African Poetry vis a vis World Poetry
The 1960s saw an urgency to establish African literature as an academic enquiry. Of note in this respect are three conferences held between 1962 and 1963, the Makerere, Dakar and Freetown conferences.
As a consequence, it became a necessity to trying to assess and categorize, and even generalize African writing. The task was of gargantuan proportions. Nevertheless, several stalwarts found themselves up to it. Some of these reports were based so much on the need to compartmentalize that they failed to project the reality and uniqueness of African writers. Some writers almost reached the mark but somehow went off tangent. A few, however, remained true to the task in hand.
The earliest assumptions regarding these assessments was the Pan-African outlook, an expansive assumption that all African writing followed European writing styles, forms and patterns. This led to several generalized essays and collections such as, “The Black Orpheus, Transition and African Literature Today,” “Modern Poetry from Africa” co-edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier as well as “A Book of African Verse” by John Reed and Clive Wake. These versions assumed that the African tradition was the same as the one followed in Europe.
Egudu’s “Modern African Poetry and the African Predicament” is a little more to the point in that it recognizes the existence of experiences that are unique to the African world that have gone on to shape the imagination of its writers. However, he again makes the mistake of assuming that these experiences were then presented in the European traditional pattern. For him, African poetry “is intimately concerned with the African people in the African society, with their life in its various ramifications—cultural, social, economic, intellectual, and political”
Tanure Ojaide’s “Poetic Imagination in Black Africa” is more to the point when he points out that the Black poetic imagination must be differentiated from the Western tradition of poetry so long as the artistic philosophy of African writers is rooted in traditional African poetic traditions: the artistic principles and practices shared by various Black African societies. which also provide the common base for modern African poets and poets of African descent. This could be seen as a base for a more authentic assessment of African writing.
The dilemma in arriving at a base for distinguishing African poetry then let to regionalizing it. This, however, again had its drawbacks. One was that if one went by language alone, it became impossible to regionalize. For example, Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone – products of unique colonial experiences are poetic traditions in Africa constituting distinct traditions. The concept of regionalism will, however, not work in this case as Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone writers are spread all over the continent.
The other hurdle to regionalizing is the assumption that each region is a homogenous cultural unit, which in reality it is not. Jacob Gordon denies the existence of “homogeneity of thought or expression among writers of any particular region in Africa” altogether.
Another dangerous misconception is the picture painted by some writers who assume that a certain poet or writer represents the thoughts of a certain region. For example, the work of Okot p’ Bitek is seen as synonymous with East African poetry.
There has been a movement in African literature in the past two decades to represent the problems, aspirations and challenges within their countries. This can prove to either provide a solution to the problem of generalization or it could add to the confusion if based on the natural assumption that all national writing must essentially represent the national spirit.
The isolation of South Africa in the apartheid era and the uniqueness of the literature produced in this region necessitate separating the poetic traditions associated with it. African writing in the English language is essentially represented by the writings from the Sub-Sahara region, the outputs from Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Malawi, South Africa and the Congo. Nigerian poetry could be said to be the most developed and most represented in African literature, a reason being the acknowledgement of the diversity of the people and cultural values.
It is a possibility that African literature in English had its origins in the slave writings of the eighteenth century.
The African literary experience being so unique, identifying and clarifying ethnic traditions may be the right and relevant way to study it, keeping at bay any hypocritical assumptions with regard to seeking unity in the midst of such diversity.