The Evolution of Nigerian Poetry

Poetry in Nigeria, the most populous African country, has evolved
remarkably over five decades of independence. My grandfather was a poet who
composed in his head and shared his culture through epic poems, employing
the craft as a way of remembering oral history, stories, genealogy, and
law. He, his Royal Majesty Nze Ihebuzoaju Paul Onwumere, had given poetry
meaning in the village; yet most people, including this author, had little
understanding what he was doing when he was alive.

Poetry is a literary genre that defies precise definition. Many poets and
scholars let their muse determine what poetry is, but for the rest of us,
we could use this definition commonly found on the Internet: “Poetry is
an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound,
and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry
has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means
necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and
drastic reinvention over time.”

Because Africans did
not record events that took place during antiquity in written form, the
development of poetry is credited to the Indo-European language group that
includes Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton, and its Brythonic and
Goidelic subgroups. Despite the historical record, ancient Africans knew
what poetry was, and they made good use of it.

From ancient India came the Vedas (which predate 2000
B.C.E.), but it is often claimed that the oldest surviving poem is
The Epic of Gilgamesh, composed just a little later, sometime between
1300-1000 B.C.E. in Sumer (modern Iraq/Mesopotamia). Greek epics like The
Iliad and Odyssey, the Indian Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata
, and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar also populate the list of
well-known ancient storytelling. Where is the African representation in
this history? African poetry is assumed to be absent because there were no
written records, but the African oral tradition at the time of Homer was
thriving. African poems from time immemorial were bequeathed to the people
through the oral tradition, and they still survive in African shanties,
villages, and towns today.

Nigerian Voices, Then

Africa has had innumerable thinkers who have sought to determine what makes
poetry distinctive as a form of art, and what distinguishes good poetry
from bad poetry. These practices resulted in the development of the study
of the aesthetics of poetry, otherwise called “Poetics,” a necessary field
to differentiate an oral poet from a musician. Africans did that, just as
the ancient Chinese (in the Shi Jing or the Five Classics), developed a
canon of poetry that had ritual as well as aesthetic importance.

Without delving into the details of Poetics, one tenant of the study
determined that poetry must have rules. For example, Aristotle’s
Poeticsdescribes the three genres of poetry as epic, comic, and
tragic. Later, forms of poetry, such as the epic or lyric poem, were identified.

In studying the evolution of poetry in Africa and elsewhere, Nigeria must
not be overlooked. In modern times, there are four generations of Nigerian
poets: Pre-Colonial, Colonial, Post-Colonial, and Contemporary. Through
these generations poetry has evolved tremendously, and for the better.

Multiethnic populations in the area (like the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo,
Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio, Bini, Nupe, and Igala, to name just a few) had their
traditional ways of appreciating poetry, long before the arrival of white
colonialists. Nze Onwumere, my grandfather, for instance, was Igbo, a
people who before and after colonialism delivered oral poems with nocturnal
[image: Mural depicting Ken Saro-Wiwa in County Mayo, Ireland; his poetry
is displayed (in Gaelic), as well as the names of the eight other activists
of the Ogoni Nine who were executed in 1995 under the rule of General
Sani Abacha.]

Mural depicting Ken Saro-Wiwa in County Mayo, Ireland; his poetry is
displayed (in Gaelic), as well as the names of the eight other activists of
the “Ogoni Nine” who were executed in 1995 under the rule of General Sani

voices, mostly at funerals.

Just as developments in writing and literacy changed poetry all over the
world, poets in Nigeria, including Nnamdi Azikiwe, Christopher Okigbo,
Dennis Osadebe (of blessed memories), Gabriel Okara, Wole Soyinka, Chinua
Achebe, John Pepper-Clark, amongst others, experimented in Western
education. Their poetry, tainted by Western attitudes, however, acted as a
cancer on the Nigerian poetry scene, leaving the Nze Onwumeres of this
world behind. The poetry of these Western-educated men was mostly intended
for academia; as the war between Socialism and Capitalism was then in
fashion, they wrote poems designed to undermine colonialism. They represent
a class of protest poems and poets that deviated from traditional Nigerian

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.

– Chinua Achebe

While in Poetics there are genres and rules that govern poetry, the end of
colonialism in Nigeria ushered in new forms and styles of poetry, most of
them without a defined style. Nigerian poets under colonialism followed the
culture of writing poetry that they learned directly from the white
colonialists; post-colonial poets changed these styles and themes. After
independence, poets like Niyi Osundare, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and others wrote
very powerfully in this revised art form.

In 1986, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Post-Colonial
poet-playwright Wole Soyinka, solidifying Nigeria’s place in the global
literature scene. Shaped by colonialism, poets of the second generation,
like self-avowed Marxists Odia Ofeimun and Niyi Osundare, are leaders in
the struggle for the betterment of Nigerian poetry and the removal of its
colonial mentality. Harry Garuba, Afam Akeh, and Sesan Ajayi, a university
professor, confessional poet, and journalist, respectively, are among the
leaders of the pack of the third generation (Post-Colonial) of poets.
Nigerian Voices, Tomorrow

Today, the proliferation of poetry in Nigeria is stirred by the increasing
social awareness and emotional pressure brought on by social, political,
and economic issues and crises. Contemporary Nigerian poets (the fourth
generation) like Remi Raji, Uche Peter Umez, Obi Nwakanma, Ogaga Ifowodo,
Chidi Anthony Opara, Maik Nwosu, myself, and many others, are churning out
poems virtually on a daily basis, either in book form or published on the
Internet. Poets from around the world are envious of and learning from the
power and fame that Nigerian poets enjoy in the country’s literary scene.


Marrakech: the grey hairs of
Atlas, streaks of the light of years,
like truth accompanied by a bodyguard.

It is not war: the fast tumble
is no war, Nadia.

Two pendants, each of hearts, and
the silvery lock leashed unto time;

Is no war: but the travesty of distance,
And this moment, a full breast glistening
out of the moon, the darkened streets
and hooded, like the lawless,
stranger or wayfarer:

It is the pod streaking with milk
smelt so close, it vanishes,
like the gecko abandoning her tail.
– Obi Nwakanma

Despite the lack of print publications open to poets and authors, this new
generation of poets thrives, especially through many local poetry
competitions like the ANA/NDDC Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry, Cadbury
Poetry Prize, Muson Poetry Prize, and the rotating NLNG/Nigeria Prize for
Literature. With the exception of the NLNG/Nigeria Prize for Literature,
which has purse of $50,000, few offer financial rewards.

But as one critic said of the Nigerian poetry scene today, there is a mixed
collection of talent and mediocrity, rhyme, rhetoric, and reason. Still, I
believe that there is no dearth of intellectuals among Nigerian poets.
Nigerian poets are great writers, visionaries, and social reformers who
consistently seek to drive their point home (the same cannot be said of our
political leadership). Against the backdrop of what can be described as
formidable, Nigerian poets represent the opposition to the ills of the

Today, Nigerian poets and authors are committed to the cause of humanity
and social justice. Because they have always given back to society,
Nigerians must strive to keep their legacy alive.


Is there anything like poverty?
Is it POVERTY when a man is healthy
but not wealthy?
Is it POVERTY when a man is wealthy
but not healthy?
Is it POVERTY when a man is a rich-illiterate
but a poor-literate?
Is it POVERTY when a man has many children
but there is no money to take care of them?
Is it POVERTY when a man is rich
but has no child?
What you call POVERTY might be RICHES
to the other man.
Are there not out there financially
rich barren women
who are craving for children?
Are there not out there
financially muscled people
who do not have peace?
Are there not out there people
who are handicapped
but have handwork?
What seems as POVERTY to you
might be RICHES to the other man.
Is the success of man
determined by how successful
he is financially?
In life, man lags one thing or another
no matter how highly placed.
So, there is no RICH man, no POOR man.
What abound are gluttonous-insatiable persons
or you call them, kleptomaniacs.

– Odimegwu Onwumere

Written by
Odimegwu Onwumere
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