Between dream and rage: the African experience in poetry
Between dream and rage, there lives the poet! Between dream and rage, there resides the solution to a new world consciousness. The author bears the magic incense of truth, the conviction to wake into new mornings of tender lights, where hope must be reborn, where every man and woman carries a sign of connection with the other man and the other woman.
Dream is the place where we come from, and where we return when everything else fails; dream is the corner piece of creation; dream is the activist's order. He who is alive is the one who dreams, and the poet lives even when he is dead and gone from this world. Rage is that place, the final order where the unheard goes to relieve himself or herself; rage is the home of the subaltern just woken up; rage is the epiphany of the silenced.
Poetry is the space where we hatch the dream of a new future, it is the place where we kill the fears of the past and challenge the Cyclops of the present. I belong to the race of raconteurs who believe in the power of the word, as magic, as shamanic force for change. The word of my lip is energy, the word on your lip is power, and wherever it touches is wet with love or hate. So, in the middle of dream and rage, poetry lives.
In a previous essay on the significance of poetry for national rebirth, I offered the following reflection on poetry:
[What do I understand as Poetry: the Word as spoken, the Word as sung, the Word as performed, as spectacled, as electrified beyond its conventional means and purpose, I mean poetry that accumulates all of the possibilities of conventional and radical writing, expressively for pleasure, for reflection, for action, or/and perhaps for nothing tangible. Poetry offers us the capacity to plumb memory; poetry grants us the freedom and the indulgence of anticipation and envisioning].
Over the years, poets have dreamt; they have lived in the real world of dreams, living the subterfuge existence, or ethereally as superhumans who dreamed the impossible in the world. Homer and Lucretius have composed histories and dreams into their epics; Ai Qing dreamt a great and freer China; Pablo Neruda dreamt a tender and forgiving world; Rumi, Rabindranath Tagore, and the other mystics dreamt a world healed in its own pain and ignorance; Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish dreamt beyond the agonies of a people's imposed destiny; Leopold Senghor, Leon Damas and Aime Cesaire dreamt a brighter continent freed from the burden of that despicable epithet - the Dark Continent; Agostino Neto foretold the dream of a free geography of the mind; and Christopher Okigbo, Nigeria's symbolist poet, dreamt enough to see the conflict that ravaged his land; then in the failure of that dream, he moved into the other realm, the ultimate act of rage. Okigbo swapped the pen with the bullet and paid the supreme sacrifice. In a state of absolute trance, the poet says:
If I don’t learn to keep my mouth shut, I’ll soon go to hell
I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron-bell.
For those who have attempted the extra effort to know the African condition, with varying degrees of knowledge and ignorance, it might be useful to repeat that poetry, especially traditional, performative poetry in the indigenous language, is serious business, as well as a dangerous business. There is either a wedge or corridor of mis/understanding between the establishment and the author; there is on one hand, the authority of the dictator, of the viral emperor who hates self-expression and freedom of speech, tyrants who would cut down the intelligence of the writer who dares to create, make fun or engage his land in a dialogue. On the other hand, there is the supreme confidence of the typical author endowed with the gift of the word, a dedication to change and challenge.
This is the story of the experience of poetry in Africa, and the experiment of Africa in contemporary poetry. All over the continent, the colonial enterprise provoked a brand of written poetry championed by nationalists and moralists. The poetry of cultural nationalism which appeared first in the works of the Negritude writers became the primary culture of artistic expression in the 1960s. In the subsequent decades after the rise of postcolonial nations in Africa, the pattern of revolutionary poetry became noticeable, a pattern which saw the emergence of such poets as Okot p’Bitek and Jared Angira in East Africa, D. P. Kunene, Dennis Brutus, Oswald Mtshali, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Jack Mapanje, in Southern Africa; and in West Africa, poets like Wole Soyinka, J. P. Clark, Lenrie Peters, Kwesi Brew, Kofi Awoonor, Kofi Anyidoho, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, etc. The poetic experience in Africa is one which places a lot of responsibility on the author: the poet is the conscience of his society; the poet is moral barometer of the community; the poet is voice of the voiceless; the poet is the beacon of truth, the bearer of light to areas of darkness and ignorance and hypocrisy; the poet is a dream; and the poet is memory too.
I belong to a generation of poets whose writings became noticeable in the late 1980s and the early 1990s in Nigeria. Known as “third generation” authors, this is the group which bears the African genius of survival, perseverance and brilliance, against all odds. Many of the writers of this generation were born around the 1960s, which account for the reference to the group as post-Independence writers. We witnessed the dream of a new nation with promise; we experienced both the freedom and war of nationhood; we reaped both the boom and the gloom of national development. We survived the years of the hyena. Some of my contemporaries were persecuted for their writing or association with other writers and organisations. A number of these writers left the shores of my country, becoming exiles in Europe and America on both economic and political grounds. From there, new writings have emerged which begin to interrogate our existence as a people, our peoplehood. Our dreams have connected and parted ways; we have a common rage against things not done right, and as I insist, poetry has been my saviour.
We are many, known and unknown, composers of dreams in the realities of things: Afam Akeh, Toyin Adewale, Ogaga Ifowodo, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe, Obi Nwakanma, Amatoritsero Ede, Maik Nwosu, Chiedu Ezeanah, Nduka Otiono, Ogochukwu Promise, Lola Shoneyin, Tade Ipadeola, Unoma Azuah, Angela (Agali) Nwosu, Emman Shehu, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Akeem Lasisi, Pius Adesanmi, Austyn Njoku, Emman Egya Sule, Cecilia Kato, Mabel Evwierhoma, Tolu Ogunlesi, Jumoke Verissimo, Ibukun Babarinde, Niran Okewole, Perpetual Eziefule…and many more in the dispersed clan. I am one of the inheritors, and I am privileged, by all means, to speak on behalf of those who speak for others. My journey over two decades and a half as a Nigerian writer has been marked by a constant negotiation between dream and rage. Each time I compose a collection of poems, I keep working on a balancing act, to seek out the bright lights in the heavy dullness of things around, and to marshal a tsunami of metaphors against the inertia, against the deadness and against the indifference around me. In my region of Africa, dream and rage walk hand in hand, alive in the poetic imagination.
We are the many tongues of the forked river, we want a voice
We are the ones whose roads fork and scatter into many dreams
We are blessed but lost in the numerous tracks to heaven’s gate
We are the inheritors of the rage
We, acolytes of a thousand masques:
We are the rage in fire’s tongue
We are the fire in beauty’s eye
We are the beauty in the land’s ugliness
We are the land beneath the dancer’s feet
We are the dancers in the trance
We are the trance in the rains
And we are the rain in the lust of heat, we are the heat
We are the many dreams of a single slumber,
We stoke we seek we live we die
Just like the sun in your eye
We are the rage of deferred dreams…
© Remi Raji
January 25, 2011.