Nigerian Student Verse (1960)

I recently had the honour of meeting Professor Martin Banham, one of the great authorities on Nigerian theatre and Director of the Workshop Theatre in Leeds, 1966-1998. We met on a windy October morning in the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Martin handed me a rare copy of Nigerian Student Verse (Ibadan, 1960): a slim anthology offering a selection of student verse that was published in the The Horn. The Horn was a student poetry magazine at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, where Martin taught from 1956, after his time as a student in Leeds. The magazine was set up and co-edited by Martin and well-known Nigerian poet, John Pepper Clark, in January 1958 and appeared at varying intervals until 1964. It was modelled on the student magazine at Leeds, Poetry and Audiencewhich published contributions from the Gregory Fellows as well as student poets at Leeds who would become well known, including Tony Harrison, James Simmons and Wole Soyinka.

Nigerian_Student_Verse copy

Copies of The Horn are hard to come by. It was a flimsy, cheap publication, which few thought to collect. W.H. Stevenson has written a couple of articles about The Horn which signal its importance, one of which suggests that he has a fairly comprehensive collection. The magazine gives us key insights about the kind of poetry students in the newly independent Nigeria were writing, and their influences. It was certainly an important time for Nigerian literature, where questions of style and craft took on a particular political charge.

Chinweizu Madubuike’s well-known criticism of Nigerian poetry in English (1975) shows how inseparable questions of craft and poetic technique are from the social, cultural and political contexts in which literary works are produced and read, particularly at such times. Madubuike called for poetry that does not deny ‘the validity of our own culture’ (30). This is not only a question of image and theme, although Madubuike argues that Nigerian poets should stop ‘importing imagery from alien environments’ (30), and advocates ‘fidelity to fact’ (31). The question is squarely one of craft: of the political significance of decisions about lexicon, style, syntax and rhythm in the postcolonial context. For instance, Madubuike criticises the Ibadan poets, including Clark and Soyinka for patterning their language after 16th and 19th century British writers (29).

Stevenson suggests that in The Horn poets were ‘learning to look again at their surroundings, and to write about what they saw’, and observes that ‘not everyone was happy about such poetry. Its Romantic origins were suspect, especially among those who sought “modernity” in poetry’ (665). Edward Blishen, for example, who gave a talk on poetry from Africa for the BBC said that ‘Modern English verse… would, I should think, be a far better starting-point than our romantic verse for the journey towards a truly African poetry’ (Blishen in Stevenson). To complicate matters futther, curriculums were still heavily influenced by English Universities, and as Obi Nwakanma observes in his biography of Christoper Okigbo, ‘UCI [University College Ibadan] had a ‘special relationship’ with the University of London, from which students actually earned their degrees. This affiliation to London defined the character of the university for many years, until Ibadan’s charter as an independent degree awarding institution was ratified in 1962.’ (61).

The Horn provides a fascinating glimpse of some of the important debates surrounding Nigerian literature in the late 1950s and early 60s, to the present day, as well as some of the tangled relations between poetry in Leeds and Nigeria. It also gives a brief sense of the way in which we cannot understand the workings of literary craft without paying attention to the workings of the literary fields in which works are produced.

WORKS CITED

Chinweizu, Onwuchejwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuike. “Towards the Decolonization of African Literature.” Transition 48 (1975): 29-37 and 54-57.

Nwakanma, Obi. Christopher Okigbo: Thirsting for Sunlight. Suffolk: James Currey; New York: Boydell & Brewster Inc; Ibadan: HEBN Publishers Plc; 2010.

Stevenson, W.H. “The Horn: What it Was and What it Did.” Research in African Literatures. 6.1 (1975): 5-31.

—. “The Horn”. Albert S. Gérard’s European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa. John Benjamins Publishing, 1986: 659-669.

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