History and combative commitment in the poetry of Odia Ofeimun
Odia Ofeimun was born in 1950 in Iruekpen-Ekema, Edo State, Nigeria. Ofeimun belongs to the second generation of Nigerian poets – a generation that emerged in the seventies to challenge the tradition of “apolitical poetry” associated with an earlier generation of poets including, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and J. P. Clark-Bekederemo. A graduate of political science from the University of Ibadan, Ofeimun has, over the years, been an active member of the Association of Nigerian Authors, the umbrella union of Nigerian writers; he has served at various times as its general secretary and president. Odia Ofeimun has been a member of the editorial board of The Guardian newspaper in Lagos, and Chairman, Editorial Board of The News and Tempo Magazine—exponents of guerrilla journalism during the Abacha’s years.
Ofeimun’s academic career as a political scientist and a radical journalist has a tremendous influence on his poetry. Right from his debut work, The Poet Lied, Ofeimun stirs the emergence of socially responsive poetry in the Nigerian context. His social vision is evident in the titles of his poetry collections. Other published collections of poems by Ofeimun include: A Handle for the Flutist, London Letter and Other Poems, Dreams at Work, Under the African Skies: Poems for Dance Drama, A Feast of Return: Poems for Dance Drama, Go Tell the Generals, A Boiling Caracas, I will Ask Questions with Stones if they Take my Voice and Nigeria the Beautiful: Poems for Dance Drama.
Controversy surrounds the classification of Ofeimun within a generation of poets. Many scholars categorized Ofeimun into different groups of poets. Notable among these classificatory efforts include the following: an environmental poet, an alternative tradition poet, a post-War Nigerian poet and most controversially, as belonging to the second and third generations of Nigerian poets. However, one thing that is apparent is the fact that Ofeimun belongs to the same generation as Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Ezenwa Ohaeto, Funso Aiyejina, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Femi Fatoba among others. The controversy which surrounds the generation in which Ofeimun belongs is a matter of perspective. If one recognizes Azikiwe, Babalola, Osadebay as the pioneers or first generation poets and Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, Gabriel Okara, etc as belonging to the second generation, then Ofeimun’s generation is the third. However, if Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, Gabriel Okara are seen as the first, Ofeimun’s generation becomes the second.
A keen and critical observation by Chin Ce reveals that a certain vigour and expressive power pervade the poetry of Ofeimun; and this has come to distinguish the qualities of Ofeimun’s generation from earlier generations. Ce stresses further that Ofeimun’s generation had cast off excessive modernist preoccupation with private grief and emotions, linguistic deviationism and esotericism. According to him, Ofeimun’s poetry and that of his generation constitute the intellectual vanguard of Nigerian writing after the civil war.
The Nigeria-Biafra war (1967-1970) was a culmination of years of general disillusionment with complex socio-political changes in Nigeria after independence. The aspiration of the people who had placed much faith in political independence and national self-determination had been dashed by corruption, violence, and political ineptitude of their leaders. The literary aftermath of the war manifests in the imagery of violence and this invaded the poetry of Ofeimun’s generation. According to Chin Ce, Nigerian poetry was altered significantly in temper during and after the period. This resulted in the need for poignancy of articulation, appropriate and clear diction which replaced the esotericism of the African modernist school and a more fervent patriotism in the treatment of public experiences such as war, corruption, economic mismanagement, military dictatorship and growing repression which had grown in strength.
Also military rule (dictatorship) (1966-1979 and 1983-1999) had a dramatic impact on Nigerian poetry. It gave a new identity to Nigerian poetry by making it redefine the responsibility and position of the poet, which is to represent the people. It becomes the poet’s goal to expose the military as incompetent and corrupt. They were also tasked to reveal the cruelty, brutality and dehumanization experienced by Nigerians. All these are evident in Ofeimun’s poetry.
Ofeimun’s reputation as a poet on the Nigerian literary scene rested for a long time on the success of his first collection, The Poet Lied (1980). The strong statement that the collection makes with regard to the primacy and urgency of the social responsibility of art, initiated a generational shift in Nigerian poetry, making his work the signature for the kind of poetry that was to dominate the Nigerian literary scene from the 1980s to the late 1990s. This awareness is further heightened by Niyi Osundare’s revolutionary definition of contemporary Nigerian poetry in his “Poetry Is”, where he affirms that poetry should be committed to man and society.
Ofeimun’s work is predominated by contemporary issues which affect not only Nigeria but the world in general. He is concerned mainly with sociopolitical, economic, cultural and environmental issues. His recent collections, A Boiling Caracas (2008) and Go Tell the Generals (2008) have further established Ofeimun as a poet to be reckoned with. In these two recent collections, Ofeimun tackles issues bothering on environmental tragedies, oppression, political assassination, injustice, mismanagement of funds, etc. The motifs are accentuated and made more lucid, realistic and credible as the reader easily recognizes the circumstances which birthed the poems. His poetic task is to exposes the ugliness and viciousness that permeates the areas of politics, economy, religion, society and culture with the aim of making suggestions for improvement.
A Boiling Caracas is a collection of twenty-two (22) poems. Poems like the title poem ‘A Boiling Caracas’ and ‘The ranchos’, among others, depict the destruction and after effect of hurricanes. Here Ofeimun laments the destruction of lives and properties. He recounts this experience in the form of a consolatory message to people whose lives were shattered. He especially dedicated one of the poems in this collection “To My Brother in New Orleans” to Professor Niyi Osundare. Osundare, who lost so much and narrowly escaped death in the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In “Hurricane and Jazz”, we can observe a shift as Ofeimun absolves the Hurricane of all blames ‘Now don’t Blame the Woman of the Hurricanes;/She did not do it…’.To Ofeimun the hurricane was only the effect and not the cause ‘She would add her mayhem to the carnival of ordeals…/But she didn’t wake Lake Portchartrain to rebellion.’ He instead allots the blame to the Area Fathers (politicians): Though the lights don’t go red in New Orleans to say so/ she came to a city of yes ready-driven by naked bum/ rounded by sin of area fathers hiding from streetlamps/ in the grill of dancing balconies and deathless jazz.
Also in this collection, we see Ofeimun celebrate man, nature and it environments. In “Prince of the Demo” and ‘Food for Grace’, he shows his love for the Venezuelan delicacies arepas and allacas which he writes are ‘rites/not mere delicacies’. In ‘Tango in Medellin’ and ‘Colombiana’, he celebrates the city of Medellin which he refers to as the ‘daughter of Andes’. Ofeimun invites us to the street life of Bolivar in ‘To the Beach’ and ‘Bolivar Square’, where he commands ‘let there be dancing in the street’ and we should ‘come to the fullness of life at the square’ respectively. Poems like ’Angels of the Loot’, ‘Black Market’, Death Abiding 1’, Death Abiding II, ‘To Bury the Dead’ are used to decry wasteful deaths and selfish politics in Nigeria.
It is appropriate to summarise Ofeimun’s vision in the collection, A Boiling Caracas, with the following lines taken from ‘Redress’: I want to understand what cannot be changed/ and what will not redeem but resists/ where un-mended fate cries out…/ wherever I turn, I want to give the future a future/ through unbroken will that cries out/ for hearts that lose their beats but will not succumb.
Ofeimun’s poetry collection, Go Tell the Generals, has a total of twenty-four poems which he subdivided into four subtitles: Marital Music (six poems), Our Kingdom of Chance (three poems), Children of the Creek (seven poems), Elegies (four poems) and Go Tell the Generals (four poems). These subtitles seem to encapsulate the poet’s intention for the poems in each group.
The section subtitled “Marital Music” encompasses poems that describe or portray the relationship that exists between the people and their ‘General’. Ofeimun in ‘A Welcome’ recounts the people’s bitterness, dehumanization and helplessness in the hands of military dictators. The people are not delusional, they are fully aware of their ‘tuberous hunger’ but they have been ‘rented for one last dance/ to humor a scrambled decade of retrenched worker’. ‘After The Coup’ is pessimistic in its tone. Here the people are not only helpless but hopeless. The people have lost all and have ‘no grace to fall from’.
Ofeimun laments: ‘we the people’, journeying without maps/ we journey towards maps/ bled by Generals in tanks….’ This tone is also echoed in ‘Civics’. ‘Haba I’ and brings to the fore the sharp contrast between the desires of the ‘General’ and the ‘peasant’. The General will rather work than be sacrificed for the benefit of the peasant. And the peasant would prefer to lose everything instead of sacrificing himself for the benefit of the general. In ‘Marital Music’’, Ofeimun depicts a people who have been deceived over and over again but are still expectant: ‘where we dance to unchanging songs…/in mouth-dripping expectancy/clutching the thin air’.
The poems under “Our Kingdom of Chance” bemoan the bitterness and sufferings of the people in a place that is meant to provide refuge. In ‘Let’s Consider’, the people are ‘remembering’ their agonies as they toil for a ‘place in the kingdom of chance/ where the gorilla is in triumph’.
However they admit their role in these painful situations ‘remembering that we are never innocent/ that our weakness makes us part of every crime/ committed against us. ‘Rap Anti-text’ continues in the same vein but this time around it is not the ‘General’ who is the culprit. As ‘thighs (things) fell apart…/the General fled/to a bush of ghosts’.
After the General fled, the next best thing (democracy) the people got turned out to be the worst: … till colourless present/ spawned a pitiless sun/ a searing fate turned death to gold/ & the worst came best/ in our kingdom of chance…/ …no more whip/ the scorpion next time/ no more falcons/ the laser next time/ and the wide world wailed…
And in ‘Ogun’, a prayer is offered to the Yoruba god of iron, Ogun. Here the people plead that Ogun should protect them from their fate ‘Ogun protects his children/ when fates turn willow…’
Ofeimun grouped the poems dealing with incidents and exploitations of the Niger Delta under the “Children of the Creeks”. In this selection, Ofeimun recalls all the people have lost, both human and natural resources, suffered by the “Children of the Creeks”, the Niger Deltans. In ‘Memory 1’, the poet mourns the death of a teacher/mentor, “the angel of our creeks.” The following lines seems to be the core of what Ofeimun wishes to inspire in his reader by telling about this great teacher.
She taught us to question with sticks/ so if they come again as they will,/ -since they will come again for the look/ she gritted her teeth: don’t let it happen/ To you, and you, it must not happen/ To stand tall, stand very tall,/ whatever the tide, change the world.
‘Memory II’ and ‘Children of the Creeks’ reinforce the themes and concerns in ‘Memory I’. They both lament the despoliation and suffering in the Niger Delta. In ‘Sink their Ship’, we find the poet motivating and encouraging the people on what to do in order to fight for their right to be treated as human and not ‘slave’. In ‘Sink their Ship’ the poet advocates paying back in two folds whatever the oppressors did: If they hang your pig/ Kill their cow/ If they steal your purse
Burn their house…/ Till your balance of terror’/ Meets their ‘balance of power’.
And then the poet explains why it is necessary to fight back, ‘And, don’t call it vendetta, she said/ It’s the way to teach the strong/ to climb from beast to person-hood’. The poem, ‘Ken’ is dedicated to late Ken Saro-Wiwa. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a writer-activist who fought for the survival of the Ogoni people. He was executed by Abacha military government on 10th of November, 1995. Ken Saro-Wiwa personified the freedom of the Ogoni people and by extension, the Niger Delta. His death was a great blow to the Niger Delta region and its struggles. In this poem, ‘Ken’, Ofeimun mourns the death of ‘an angry first son’ but mocks those ‘who claim right by size…/ from wrong to ever lucrative wrong/ hearing no voice of conscience/ but the chink/ of coin, slush of paper money…’ Ofeimun predicts that ‘they will know neither sleep nor cover’.
The section appropriately titled “Elegies” has poems immortalizing Kudirat Abiola (“The Heart has no Bone”), Alfred Rewane (“Ogidigbo”) and Bola Ige (“Bola Ige” and “A Chant for Uncle Bola”). In all these poems, Ofeimun admires the personalities of his characters but above all, he praises their stand against injustice and love for fellow humans.
For Kudirat, Ofeimun writes: She breached house-wifely tales to stand/ up to gorillas dangling from silk-cotton trees…/ …let no head erect think of bowing!/ Or, let death intervene, she walked/ in faith unflinching not cowering/ she held bowstrings taut to her passion/ never kneeling before the/ pharaohs of mucks nor prostrating/ to the sultans and popes of fission…/ …she cried: “I’m ready…/ to take the bullets meant for the children…Shoot!”
Ofeimun describes Alfred Rewane as a man ‘too large for praises or tributes’. Rewane was “always the patriarch of Sallah and Christmas’. He was assassinated. “Bola Ige” and “A Chant for Uncle Bola” recalls the Nigerian lawyer and politician, Bola Ige, who was assassinated on 23rd December, 2001. His death reechoes the brutal nature of Nigerian politics. In “Bola Ige”, Ofeimun mourns Bola Ige’s death and is enthralled by his heroic virtues:and when they asked you to bow to their gods,/ you stood too erect for their sense of scandal…/ no shaming dung/ could stick to your Sunday walk and wear”. “A Chant for Uncle Bola” appears to be a spin off from “Bola Ige” however the message here is completely different. Here the poet insists “let there be no mourning in our house” for Bola Ige is “…like Gandhi, Cabral, Luther King/ he will outlast all the assassins.
The poems under the subtitle “Go Tell the Generals” condemn those that sit in judgment over others. Ofeimun believes that none is perfect without sin and none should take undue advantage of a fellow human. In “To Cast a Stone”, the poet deploys biblical allusion to great effect as he posits that before taking a life, one should be powerful enough to give it: ‘…let only they /who can give life/ dare to take it with noose or stone…’
The title poem “Go Tell the Generals” happens to be a war cry from Ofeimun daring the military/government and inspiring the people. He tells the people that it does not matter what has been denied or done to them in the past, they will not retreat. The chants ‘We told the General, we shall not retreat’ and later ‘O Go tell the Generals, we shall not retreat’ is repeated at the end of every stanza to arouse the people’s spirit. “A Letter to Makurdi Prison” likens Nigeria to a prison. It briefly portrays how the country has deteriorated in the hands of the ‘Generals’. And the poet laments ‘See? What prison house they make of a happy country’. In this poem, Ofeimun counsels poets. He tells that although none will suffer the aftermath of their bravery, or sit in the dungeon with them, they should believe that they are not alone because they have ‘lived by the Word’ and theirs ‘is the example that hoists living memories’. The poem is meant to inspire, motivate and encourage one to speak out and speak only the truth.
Ofeimun as a contemporary Nigerian poet is committed to exposing the plight of the humanity generally and Nigerians specifically. As such, he laments the betrayal of political leaders and the dilapidated state of the Nigerian nation. His anger over the scourge of corruption afflicting the nation is unmistakable. This is the consciousness that informed the poetic intensity of Ofeimun. However, in spite of the content of his message that bears a sociological dimension of realism, Ofeimun weaves different literary devices and images together to facilitate the smooth delivery of the message—this creative gymnastics gives credit to the work, which turns out to be both gratifying and enlightening.
Another task which Ofeimun has taken up is the immortalization of some people. These are people whom he holds in high esteem and regard. People whom he believes are the models for other Nigerians to emulate. In his poems, he places these people on a pedestal and like an orator exhorts their traits which he finds admirable. This group of people had stood against corrupt power, shunned malfeasance and died rather than bow to corrupt rulers.
Ofeimun’s diction, as Osundare has observed, is too carefully chosen and his images, meticulously polished. It seems he tries to control the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings that inspires him. As a result of his manipulation, the humour in his poems can only be glimpsed and not felt. However, his extreme polishing has made him an accomplished craftsman. His aptness in the use of words has ensured that his messages are on point. His apt diction and knack for creating living verses is unmistakable. Nevertheless, there is to a large extent a denseness in the poetry that could put off many a non-literary reader. Many of the poems appear far removed from the day to day reality of the people Ofeimun claims to be speaking for and to. The poems exhibit sublime intellectual tone that makes one feel that Ofeimun does “not write for non-poets.”
• Omajuwa teaches English at the Delta State Polytechnic, Ogwashi-Uku, Delta State.