Modern African Poetics: A Study of the Use of Ifa Corpus in Kolawole Samuel Adebayo’s Poems – An Essay by O-Jeremiah Agbaakin

In his collection of critical essays, The Sacred Wood, T. S. Eliot made a case for the inevitability of the past encroaching into the moment. Not as a prescriptive, but an organic material to continue the conversation where it had ended, briefly, with the dead writers. Harold Bloom similarly argued, albeit, using a more complex language, about the anxiety of influence, in what he termed the “six revisionary ratios”. One of the defining moments in Eliot’s riveting book was when he stated that a good work of art is often judged, erroneously, for where it least mirrors an existing corpus or canon, and not where it largely builds on and improves it.

This, to him, is a flawed assessment. Reading Samuel Adebayo’s poetry, one will be quickly struck by the innovative style and the acute boldness which it takes to explore such an unfamiliar terrain: the Ifa Corpus. But is it so unfamiliar? This is the question. Writers and poets especially have always explored or exploited liturgical materials and Holy Books for inspiration, direction, or even covert criticism. John Milton did this in his major works, Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. Dante Alighieri, as well, in The Divine Comedy. Homer did this with the Iliad and Odyssey, often largely incorporating the Greek liturgy, such as Dionysius worship, Dithyrambs, etc., into the lore. In the Muslim world, Rumi, Hafez and the rest did the same, albeit deploying their much more restricted sectarian Sufi mysticism. In American literature, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was largely influenced by the Holy Bible, specifically its lofty language. These mentioned works went beyond simply the limited wavelength of allusion as literary contraption. They went beyond homily. Rather, these works were aware of their unique materials, or rather influence, and built extensively on these materials not as a supplant or alternative literature or by way of iconoclasm or caricature, but rather expanding the literature beyond the confines of the religious space where they originate. After all, men did (inspired by their own God or gods) write down these materials.

It is safe to argue that the assimilation of holy texts and religious materials by African writers or poets has not measured up to their counterparts in the occidental and the oriental civilisations. This may be due to some reasons: number one, diversity of religious practices and persuasions in African nation states and societies, lack of codification of religious texts which rely heavily on oral tradition; as well as the colonial issue of demonizing African traditional religions for their modern, living suitability. For the African writers willing to stay original and close to their roots, there remains also the difficulty of translation. Even Chinua Achebe, regarded as the first African writer to perform an artistic intercourse between two cultures: the Igbo way of life and the English language (much to the pan-African-nationalistic criticism of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who advocated that African writers write strictly in African languages instead of creating a hybrid child for the whiteman’s delectation), only achieved this at the level of language, albeit in an unprecedented way. Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J. P. Clark, Amos Tutuola, and a few others made great attempts to represent their own traditional religious values in their own writing, but little has been seen of the generations after them.

However, while there are some resurgence or renaissance in the appreciation and practice of the Yoruba religion, it remains confined largely to the diaspora. It is hijacked by neocolonial consumerism and its cultural appropriation. The real owners of the religion have totally abandoned this way and are unlikely to start appreciating it regardless of its increasing popularity. The Osun-Osogbo festival has, for instance, not been able to cross through the threshold of the religion as a religious reality of modern Africans, but instead, as a form of entertainment or tourist attraction, or merely symbolic just like the Greek liturgy (although strong in its incipience) was gradually transmuted into a form of entertainment, a literary mimesis and consequently, the origin of modern day drama. The intellectuals, i.e. scholars, also consume texts on these for purely scholarly reasons or sheer curiosity. This lack of genuineness of interest or investment in Yoruba thought has had a corollary on the rigorous appreciation or application of the materials in our literature like the Christian Bible did for Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Milton among others, and even Robert Lowell before the advent of Confessionalism movement.

This lacuna is what has made Adebayo Kolawole Samuel’s poetry and what it represents credible or incredible. As earlier conceded, there is always a re-enactment of the past in the moment and the good thing is that much of the future is already decided today. But we have the challenge in first defining what modern African poetics really is. This is a productive problem. Productive, in the sense that it helps us to map a practical timeline into which we can identify other writers and poets that belong in this space; and thus, compare the poet-in-focus in this essay. It is a problem because there are still multiple, unagreeable, yet unwritten views on what modern African poetics is and where it starts, which makes this essay run the risk of being dismissed entirely if handled with unnecessarily pedantic scrutiny.

In much of Wole Soyinka’s corpus, there is a Yoruba thought pervading, although it mirrors classical influences. Whether he did this to show his Western audience that the Yoruba theogony and theology is much like the ancient Greeks and Romans (just like Ola Rotimi’s The gods are not to blame adapted Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex) or strictly due to inescapable influence is a question for another day, but do not imaginations coincide or collude across climes? In Adebayo’s verses, imaginations collude, collide to create a distinct result. The Yoruba Ifa corpus collides with the Biblical so adroitly that the distinctions blur at some point. And out of this blur, is born a voice, sharp and distinct.

In “Askesis”, the fifth revisionary ratio of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, the poet “yields up part of his own human and imaginative endowment, so as to separate himself from others, including the precursor, and he does this in his poem by so stationing it in regard to the parent-poem; the precursor’s endowment is also truncated.” For the sake of convenience and practicality, we shall establish modern African poetics as the poetry of the newest generation, the “I” generation, that is, the Confessionalism. They are the generations often anthologized in projects like the 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Memento (A Nigerian poetry anthology), among others.

One notable feature of this period is its obsession with the personal. There is also a universalism in it which is merely an accident of globalisation due to social media incursion and digital media where foreign journals populate the space, mushrooming on every available cyber space. While this may have addressed the challenge of books and access to the bewildered younger poet combing for a bush path, it has also greatly limited their options. How? The oversupply of foreign materials has created an artificial scarcity of local materials for the poet who does not know where to look. Adebayo has looked into the Ifa Corpus and commendably so.

In an interview between Su‘edie Vershima Agema and Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Agema (a Nigerian poet probably a generation above Ezenwa-Ohaeto) posed the question quoted below:

“SVA: … Your works are more in tune with that of your contemporaries within the country, mostly narrative and more American in style, not talking of your unique content of course. It begs the questions, what has your writing journey been like and who are your literary influences?”

This question raises an interesting observation. In defence of what seemed like a covert indictment of Nigerian poets sounding American (instead of African) in the question, influence cannot or should not be parochial or prescriptive. T. S. Eliot, a British poet, introduced the modernism movement that swept American poetry in the early 20th century. In his, that is, Eliot’s own words, the invention of style, voice or form can never rely on one poet alone, and by extension, his geographical location. But this is not to discredit Agema’s observation regardless of the intent behind it. It is rare to find a poet whose materials are local but appeal not for the sake of its materiality but because of its artistic merit, its originality. It takes a fully ripened power to explore such territory and even a greater courage. These are the ingredients that make up Adebayo’s poetics.

In his “invocation of the morning” he writes:

little as I am, let me be meaningful. / Let men seek me as they seek the cowrie.”.

Meaning here goes beyond the personality of the poet, but the materiality which has birthed the poem. Every poem or work of art, after all, uses the poet or artist as a medium to come into life. Adebayo is aware of his limitation and thus, surrenders to the poem. The poem no longer embodies the poet or the persona. It gestures towards an ancient energy, inexhaustible as the cowrie shells on the sea floor. The Ifa tradition, being pantheistic, he acknowledges the agency of smaller gods or energies who collude to effectuate the cosmic clockwork. He ritually

“…commune(s) with all the deities.”

Thus, we come across homages to familiar deities in Yoruba pantheons such as Olokun:

Àbùkún ni ti Olókun”

Because the Yoruba religion is built on the Ifa philosophy, one can easily miss the whole point. It is the center of gravity from which the creative force disperses and radiates. The poet has refused to pigeonhole his adventure. Had he done this, he would have come up with an overly technical thesis on the Ifa Corpus giving us a result too detailed, too unwieldy. Instead, he applies himself and imagination to the immutable laws of the Ifa Corpus and thus is rendered more human, immediate, intimate and memorable as all good works of art tend to be. In Invocation of Osanyingbemi, he explores grief, the loss of his grandfather who was a follower of Ò̩sanyìn before converting to Christianity. By commenting on the fact of his conversion and his death in the same breath, the poet has wittingly or unwittingly created an interesting ambivalent atmosphere for the poem. The poem is thus no longer about the grieving on death (which is invocative enough on its own), but grieving on the loss of identity of his grandfather and by extension of the poet persona.

“I grieve for Òsanyìngbèmí’s death
with this poem. A whale of wails leaps
out of my mouth’s ocean. I grieve more

because I have lost the history of my ancestry…”

This refraction is what makes Adebayo’s poetics more complex, using a deceptively accessible diction. The persona is not judgmental, but rather curious about his origin. But one cannot but observe the covert cynicism. Why the invocation? Why the invocation of Osanyingbemi? An old name. Why is stating the original name so important? The answer is that the persona obviously cannot revive the bodily person that is his grandfather, but he can revive the ethereal spirit behind him, and what is more ethereal than the actual source: Osanyingbemi? It is no coincidence that this poem is part-eponymous in the whole collection. The poet in his search for consolation from grief, from the cognitive dissonance arising from loss of or presence of bipolar identities in his religious persuasion, resorts to the source of all ancient power, the beginning, which does not discriminate against the color of the skin, the country of origin. He has used the old language of poetry, the innominate powers of the Ifa Corpus, and has produced remarkable poetics that will influence fellow and future generations of poets.

O-Jeremiah Agbaakin @oj_agbaakin holds a law degree from the University of Ibadan. His poems are
recently published in Guernica, Palette, Pleiades, Poet Lore, Poetry Northwest, RATTLE,
West Branch and elsewhere. He placed second position for the Grist Journal ProForma
Contest and was a finalist of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. A former
editor & reader for Africa in Dialogue, PANK and Jalada Africa, he’s currently an Assistant
Editor at NewFound Journal.

Banner: Translations, a digital collage by Robert Frede Kenter Tweets: @frede_kenter

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