- The People’s Poet: Emerging Perspectives on Niyi Osundare
Niyi Osundare's growth as a poet is perceived in most essays in this collection as evolutionary, with his latest volume, Waiting Laughter, seen, for example, in Abiola Irele's preface, as marking the highest peak in the poet's developmental progression [End Page 186] toward an artistic fusion of craft and content that has produced an increasingly dense poetic idiom. In an introduction to Songs of the Market Place, featured in this collection as "Afterword," the critic Biodun Jeyifo had earlier noted what is now uniformly acknowledged in most contributions to this book, that Osundare's intense preoccupation with poetic craft is what sets him apart from the other Nigerian poets of his generation, except that Odia Ofeimun is noted by Stewart Brown as also displaying similar poetic fastidiousness (102).
Though Osundare is acclaimed as primus inter pares, many scholars in this collection equally emphasize his representativeness as a poet of his generation because the group of poets that emerged about the same time as he were responding to the same national artistic impulse. In protest against the poetry of opaque density, characterizing first-generation Nigerian poets like Clark, Okigbo, and Soyinka, the second generation sought to create a poetry that was marked by stylistic accessibility. Ironically, although Osundare's poetry exemplifies the trend for accessibility at its best, especially in his early poems which articulated this generational poetic manifesto, a number of the essays included here have validly observed that the more artistically proficient Osundare's poetry becomes, the more it is characterized by stylistic opacity.
This phenomenon, it is pointed out, is a consequence of Osundare's love of stylistic experimentations, which in Irene Sywenky's opinion include a tendency that Osundare shares with the Ukranian poet Yuri Andrukhovych, to re-evaluate and recontextualize both received native oral tradition as well as borrowed Western literary models as a way of "writing oneself into the world culture while maintaining a distinct cultural identity" (375). Poetic density, in Adepitan's view, is also an inescapable consequence of Osundare's adoption of the oral poetic tradition, known for its mythic tendencies. "Osundare," he writes, "is not overly concerned with myth-making in The Eye of the Earth. Nonetheless, is it fair to ask a Yoruba poet to write a whole tome of invocations and salutations in obeisance to the earth without willy-nilly re-discovering that mystic, mythic association with the earth for which his forefathers were exemplars? The answer is no—not even for a poet with a materialist outlook." (72)
A generous number of essays analyze Osundare's stylistic experimentations with various aspects of poetic composition, including morphology, metaphoric diction, and oral tradition's performance devices. If the adoption of the stylistic elements of orature and a preference for intensely committed social themes, as correctly pointed out in several essays, constitute traits that Osundare shares with other poets of his generation, it is equally remarked that his patronage of ecological themes as a poet of nature and his infusion of hope and optimism into the treatment of the ills of the society are qualities that also set him aside from his peers (see Adepitan, Brown, Burness). As much as Femi Oyebode admires the brilliance with which Osundare integrates elements of his native Yoruba poetic devices in his Nigerian English poetry, he nonetheless argues that all that Osundare can achieve in this regard is a qualified, limited success in as much as poetry, more than drama or prose fiction, requires a native language to adequately express a native reality. "The overall effect" of composing poetry on Nigeria in English rather than his native Yoruba, the scholar insists, "is of a language treating its subject as alien to the integrity of the language itself " (86). While it may be argued that English cannot strictly be regarded as an alien language to Osundare, considering his training in it as a linguist, as well as his amply demonstrated [End Page 187...