Title: Art, Ideology and Social Commitment in African Poetry

Author:  Udenta O. Udenta

Publisher: Kraft Book, ibadan

Pagination: 231

Year: 2015

Reviewer: Henry Akubuiro


The first edition of this book, Art, Ideology and Social Commitment in African Poetry, was published in in 1996, and together with its precursor, Revolutionary Aesthetics and the African Literary Process, received the widest acclaim and scrutiny among his early critical outputs. 

In this revised edition, Udenta O. Udenta  has taken the intervening period of two decades to rework a great portion of the original text and affect editorial changes noticed in the maiden edition. Unlike the first edition of Arts, Ideology and Social Commitment in African Poetry, which appraised the African poetic testaments of the 1980s and early 1990s, this new edition has taken the discourse to the 21st century to be at par with latest developments in the African poetic universe.

That’s not all. The latest edition of this book contains two fresh chapters: “The Aesthetic and Cultural Context of Post-2000 Nigerian Poetry” and “South African Poetry After 1994 and Postcolonial Debate”, the latter being a continuation of the discourse in the fifth chapter of the first edition entitled “Poetry and Politics in Apartheid South Africa” in order to reflect the bardic construct that trailed the demise of apartheid.

A historical overview of revolutionary poetry dominates discourse in the first chapter. Revolutionary poetry, says Udenta is not a 20th century phenomenon. Rather, “it has been in existence since the slave social formations and other subsequent epochs in human history” and the “part revolutionary ideas played in its development is to give it the right ideological touch, the right political tone, the correct consciousness and class partisanship, and to ground it firmly into the soil of dialectics” (p.21).

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The author reveals that revolutionary poetry was given a fundamental boost  in the 19th century  because of the emergence of industrial capitalism and the development of large urban mega polis; the harsh conditions of working in the factories and living in the shanties; the increasing maturity of the political consciousness of the proletariat occasioned by the rise of revolutionary ideas founded by Marx and Engels; and the combination of both the tactics and strategies of intellectual and ideological class struggle with the tactics and strategies of armed political struggle. This well-researched chapter is replete with excerpts from the works of scholars on the ascendancy of revolutionary poetry and its omnipresence in troubled western societies desirous of fundamental changes.

However, art and ideology are not only colonial or postcolonial aesthetic colonial modes. Writing in the second chapter “Genesis of Arts and Ideology in African Poetry: Negritude and Nationalist Poetry”, Udenta affirms that they were as old as all societies in Africa.

The author’s study art and ideology of Sub-Saharan Africa leads to a materialist reading of African-Western imperialism dialectic, while a scrutiny of North African poetry points to influences beyond the colonial encounter and postcolonial predicament, to a discourse on the nature of Islam as an ideo-aesthetic category, while apartheid led to the production of a different kind of poetry.

Breaking it down in subsequent pages, the author evaluates the Negritude poetry of Francophone Africa, of which Aime Cesaire was a leading light; the “Nationalist” poetry of Anglophone Africa. He echoes: “The early West African poetry in English, loosely called “nationalist” poetry, is poetry of uncharted rebellion and improperly focused anger, and contains a hodge-podge of ideo-aesthetic visions that explain…the character of emergent elitist class” (p.62).

The third chapter dwells on art and ideology in postcolonial African poetry from the perspective of critical realist/radical liberal humanist context. One major problem Udenta identifies in the commentaries of critics of the critical realist/liberal humanist poets of the 1960s is that they engaged, rather, in isolated, pocket-sized researches that produced sometimes brilliant flashes of insight and explicatory epiphany, thereby leaving the overall picture blurred.

Thus, the poetry of Chris Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Kofi Awoonor, Okot P’Bitek, Jaged Angira, among others, vis-à-vis the critical social vision of the poets, are reread with new illuminations.  Critical realism, notes Udenta, is a transitory phase in the growth of any national and, to a considerable extent, continental literature. As a transitory phenomenon, he argues, that critical realism and radical liberal humanism inevitably give way to a revolutionary socio-aesthetic form in modern poetry.

The poetry of late 1970s, 1980s and the I990s is fleshed out in the fourth chapter of the book, a period he describes as the period of recolonisation, where the poets have become more combative, with the emergence of the Ofeimuns, Osundares, Ojaides, Ohaetos, Irobis, Ndukas, to mention a few.

In the fifth chapter, the historical continuum of the African bardic excursions berths on the aesthetic and cultural domain of post-2000 Nigeria poetry, that is, the bewitching verses of this generation. Denja Abdullahi, Humphey Onyima, K.K Iloduba are some of the poets counted among the emerging voices of this era.

Udenta is categorical that “Post-2000 Nigerian poetry is a consequence of a complex medley of cultural, aesthetic and political forces underpinned by postcolonialist institutional platforms at their most traumatic phase of development, amid suffocating discontent.”

On Udenta’s position on the poetry and politics in Apartheid South Africa, as well as the post-apartheid poetry of this region and the raging postcolonial debate, you need to fill the lacuna by getting this book to read up the last two chapters.