Another approach would be to compare both literary styles as well as structures between those of the Igbo and Yoruba. Since stylistic features and structural strategies are more concentrated and explicit in verse, I offer a few poems in translation from both groups, bearing in mind that they are only approximations of the originals. Analyzing systems of image patterning against relevant cultural concepts which sociologists and ethnographers have made available might edify.

            ‘Praise of a Beautiful Woman’
Young lady you are:
A mirror that must not go out in the sun
A child that must not be touched by dew
One that is dressed up in hair
A lamp with which people find their way
Moon that shines bright
An eagle feather worn by a husband
A straight line drawn by God. | 5 |

5 | Romanus Egudu and Donatus Nwoga, eds., Igbo Traditional Verse (London; Heinemann, 1973), p. 20.


The images are fairly commonplace and immediately accessible. They don’t appear to be particularly culture-centric, but they do suggest a one-to-one relationship with figurative meanings. A more interesting feature is its reliance on linear progression and accumulation. The metaphors are more or less of the same kind, and meaning is built up by intensification. The woman’s beauty is fragile, ornamental, luminous (twice), noble/honorable and finally perfection itself. The lamp/moon comparison is very ffective, and the leap from a natural world to the super-natural is a splendid achievement.

Another kind of praise poem reveals a totally different sense of aesthetic organization.


            ‘Praise of the Kob Antelope’

A creature to pet and spoil.
An animal with a smooth neck.
You live in the bush without getting lean.
You are plump like a newly-wedded wife.
You have more brass rings round your neck
Than any woman.

When you run you spread fine dust
Like a butterfly shaking its wings.
Your eyes are gentle like a dove’s.
Your neck seems long, long
To the covetous eyes of the hunter. | 6 |

6 | Ulli Beier and Gerald Moore, eds., African Poetry (London; Heinemann, 1966), pp. 60-61.


The relationships among these images are not cumulative, but rather associative. Instead of a single/unified criterion a number of disparate characteristics are invoked in order to comprehend/circumscribe the subject. Literal descriptions and figurative images are mixed, and there is a real complexity and depth in the imagery which underlie the associations. The first three assertions are quite literal and underline the antelope’s gentleness, beauty, and self-sufficiency. Comparisons with the attractions of women follow – first a voluptuous wife and then the beguiling ornamentation of jewelry. The ‘lean’ – ‘plump’ contrast is world-class.

In the second stanza celebration turns to tragedy. The animal’s speed and lightness of foot, natural ornamentation and gentleness, are played off against the disastrous attraction of its long neck (natural target for the hunter). Can it be that the pun in ‘pet and spoil’ is present in the original? In translation it’s magnificent – even if accidental. What is more remarkable is the sophistication of the ‘spreading-fine-dust’ as being shaken from the wings of a butterfly. The imagery throughout is as particularized as in the earlier poem, but wrought into a far more complex form which suggests a far more variegated apprehension of its subject.

Another pair of examples leads to yet another level of exposition.


                       ‘Incantation to Gain Popularity’

You cannot dispute the forest with a rat.
You cannot dispute the savannah with a buffalo.
You cannot dispute his father’s title with Olukere.
            You cannot play with a snake.
            You cannot dance with a praying mantis.
A small child cannot beat his mother.
An old man cannot get annoyed with his own shit.
A woman cannot look at a penis – without being glad.
Look at me then and be glad!
            The children are enjoying themselves with the
            Children of the house, elders of the house,
            Men, women, young and old,
You cannot see a new born babe – without happiness.
            I am now a new born babe;
            Come and dance with me. | 7 |

7 | Wole Soinka, ed., Poems of Black Africa (London; Heinemann, 1975), p. 324.

Here we find an even more variegated and complex arrangement of elements. The poem moves from examples of natural circumstances to those of the inconceivable, and then argues by analogy that the speaker’s popularity is both inevitable and unchallengeable. The remarkable feature is the range of levels on which the images function. Both the rat and buffalo naturally dominate their environment, but a son’s duty to sustain family honor and tradition is of a rather different kind. Turning to the negative side, the snake is inevitably a dangerous playmate, and the mantis is an awkward partner considering that she eats her husband up. It is unnatural (unethical) for a child to beat its mother and irrational (pathetic) for an old man to be annoyed by his incontinence. The established pattern of alternation now reverts to the assertion of inevitability – a phallus pleasures a woman. The rest of the poem asserts the popularity of the speaker by formal repetition – Dancing with a mantis / come dance with me; women looking at an erection / come look at me; The pleasure of seeing a new born baby / I am now a new born babe. The key to the literary structure is the perceived opposition, but ultimate harmonization of disparate elements.

That poem is a far cry from the first example – as well as from the following.


            ‘Self Praise of a Title-Holder’

I am:
One whose father is elephant
One whose father gave him eagle feather
Brotherhood that is mysterious
Heir grateful to father
One to whom personal god gave eagle feather
One who is never tired of making money
King accepted by neighbors […] | 8 |

8 | Romanus Egudu and Donatus Nwoga, eds., Igbo Traditional Verse (London, Heinemann, 1973), p.22.


As in the first poem quoted, the imagery has fixed values, but two out of the seven are literal rather than figurative. The progression is linear and accumulative rather than scattered and contrastive, but the effect is no less successful, and there is a consciousness of symmetrical form in the repetition of “eagle feather”, bestowed first by father and then chi (tutelary spirit). The imagery tends to be fixed and generalized rather than multivalent, and by repetition emphasis in placed on the production of wealth as the major accomplishment. Reference to the ‘mysterious brotherhood’ suggests that the title holder ‘made it’ without his brother’s help, but he celebrates his father’s assistance as well as that of the supernatural world and his own prowess. Linear progression is implicit in the sequence of images and their obvious values, elephant (natural power), eagle feather (natural nobility), brotherhood (personal impediment), father (personal assistance), wealth (individual accomplishment), and king (communal recognition). The poem is as successful as those already quoted, but there is a marked difference in both conception and execution between the poem in praise of a beautiful woman together with that of the Ozo title-holder, on the one hand, and those in praise of the antelope, together with the incantation to gain popularity on the other. The first and last poems are Igbo – the middle two, Yoruba.

From what sociologists and ethnographers tell us about these very different cultures, the conventions noted are completely consistent with the features and characteristics of their respective communities. The Igbo conceive themselves, and are conceived, as highly competitive materialists whose identity within the commune is assured by a political organization based on hierarchy, a patrilineal structure known as ummuna. Political power is diffused and democratized, but the ‘big men’, those who have amassed considerable wealth and power, are far more equal than the others. The social importance of being successful is often used to explain the ready westernization of the Igbo and their emergence as influential merchants and civil servants outside their homeland.

Traditional religion recognizes a small number of universal deities, but subgroups also worship local gods – at least so long as those lesser deities prove efficacious and protect the community. From the frequency with which it is invoked, the Igbo concept of chi  is very important, and the ambiguous relationship between person and chi further emphasizes independence and individuality. In both traditional and contemporary literature individuals challenge their chi just as often as their chi challenges them.

The Yoruba, on the other hand, have a large pantheon of co-equal dieties whose natures and characters are often at odds with one another. Harmony among them, as among human adherents, is uneasily maintained by continual compromise. The place of the individual is altogether ambiguous and certainly unprotected. Opposed or contending forces must be diffused in every-day life, and ‘big men’ are measured by the number of followers or supporters they command. Nowadays figures of high profile are often measured by wealth, but the fact remains that Yoruba leaders are men or women who can best bring together the various and conflicting elements in society. The concept of orí is of particular importance. It presuposes the principle ofindividuality which is percieved as a diety, informing and shaping both world view and behavior.

Personal experience tends to confirm such over-simplifications and validates the idea that conventions of literary composition in the two traditions are not only different, but different in characteristic ways. The directness and relative simplicity of Igbo imagery, its linearity and accumulativeness, is wholly consistent with an individualist and avowedly competitive society. The Yoruba predilection for complex imagery, sudden oppositions, and elaborate, formal patterning is congruous with the need to accept and harmonize the disparate elements of reality.

Emenyonu’s claim (quoted earlier) that the most common form of early, Igbo novels involved social disruption and subsequent re-harmonization may or may not be true. Obviously it is also possible to write plays using the same pattern. Victor Turner has advanced the theory that drama develops from ritualization – and working through – just such social disruptions. | 9 |

9 | See From Ritual to Theatre, The human seriousness of play (New York; Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982).

The Igbo seem to be committed to the novel, whereas the Yoruba more often choose drama as a vehicle for expressing that same process. The relative compatibility (or incompatibility) of world-view to literary form may suggest an answer. Prose narrative is created by authors, who intermediate between story and audience. Drama, on the other hand, involves role-playing and depends upon a congregation of interpreters (director/producer, actors, designers, etc.), who are often at odds with one another, but aspire to harmony when recreating/recasting an authorial text.

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Just how far it might be possible to push this line of argument is uncertain. The larger question, of course, is the extent to which characteristics of thought-processes and world-views in particular societies are evident in literature. Any number of distorting mirrors, or even blind-spots, are possible. Whatever the conclusions (insights or idiocies), the object is to describe the dynamics of actual evolution and not a preconceived, historical pattern. Literary techniques and forms define and determine perceptions which are inextricably bound up with what actually has taken place. Formal, literary criticism is a useful tool, but an ultimate apprehension is, perhaps, better approached through the sociology of literature – an often troublesome, yet productive, dialogue between the arts and social sciences.