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Poetry and national rebirth

Poetry and national rebirthå



Poetry is the future of History.


In her book of essays, the African American poet, Nikki Giovanni reflected on the power of poetry and its function as an archival and procreative force. She said: “We cannot possibly leave it to history as a discipline, …nor to sociology nor science nor economics to tell the story of our people.”

(Sacred Cows . . . and Other Edibles. New York: William Morrow, 1988, p. 61).


Giovanni was writing back to the days of the glory of the Black Arts Movement in the United States, of which she was a prominent member. For her, poetry offers the possibility of telling the truth about oneself and about one’s space in very topical and intimate ways that other disciplines and genres are incapable of doing. Yet, this poet remains very controversial in the way she has persuasively insisted that poetry changes nothing in the society.  For as she has put it, “I don't think that writers ever changed the mind of anybody. I think we always preach to the saved.”

Arlene Elder, "A MELUS Interview: Nikki Giovanni," MELUS 9 (Winter 1982): 61-75; reprinted in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni, ed. Virginia C. Fowler (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992), p. 126.)


Does Poetry birth anything for a nation like Nigeria, any African nation at all? What has poetry got to do with national rebirth? If we take the road of metaphor further, what are we likely to find in a nation where the literary imagination is constantly devalued in the market of ideas? What are we to find if we must comb the crest of our critical imagination about the posterity of Poetry for the (re)birth of a nation? A pretender-nation of pretenders, or a commune of cringing miners lost in the dark, yet singing the anthem of a nation in gloom? What shall we find? The positive cynicism of poets like Giovanni will be enough to deflate any romantic imagination about the power of poetry as a renascent weapon. Yet the paradox of Giovanni’s life as a writer and literary activist was that she contributed immensely to the rebirth of black pride in the United States as a member of the Black Aesthetic movement.


Poetry is the traditional space for the exploration of human emotions; it is the calibration of a people’s sense of being, their civilisations and their primitiveness expressed in words, in colour, in music and gestures; poetry then could be the index of a people’s sophistication, and by that the intellectual and social quotient for the (re)birth of a nation-state. There is indeed a sense in imagining Literature, and Poetry at its heart, as an integral variable in the qualification of the emergent nation.


[What is a nation without a poetic tradition?]

For if the invention of a nation involves the usage of a common language, the claim to a common patrimony, religion or myth of origins as well as a common currency and governance system, Poetry then, or the action of poets is a valuable part of the invention of the imagination of the nation. The poet, in the classical sense of the term, the creative artist is the health of the nation; where a poet goes hungry, the nation is not in good shape; and the nation’s literary culture, for want of a better analogy, is a crucial organ in the determination of the intelligence, the sophistication and the mental health of a people.  Poetry has been crucial to the making of epochs, and the poet is a mythmaking historian, the universal archetype of the light of truth, the pathfinder…





When anger failed. My refuge is in songs

laced with the laughter of blades

(Some say we better make melodies with bullets)

This is my salvation and yours

This patience waits on the wings of quickness

I mean the quickness of the spirit

No more the wasted generation

We must seize the day and wring the neck of night

It’s just the beginning

And the gift of light waits in the corner

To us is the story of new loves, new lives, and a new World.


[Sequence XXXI from Lovesong for my wasteland]


Poetry and Epochs

We have come to know that there are certain epochs in world history, in Europe and America, and in the African Diaspora which poetry created or which poetry has celebrated! Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement (in America), and the Negritude movement in the African Diaspora. Of course, it is part of our history lesson that the primal rebirth of an entire continent was unleashed by acts of Poetry, as the Negritude movement of Cesaire, Senghor and Damas came to be. Poetry became the expressive field for the longing and for the capture of the intelligence and the ignorance of a race. The civilizations as well as the primitivism of nations were singed into the body of poetry, in different tongues and hues. Poetry became the essence which challenged the essentialisms and prejudices of man against man. There was a mental transformation in the condition of a collective of peoples around the continent, and across and beyond it, and if we imagine the cultural exaggerations of Negritude metaphors, we might be close to the point that hope was reborn, dignity was reborn, and a heritage, however intangible, was reborn through the expressive and creative powers of the word – poetry.


Creation and Re-creation

My simple argument is that a nation cannot be without its culture, and Poetry is the creative quotient of that culture; it is a given that national rebirth is only possible with an awareness, a very strong awareness of one's culture in interaction with other cultures; poetry is therefore a strategic performative element of national rebirth…

So, the poet is an important contributor to the memorisation and the re-orientation of the national psyche. S/he cannot exist outside his or culture, and s/he is influenced by his culture as s/he functions as an octant icon of his or her culture.


My other argument is that nations don’t just become when they celebrate their literary icons; nations are reborn when they calibrate the intelligence of their writers. The rebirth of nations always almost involves the celebration of creative writers, because the literary genius is an important material of any cultural renaissance. To repeat, there is no nation without culture, there is no culture without poetry… and there is no poetry without a sense of culture and being.


From immemorial time, from the mythical days of Sokoti, from the legendary time of Ogotommeli, the raconteur has been very important in the inscription of history, and poetry is the stuff of legends and folktales of a people.

In what reads like the codes of poetry as a religion, the expressive heart in service and textual supplication, Walt Whitman writes in the preface to his influential collection, Leaves of Grass, how and what should we do when it comes to Poetry:


This is what we shall do - Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known and unknown, or to any man or number of men – go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families – reexamine all you have been told in school or church or in any book and dismiss whatever insults your own soul and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every emotion and joint of your body.



Germany has its Goethe, Heinrich Heine and Rilke, Slovenia its France Prešeren, Chile its Valejo, Peru its own Neruda, France has its own Baudelaire, and America its own Frost and Whitman…

The rebirth of nations always involves the celebration of writers, and the calibration of their ideas, because the literary genius is an important material of any cultural renaissance.


A prayer for myself

THEN, I speak in tears, so silently you don’t understand

I speak in song where nobody cares for simple symphonies

Men have lost all; no flare in their eyes

No eyes in their heads I can’t be too sure


The spirit, the spirit has gone on leave

The spirit lives no more in their hearts


When the coffins lay waiting

And the slings of hate make the rounds

I think of renewal

This pledge I make


To be counted with the living

To live in hope and laughter of coming rains

To take the path of fire and forget despair

To become finder of footprints and new loves


I make this pledge and think in colours of rebirth

Nothing’s worse than self-inflicted nightmare


So I dream

I wish an ecstasy of wishes

I shall be the seed of eternal stories

And out of my loins, a beautiful clan of dreamers.


[from Gather my blood rivers of song]



Rebirth begins from within, it involves a revolutionary twist in the collective mind/unconscious; above all, the desire to speak truthfully, even if this leads to the road of self-immolation, is without doubt the main piston to the chambers of a national rebirth.


In Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, Ngugi wa Thiong’o reflects on how memory can also serve as the root of regeneration:


Creative imagination is one of the greatest of re-membering practices. The relationship of writers to their social memory is central to their quest and mission. Memory is the link between the past and the present, between space and time, and it is the base of our dreams.

(New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2009. p. 39)


So I speak for my generation, even if scattered all over the world, we all try to react to the sense of nation, either through denial, or appropriation or reversion of existing or developing national culture. I think we contribute in our own ways to the national “rebirth”, death or stillbirth of our nation, depending on our imaginative response to the concept of nationality. When in 1988, Harry Garuba led a band of young poets and editors to produce Voices from the Fringe, the affirmative collection of new remarkable poetic voices to the Nigerian literary space, an intellectual rebirth was in place in a lower frequency. I think rebirth is not all about the quality or absence of our science and technology, nor is it only readable through the index of our gross national product, because poetry itself takes strategic point in the structure of scientific revolutions.


For me, poetry is the signification of the human heart in flight; poetry is the possibilities and performance of expressions, because good poetry is purpose, not propaganda.


In a recent interview conducted for a Swiss-based journal, I was asked if I believed that a poet can cause change in social and political relations in a country? To this, I responded:


[Absolutely, I believe that a poet can change things with words. All our philosophers, from antiquity to the recent present time are poets! Makers of words, like makers of rains, make impact. Some impacts are indirect, some are immediate; some impacts are remote while some are instantaneous. The Negritude movement was willed into being by poets. The Civil Rights movements have been associated with the activism of poets. If poetry is advanced speech, if it is the salt of oratory, then the most impactful politician, economist or scientist needs the gift of the word to change things. Poetry doth things change!


So, how is this possible? I believe that the magic of poetry, great immortal poetry I mean, is in the truth that it spins. The true poet thirsts after the truth, feeds others with the tablet, however sour or bitter, but the quality of his or her success inheres in the ability to embellish and say things in beautiful measures. I believe that a combination of conviction and creativity is required for that poet who must influence others.]


What do I understand as Poetry? Poetry is the Word that becomes flesh; poetry is the spoken Word;  poetry is 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. Sometimes, poetry changes nothing. But poetry, just like the power of incantation, can make a lot of difference in the life of a people. Poetry offers us the capacity to plumb memory; poetry grants us the freedom and the indulgence of anticipation and envisioning. And poetry is also the individual, playing the role of the collective, sometimes arrogating unto himself or unto herself a voice that sounds like the force of a shaman or the seer.


Rebirth is possible when the imagination is allowed to take flight.


å Presented at the opening of the P.L.A.Y. – Poetry, Laughter, Arts & You event, at Terra Kulture, Lagos, on October 15, 2010. © Remi Raji.