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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 527-558
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Poetry As Therapy
Reflections on Achebe's Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems
I. General Remarks About the Poetry
Until the Biafran war (1967-1970) Chinua Achebe was best known as the frontline African novelist. He had published Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966), which represented the most substantial fictional achievement by an African writer at that time. Poetry did not feature in Achebe's oeuvre until 1971 when almost out of nowhere appeared his collection of poems titled Beware, Soul Brother (Poems), published by Nwankwo Ifejika, a new publishing company in Enugu, Eastern Nigeria (formerly Biafra). The next year (1972), the collection was revised, enlarged (from twenty-three to thirty poems) and entered in the Heinemann African Writers Series. In the same 1972, the collection was jointly awarded the first (British) Commonwealth Poetry Prize. An American edition was published by Doubleday in 1973 and renamed Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems. This enlarged edition was also grouped into five sections by the author, namely: "Prologue," "Poems About War," "Poems Not About War," "Gods, Men and Others," and "Epilogue."
How and why Achebe crossed the generic boundary between fiction and poetry in the period of the Nigerian civil war and after should be of interest not only to critics of African literature but also to anyone concerned with the relationship of literature to social history, especially during periods of great social and psychological disturbances. It is obvious, of course, that poetry was there all the time in the lyrical texture of Achebe's fictional writings, but poetry as a distinctive creative form and a consciously structured genre was not part of Achebe's creative agenda until the civil war. 1 Achebe himself, a deeply thoughtful, self-analytical artist, supplies the explanation for his sudden eruption into poetry during the Biafran war. In the first place, this was a practical necessity imposed upon him by the exigencies of the situation. He reveals this in a number of interviews given by him during and after the war. As early as 1962, he had told an interviewer on Jeune Afrique, "No. I am not a poet and up to now I have never had the desire to write poetry" (Lindfors, Conversations with Chinua Achebe 8), but in the interview with Lindfors et al. at the University of Texas at Austin in 1969, in the thick of the war, he had this to say when asked if he was doing any current writing: [End Page 527]
Yes, but not novels. I do articles and some poetry, but I can't do more than that. I started a novel just before the war which seemed to me at the time terribly important—I had already had the idea for it as far back as '66—but I finally gave it up because it later seemed to me completely unimportant. . . . I can create, but of course not the kind of thing I created when I was at ease. I can't write a novel now; I wouldn't want to. And even if I wanted to, I couldn't. . . . I can write poetry—something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood. . . . (Lindfors, Conversations 34)
By then, Achebe had become immersed in the Biafran struggle. As the Chairman of the National Guidance Committee and roving ambassador of the embattled nascent republic and articulator of the aspirations of the blockaded, famine-ravaged people, Achebe had neither the time nor the inclination to write novels and such large elaborative works. 2 Achebe reiterated this and similar views when interviewed by Onuora Ossie Enekwe in 1976 (Lindfors 53), Charles H. Rowell in 1989 (Lindfors 181), and in his introduction to his poems in Don Burness's anthology, Echoes of the Sunbird: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry (1993). In the anthology, Achebe explains his situation explicitly:
. . . a hugely traumatic event occurred in the life of my people in the late 1960s: one of the...