The Nobel Laureate Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka has recently been nominated to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and voting is currently taking place. This welcome and ground-breaking nomination – if elected, Soyinka will be the first ever African to hold the post – brings a renewed attention to his poetry, which is part of an extraordinary opus including drama, novels, memoirs and criticism. Soyinka writes in English and he brings to the language rich flavours of African names, folklore and landscape, in a register that marries his country’s heritage with European tradition. Like his other writing, his urgent poems draw deeply from the mythology of the Yoruba tribe and the local culture, yet they reverberate with what he calls his ‘abiding religion – human liberty’.
Soyinka’s poetry crosses the Mediterranean like a boat loaded with African people risking their lives, whether in search of freedom or simply a better life. His poem ‘Migrations’ has recently been etched on the graves of refugees who did not reach the shore of Italy breathing. Soyinka’s poem, called by the Italian authorities a carezza (a caress, soothing touch) gives dignity to those who died and comfort to their families. It bridges the deadly gap between a continent that sheds its people into the sea and a continent that looks bewildered at the human loss. It rests at the uncomfortable boundaries between those who have and those who have not, remaining engaged with the real world.
Born in 1934 and educated in Nigeria, Soyinka took a doctorate from the University of Leeds in 1973 and worked at the Royal Court Theatre in London. In 1960 he returned to Africa. His writing opposes colonialism and political corruption, and reflects a commitment to the dignity of people. In 1967, during the Civil War in Nigeria, Soyinka wrote an article in which he appealed for ceasefire. For this he was imprisoned and sent into solitary confinement for nearly two years. His experience as prisoner led to work imbued with a personal sense of sacrifice – a personal testimony – for the way in which poetry fights for justice. His collection of poems A Shuttle in the Crypt, which he describes as ‘a map of the course trodden by the mind, not a record of the actual struggle against a vegetable existence’, intimates to the reader the agonies of solitary confinement. His poems are by turn meditative, prophetic and angry. Yet they breathe a sense of resilience. In the poem ‘To the Madmen over the Wall’, he refuses descent into madness even as he shows to the reader the extent to which the mind is wrung by incarceration:
Your fill and overripeness of the heart,
I may not come with you
Companions of the broken buoy
I may not seek
The harbour of your drifting shore.
‘When Seasons Change’ meditates on the solitude of confinement in high register:
Shrouds of seasons gone, peeled
From time’s corpses, mouse-eaten thoughts
You flutter upon solitude in winds
Armed in shrapnels from the shell of vision
Veils on the altar of unplighted troths
Cobweb hangings on the throne of death
Wilfred Owen’s war poems, WB Yeats, Eliot and Shakespeare come to mind when reading these lines. In a world where engaged poetry either sounds like propaganda or is ignored as such, there is a lot to learn from Soyinka’s defiant language and his ability to face the hard truths as a poet.
Since 1986, when Wole Soyinka received the Nobel Prize for Literature for works in which he ‘fashions the drama of existence’ with ‘poetic overtones’, he has been sought as a speaker and lecturer all over the world whilst continuing to hold teaching posts in Nigeria. He brings with him the feeling of the wider human community and a sense of conviction about art’s necessity when dealing with difficult subjects.
When I first came to Soyinka’s work in the late 1990s, it was these lines that kept going through my mind: ‘Slaves do not possess their kind. Nor do / The truly free’ (‘Funeral Sermon, Soweto’, from Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems). Soyinka writes about the discomfiting reality of our ‘civilised world’ with devastating clarity and depth. He shows the gap between the free-kind and the slave-kind of the human race, pointing to a solution. What makes me return to Soyinka’s poems is his insistence on resilience and liberty, and the way in which he works this insistence into a language that remains in the heart and mind long after the book is closed.
The voting for the seat of Professor of Poetry at Oxford takes place until 17 June. The nominees are Simon Armitage, Ian Gregson, Seán Haldane, Wole Soyinka and AE Stallings. Everyone with an Oxford degree and members of the convocation (staff) can register to vote online on the University website by 8 June.