. The father, a farmer, had sown in the boy a future. Niyi, as a boy, came as a third child that would survive, his mother having lost two others in their infancy. There’s the story of how later the child became seriously sick and his mother ‘Like a stung tigress . . . walked the length and breadth of Ikere-Ekiti, even beyond …’ and yet found no cure. In an almost mythological recollection of how the boy was saved, it was the River Osun whom his mother recoursed to.
We read: ‘Uttering the words of supplication, she bent, took the water from the river and gave the boy’. Niyi also recalls: ‘I was told they gave me some to drink, used some to bathe me and poured the rest on what is called awuye, the very centre of the head’. We continue to read that ‘In gratitude to River Osun, Fasimia [Niyi’s mother] presented the river goddess with an eyele (pigeon) and seven kola nuts’. And it is believed (Niyi’s mother does) that the same river goddess saved Niyi Osundare during Hurricane Katrina; the reason why the poet wrote the poem ‘What Mother Said’ (I felt Eyekaire’s intimations / In the pit of my memory / I pledge seven white kola nuts / . . .) after the Katrina experience.
The biography is garnished with anecdotes about one childhood experience after the other that would go on to influence the poet’s literary career. There’s his father’s occupation as a farmer that triggered Osundare’s intimacy with nature, evident in his poem ‘Farmer Born’. His mother steeped in the Yoruba oriki tradition was an influence as she sang often to the boy’s hearing. Osundare learned ‘the art of spontaneous rendition’ of oral poetry from his parents and traditional society and sometimes played his father’s bata (drum). Growing up the neanic Osundare performed roles in plays (he continued in his senior school and university days) and even wrote some. Like all stories of nativity there’s a pervasive influence of the poet’s village, Ikere-Ekiti, in the life of the poet and his poetry.
Sule E. Egya’s tracking of the times of Niyi Osundare as a schoolboy will cause the people that lived in that time to reminisce on the halcyon days. Niyi, the boy, was brilliant, quiet and bookish. He thought he had escaped his father’s rigid discipline when he got to boarding school only to meet a tougher version of his father in the Principal, Amoye Grammar School, Ikere-Ekiti. Sometimes later, leaving that school for further studies in Christ School, Ado Ekiti, outside his village, he’d be addressed as a ‘boy from a bush school’ by ‘children and wards of Nigeria’s topmost educated and professional elite in the whole of Ekitiland’. Something he became aware of, too, when he got to the University of Ibadan where he felt a tad intimidated by his mates who spoke English through their noses. But more noteworthy, Niyi’s schoolboy days is a longlist of teachers and role models who not only taught him but loved him and took interest in him. As his father had sown the seed and the gods – permission to go mythological – had blessed him, it wasn’t long before everyone began to notice his gift with words which earned him the title, One Whose English Rumbles like a Thunderstorm.
As you’ll find out, the poet-to-be went to University of Ibadan, studied English, but did not publish any collection of poetry until he had completed a Doctorate degree and become a lecturer. (Aha! What waited he for?) But when he did he started on a slate of literary revolution: against the tradition of his predecessors (Okigbo, Soyinka, J.P. Clark), the generation whose poetic style was heavily influenced by classical literature, gods and mythology and characterised by heavy language, he simplified poetry especially for functionality exemplified in his poem, ‘Poetry Is’ in the debut collection Songs of the Marketplace. Osundare’s stance on poetry and his style thereof started a critical conversation in poetry among scholars and critics of the time.
Niyi, it could be said, lived also in the time of postcolonial turmoil, and bore the burden, that moral obligation fatedly bestowed on most intellectuals of that time. His reactions to the recklessness of the military governments of the 80s flowed through his columns and poetry page in the then Newswatch; he combatted mediocrity in the University of Ibadan, and faced down threats for being outspoken, and writing open letters to the government.
Reading Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography, one is reminded of the bustling culture of literary engagement of that era in criticism, the exchange between scholars and critics alike, if not only in academia but in the literary community. One wonders, especially myself, studying in the English Language department of a university currently, if the bustle is still on, not with the few critics we have around and the lot of ‘writers’ in a hurry to become an Achebe or ‘critically acclaimed writer’, or taking the easy path of becoming a pooh-et. Our lecturers – who should also be scholars by default – are too comfortable with just having the title of Lecturer. Our scholars who could be regarded as the last sentinels are in the U.K. and North America.
But thanks to Sule E. Egya for reminding us that literary conversations have to go on, his documenting of Osundare’s literary biography itself having snippets of literary criticism. The offering is a blessing, written in very light prose diluted from academic writing. It is a reference point, not only in our literary canon, but to the student of the sentence, to learn a thing or two about the dynamicity of the comma.