by Abena P.A Busia


Ogaga Ifowodo: A Good Mourning (Origami Books/Parresia Publishers Ltd, Lagos Nigeria 2016); Tanure Ojaide: Songs of Myself (Kaftgriots/Kraft Books Ltd, Ibadan Nigeria, 2015); Ikeogu Oke: The Heresiad (Kaftgriots/Kraft Books Ltd, Ibadan Nigeria, 2017)

This has been a surprisingly difficult decision as each collection has very strong merits to recommend it for this prestigious prize. The three volumes, though very different, are the work of three extremely accomplished poets who in fact have significant aspects in common. I single out as the most salient of these traits a firm belief in the place of poetry in the service of social justice, and the desire, shared by each of them, to forge a poetic form that can contain the often difficult subject matter of the worlds they interrogate, within their structures. I discuss them here in alphabetical order by author.

Ogaga Ifowodo: A Good Mourning. The thoughtful intelligence of the arrangement of these poems, is one of the strengths of the volume though it is necessary to be diligent about reading through the whole collection because in the end the opening poems, though they capture well both the exuberance (History Lesson) or the bewilderment (Perfect Vision) of youth, are in the end weaker poems than the ones we find towards the end such as the poignant sympathy evident in the details of Algiers, April 2000 and A Rwandan Testimony.  These poems arranged to unveil with a growing sensibility to a larger world than the one in which we begin. Or rather, what they succeed in doing is taking us on the poet’s journey as the outside world which form the fantasies of childhood become experienced through all the ambiguity and contradictions the poems make us witness. There are wonderfully wrought juxtapositions as in the through line of song in “Where is the Earth’s Most Infamous Plot” which opens the third section of the collection. Impressive also is the evident experimentation in form and prosody though the end results are uneven in some of the poems, in others, such as Liberation Camp the containment suggested by the strict form works with evocative brilliance when we reach the last line.  However, in the end, I rank this collection third.

Tanure Ojaide: Song of Myself. This collection displays such mastery in its presentation of the varieties of form and subject matter and yet still remains a unified whole. Clearly a master of his craft, Ojaide’s brief forward explicating the grounding of his quartet in in the traditional compositions of udje poets is instructive and succeeds in guiding us to a way of reading that enriches the experience. Everything is indeed a metaphor and Ojaide explores his mother hen of a muse with remarkable effect. As with the other two collections, a sympathetic poet’s eye sees with clarity both the quotidian and the grand and finds a way to keep them harnessed together. Ojaide is a painter with words and his poetry leads you into the places he walks, talks, eats with a clarity that makes you an occupant of all those spaces. And particularly in Book II, Song of Myself, where all the poems offered are in carefully controlled couplets the narrating poet, grounded in his own markets and homesteads comments freely on everything the affects and infects his private and public worlds. Lovers and politicians all are drawn into a fine web of shared observations and thus responsibilities. His world is a capacious world of caring whether for the drowned at Lampedusa or the wind that still blows, his poems bear witness to the truth that “so many memories assault me not to forget the beauty I have seen”. And most assuredly this is demonstrated also through the variety and number of love songs contained in the volume. But these loves and not romantic, or sentimental, they are fierce, contradictory, honest; born of a life that recognizes “Everywhere isn’t easy to reach”.

Choosing between Ojaide and Oke has been hard, and I confess to vacillating between them enough to ask if the prize can be shared. Both of them make it explicit through their titles and introductory comments that they see their volumes as a coherent whole rather than individual parts, that is they have both given us different experiments in long-form poetry, and have both succeeded admirably in the control of a difficult project.

Ikeogu Oke: The Heresiad: This is a bold and wonderful experiment whose great strength also could have been its great weakness. That Oke manages to create a poem that keeps quite strictly over 100 pages to the lyric pentameter and still hold the attention of the reader is a singular achievement. The experiment in lesser hands could have led to a deadening of the senses. The volume itself is structured on a great conceit; a bold venture in defense of the art of poetry itself. The narrator is a griot narrating a great battle between supporters and detractors in defense of the humanities, and has succeeded in creating a modern epic. The mastery of form is a tour de force exemplary of the dedication to the craft the poem is inscribed to defend.  It would have been wonderful if this work had not only been published in print, but had been released with an audio version because indeed its singular achievement is its sustaining of narrative that displays the arguments of the contending parties, and yet at the same time keeps so clear the voice of the griot. And we can indeed hear the musicality in the rigor of the lines, and the absoluteness of the rhyming scheme of heroic couplets sustained throughout the work.  In the end, if there must be a choice, my selection goes with this collection for the technical feat it performs. The deciding factor was the inclusion of the music, which I attempted playing and in doing that it brought home to me how very carefully the performativity of this work has been thought through; Oke has made ancient forms new again.


Professor Abena Busia is a Ghanaian writer, poet, feminist, lecturer, and diplomat, currently the ambassador of Ghana to Brazil. She is the external consultant on the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature (Poetry)

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