Orality in Contemporary African Poetry: The Example of Ezenwa-Ohaeto.

AuthorOgundipe, Stephen T.
PositionCritical essay


There is a large volume of published studies describing the place of orality in writing; scholars like Deborah Tannem (1980), Walter Ong (1982), Brian Street (1984), Albert Lord (1987), Jack Goody (1987), and Eileen Julien (1992) among others have examined its theoretical foundations. A good number of African scholars have equally interrogated the subject from different perspectives (Mapanje 1974, Anyidoho 1991, Ngugi 1993, Nwachukwu-Agbada 1993, Ojaide 1996, Biakolo 1999, Bodunde, 2001, Gyamfi, 2002). What we know about the existing research on the transfer of oral elements to the written form in African poetry largely interpret it as a response to the perceived hegemony of Africans by Europeans. But this is not always the case, reading African writing as a literature of reaction does not necessarily give considerable attention to either the aesthetic element of the oral forms or their functions.

This article contends that utilising techniques of oral resources by African poets is not only for political purposes, but an acknowledgement of the poets' recognition of the aesthetic functions of the oral forms. The poets' adaptation of oral styles and techniques surpasses that of writing against the "Other." This article, therefore, gives attention to the specific deployment of oral modes through a reading of the Ezenwa-Ohaeto's The Chants of a Minstrel. It examines elements of indigenous performance in the work and how they contribute to the overall aesthetic purpose of the poet. It explores how creative inventiveness of the poet contradicts the prevalent perception of African poetry as a literature of reaction. It contends that Ezenwa-Ohaeto's adaptation of oral cadence is merely aesthetic transfer rather than a platform for a political expression.

The adoption of oral forms from the indigenous ethnic language features prominently in much of Ezenwa-Ohaeto's poetry. He consistently explores the rhetoric of African performance in which traditional song, music, dance, and the spoken word achieve prominence. This feature of oral performance is noticeable in his poetry collections, including Bullets for Bunting, If to Say I Be Soja (If I am a Soldier) I Wan Bi President (I want to be the President), Songs of a Traveller, The Chants of a Minstrel, and The Voice of the Night Masquerade. Out of the six poetry collections produced before his death in 2005, two of the poetry collections were written in pidgin English as a reflection of "linguistic experimentation in the creative process of the postcolonial societies" (Ojaide, 1996:17). Looking through the compositions in the collections, a significant influence of the Igbo traditional genre of satire spreads through them. The choice of the satirical mode from the oral tradition implicitly influences the detailed content and form of the collections.

Theoretical Framework

The essay draws on theoretical insights from Leech (1991) and Talib (2002) to demonstrate that language is one of the central concerns of Ezenwa-Ohaeto's poetry. While linguistic analysis constitutes the main concern of Geoffrey Leech and appears to validate the visibility of language use, Ismail Talib draws attention to discourse conventions associated with indigenous languages in Africa. In exploring Ezenwa-Ohaeto's aesthetic strategies, therefore, the concern is not primarily linguistic analysis but to demonstrate how the poet creatively achieves what Jacqueline Bardolph (1984:151) calls "effective oral stylisation of oral characteristics in the written medium."

Writing Orality in the Chants of a Minstrel

The expression of oral features in the collection materialises at two major levels. First is at the level of the choice of cultural figures, where different voices are projected. The second involves the deployment of specific oral features. The title of the collection, The Chants of a Minstrel, clearly anticipates the omnipresence of indigenous performance strategies in the poetry. The idea of performance creates immense possibilities for adapting everyday idioms and poetics of oral performance. The collection freely draws on the vast repertoire of indigeneous oral literary forms and inhabits the intersection between the written and the oral. This mixture is obviously illustrated in the poet's preference for "chants" instead of poetry, suggesting an emphasis on the rhythm and sound of the words as well as their performance values. The terminology, chanting, also suggests the performative nature of the poetry. It anticipates musicality rather than speech. In other words, the preference for 'chants' foregrounds the adoption of viva-voce thought of which writing is only a vehicle for expression.

The preface to the poetry collection establishes the tone for the oral cadences through the declaration, "my ancestors were minstrels, and I have continued in the same tradition" (2003:8). The "ancestors" allude to the indigenous oral heritage of the poet. The tribute to the indigenous minstrel tradition describes in detail the heritage that enormously moved the poet. Although the notion of "tradition" suggests "from times immemorial," it could be interpreted as a broad category comprising entire indigenous and literary forms available to the poet.

"Continuing in the same tradition" suggests that the fundamental impulse of the poet's work derives from the oral poetic tradition. Since the channel of transmission of Ezenwa-Ohaeto's poetry is not exactly as the oral expression of his ancestors, the continuity of tradition is only relevant in terms of appropriating echoes of the oral rhythm of traditional texts, and of the spoken voice borrowed from the oral tradition.

The Minstrel as the Voice of Conscience

Minstrels as itinerant performers of music are frequently encountered in many societies. Beyond their primary roles as entertainers, minstrels have always been ready-made spokespersons or symbols of poetic assertiveness in the indigenous African society. The minstrel figure in Igbo society of Eastern Nigeria, where the poet hails from, is particularly associated with either the masquerades (Mnanwu) or itinerant musicians (Egwu Ekpili/Okpubo), who frequently entertain during religious and transition occasions, including puberty, marriage and death.

The Igbo in particular have cultural norms that endow the minstrel and masquerades with exceptional status, powers and immunity. The belief in ancestral worship and the perception of masquerades as spirit beings confer immunity on them. This recognition of masquerades as ancestral beings restrains the living from interfering with their performances, even when the object of performance is under satiric or abusive song.

The minstrel persona in Igbo society functions as a community conscience and enjoys immunity from persecution. This protection empowers the minstrel to significantly contribute to the socio-political well-being of the...

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