Africa Today 49.3 (2002) 127-129
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Charles Bodunde's monograph provides a useful, if flawed, addition to the relatively small corpus of books that trace influences of orature in the poetry of contemporary Africa and the African diaspora. For a typology of genres of oral poetry, Bodunde draws primarily on Joel Adedeji and Harold Scheub's classifications, including praise poems, divination poems, incantations, masquerade poems, parables, proverbs, and riddles. Bodunde emphasizes poets' uses of cultural symbols, such as horns, spears, drums, and animals, their uses of religious and landscape imagery, their allusions to historical and legendary figures, and their responses to past and current political turmoil. Bodunde supplements his critical inquiry with excerpts from interviews he conducted between 1994 and 1999 with several of the poets whose work he discusses.
In each of ten brief chapters, Bodunde applies one or more aspects of the categories mentioned above to the writings of one or more poets. For example, in the second chapter, "Myth, Legend, and the Poetics of Heroism," he explores Wole Soyinka's and Mazisi Kunene's deployment of Ogun and Shaka as archetypes. In the fourth chapter, "Oral Art Forms and Social Vision in the Poetry of Niyi Osundare and Jack Mapanje," Bodunde discusses the intersection of aesthetics and ideology. The questions he raises and the excerpts from poems he quotes are solid and useful, but his analysis seldom goes beyond the obvious or the overly general: "Needless to say, oral forms have their own existence and functions within the culture. They are often used in written literature to perform similar functions. The act of correlating the artistic and social functions of existing oral genres with creative possibilities in written poetry for instance, makes sense because these forms have succeeded through the ages in conditioning certain valuable means of cognizing and humanizing the society" (p. 36).
Bodunde's coverage of poets is hard to rationalize. While the title indicates that a broad spectrum of "contemporary black poetry" will be examined, most of the poetry analyzed here is not terribly recent, and the only non-African poet under discussion is Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite. The majority of the African poets considered are Nigerian, with the exceptions of Okot p'Bitek, Mazisi Kunene, Jack Mapanje, Okello Oculi, and Kofi Anyidoho. Also problematic is Bodunde's failure to discuss women [End Page 127] poets, with the exception of a glancing reference to a poem by Ugandan poet Susan Kiguli.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the considerations above, the most successful sections of the book directly relate Nigerian orature to contemporary Nigerian poetics, as in chapter 3, "Myth and Aesthetic Mediation: Ifa Divination Poetry and Okinba Launko's poetry." The name Okinba Launko may be unfamiliar to some: Femi Osofisan published some of his volumes of poetry under the former name, but his recent poetry, with most of his work in other genres, has been published under the latter name. Confusingly, Bodunde refers to him as Launko in the chapter on his work, but as Osofisan elsewhere in the book. Bodunde's examination of--to use his term--the aesthetic transfer of Ifa (Yoruba) divination imagery and the identification of the role of the diviner with the role of the poet in Launko/Osofisan's poetry gives glimpses of what a more detailed investigation of specific oral influences could provide and how useful such analysis could be, particularly for non-Yoruba readers.
Similarly, in chapter 9, "Ivwie, Ivwri, and Edon: Tanure Ojaide and the Urhobo Tradition," Bodunde offers a solid framework for reading Ojaide's political satires in the context of the udje song culture of the Urhobo, the culture in which Ojaide grew up: "If you elect rats to guard your property, know that you have blessed a clan of thieves; if the ram is ordained priest, let the maids beware" (p. 109). Bodunde links "the mythologized expression of psychic recovery" in Ojaide'...