“to leave the earth
and go on out
over the sea marshes and the brant in bays. . .
and on up through the spheres of diminishing air” — A. R. Ammons, “Hymn”
Every year, in the Akoka section of Lagos, the NGO AHI (Action Health Inc.) hosted the Teenage Festival of Life for secondary school students. Dramas were staged, debates held, songs sung, poems performed, all based on a theme. Prizes were awarded. Influential people addressed a hall packed with young people, giving talks and igniting dreams.
St Luke’s Grammar School—my junior secondary school—got an invite. My English teacher, who was usually dressed in a long black skirt and a button-down shirt, asked me to write a poem for the occasion. The theme was centered around Sustainable Development Goals: no poverty, quality education, zero hunger, the like. At the time, I had never written a poem; I was a young Bariga rapper who was only just starting to do well in school. Though I thought it a bit strange that she asked me, I took up the challenge.
Weeks went by. I did not write a line. I could not. My English teacher was kind enough—she wrote one, handed it to me. The poem was broken into about four or five unequal stanzas, lines spilling and recoiling, overflowing to the back of the A4 paper. I memorized it. I rehearsed reciting the poem with other students who were to perform the words, endow gesture and action, with my English teacher as our guide. In my mind’s eye, I can see that fifteen-year-old boy in an empty classroom, after school, throwing his voice about like a kite, trying and trying again: a yet-uninitiated griot.
The poem was about family—think of Walt Whitman’s “Come Up from the Fields Father.” Someone died in her poem, too; the poem was the letter. Only this woman dies because of a failed healthcare system. I remember the line: “The same meal every day / or rather, an empty stomach,” and the “weather-beaten corrugated roofing sheets.” The poem, though smart, tried to do too many things, like a careful Nollywood movie. Still, we displayed our stuff in a well-lit room to two now-vague faces who sat at a long table. Sadly—my lame recitation and exaggerated gesticulations likely contributing—we were not invited to compete in the main ceremony at the University of Lagos.
In 2016, after my final junior secondary school examination, my father asked me to return to Abeokuta, Ogun state, to live with him and continue my secondary education there. I left Lagos with, among other things, the A4 paper that bore my English teacher’s poem, and Odia Ofeimun’s A Feast of Return, one of two books given to me at the first literary workshop I ever attended, back when I was at St Luke’s, hosted by the Association of Nigerian Authors. (In 2018, I would win the Association’s prize for young writers, though I never received my prize money.)
Secondary schools in Abeokuta have a rich literary tradition. This is the home of Africa’s first Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, where he grew up and still lives in his forest house at the city’s outskirts. (There, the white-haired poet hunts and lives free of the noise of “modernisation.”) Almost every school in the city hosts an annual literary festival. The program includes debates, dramatic poem recitations, ewì, playful imitations, sign language performances, and dance. During my second week in the new school—Baptist Boys’ High School—another school was having their “Lit” (as we called it) and invited our school. I had “The Same Meal Every Day,” so I volunteered for the poetry recitation.
Surprisingly, we won the contest. However, after two public recitations of “The Same Meal,” it became necessary for me to invent my own poems. Having no friends in this new place, and with just my box guitar for company—on which I could play no more than two chords—my loneliness kindly offered me language as a gift. Something cracked open, like a miracle.
Odia Ofeimun’s A Feast of Return—a fine adaptation of oral poetry—was crucial in my becoming a poet. Created to be performed as a dance drama accompanied by songs, a historical procession centred around land-hunger, Apartheid, and the liberation struggle in South Africa—I would stand in our compound, under the night sky, chanting and chanting the libations that open the book. Perhaps without the oral poetic tradition, I may never have written poetry.
The oral poetic tradition—of poetry as an enthusiastic citizen of the mouth—has for centuries been a vital tradition in Africa, and still is; it heavily influenced what we now know as modern African poetry. Songs, chants, lullabies—before the colonial strain hit the continent, and even during colonialism—served as containers for a vibrant poetic consciousness. These modes were usually carriers of the histories of a people, often concerning “their majesties”: the ruler(s), their conquests, the origins of dynasties. For example, in 1673 in Kayor, a Wolof state in West Africa, a damel (ruler) was so intoxicated by the oral poetry recited to him by a griot (about the ancestors) that he flouted the instructions of the Zawaya—the Muslim sect that had conquered the land, enthroned the damel, and under whose guidance he was expected to rule—and consequently lost his throne.
The sound and images culled from oral poems are an implicit metaphor in the work of Wole Soyinka; his third poetry collection, Ogun Abibiman, makes heavy use of different forms of traditional Yoruba verse. Towards the twentieth century’s end, the poets Niyi Osundare and, to a degree, Funso Ayejina would take that tradition and reinvent it to speak to the decadent state of Nigerian society. This act of reinventing tradition, though, was bigger than Nigeria itself.
In a bid to reclaim a “self,” the African intellectual (specifically the creative) of the twentieth century sought to grasp and relate his situation—a displaced, confused interiority engendered by colonialism—through a revisitation of his roots. This mode (act and art) of reclaiming a self became a literary and cultural revolution. Arguably, every work done in African literature today builds on that foundation. The University of Ibadan (formerly known as University College, in Ibadan, Nigeria), the University of Ghana (Legon), and Makerere University (Kampala in Uganda) were the places where the fire first began to spread. In “A Piece That We May Fairly Call Our Own” (June 1961), Martin Banham—cited as an influence at Ibadan—noted that, in anglophone Africa, writing “started as a hesitant intrusion, developed into obsequious plagiarism before taking the final and vast stride into cultural independence and the literary expression of national personality.”
That “final and vast stride” was nourished by the oral traditions. Take, for example, poets like Mazisi Kunene, who wrote first in his indigenous language and then translated his work into English to keep the flavour of the local tongue; the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, who died in the September 2013 Westgate mall terrorist attack, in Nairobi; and Okot p’Bitek, author of Song of Lawino. All of them dug through the rubble of the tradition out of which they arose, respectively, to make art that was distinctly theirs. Also from Ghana, Atukwei Okai’s poetry has such lyrical vibrance, it is performance poetry on the page. Recently, I had a Kendrick Lamar moment while reading aloud his poems: “Sunset Sonata” and “Elavanyo Concerto” (intense poems that lean towards the political, written to and for Soyinka, the latter to “Kongi” (Soyinka’s alias) and Angela Davis). Sounds recur, lines are repeated, at times with slight variations, phrases are severed, rhymes bounce about in a measured sequence, the language urgent as blood running away from a bullet.
All these poets and several others were included in A Selection of African Poetry (1988), an anthology introduced and annotated by K. E. Senanu and Theo Vincent, which I borrowed from a modest library in another English teacher’s office, and never returned. I memorized and sang several of the poems in the book; Soyinka’s “Abiku,” John Pepper Clark’s “Olokun,” and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo’s “Cactus” among them. I imitated their style. My first poem to appear in print came through that process. In August 2022, I taught, via the Poetry Foundation, a workshop whose materials consisted of some of those poems. Through their voices, the sound of the mouths of the ancestors poured before me cold water on the literary path that I now walk.
Chanting poems these days is—primarily—a quest for pleasure, but also a soft ritual. Now I give my voice to words intricately strung on white sheets because I want to experience a certain, delicious toothache. I want threads of sweet light to spread through the dentin of the little inhabitants of my mouth; to experience that tingle, as if music itself were seeping through.
Just a few weeks ago, I turned on “Für Elise.” I put it on repeat, and went out to buy a bottle of Dettol to pour into my bath water. Back inside my one-room apartment, I opened Christian Wiman’s “All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs” and read it out loud while the music played. The music seemed to be collaborating in some deep, prescient way with the poem. I read it again and again. When I reached the lines, “like a sandpiper at the edge of the sea / decides to die,” Beethoven’s piece was fading at the hems. I read Jean Valentine’s “The River at Wolf,” and some of my published poems. I turned on Bach’s “Prelude in C Major.” I tell you, it was a trip: reading, I felt my body lifting, like I was being transported, moving through worlds I both know and would never really know. Like the “I” in Gary Snyder’s “Journeys:” “I saw / my body for a while, then it was gone.”
Often, reading a poem out loud, what I see is the body of the poem: awake. The poet-critic James Longenbach wrote that “poems exist to foreground the event of their language over the event they happen to narrate or describe.” Giving my mouth, and by extension my body, to a poem, I experience in a deeply pleasing way “the event of [its] language.” But since a poem itself is thought thinking, I also experience the event that the poem is concerned with. The images talk back to me, brimming with vivid energy. I move, as it were, from the poem into the urgent room of the poet’s mind in the Moment (the totality of times spent in the poem’s creation): I not only sense the impulse of the poem, I begin to witness what Helen Vendler has called its “aesthetic intent.” I come into a knowing of the necessity of the grapes in the field, the jar on the table, the table buried in the field. I begin to see the reason for their being in their place in the field.
Asked once why he memorizes poems, Christian Wiman said it helps anchor him to reality. I have read poems aloud while waiting at the bank. In cramped buses. Under trees at school. Under a tree at the University of Ibadan—on a night when moonlight dappled the leaves above and the wind wove its secret tale—to a girl for whom my tin heart was then beating. I read poems out loud before I begin facilitating a workshop, and during the workshop I encourage participants to read out the poems to be discussed. On the one hand, I get the sense that the act of reading a poem before a two-hour class closes space between myself and the participants. On the other, it closes space between the person who has read the poem and the poem. It reconciles. Often, I read poems to my friends on WhatsApp, as a way to enact intimacy.
When I was living with bipolar disorder, I sang to know the state of my inner life, the weather, the texture of the place. If my voice tasted good to my ears, it would likely be a good day. It could go the other way; it usually did. To arrive back at my body when the weather was dog-nose cold, I read a poem out loud. I remember my body (in its manner at the time) suddenly turning sour at a program on youth participation in governance, in 2019. I slipped out of the freezing hall and went into the toilet. There I read Danez Smith’s “from summer, somewhere” to myself, and “little prayer,” my voice coating the W/C. For a moment, as if I had just popped antidepressants (but without the side effects), I felt warm enough to go on breathing.
“[A]rt can’t save you,” Christian Wiman says in an interview in The New Criterion. “It can give you glimpses of something beautiful, maybe even something redemptive, but there’s nothing there to hold onto.” I agree, but I also know how important those glimpses, particularly language that is awakened by voice, can be. It is akin to prayer, reading a poem out loud; for a moment, the world halts.
But if only—and here comes that silly talk about the sweet joke that language is, the comfy powerlessness of voice, the fine uselessness of a poem—if only my mother, dead now for a decade, if only she could hear me read, or read to me (though she never spoke English, she knew only French and Yoruba), if only she could read to her only child or hear him read, this boy that wears her face, this newly-found poem he loves, this “Hymn” by A. R. Ammons:
I walk down the path down the hill where the sweetgum
has begun to ooze spring sap at the cut
and I see how the bark cracks and winds like no other bark
chasmal to my ant-soul running up and down
and if I find you I must go out deep into your
and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves
Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí is a writer and editor from Nigeria. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, AGNI, Bodega, The Journal, Southern Humanities Review, Joyland, No Tokens, Mooncalves: An Anthology of Weird Fiction, and elsewhere. He is working toward a BA in history and international studies at Lagos State University. (updated 4/2022)