N. F. Ogoanah

Niyi 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, Ondo 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: . 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 (the oral tradition). I try to accommodate one culture in the rhythm of another culture and language. While Yoruba is tone-based, English is a syllable-timed language. There’s also the psychological factor. In most poems I think first in Yoruba before expressing myself in English. I use the rhetoric of Yoruba. To make the English language carry the weight of my Yoruba experience would result in these phonological features. Yoruba is full of repetition, reduplication, and the like. To emphasize a word or structure, it has to be repeated. For example, ‘gban gban’ meaning ‘very big’. These repetitions also have semantic implications. Using alliterations in this area, I try to accommodate English sketches to phonological imperatives in Yoruba. (ii) Another factor is my love for music. Right from my youth I have loved music – the drumming, the oral tradition, the play, Yoruba lyrics and the rhythms of drums and other music. I build the rhythm into the lines. I hear the rhythm as I write. Repetition is one of the ways this is done. I orchestrate my poems. I became conscious of this right from the beginning. (iii) I also admire musical poets such as Gerald Manley Hopkins; William Carlos Williams; Whitman, Neruda, Christopher Okigbo, and so on. (iv) I have also been influenced by the rhythm of oral poetry. 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 page. It’s like the canvas. The open page is to be used and exploited. Poetry is unlike the 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 left to right. You gurgle 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 should mean. Others who write like this include George Herbert and E. E. Cummings. The irregular lineation is intended to make the poem mean more. It is also a game. The graphological pun illuminates the content. An example is ‘the Nigeria Railway’.

dark sna
ky str
structures tor tuous
milli pede on
legs 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 poor state. The whole system is sick. The last line is cramped and this shows the train 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 a book fair in London. That was April 1988. I was given time to settle to finish the remaining part of Waiting Laughters. On my way I met the train smoothly meandering across Clampham junction, and I wondered how the train was able to cross smoothly. I write one-word-line or even single letters or syllables. You will find many of these patterns in the Waiting Laughters. ‘Waiting’ – waiting in different situations. Waiting becomes tedious and tiresome when in unpleasant situations. The whole idea revolves around two persons. (i) a groom waiting for the bride (ii) a convict waiting for execution. The poem on page 84 of the volume illustrates the idea of patience.

Long- er than the y a w n of the moon in a sky so brown with heels of fleeting fancies a diamond tear waits, tremulous, in the eye of the cloud,


You need patience to even read all theses words together, to pick the various segments together to form a whole. The arrangement of the poem slows down your rate of reading, your reading speed. You count the words – all depicting the waiting process. The poem is unusually long, 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. The answer is like the first I gave above. First, there is the influence of the indigenous language (Yoruba). Two sub-genres are responsible for this: (i) the Oriki Praise (ii) Incantatory poetry. These are chanted. My poems are songs—lean poems can’t sing. There must be a certain kind of albumen. The yolk must flow. You can’t have music without flowing. Antithesis, parallelism, balance, all brought in. Second, the incantatory nature of my poetry. Our society believes in the efficacy of the spoken word and the cumulative repetitiveness of words. We talk of the syncretism of the African religion. There’s also the stylistic syncretism poetry. I do not write absolute parallelism. Something must change in the structure. For example on page 4 of Waiting Laughters we have:

“Lean poems cannot sing”

The rain is onibanbantiba

The rain is onibanbantiba

In a recent publication people criticised my work unfairly because they do not understand. I need a sympathetic ear, nose, eye, and hand to appreciate my poetry.

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 etc.

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

OSUNDARE:Eh … 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 short lines, and then long again. I break up my words, not only morphologically but also syntactically. I use adjectives a lot. I’m a partisan writer.

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, in the first place, I studied Soyinka. The poetry is said to be difficult. I didn’t buy that idea. 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. I do this unconsciously. I use compounding. It helps in understanding the mystery of the experience. I like words that have wide intimation e.g.

I tip-toe-

covenant is clay

potter’s wheel (Waiting Laughters, 5)

I don’t waste words. Sometimes, I reconceptualize words. For example, “Grace and grass” or “grace the cloth of the ground”. I like exploiting the semantic and archetypal potential of words. I employ “collocational scatter” – my words don’t mean one thing. My semantic creation is also influenced by the oral tradition. I employ a lot of semantic game. But meaning is primary for I don’t write for nothing. “Poetry is man meaning to man”. This also means that you mean something because you’re there. What you have done. Meaning is my first and last point 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, the semantic project of all the works flows from the ideological project. I want my works to affect and there’s no way a poet can affect the audience without being comprehensive. My works possess this idea. For example, Songs of the Marketplace, has ideological and systemic manifestoes. In it I demonstrate that poetry can be simple and beautiful. 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 things – all kind of things, masters, matron, Ikoyi, eternity, etc. Waiting Laughters revolves around the two tropes – ‘waiting’ and ‘laughter’. The semantic framework is woven around the two concepts. I pick a theme or a set of themes and I compose around it. I prefer to call my books volumes rather than collections. Midlife = midlife is mid-day.

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 Horatian term: Art has: Dulce—sweetness or pleasure; Utile—usefulness. I believe in the social status of art. Art must talk to us. It must be used to advance the cause of humanity. It is human to create. There are many theories that kick against this: formalism, art for art’s sake, surrealism, etc. I believe that if art has any sake at all, it is human. I am a humanist. The content is as important as the work. A work of art is not a technical jargon. Cleanth Brooks refers to a poem as “a well -wrought Urn.” But that talks about appearance per se. A container without content is empty. As concerned, committed artists, the basis of all art is justice.


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.

Copyright 2003 Africa Resource Center, Inc.