Anthologies and the Mapping of Africa's Poetic Imagination

By Awhefeada, Sunny | IUP Journal of English Studies, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Anthologies and the Mapping of Africa's Poetic Imagination


Awhefeada, Sunny, IUP Journal of English Studies


Introduction

One of the remarkable but unacknowledged trends in the evolution of African literature in the last fifty years has been the significant presence of African poetry anthologies which contain poems by poets from almost every country on the African continent. There is no doubt that the tradition of anthologizing has contributed a great deal to the robust presence and entrenchment of African poetry. Reading through some of the anthologies often gives the reader a broad and even holistic view of the tenor and significant tropes of African poetry as well as the sociohistorical underpinning sustaining them. An evaluation of the anthologies leaves the reader with a robust understanding of what constitutes and inspired the continent's poetic imagination. Nevertheless, in spite of the significant even indispensable role of the anthologies in the growth and study of African poetry, they are hardly ever acknowledged in the critical discourse on African literature. Rather what scholars of African poetry have done over the years is the study of the poets and their works without giving a thought to the bigger platform created by the anthologies as an affirmation of their poetic relevance. In truth, some of the very prominent and authoritative anthologies validate a poet's relevance or otherwise. Hence, the presence of a poet's work on their pages is an attestation to his or her relevance.

The anthologies of African poetry evaluated in this study are West African Verse, described as "An anthology chosen and annotated by Donatus I Nwoga," first published by Longman in 1967; Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka, first published in 1975 in the African Writers Series by Heinemann; and A Selection of African Poetry, "introduced and annotated by K E Senanu and T Vincent," first published in 1976 by Longman. These anthologies represent a truly African sensibility unlike the ones Okunoye (2004, 770) describes as operating "within a tradition that is pretentious in claiming the African identity for works that do not truly project diverse African experiences." The relevance and significance of the anthologies, especially these three, are evidenced in the high demand for them, which has necessitated their reprinting many times to fill the vacuum created by the scarcity or unavailability of collections by individual poets. Even many years after their publication, these anthologies remain the only means of having a holistic view of African poetry. Hence they remain very popular among teachers and students of African poetry. However, it should be highlighted that there are other anthologies of African poetry such as Modern Poetry from Africa edited by Moore and Beier (1963), A Book of African Verse edited by Reed and Wake (1969), The Fate of Vultures: New Poetry of Africa edited by Zimunya, Porter, and Anyidoho (1989), and The New African Poetry: An Anthology by Ojaide and Sallah (1999).

The anthologies under study almost approximate what The Oxford Anthology of English Literature Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Kermode et al. (1973), have been doing for English Literature. It would have been unthinkable to study English Literature without the two volumes of the anthologies. It is in this light that the African poetry anthologies should be viewed as we consider them as invaluable factors that will continue to shape the study of African poetry. The anthologies have provided safe havens for poems that would otherwise have been lost many years ago. It is almost unimaginable that African poetry could be adequately studied without the anthologies. Unlike drama and prose, poetry is fractured in bits. How possible would it be for the reader to begin to select poems from the entire individual collections of poems by different poets from Africa? Again, is it still possible to locate the different collections by African poets? Will this not amount to a frustrating search? And how coherent or orderly will their aggregation be vis-à-vis the continent's historical experience? …

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