Poet of the people: Niyi Osundare
Poets from all over the world today do not come any loftier than Nigeria’s Niyi Osundare. In my book, he is the next poet destined to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lovers of intellection are thrilled that on Wednesday, December 7, 2022, Professor Niyi Osundare will deliver his Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA) Winners Lecture in Abuja. The lecture, which is taking place within the context of the Annual Forum of NNOM Laureates, is entitled “Poetry and the Human Voice.”
The significant event that is happening physically and virtually calls for celebration because Niyi Osundare is that one poet who speaks for the people. A personable mentor who jocularly addresses me as “The Maximum Metaphorist”, Osundare packs enormous craft and courage in his sublime verbs and profound nouns. Osundare is at once a poet, dramatist, folklorist, critic, linguist, and humanist who dares all dangers in speaking truth to power.
In our days of practising Guerrilla Journalism during the murderous years of General Sani Abacha, Osundare risked life and limb by always visiting and bearing the burden of solidarity with us at our Editorial Board Meetings under the chairmanship of his fellow poet and bosom friend, Odia Ofeimun. He would wonder aloud how one tossed off the editorials with a fastness that beat the diabolical dragnets of Abacha and his ubiquitous security goons.
A deeply rooted poet in the fecund tradition of Mother Africa, Osundare was born on March 12, 1947 in Ikere-Ekiti in present-day Ekiti State, Nigeria. Educated at the University of Ibadan, University of Leeds in England, and York University in Canada, Osundare excelled as an illustrious academic and lionized poet at his alma-mater UI and eventually at the University of New Orleans in the United States.
He truly “set forth at dawn”, as Wole Soyinka would put it, because back in 1968 he won the First Prize in the Western State of Nigeria Poetry Competition. His first collections of poetry, Songs of the Marketplace (1983) and Village Voices (1984), set him out as a star poet to watch.
He won the coveted Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1986 with his collection The Eye of the Earth. The freshness of Osundare’s voice from the very beginning bore clear testimony to his belief that poetry ought to champion the progressive cause of “man meaning to man.”
Highfalutin affectation was not his forte in the masterful integration of oral lore and scribal sophistication in poems that upped the ante of ideological awareness and social activism. The literary prizes he has won in his prolific career can hardly be properly documented: Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Poetry Prize, ANA/Cadbury Prize, Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Tchicaya U Tam’si Poetry Prize, Kwanza Award, Noma Award, Fonlon/Nichols Prize etc.
Osundare was in 2014 admitted to Nigeria’s highest honour for intellectual distinction and creative achievement, to wit, the National Order of Merit, for which he is delivering this year’s award winner’s lecture in Abuja. Niyi Osundare has the record of being the first African poet to be featured on the cover of World Poetry magazine.
He miraculously survived the 2005 venomous Hurricane Katrina during which he was stuck with his wife in the attic of their home for all of 26 hours until they were rescued by a boat-riding neighbour who heard their desperate shouts for help. He has been an unrelenting critic of Nigerian leaders, redoubtably shaming General Ibrahim Babangida who annulled the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Bashorun MKO Abiola.
He had unstoppable words of condemnation for the so-called Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, which Babangida mischievously foisted on the country. When the iron dictator Abacha came upon the scene, Osundare courageously wrote socially and politically relevant poems that upbraided the honchos of destruction. Ill-assorted security agents, ranging from his students who served as informants of the government to crack state agents, were placed to keep watch over him but he refused to be cowed.
When General Obasanjo was transformed to a civilian president in a classic case of turning “khaki to agbada”, Osundare wrote scathing open letters to the big man of Nigerian power. Osundare makes no apologies to anyone that he is an unrepentant political poet given the dire circumstances of his country, continent and the wider world.
Whether one chooses to read his Selected Poems published by Heinemann in the esteemed African Writers Series (AWS) or from his vast oeuvre, notably, Songs of the Marketplace (1983), Village Voices (1984), A Nib in the Pond (1986), The Eye of the Earth (1986), Moonsongs (1988), Songs of the Season (1990), Waiting Laughters (1990), Midlife (1993), Seize the Day (1995), Horses of Memory (1998), The Word is an Egg (2000), Tender Moments: Love Poems (2006), Days (2007), Random Blues (2011), City Without People: The Katrina Poems (2011), If Only the Road Could Talk (2017), Green: Sighs of Our Ailing Planet (2022) etc., Niyi Osundare is a poetical institution.