Tag Archives: African Literature

Chinua Achebe’s Poems

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I have been fascinated with Chinua Achebe for a log time… well ever since I from: wikipediaread, what else, Things Fall Apart. His fame quite strongly is built on his novels. But I like his poems a lot too. He is forthright in his poems. They are clearly political and display the same poise of mind that empathizes with the miserable, criticises the exploitative yet is not intolerant of humanity whatever its colour may be. Here is one of his poems I like a lot: Butterfly. I like the kind of symbolic value that Achebe brings on to butterfly while celebrating its meekness. The apparent criticism of anthropomorphism really targets in this poem the nature of force in society. Firmly based in a contemplation of the human society, Achebe in this poem questions the terminology of ‘value’.

Butterfly

** Chinua Achebe

Speed is violence
Power is violence
Weight is violence

The butterfly seeks safety in lightness
In weightless, undulating flight

But at a crossroads where mottled light
From trees falls on a brash new highway
Our convergent territories meet

I come power-packed enough for two
And the gentle butterfly offers
Itself in bright yellow sacrifice
Upon my hard silicon shield.

Another poem that really hits us is Refugee Mother and Child. I think this poem captures the sentiments of love and hope amid extreme misery. Yet Achebe is very clear that what he is doing is writing a poem about it. He is very often ironical. If it is the figure of ‘I’ that receives ironic treatment in Butterfly, in this poem it is the images of the society outside the refugee camp that reads about it in newspapers, and where normal life goes on with school life and the rest. But the focus in Achebe’s poems is always on empathy rather than on irony. I think this is a great quality. That is one of the reasons I like his poems.

Refugee Mother and Child


No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.

The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.

Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

Below are some links to Achebe treasure: readings and interviews.

Go here to listen to Achebe reading his poems.

Or here.

Achebe on  Youtube here.

Read about this interview at African Writer here.

Amazon has Chinua Achebe’s collected poems.

For an interview with Achebe go here:

Chinua Achebe in Conversation with K. Anthony Appiah here.

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

‘Political Imperative of the African Writer’

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Sometime back I was elated to see a poem by Wole Soyinka in the undergrad syllabi of an Indian university. My elation was cut short when I glimpsed at the annotation attached to it. The editors made no reference to racism, or even faintly hinted at the political undertone in the poem. I only laughed at the sense of decorum the editor’s must have observed. The poem was “Telephone Conversation”. It is significant that in certain societies at certain times, literary representation cannot keep the political in between the lines. There are times when a writer is necessarily a politician of sorts. In 19th and early 20th centuries, in the Indian subcontinent, while the poets were prone to lyricising personal responses to mother nature and stuff, most of the novelists took their vocation to be social-political commentators. Dalit literature including poetry as well as women’s writings show similar trends – personal is the political and all that. But about the African writers there is one more important aspect that Olabode Ibironke brings out well in his article “Chinua Achebe and the Political Imperative of the African Writer” (Journal of Commonwealth Literature). The African writer is not only an intellectual but also a champion of political struggle. Let us not forget the years Soyinka spent in jail. Or Achebe’s No Longer at Ease anticipating the coup. (I dont mean this is true only of the African writer).

Here is an excerpt:

The major African novels have portrayed serious concern for and deep understanding of the political situation in contemporary
Africa. This penchant for political representation is because, unlike his/her first-world counterpart, the African writer occupies the unique position of not only cultivating an intellectual and aesthetic tradition, but also bearing the burden of being actively engaged in the championing of a political struggle, which is deemed absolutely important if literary production is to bear any semblance of relevance to the life of the society.

As for the imperative of the writer Achebe had once said:

The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them.

 

While Achebe’s point has the colonial condition as its context, there is no reason to believe that this responsibility ends with self-rule and that the writer’s role in raising political consciousness becomes any less important. If at all, it deepens further, I would say. That is why, while Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart focuses on the conflict with the colonizer, his second novel No Longer at Ease talks of the corruption of the indigenous. So, the imperative to tell the people where the rain began to beat them continues.