For Osundare@70: Oora o Omo Osun, Okun o Omo Oke
You are a son of rocks and hills, of streams and verdant forests. Much has been made of the fertile environment you found in Ibadan, the university town whose own seven famous hills have been made even more famous by the poet, Pepper Clark Bekederemo.
But not many who sing your praise know about your roots in a schools nestled in the shadow of a different hill, that rock hill, Oroole, which must be familiar by now to readers of your poetry. There, in Amoye Grammer School, Ikere-Ekiti, you took the first dip in the academic stream.
Nor do they often mention your life in that school perched on another hill, Agidimo, in Ado-Ekiti, where you took your Higher School Certificate in the late 60s, and return to teach for a while shortly afterwards. Christ’s School is of special significance to some of us. If the account of Bolaji Aluko, erstwhile VC of Federal University, Otuoke, Bayelsa, who was also your school brother and something of a protégé, is anything to go by, it was in that school that you first ran, head to head, with the gods of literature, when you wrote a play for Dallimore House in the school’s inter-house drama competition. Your house’s entry lost that duel, it was reported. But what a worthy competitor to lose to as, we learnt, the winning team, Mason House, had produced Androcles and the Lion. Who would not, as a schoolboy, gladly yield the crown to George Bernard Shaw? That small hitch, however, did not stop you from going ahead to carry the school’s torch and win the first prize in the Western Region Festival of Arts and Culture poetry competition in 1968.
Indeed, that was a period of great artistic ferment in Christ’s School, that saw you mingling with other contemporaries either with whom you were classmate and collaborator, or to whom you were senior and mentor. The list is endless, but we should mention a few: the artist Moyo Ogundipe, whom we lost recently, but with whom you worked on the school magazine, you the editor, and he the illustrator. Others around the same period include the poet Tayo Olafioye, the communications gurus Yemi Akeju and the late Sesan Ogunro, the journalist Dele Alake, the cartoonist Dotun Gboyega and the all-round culture renaissance man, Ben Tomoloju. On a personal note, some of us are grateful for the legacy that your generation left behind. As I noted during the 60th birthday anniversary of Ben Tomoloju, your school junior, so active were the arts in Christ’s School that by the time I turned up there in the mid 80s, I could still go ahead and win an international medal in an art competition.
Since that time, you have gone on to do even greater things. Not just have you gained a degree from Ibadan, you have taken advanced degrees in Leeds, England, following in the footsteps of such grandees of African literature as Soyinka and Ngugi, as well as in York, Canada. More importantly, you have risen to the crest of a whole generation of a continent’s poetry.
Of you, Ezenwa Ohaeto has this to say:
“Among this generation of poets, Niyi Osudare is a poet whose work indicate, illustrate and project the accomplishments of contemporary Nigerian poetry in English… He is clearly a writer whose works exhibit not only his achievement but also the collective poetic highpoints of his generation of poets”.
Of you Biodun Jeyifo has said: “In all modern African poetry, all, I repeat, only in the poetry of Agostinho Neto and David Diop will you find the same depth and passion and lyricism in solidarity with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the dispossessed, and a corresponding faith in their aspiration and will to revolutionary change as we confront in Osundare’s poetry…. In Osundare, we confront the poetry of revolution and a revolution in poetry, in terms of forms and techniques”.
Of you, even the British poet, Stewart Brown has said: “If Ofeimun is the voice of the harlequin, the goad, the wit punctuating the pomposities of Nigeria’s rulers with his ironic barb and bells, then Niyi Osundare is the high priest of the ‘alter-native’ vision… Osundare is doing for African poetry what Derek Walcott did for Caribbean poetry, claiming and mining the language for his own ends. No English poet could use English language in the way Osundare does”
So important is your place in the generation that followed the one that properly inaugurated modern African literature, that you have always been included in the triumvirate of that generation’s poetry in Nigeria. That triumvirate often includes, give and take, Tanure Ojaide and Odia Ofeimun. The latter, Stewart named the establishing figure of that generation (a claim that should be taken seriously, having regard to the early publication of Ofeimun’s poems in the magazine Okike, edited by Chinua Achebe, and in the cannon-making Poems from Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka).
On cross-generational influence in Nigerian literature, your student, the poet Remi Raji-Oyelade, has said: “[Osundare] can only be compared in varying degrees of stature, with Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun and Harry Garuba in terms of influence among the so-called third generation Nigerian writers”.
And of course, one must not forget that, on a continental level, the Zimbabwean scholar, Emmanuel Ngara has listed you among the three central African poets of the same generation, amongst whom he included the Malawian Jack Mapanje and the Ghanaian Kofi Aiyohnodo, even while placing you in the apex of that triad.
So, what is the significance of, and what marks out your poetry? It is agreed, by many scholars, that you have, over time, come to embody the greatest sense of balance between the art and anger of your generation, a generation that you have, yourself, called ‘kogberegbe’ (a generation that does not do dallying).
That deft balance is the basis on which Stewart, quoted earlier, was drawing comparison between you and, say Odia Ofeimun. Let us hear him some more: “There is a gravitas and weight about Osundare’s poetry that, while the reader is aware of the characteristic quality of anger that is so prized in this ‘alter-native’ tradition, makes his argument seem the more considered, the more measured…. If the Generals would object to his poetry they must first read it, they cannot skim the surface for obviously offensive word but must explore the metaphor, understand the irony, consider the ambiguities, discover its measured ‘beauty”.
Of your sleight of hand in confronting tyranny, even you have said: “I have not told a bulbous tale/In the presence of Asopa…/I have not shouted “Nine!”/In the backyard of one with a missing finger”
And to illustrate: while Ofeimun has brashly told his senior, “You, the poet lied”, you have basically done the same, but in a different way, in Village Voices. In ‘A Dialogue of the Drums’, you pitched a younger, idealistic drummer-performer against an older bard whose drum has become “dumb in the marketplace/Only talks in the palace of gold,” and whose “song extols those whose words/Behead the world.” It was all in good humour, its seems, as the youth and the elder duelled in the style of the Ijala hunter-performers, or what a more contemporary generation might recognise in a ‘Yo-Mama’ rap battle. The youth ended up, by reminding his elder: “The people always outlast the palace.” The long and short of this story: Ofeimun’s poetry was censured, yours was not. You may say I have read too much into this, but then, “I have not told a bulbous tale….”
To be sure, you are not the recumbent head. It appears, for more urgent messages to your public, you chose the medium of popular media. In your op-ed column in Newswatch magazine, or even the weekly poetry column in Sunday Tribune, you took a more direct tone on public matters. You disparaged the elite of Ikoyi Club, and by extension Nigeria, on the superficial matter of dress code. You equally lamented “Okara’s Error’, upon your encounter, then a much younger poet, with Gabriel Okara, one of the inaugurators of modern Nigerian poetry, and perhaps, one should note, a direct forbear of yours in the lyrical flank of Nigerian poetry. Okara’s modest station, to you, was an outrage in a land where criminals are rewarded with titles and bounty.
You were right then. And so are we today, seeing that the continent’s most celebrated poet of his generation has had to leave the hills of Ibadan for the lowlands of the Louisiana. We know, New Orleans got the Jazz. We know, even, that Ila Alasepo and Ogbono have travelled ahead of you to become the Gullah gumbo broth. But we are right to mourn our loss and American gain the same way even you mourned, ‘On seeing a Benin Mask in the British Museum’:“… stilted on plastic
A god deshrined Uprooted from your past
Distanced from your present
Profaned sojourner in a strange land
Only what becomes is becoming
Iya j’ajeji l’Egbe
Ile eni l’eso n yeni”
For how can we forget Hurricane Katrina? America was searching for her Fats Domino, Africa for her Osundare, both king of the rhythm even if one be of the Blues, the other of Poetry. For days, that stretched out like the eons you sang of in Moonsongs, all we, who have ever been drawn into the auditorium of your music, who have had the joy of moving to the rhythm of your drumming and the cadence of your chants, from classrooms to internet chat rooms, were asking: Where is our poet laureate? Are those goddesses still engaged in their minor quarrels and titanic jealousies? Will Osun let Yemoja fail to remind Olokun that ‘a kii f’omo ore, b’ore’, that you do not skewer the deity’s own votary, mere scapegoat, on a sacrificial pier?
But, “not yet the knell.” Oluomi, yourself a son of the river, the water refuses to take you. As even you mused in Village Voices:
“We will not go
On another’s day
We will not die
Or as you boasted, in another poem:
“No, not yet the knell
We shall not go, till we have eaten the elephant of the moon…”
And so, you rise from the swell of a fearsome flood, plant your feet, once again, on firm ground, as you would have done in the craggy shadows of Oroole, or the red soil of Okeruku where you once invited us for a tryst between the compact of drought and rains. You soon put behind you the loss and choose to celebrate hope. For, even before then, in Waiting Laughters, you have told us:
“Even when elephants passed through our ripening farms
When stalks are sad
And broken buds lament their bleeding scars
A few flowers cling, still, to the beard of the valley
In the whistling wind.”
You choose to not lament the loss of the fabric, the leather, and even sheaves of unfinished musings. After all, though you may be Alakowe (the scribe), as Ariyoosu (‘delightful as the moon’) your father had wanted it when he first gifted you that pen, but you come from the lineage of Alakori (the griots) who wrote their philosophies on the papyrus of memory. Didn’t Odolaye Aremu, the bard of Ilorin, rig the prize for Alakori in the notional contest with Alakowe? Sang the dadakuada balladeer: “Mo ti k’ogbon ori me, b’emi na o ka’we o/ Iwe l’agba, ogbon ori ma lo je baba” (I am a dean of the mental faculty, even if I cannot make out a letter/ Literacy is super, but memory is superior). Didn’t one other philosopher say that a single griot is worth a library in the land of intellectual minstrelsy? You go to work again, calling on memory’s muse, and choose to celebrate the joy of kinship. You tell us:
“Eniyan l’aso mi
People are my clothes
When I look back and see my folks
My head swells like a jubilant mountain…”
At 70, sir, let us call this Autumn. Not yet the winter of frozen fingers and cracked voices. Certainly, not yet the knell. Autumn, of which you once sang cantos, is a season of colours—“October Red’, you said. We, therefore, look forward to more songs, more musings, more lyrical philosophising from you, sir. Not yet the knell, not even the winter.
Oora o Omo Osun
Okun o, Omo Oke
Oke gagara ke j’ogun i ja’lu ran l’ule Ukere
Mi oora, aba mi!
(Greetings, son of the River
Salutations, offspring of the Hill
That craggy height that guards them against the despoliation of war in Ikere
I hail you, father!)
* Toye is an Enterprise Lawyer by day and a few other things the rest of the time. He presented this tribute at the 19th Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) on Friday, November 10, 2017.