AFRICAN POETRY By Akeem Kolawole Bello

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Poetry is the oldest of the three major forms of literature that has been part of the traditions of man through the ages; it has manifested in most human ritual activities as well as served as a ready means of entertainment in traditional festivals. Yet, in spite of its long history and perennial occurrence and employment in important human activities; it has defied common definition because it seems to strike different people differently.

Below are some definitions of poetry as posit by some scholars/poets:

• Poetry is the imaginative expression of strong feeling, usually rhythmical… the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility. – William Wordsworth

• … the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from an over-clothed blinders to a naked vision. – Dylan Thomas

• Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty. Its sole arbiter is taste. With the intellect or with the conscience it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with duty or with truth. – Edgar Allan Poe.

• Poetry is the language that tells us, through a more or less, emotional reaction, something that cannot be said. All poetry, great or small, does this. – Edwin Arlington Robinson

• Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds. – Percy Byesshe Shelley
• An actual poem is the succession of experiences – sounds, images, thoughts, emotions – through which we pass when we are reading as poetically as we can. – Andrew Bradley

• The proper and immediate object of Science is the acquirement or communication of truth; the proper and immediate object of Poetry is the communication of pleasure. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In Wikipedia, poetry is define as a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language – such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre – to evoke meanings in, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.


Africa, being a continent containing 55 countries, each with a wealth of cultures and particular histories, encompasses a wide variety of traditions and evolving trends, within the different literary genres. Poetry in Africa is a large and complex subject, not least “because there are literally thousands of indigenous languages spoken in Africa and many more dialects, every African country has an official language (or 11 in the case of South Africa). This official language acts as the ‘lingua franca’ for (at least) a reasonably sized region.”.

Slavery and colonization, with its devastating impacts on the majority of these countries, also resulted in English, Portuguese and French, as well as Creole or pidgin versions of these European languages being spoken and written by Africans across the continent.

According to Dr. Joseph A. Ushie of the Department of English, University of Uyo, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, “Modern written African poetry has a double heritage – pre-colonial and Western. As in most post-colonial situations, the tilt of our writing should be more towards the pre-colonial African literary heritage as manifested in the song, dirge, folktale, elegy, panegyric or riddle. Essentially, such art was meant for the whole community rather than for a few initiates.”


We can base our definitions of African poetry on three phases, thus:

Phase I: Before Colonization, this phase was when Africans manage their own affairs without been influenced by the colonial masters (i.e. before the coming of the colonial masters).
Phase II: During Colonization, the second phase was the period of resistance when the now-awaken masses struggled to shake off the imperialist yoke.

Phase III: After Colonization: Finally, there is a post independence phase with African societies seeking to re-order themselves, shaking off imperialist operation.

AFRICAN POETRY BEFORE COLONIZATION may be define as oral renditions by which African value systems are transmitted into the upcoming members of a community. In other words, African poetry before colonization may be defined as the oral renditions by which African belief systems, attitudes, modes of worship, traditional mores, communal expectations and cultural affinity are transmitted through oral traditional methods such as songs, dirge, elegy etc.

The major theme of African poetry before the coming of colonization was love; for the purpose of this poetry was to entertain, educate, celebrate or praise a divine god(s). And it should be noted that African poems during this era were unwritten and composed by illiterates. The poets were the traditional griots who expressed themselves in their indigenous language.

AFRICAN POETRY DURING COLONIZATION may be defined as poetry written by Africans and which themes, mood, tone, ideas, and philosophies repudiate the idea(s) or influence(s) of colonization. In other words, African poetry during colonization may be defined as an artistic imaginative creation of African people account of their social, cultural, political, religious, economic and historical perspectives at a given time and place presented in rhythmic way of written expression.

The themes of African Poetry during this period were that of frustration, protest against all form of colonialism, disillusionment etc. while the moods are sadness, uncertainty and hazy. The Pioneer African poets constitute this era; though they are learned but their artistic write ups didn’t conform to the basic rules of poetry. There had not arisen then the idea that they could experiment with the English language the way our writers do now. The pioneer poets consequently wrote poems; simple and straightforward which by present-day standards are not highly praised.

AFRICAN POETRY AFTER COLONIZATION may be defined as poetry written by a group of learned Africans (i.e. those Africans that have more formal education) and which subject matter or theme(s) show the negative effects of colonization.

African Poetry after colonization was geared toward showing the ills of African leaders, neocolonialism, racial discrimination etc. Poets during this era are: Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, John Pepper Clark, Lenrie Peters, Kwesi Brew among others. (More details in page 9)

Before the coming of colonization like a diabolical holy locust that swept our cultures and traditions aside; African has a rich poetry forms, such as: Religious Poetry; Incantatory Poetry, Salutation or Praise poetry, Funeral Poetry, occupational Poetry, Heroic Poetry etc.


Religious Poetry: Religious Poetry which involves ritual and sacrifices are accompanied on many occasions by chants, songs, incantations, musical elements and dramatic oral performances. These are necessary for properly locating the importance of these supernatural forces. It is necessary to mention that the liturgical system or mode of worship in traditional societies is organized around the survival of man.

Incantatory Poetry: Another form of African Poetry is “Incantatory Poetry”, which is one of the ways by which man seeks solution to the spiritual, socio-cultural, political and economic problems that confront him.

Salutation or Praise Poetry: This is common in African communities. When a child prostrates, kneels or bends to greet his parents in the morning, he or she is greeted with praises. The elder who wants to appreciate the kindness or assistance rendered by a child, chants some praises. The traditional poet who wants patronage and material rewards from members of the community chants the praise poetry of those involved.

Funeral Poetry: Funeral Poetry is another basic form of African poetry before the advent of colonization. Death is a universal phenomenon, the fate which every human being must embrace. Funeral Poetry therefore deals with a universal theme based on the philosophy of human existence. Philosophers compare the sojourn of man on earth to a market session. When you go to the market at the end of the day, you will return home. This is the situation in which human being find themselves. Every person must go back to the Supreme Being, the Creator of the universe, at the exact time he has chosen during creation. Myths dealing with this subject matter reveal this pathetic and philosophical irony of human existence.

Funeral Poetry is essentially a depiction of the phenomenon of transition, which again recalls archetypal patterns of the rites of passage.

Occupational Poetry: Occupational Poetry is another basic form of Indigenous African Poetry. Every African grows to be an occupational man. He is trained from childhood to appreciate his society and explore the very rich physical, cultural and human resources in his environment, for his spiritual and material well-being. Every African is trained through traditional culture to be an acceptable and useful member of the community. The first question posed by the African People in judging the acceptability of an individual is about his occupation or nature of work. This work ethics forms the basic philosophy behind occupational poetry. This type of poetry is common to all communities in Africa. Occupational poetic compositions are made at work.

Heroic Poetry: Heroic Poetry like any other forms of traditional poetry is communally owned and employed to celebrate individuals, towns and lineages that had performed great feats during their life time. The human hero or heroine can be a hunter, a warrior, a farmer, a priest, an oracle man, a traditional chief or any other person of spectacular record of achievements in a community. Also, some towns, and lineages are recognized because of their important positions in the history of their communities. The settlement of peoples in traditional communities always involved some heroic performance.

In poetic heroic compositions, African people keep the memory of their heroes alive. Oral poetry has been able to serve as a more natural custodian of such memory than modern written forms. In oral tradition, such memory is recalled with freshness of rendition and performance. The heroic activities performed by people during their life time are gradually stored in the memory bank of the society. The poet translates the residue of the memory bank to poetic compositions. The subjects or objects of the poetry may be praised even while still alive. The cumulative compilations of such heroic praises survive to make historical documents for the society.


The above forms of poetry explained are what were indigenous to us. From the explanation we were able to cement the fact that the purpose of poetry before the advent of colonization was to celebrate our cultures, entertain ourselves, educate the younger ones, to sympathize with a bereaved family or/and to perform ritual rites.

But during the 19th century and earlier 20th century when colonization was at it peak; African poets, those that have acquired Western education began to write about the ills of colonization while some write to celebrate Africa. Their artistic write ups was inherited from the West but inspired by local traditions. This period also saw the change in the themes(s) of African Poetry. Poets like Gladys May Casely – Hayford, Raphael Ernest Grail Armattoe, Dennis Chukude Osadebay and Michael Die-Anang were considered the pioneers in this genre of literature. While poets like Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, John Pepper Clark, Lenrie Peters, Kwesi Brew among others are consider the modern poets.

The pioneer poets played significant role in the fight for independence, as will be explain in the next sub-heading.

The fact we want to cement here is that African modern poetry emerged from the traditional African poetry, though western education marked the rise of African Modern Poetry because there was a smooth transition from oral rendition of Traditional African Poetry to Modern written African poetry. Africans did not hear of poetry for the first time from the Europeans we have our own poetry (Oral Rendition), western education only prepared the African poets for the task of transmitting his cultural values to wider audience beyond his immediate environment.


As earlier stated, Poets like Gladys May Casely – Hayford, Raphael Ernest Grail Armattoe, Dennis Chukude Osadebay and Michael Die-Anang were considered the pioneers in this genre of literature. These pioneer poets belong to a special period in the history of West Africa and this is reflected in their poetry. Right through West Africa, there was a certain sense of unity. They had common enemies to fight: Colonization and the poor opinion that the rest of the world appeared to have of the abilities of the black man. These problems appeared to unite the thinkers and writers of West Africa. And this was helped by the fact that West Africa – the English speaking parts – had been governed from the same center, and a common intellectual, political and cultural atmosphere was being given expression through Newspapers, like The Sierra Leone Weekly News which had been founded in the 1860’s.

The pioneer poets were all born within the first two decades of this century when this common atmosphere pervaded West Africa. We find therefore among them common themes, similar attitudes, and a common approach to poetry.

The pioneer poets took seriously the idea of poets as sages. In this they were continuing in the tradition of our vernacular literature in which stories and songs, in addition to entertaining, advice, celebration, generally help to form proper social attitudes in society. Even in English poetry it is only recently that poets started to consider themselves as addressing a private audience and to place emphasis more on style than on content, more on expressing the feelings of individual than attempting solutions to public problems. Public poetry is valid and the history of literature gives it support.

The pioneer poets, as already mentioned, were men and women involved in the problems of gaining recognition for the qualities of the black man, of achieving the political independence of their countries from colonial rule, of forming the minds of their country men for a new Africa. They were people educated more than the generality of their compatriots. They used their poetry as tools in their public engagements. And so we have poems that speak of colour, of Africa and of countries. We have poems that discuss politics and human behaviour, poems addressed directly to an audience whom the poet wanted to teach, advise or criticize.

Gladys Casely – Hayford, a Ghanaian female poet, one of the pioneers of African Poetry, in one of her poem entitled “Rejoice”; the poem is a direct poem address to (us) Africans to make us realize that we should be happy with our black colour. In the past, Africans have tended to be ashamed of being black for since we came into contact with whitemen, we have felt that all the good things in life have been manufactured by them. Moreover they have ruled us and some of us were taken as slaves to America and were made to feel ashamed of being black. In (lines 7 – 8), writes the poets, we are the soil on which the luxuries of the world have their foundation.

The poem conveys not only that we should not be ashamed of being black, but makes blackness a thing of rejoicing.

Raphael Ernest Grail Armattoe, a Ghanaian poet, in his collection entitled Deep Down the Blackman’s Mind. Some of the poems in this collection show the ills of colonization; particularly, the poem “Africa”. The poem has a sad theme; it gives a reason for sadness, a reason which implies that the poet is angrily despising something. When Armattoe returned to what was then the Gold Coast, after many years of living abroad, he took an interest in the political fight for independence but became disillusioned by the type and origin of the opposition to his political ideas and activities. Much of the sadness and anger in his poetry is a result of this disappointment and despair over politics and people. Hence this sad and lonely poem entitled “Africa”

The pioneers’ poets are either celebrating Africa or agitating for independence. A fact that should be noted.

During the modern era, there is a departure from the obsessive public themes of colour, colonization and independence. Independent had been won, or was nearly won, when the poems in this section were written and only a few of the poets bother to speak of it. But even when they speak of it, it is in connection with a personal search for identity as can be seen in Lenrie Peters’ poem entitled “We Have Come Home”. This is a theme that cannot be avoided – for in the conflicting presence of the European way of life and the surrounding traditional society, it is natural that some of us are deeply confused as to how to merge these influences into some ordered unity. Some of our poets, particularly the older ones, among them, are deeply engaged with this problem.

But, more generally, the modern poets have left the public for the private domain. They develop personal themes. They speak of life and death, of joys and pains, they write of their experiences and their growth in life, of their loves and hates. It is clear that, although the poets are thinking of themselves when they are writing these poems, their poems are also meaningful for us – for we go through the same, or similar, experiences. They therefore enlarge our sympathies and our emotional and mental growth and help us to adjust to comparable situations when they arise in our own lives. All this is, of course, in addition to the main purpose of the poet which is to give beautiful and poignant expression to his chosen theme. This aspect of expression must be realized as very important, for poetry is literature and is meant to entertain. It might as well be mentioned that it is possible for a poem to be worth reading even if it does not say much that is meaningful. It will not be important poetry, but it could be very entertaining.

Many of the poets here are young and have yet to write their best poetry. But, already,, one feels that they have achieved much to support the expectations of a vigorous West African Literature.

The modern African poets are more concern with the happenings in their environment. Some write about discrimination, the negative effect of colonization on Africa while some condemned bad Africans leaders who enriched themselves at the expense of their citizens. Others condemned the traditional practice of some Africa state while some praise mother earth (Africa).

Kwesi Brew, a Ghanaian poet who was born in Cape Coast, Ghana, in 1928. In his poem “The Executioner’s Dream”; the poet shows the degree of moral decadence and inhuman practice prevalent in some traditional African societies that engage or indulge in ritual sacrifice. Hence, the emphasis in the poem is on the innocent victims of ritual sacrifice. It also portrays something of the horror that traditional Africa of human life could have. It is this inhuman and ugly practice in killing of human lives in traditional and even in our modern society that forms the background of Kwesi’s poem.

Niyi Osundare, a Nigerian poet who was born in 1947 at Ikare – Ekiti, in Ekiti State in Nigeria. In his poem “Ours to Plough, Not to Plunder”; this poem is essentially a tribute to nature. According to the poet, the earth plays a leading role in the life of every society and should be guarded jealously. It should be treated with great care, respect and admiration. Enough restraint is need on the part of the individual as regard to the manner they relate to the mother earth and its resources. The societies should see the earth as their most valuable asset considering the immense benefits they derive from it. The earth provides us the basic needs of man: foods, shelter and clothing. It takes care of both the living and dead. In fact, the contributions of earth to human life cannot be overemphasized.

In the poem “Telephone Conversation” by Prof. Wole Soyinka, the poet shows the ill of racial discrimination. In “Piano and Drums” by Gabriel Okara, the poet shows the cultural dichotomy of traditional and Western cultures in post colonial Africa.

The modern African poets write to celebrate Africa traditions, condemned those (traditions) that are worth condemning. They also condemned racial discrimination as well as condemning bad African leaders. They reflected on the suffering of Africans during colonization and show the negative effects of neocolonialism in their works. A fact that should be underlined.

African poetry emerged from African oral tradition. Africans have a rich oral tradition and it is thoroughly evident that African poetry began from the oral literary tradition of the Africans. But it is worth saying that, African Poetry has been with us from time immemorial, as the oldest form of literature it is as old as man himself. The only transition or the emergence of African poetry is that it moved from spoken to written because of the acquisition of western education by Africans.

From the above submission, we can say that African poetry developed from the oral tradition of African.


• Abrams, M.H. (1971). A Glossary of Literary Terms. Third Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
• Donatus I. Nwoga (1967). West African Verse: Pearson Education Limited. Edinburg Gate, Harlow.
• Egudu, R.N. (1979). The Study of Poetry. Ibadan: University Press
• Eheese & Lawton, The New Owl Critic: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Cape Town: Nasou.
• Pound, Ezra (1960). The ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions.
• Reeves, James (1972). The Poet’s World: An Anthology of English Poetry. London: Heinemann.

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