West Africa Review (2003)

ISSN: 1094-2254

"I Am a Humanist": Niyi Osundare on the Poetry of Niyi Osundare (an Interview)* by N. F. Ogoanah

New Orleans/Nigerian poet, dramatist, critical essayist, and columnist, Niyi Osundare was born in Nigeria in 1947. He is Professor of English at Universities of New Orleans and Ibadan. Osundare is an intensely political poet and a vehement champion for human rights. His award-winning Selected Poems were published by Heinemann in 1992. Osundare's more than two dozen books include his most recent collection of poetry, Days (2008).

Osundare is one of the most prominent within the generation of contemporary Anglophone Nigerian poets that emerged after Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, and Gabriel Okara. Born in 1947 in Ikere-Ekiti, Ekiti State of Nigeria, he studied at Ibadan, Leeds and Toronto, and now teaches in the Department of English, University of Ibadan, where he granted this interview. His poems have won many national and international prizes, among which was the 1986 Commonwealth Poetry Prize. His published works include: I. Sing of Change; Songs of the Marketplace; Village Voices; Moonsongs; The Eye of the Earth; The Nib in the Pond; Waiting Laughters; and Midlife.

Osundare draws copiously from the oral tradition, and his imagery and settings are essentially rural. He says his primary purpose is to demystify poetry and make it accessible to the ordinary man for whom he sings. As the voice of the people, his condemnation of the ruling class and of social vices in general is unequivocal and his call for change in every facet of society unprecedented. In this interview, he speaks of the influence of the Yoruba oral tradition in his poetry, his techniques as well as his basic ideological thrust.
OGOANAH: One basic feature of your poetry is the orchestrated use of phonological puns (namely alliterations and assonance). Is there any motivation for this?

OSUNDARE: This is a question that people have always asked me within and outside the country. The phonological puns arise from many factors: (i) The carry-over from my first language, Yoruba, and the oral tradition. I try to accommodate one culture in the rhythm of another culture and language. While Yoruba is syllable-timed, English is a stress-timed language. There's also the psychological factor. In most poems I think first in Yoruba before expressing myself in English. I make use of Yoruba rhetoric. To make the English language able to carry the weight of my Yoruba experience, a lot of phonological adjustments have to be made. Yoruba's expressive power resides in its music, realized largely through repetition, reduplication, and the like. To emphasize a word or structure, you repeat it. For example, 'gbengbe gbengbe ( 'big big, i.e. 'very big'); 'tintin' (small small). These repetitions also have semantic implications in terms of amplification and reiteration. In many instances, my use of alliteration in English is a reflection of the phonological repetition in Yoruba. (ii) Another factor is my love for music. Right from my youth I have been a passionate lover of music - singing, dancing, drumming, the fabulous drama of the the oral tradition,, Yoruba is very rich in lyrics and the rhythms of the drum ; music is the moving force of the language. I try to build some of this rhythm into my lines. I hear the rhythm as I write. Repetition is one of the devices that aid this process. I orchestrate my poems, empower them with melody. This I have done since the beginning of my poetic career . (iii) I also admire musical poets such as Gerald Manley Hopkins; William Carlos Williams; Whitman, Neruda, Christopher Okigbo, and so on. (iv) My primary objective is to make the poetic words speak again. They have been rendered mute for a very long time.

OGOANAH: What can you say about the irregular lineation in your poetry? Are they accidental or are they motivated?

OSUNDARE: As a poet and also a linguist I am always fascinated by the potential of the open page. It's like a painter's fascination with the canvas. The open page is to be used, explored, and exploited. Poetry is unlike prose in its written form, and the major difference is lineation. Prose, for instance, goes from left to right, and you must get to the margin before starting a new line. But in poetry you could decide to write from right to left. You juggle the words together and reshuffle them. You have the liberty to play with the words and arrange them the way you want. This is the great advantage that poetry offers. I try to produce harmony between the visual and the aural. I want my reader to hear my words from the way they're written. The appearance of the poem is a means of meaning, Take the visually emblematic poems of George Herbert and E. E. Cummings as examples. The irregular lineation is intended to make the poem mean more. It is also a game. The graphological metaphor illuminates the content. An example is 'the Nigeria Railway'.

dark sna
ky str
                                                      tor tuous
                                                     pede on
                       of iron
crawl                               ing
wear                               ily

                      fromswamptosavannah (Songs of the Marketplace, 30)

The words are scattered on the page. The physical appearance of the poem shows that Nigeria has no railway system. You can't communicate between one station and another. The coaches are in a poor state. The whole system is sick. The last line is cramped; the words are jumbled. This shows the railway system has a 'long trouble'. The poem tries to signify. It has both lexical and semantic implications. You can contrast that poem with the 'Criss Cross" in Waiting Laughters.


My inspiration for 'Criss Cross' came while I was in London for a book fair in London in April 1988 and I had to stay at my publisher, Joop Berkhout's place outside the city. I took the train every morning and passed through the busy, tangled Clapham junction. I was working on the last few poems in my book Waiting Laughters at that time. Of course, the tangled, serpentine railroad as well as the long, huge cylindrical bodies of the trains inspired me to the poem above. I was just amazed at the crisses and crosses.. . . There are also times I compose one-word-lines or one-syllable or one-letter lines. You will find many of these patterns in the Waiting Laughters. 'Waiting' - waiting in different situations. Waiting becomes tedious and tiresome when done in unpleasant situations. The nature of waiting is also tied up with the nature of the waiter: consider the situation of two persons. (i) a groom waiting for the bride (ii) a convict waiting for the noose. The poem on page 84 of the volume illustrates the idea of patience.


You need patience to be able to piece all these bits together to form a coherent entity. The arrangement of the poem slows down your reading speed. You count the words - all depicting the waiting process. The poem is unusually long and longitudinal, still showing the idea of waiting. Just waiting-the psychology of waiting, waiting demands patience.

OGOANAH: Most of your lines are set in parallel structures. Are there special reasons for this or could it be a mere adoption of traditional patterns of poetic composition?

OSUNDARE: Yes. You are right. My answer here will bend back to the ones I gave to your first question above. First, there is the influence of the indigenous language (Yoruba). Two Yoruba poetic sub-genres are responsible for these parallel structures: (i) the Oriki ('praise poetry') and (ii) Incantatory poetry. These two derive their power from uttering and chanting. My poems are songs-supple, fluent, full-bodied in many parts. You see, lean poems can't sing. For the poem to sing and command the listener to dance, there must be a sense of FLOW. You can't have music without that flow, and music is the heart of my poetry, the organizing principle of my poetics. This is why structural features such as parallelism, antithesis, balance figure prominently in my writing. There is also the incantatory nature of my poetry. Our society believes in the efficacy of the spoken word and the cumulative repetition of words is an enabler of this efficacy. I do not indulge in absolute parallelism. There is usually something that creates change in the structure. For example on page 4 of Waiting Laughters we have:

The rain is onibanbantiba
The rain is onibanbantiba

What you have here is a situation in which structural parallelism is reinforced by phonological contrast. The two lines are made up of the same number of words - even the same words - but while 'onibanbantiba' in the fist line ends on a high tone, the same word in the second line ends with a low tone. This is a classic case of tonal counterpoint, a primal force in Yoruba music. People who criticize my work must know all this and appreciate the music behind my lines. Melody is crucial to my poetry; rhythm is a sine qua non . My poetry (as well as my prose) requires a knowing ear, nose, eye, and tongue for its full appreciation.

As I said earlier on lean poems cannot sing. My aim is to make poetry as close as possible to the high reaches of music. I'm a keen admirer of musicians such as Victor Uwaifo, Eddy Okonta, Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey , Fela Kuti, etc.

OGOANAH: What general statement could you make about the nature of your syntactic patterns?

OSUNDARE: Eh Â… I care very much for the length of the line. Sometimes, my sentences are short, and at other times they are long. In Moonsongs, for example, there's a kind of morphosyntactic change. You have predominantly long lines. I break up my words, not only morphologically but also syntactically. I use adjectives a lot - which sometimes betrays the partisanship in my stance.

OGOANAH: At the level of meaning, your poetry is very innovative, very creative; you undertake what I may call linguistic adventure. What is the motivation for the creation of meaning in your works?

OSUNDARE: Yes. I like the expression, 'linguistic adventure'. Well, my first principle as an artist is communication. The audience must understand what you are saying; otherwise you are merely wasting your time - and theirs. My first encounter with Soyinka's poetry ( and later Okigbo's) gave me something of a 'negative inspiration', stylistically speaking. I found these poets very difficult at the beginning of my career, and I asked: isn't there a less forbidding way of writing poetry? I have never subscribed to the idea that a poem should be difficult for it to be 'good'. I felt there should be a way of impressing the reader without making him feel small. It's possible to use common words in an uncommon way. When words are not available I create them. When there are no adequate words in English, I bring in Yoruba transfers. I do this unconsciously at times. I use lexical compounding. It helps our understanding the mystery of the experience. I like words that have primordial intimations: 'millennial', 'covenant', 'clay', 'scarlet', 'winnowing', 'patience', etc
Sometimes, I re-conceptualize and re-contextualize common words and expressions. For example, the phrase 'grass to grace' is redeployed and given a new connotation in 'Our Earth Will Not Die', the last poem in The Eye of the Earth. . I like exploiting the semantic and archetypal potential of words. I like words with a wide "collocational scatter" - ones whose fields of reference are diverse, surprising, and unpredictable. My attitude to meaning i is also influenced by the oral tradition, where meaning and verbal play are prominent features.. But meaning is my primary purpose - meaning and social and aesthetic accountability. "Poetry is man meaning to man", I declared in my first book of poems (man, and woman too!). We mean, therefore we are. Meaning is my first and ultimate port of call.

OGOANAH: What definite statement could you make about the nature of your work with regards to the creation of meaning as it relates to your poetic ideology!

OSUNDARE: This is a bit difficult. Eh…Well, I think I have already hinted at this in my answer to your last question. I would like my works to affect, and there's no way a poet can affect the audience without being comprehensible. 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. Poetry can be simple and beautiful at the same time. . The poet owes the people the responsibility of being understood. The Eye of the Earth is dominated by the semantics of terrestiality. Moonsongs relies on lunar semiotics. The moon is used as a symbol of all kinds of things, master, matron, Ikoyi, Ajegunle, laughter, sadness, now and eternity, etc. Waiting Laughters revolves around two tropes - 'waiting' and 'laughter'. The semantic framework is woven around the two concepts. Midlife is about life at mid-day, the song of a bird in mid-flight. I usually pick a theme or a set of themes and compose around it. I prefer to call my books volumes rather than collections.

OGOANAH: What is your basic ideological pre-occupation, your purpose for writing.

OSUNDARE: The question of purpose. I believe art has a purpose. To use the Horatian term: Art is characteised by Dulce - sweetness or pleasure; and Utile -usefulness, purpose. I believe in the social responsibility of art. Art must talk to us. It must be used to advance the cause of humanity. Of course, not everyone is agreed on the social answerability of art. The formalists, for example, those with the art-for-art's-sake credo. But I believe that if art has any sake at all, it is the human sake. I am a humanist. For me the content of the work is as important as the style. A work of art is no mere technical jargon. If the poem is "a well -wrought Urn." as Cleanth Brooks has averred, it is our task to appreciate the formal appearance of that urn without losing sight of the gravity of its possible/potential content.

* Revised by the interviewee in March 2009

Osundare, Niyi. Midlife. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1993.
-----. Waiting Laughters. Lagos: Malthouse, 1990.
-----. I Sing of Change. Ibadan: Spectrum Books, 1988.
-----. Moonsongs. Ibadan: Spectrum Books, 1988.
-----. The Eye of the Earth. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1986.
-----. The Nib in the Pond. Ile-Ife: Dept. of Literature in English, 1986.
-----. Village Voices. Ibadan: Evans Brothers, 1984.
-----. Songs of the Marketplace. Ibadan: New Horn Press, 1983.