Interrogating the portrayal of Okot p’Bitek’s song poems by Times Literary Supplement from 1971 to 1975
The questions of what makes a poem a poem and what purpose it serves have been lingering subjects in the literary scene, especially when it comes to African poetry and how the West perceives it.
Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek in his many works draws attention to a poetic genre that, among others, deliberately relies on home-grown imagery, form, metaphor, and other poetic and linguistic devices in its construction. Okot’s poems, such as Song of Lawino (1966), persist in scholarly and bonfire conversations, research, memories, and bookshelves for the effectiveness and uniqueness of their song form. However, the coverage of Okot’s poetry collections by the Times Literary Supplement in the 1970s points to the misreading and misrepresentation of the poet’s songs, owing to their distinctness from Western poetic forms.
In “In the Arms of the Prison,” published on May 11, 1971, the article’s unnamed critic declares Okot’s Song of Ocol “a disappointment,” arguing that “it savoured too much of a conscientious attempt to give a voice to an essentially dull, pompous, and vindictive husband.” A little background to Okot’s two songs could help contextualize why that is a misreading. Song of Ocol (1970) was Okot’s follow-up poem to Song of Lawino (1966). In the first book, the persona of Lawino criticizes her husband Ocol’s Westernized ways, shown in his various lifestyle choices, including marrying Clementine, a woman who talks and acts like a white person. Essentially, Okot critiques the follies of Western culture while upholding the Acoli/African culture that Lawino represents.
Conversely, in Song of Ocol, the speaker, Ocol, criticizes African ways of life. He is so taken up by Western religion, medicine, politics, and lifestyle that he dreams and imitates them. He is so obsessed with work and keeping a timed schedule that he doesn’t give audience to his friends or family—a very un-African behavior.
In Song of Ocol, Okot criticizes the influence of Western culture on Africa, including Africans who became oppressors of their own people when the white colonialists left. It is therefore very puzzling, albeit unsurprising, when the critic called Song of Ocol “a disappointment” for giving a voice to Ocol. The book couldn’t exist without Ocol’s character, just as Song of Lawino couldn’t function without Lawino.
The critic fell into the pit of hating the character a writer creates, rather than focusing on and engaging with the issues that the questionable character represents. There’s no denying that Ocol’s character is arrogant, “pompous,” and even “vindictive,” as the critic describes, but those characteristics represent the foreign culture that Okot seeks to criticize. The book begins with Ocol dismissing his wife Lawino: “Woman, shut up!” he declares. He deems Lawino’s complaints against his uncultured ways “the mad bragging of a defeated general.” Ocol is not open to a conversation with Lawino whom he considers below him intellectually and in other ways. “Dull” does not even come close to who Ocol is.
Therefore, the critic’s disappointment in Ocol’s character shows Okot’s success in depicting a pervasive Western culture in post-independent Africa. The introduction of multiparty politics, its divisiveness and the self-serving attitude of politicians, are displayed through Ocol’s character—all of which are reminiscent of the colonialists’ self-serving and divide-and-rule policy.
When Ocol despises Lawino for turning to African medicine and religion, Okot is making a point about the different ways in which the West labeled African religious and spiritual practices, as well as ways of healing, satanic. It’s therefore mind-boggling why the critic found it befitting to label the book a disappointment.
A useful way of reviewing Song of Ocol is to regard the book as a partner of Song of Lawino. In the first song, Lawino laments Ocol’s westernized ways and Ocol responds to Lawino in the second song about her “backward” African ways. While Song of Ocol doesn’t stay loyal to Lawino as an addressee to Ocol’s castigations, the themes in the book stay true to what Okot tackles in Song of Lawino. Therefore, to completely divorce Ocol from Lawino because the poet handled the characters in two different books is to invite a half understanding of the poet’s works.
In another article, “Songs from the grasslands,” published on February 21, 1975 in the Times Literary Supplement, writer Gerald Moore lays a deceptively flattering review of Okot’s Horn of My Love. Quoting Okot’s introduction to the book, Moore writes, “Okot p'Bitek argues the case for African poetry as poetry, as an art to be enjoyed rather than as ethnographic material to be eviscerated.” Moore adds that Okot’s Horn of My Love together “with Ulli Beier's valuable anthologies, can help to build up the stock of African poetry for enjoyment.”
Moore seems oblivious to Africa’s unwritten poetry—the songs, chants, metaphors, sayings, and riddles of various literary traditions. In fact, Okot’s Horn of My Love comprise actual Acoli dirges sung when death befalls a family. The collection lays out six themes that derive from the elegies. First, there’s the disbelief in death:
I hear the horn of my love,
Oto Cura will soon come;
His horn sounded early in the morning;
But I search for him in vain…
Who can spot the ostrich headgear of my love?
There are also songs about the ill person’s “battle with death,” the cruelty of fate, songs that attack the dead, and the living, and those about surrendering to the reality of death.
Death burns the body of the woman
The woman cries with pain in her chest;
Beloved of my mother oh;
Death burns your body;
At last, today, it has taken you.
Measuring “the stock” of Africa’s enjoyable poetry through Okot’s one book and anthologies by controversial German writer and translator Ulli Beier speaks to the narrowness Moore attached to his understanding of poetry. And while Beier is often credited for opening literary spaces in Nigeria and Papua New Guinea from the ‘50s, he also notoriously masqueraded as a Nigerian and Papua New Guinean by writing under the name Obotunde Ijimere. One also wonders what Moore means by “African poetry for enjoyment.” At the end of the article, he seems to imply that Horn of My Love is enjoyable and nothing else. He writes:
Above all, however, it is a book of poetry to be handled and enjoyed, rather than a ponderous headstone placed on the living body of a popular art. It can be read with equal enjoyment, in these facing texts, by Acolis relishing the felicities of the original languages and by English readers relishing the muscularity of Okot p'Bitek's translations.
While this collection is derived from Acoli dirges, Okot did not merely render them in the English language. Translation is an art and the poems in this collection are still poetic—owing to Okot’s mastery of the song form, but also to the fact that Acoli songs are indeed poems by themselves. Poetry, especially poetry from Africa, exists in many forms—forms that often collaborate with and borrow from other types of art. Limiting the understanding of African poetry to its written form, and reading African poetry through a western poetic lens is grossly disingenuous.
Moore, Gerald. “Songs from the grasslands.” Times Literary Supplement, 21 Feb. 1975, p. 204.
“In the arms of the prison.” Times Literary Supplement, 11 May 1971.
BER ANENA is a Ugandan writer, editor, and performer. She’s a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Anena attended the MFA Writing program at Columbia University, New York, and holds degrees in journalism and human rights from Makerere University in Uganda.