20th gods to the Yoruba resulting in
20th Century Poetry
Essay “Ambiguous Legacy”
Niyi Osundare was born in
Ikere-Ekiti, Nigeria, in 1947. Osundare is more than just a poet. He is a
well-known essayist, writer for the theatre, lecturer and one of Nigeria’s most
celebrated poets in history. He has published several volumes of poetry,
numerous plays, many essays, articles, and criticism. Previously holding the
position of a professor at the English Institute of the University of Ibadan,
he is currently Distinguished Professor of English at the University of New
Orleans. Niyi Osundare has been awarded prizes including the 1991 Noma Award,
the 1998 Fonlon-Nichols Award and the 2008 Tchicaya U Tam’si Award for African
Poetry, one of Africa’s most prestigious poetry prizes(PoemHunter). In 2014 he
received the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award, Nigeria’s highest
distinction for outstanding creative and intellectual achievement(PoemHunter).
Osundare’s poetry combines concepts
and traditions of the Yoruba culture with Marxist approaches.
Yorubas are today one of the three main ethnic groups that make up Nigeria.
They can also be found along the borders of Nigeria in neighboring countries.Yoruba
people live mostly in South-West Nigeria. Yoruba culture includes a variety of
different artistic forms including pottery, weaving, beadwork, metalwork, and
mask making.A large majority of the artworks were made to honor the gods and
ancestors. There are more than 401 known gods to the Yoruba resulting in
countless sculptures and artwork made. This relates to my interpretation of the
poem because Osundare, being the of Nigerian descent and sharing the culture of
the Yoruba, it pains him to see the language of English and how it has spread. It
pains him because the language has spread in violent ways through colonialism
and it has had an effect on his country.
important percentage of Africans enslaved during the Transatlantic Slave Trade
in the Americas managed to maintain the Yoruba spiritual religion known as
Aborisha. Osundare has been quoted saying that when he writes he thinks in
Yoruba first before he can fully express himself in English. He uses mythical concepts to underline his struggle
against social injustice and inhumanity and heavily draw from his cultural
background of Yoruba.
He has also said “I would like my
works to affect, and there’s no way a poet can affect the audience without
being comprehensible(Ogoanah). Stylistic accessibility and social relevance
have been my primary objectives since Songs of the Marketplace, my first book.
Some critics even refer to its opening poem ‘Poetry Is’ as my poetic manifesto(Ogoanah).
Poetry can be simple and beautiful at the same time. The poet owes the people
the responsibility of being understood(Ogoanah). Osundare aims to make his
poetry easily understood by African people regardless of their education.
The speaker in this poem could be Osundare
and the setting is a busy street near the Thames River in London. The emotional tone of the poem is a calm,
enjoyable one then as the poem goes on it becomes quite critical. Phrases that
support this are “I touch the maple playfully” “the maple laughs its joy in an
accent”. He is enjoying his walk but even the maple tree has an accent. He becomes
more critical as he walks on. Later in the poem “arrests my ears with ripples
of Anglo Saxon idioms” “curse or cure” “can’t you see the purple scar” “oh the
agony”. He becomes critical of the language he hears and how it spread. It spread
along with violence and other destructive things. The colonialism has torn apart
his home and he is using the language he is hearing as a metaphor for that. The author is known to use mythical concepts
to underline his struggle against social injustice and inhumanity and heavily
draw from his cultural background and history. This poem is regular but the
last two lines are iambic pentameter as the poem makes a reference to Shakespeare.
“oh the agony it does sometimes take/ to borrow the tongue that Shakespeare spake”.
Osundare describes here how it is okay to use the lines in iambic pentameter
like Shakespeare, but it pains him so much because of the origin and roots of
how the language spread in a negative way through colonialism. This poem is
different from other texts because it criticizes thing that the other poets
might not want to target and take shots at. Osundare has been known to include
thought about the lingering effects of colonialism in this poem like when he
makes references to Shakespeare, history, the conquering tongue, and Anglo Saxon
idioms. The cultural contexts pulls from the authors African roots and thoughts
I believe in this poem is taking
shots at the way colonialism shaped the world. I think the talk about the Anglo
Saxon idioms arresting his ears is a negative connotation about the language
where he is and how he is not fond of it. Some reviews of the poem suggest that
the lines compare a rural Africa with England in a very subtle way. “Here/
roads wriggle underfoot, ever so conscious/ of the complexion of the
sole.” Sole is a homonym of soul, but even more interesting is the idea
that a foot that strikes African soil is often barefoot, and in English places,
the road has to read the complexion of the walker through this intermediary of
a sole of a shoe(laits.utexas). The poem also refers to the conquering of the
different places and how the culture forcibly came along with the conquering. The
lines that support this are “history wags its tale/through rubbles of macadamized
silence/this conquering tongue/whose syllables launch a thousand ships/its
protean conjugations/the evangelism of nouns/the uneven grammar of its clauses”.
The author as a whole does not approve of the colonialism as well as the
lingering affects in the society that he lives in the present day at the time
and place that he wrote the poem. He may not approve or even agree with how the
language and colonialism had its affects, but he still uses the language because