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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 101-123

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Birago Diop's Poetic Contribution to the Ideology of Negritude

Sana Camara

In his only collection of poems, Leurres et lueurs, Senegalese author Birago Diop (1906-89) offers a dense and penetrating poetry on the states of consciousness of the poetic "I" and on African ontological conception, two thematic axes that reveal a paradox in the writer. Birago Diop's poetic activity was marked from its very beginnings primarily by an eloquence found in the French masters, such as Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset. As a Romantic poet, Birago Diop did not seek to diverge from his impassiveness before the exactions of the colonial regime: his sensitivity was trained instead upon the profundities of the "I" immersed in the sentimental life; thus his first compositions define the poet plunged in burning sorrow caused by disappointments in love. His inattention to the dramatic issues that affected his people, and preoccupied his literary confreres, therefore caused Birago Diop to be a marginal poet, until he finally understood that he had to make amends for the shortcomings in his poetic genius by turning to his own cultural heritage.

Imbued with an extraordinary talent, Birago Diop succeeded in establishing the ontological bases of African society in the second part of his collection of poetry, where his vision of nature is instructive on the cosmic vitalism of human beings and he elaborates a thesis on the soul's generating principle. He defines life as a perpetual movement of recomposition, with the soul's revitalization taking effect through cosmic elements. In postulating the permanence of organic matter, Birago Diop seeks in particular to establish a link of interdependence between mankind and nature, the dwelling place of his ancestors, the regulators of the human race. This is the spiritual source of the universe into which Negritude poets dip to augment their vital powers in the struggle that pits them against a devastating force. In his heart's yearnings, as in his erudite exegesis of African ontology, Birago Diop espouses a poetry that conforms as much to Western esthetic conventions as it does to African conventions, and that confluence illustrates Birago Diop's poetic preeminence among his contemporaries.

Birago Diop was born 11 December 1906—the same year as Senghor—in the district of Ouakam, situated on the Cape Verde peninsula. He did not know his father, Ismaël Diop, who disappeared two months before his birth, but had to be content with the loving support of his mother and his aunt. Alongside them, and within the large family circle common among the Senegalese, Birago Diop loved to recall memories of his two older brothers, Massyla and Youssoupha. These two men guided their brother's professional success by offering him their good example. Massyla showed him the path to literary creation, first through his duties as a publicist (Le Sénégal Moderne and La Revue Africaine) and later as the author of a novel (La Sénégalaise), a short story (Le chemin du salut), and sonnets [End Page 101] (Thiaga). Beyond the mandatory school assignments, it was Massyla's erudition that reinforced Birago Diop's determination to succeed in the field of literary creation. Thus, so as not to fail in his ambition, he set up for himself an arduous schedule of reading books that were at his disposal. Whenever he had a free moment, Birago Diop took the opportunity to wander through the municipal libraries in search of books of all types. The memory of this compelling attachment to books is found in the poem "Saint-Louis": "Et mon âme saoule des rêves des livres / Voudrait entrevoir tes sourdes visions" 'And my soul drunk on dreams of books / Seeks to glimpse your voiceless visions' (Leurres et lueurs 53).

As for Birago Diop's relationship with his brother Youssoupha, that attraction was of another kind, for Youssoupha had a taste for the latest fashion and his impeccable attire charmed the young people of his district, even more so when he...