Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 153-177
[Access article in PDF]
A Select Bibliography of Southern Bantu Praise Poetry
David M. Westley
Praise poetry has a special place in southern Africa. The familiar bombastic, histrionic praise poet of the Southern Bantu is at his height in this region. Known mostly for its use as the poetry of kings, praise poetry is, however, the territory of the commoner as well. Young boys in the fields learn to sing their own praises and the praises of others and the items praised include cattle as well as inanimate objects such as bicycles and trains. The term praise poetry may be a misnomer since it can be used to lambaste as well as laud a figure. Indeed much of its power lies in its ability to criticize.
The collection of praise poetry began with a garbled version of the Zulu praises of Dingane gathered by T. Arbousset and F. Daumas (127) and published in 1842. The appearance of lengthy collections of praise poetry in print did not begin in earnest until the publications of Walter B. Rubusana (124) in Xhosa, Z. D. Mangoaela (69) in Southern Sotho, and James Stuart (173) in Zulu. It was not until the 1960s and later that abbreviated collections of praise poetry in book-length form were published in the Oxford Library of African Literature. Some of these collections were based on the original books referred to above. These include the Tswana work of I. Schapera (87), Stuart's Izibongo (172),and M. Damane and P. B. Sanders's Sotho collection (60). They contained explanatory material and interpretations of the more arcane passages that are a feature of the poetry. Stuart's Izibongo also contained an analysis based on the MA thesis of Mazisi (then Raymond) Kunene (153). The texts were treated as fixed, however, and no attempt was made to account for the performance aspects of the poetry. But one work stood out. This was Daniel P. Kunene's work on Sotho praise poetry that he designated as "heroic poetry" (62). This work provided a morphology of the Sotho praise poem that revealed the interlocking of word patterns using a linear approach that made the structure of the poetry much more clear. Still, these writers did not deal with performance since their texts were fixed.
This changed with a new generation of scholars. The work of Jeff Opland on Xhosa traditions, which he used to investigate early English poetry as well as to comment on the live tradition of modern praise poetry, began a new chapter in the study of Southern Bantu praise poetry. It was accompanied by the work of Liz Gunner, to whom the performance aspect of praise poetry in Zulu is paramount .
This research was based to a large extent on the work of Albert Lord and Milman Parry who, in the 1930s, used the Serbo-Croatian guslar tradition of modern oral epic to investigate the works of Homer as orally produced epics rather than written literature. This research first received full attention with the publication of Lord's The Singer of Tales in 1960. In it [End Page 153] Lord argued that oral epics are composed of formulaic language and set themes. Lord's work began a theoretical revolution in how scholars viewed the written word versus the spoken word, literate societies versus oral societies. Theorists such as Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, and Jack Goody made an absolute distinction between the oral and the written, maintaining that a poet could not function in both worlds simultaneously. A second belief was that oral poets did not memorize, but composed spontaneously.
A major finding of Opland, however, was that Xhosa praise poets can and do compose in both the oral and written modes. Two examples will suffice. In the first (114) the poet D. L. P. Yali- Manisi praises chief Mangezulu in three different versions. Wanting to publish his work, he excised a large segment that he feared would be offensive to the publishers since it dealt with a notorious incident in Xhosa history. He...