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The radical relevance of Wole Soyinka

Nigerian Literature Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka   | Photo Credit: AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE

Poetry lovers had not one, but two dates this week to be grateful for. July 12 July marked the 111th birth anniversary of Pablo Neruda. A day later, on the 13th, Wole Soyinka turned 81. I have written about the Chilean poet on his death anniversary last year. The Nigerian poet is whom I want to focus on today. As the first African and the first person of colour to win the Nobel Prize, Wole Soyinka is no stranger to the spotlight. And yet, the spotlight has not always been kind or fair.

He is a harsh critic of the government in Nigeria – an act for which he has been punished with exile, a two year period in solitary confinement, and a death sentence. This connection with his country informs his work and his thoughts and gives him a peerless dignity that is poignant and powerful.

His work is a fascinating mix - where the breath of his favourite deity, Ogun (a spirit of metal work), the stories of his Yoruba tribe, and his native soil suffuse his words, as much as his need to see his beloved country less enslaved, more alive. Wole Soyinka is an atheist, unable to believe in a god in whose name atrocities are carried out. And yet, there’s Ogun. This dichotomy is seen in his work too. A struggle between times gone by and times to arrive. The need to be an activist and the calling to be an artist – perhaps, the other way around too. In his own words, “Some of us – poets are not exactly poets. We live sometimes – beyond the word.”In his famous poem, Telephone Conversation, the poet speaks of an obnoxious exchange he has with a potential landlady. When she hears that he’s African, she asks him how dark he is. “"ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?" The poet responds, “Facially, I am brunette, but madam you should see the rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet. Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused- /Foolishly madam- by sitting down, has turned/ My bottom raven black - One moment madam! – sensing/ Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap/ About my ears- "Madam," I pleaded, "wouldn't you rather/ See for yourself?"

It’s the last line that’s even more heartbreaking than the self-deprecatory description that precedes it.

Even in the wilful, almost foolish pride is the acknowledgment of submissiveness, a need to be accepted.

How beautifully captured. Wole Soyinka’s work shines with such insights into the human soul. His words are strident . In Procession I-Hanging Day, he says, “What may I tell you of the five/ Bell-ringers on the ropes to chimes. Of silence? What tell you of rigours of the law?

From watchtowers on stunned walls. Raised to stay a siege of darkness/What whisper to their football thunders. Vanishing to shrouds of sunlight? Let not man speak of justice, guilt/Far away, blood-stained in their/Tens of thousands, hands that damned. These wretches to the pit triumph/But here, alone the solitary deed.” The collective helplessness, even apathy, of the spectators is brought out in a few light touches that carry a heavy message.

Or this poem, Civilian and Solider, “I hope some day/Intent upon my trade of living, to be checked /In stride by your apparition in a trench, /Signalling, I am a soldier. No hesitation then /But I shall shoot you clean and fair /With meat and bread, a gourd of wine /A bunch of breasts from either arm, and that /Lone question - do you friend, even now, know /What it is all about?”

The futility of war and struggle, held up to the light in the poet’s inimitable style.

His poetry is soulful too – something Pablo Neruda and he have in common. In I think it rains, Wole Soyinka says, “O it must rain/These closures on the mind, blinding us/In strange despairs, teaching/Purity of sadness. And how it beats/Skeined transparencies on wings/Of our desires, searing dark longings/In cruel baptisms.” In The Lion and the Jewel, the poet describes romance as, "the sweetening of the soul/With fragrance offered by the stricken heart.”

Maybe this is why we choose poetry. Poetry makes us fall in love and love makes us fall in love with poetry. Or at least, appreciate it.We learn, but unknowingly. It teaches, but unobtrusively. The teacher in Wole Soyinka would appreciate this gentle lesson.

Srividya is a poet. Read her work at >www.rumwrapt.blogspot.in

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 11:10:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-radical-relevance-of-wole-soyinka/article7434228.ece

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