Kofi Awoonor’s The Promise of Hope : A Year to the Reckoning.
By Ivor Agyeman-Duah
If protégés get created, there are always possibilities that with infirmity of death or as the hymnist says, eternity’s shortness, they can stand in good stead for their mentors. Kofi Anyidoho was inspired by the elder deceased Kofi Awoonor as a poet and scholar. Ewe cultural aesthetics particularly its poetics might have created a bond between them. Their poetry is almost on the same wave-length. It was not surprising therefore when it fell on Anyidoho to see to the conclusion- through editing and an introduction to Awoonor’s last collection of poetry- The Promise of Hope- New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013 published as part of the African Poetry Book Series by Amalion Publishing.
When Awoonor died in Nairobi before his formal participation in the Storymoja Hay Festival in September last year, almost a year to this review, a Nigerian poet wrote to me saying her whole day had been shattered and that “Awonnor’s death wounds me badly.” The same week, the winner of Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Prize for Literature (worth $100,000) decided to use the money to establish a library in his home town in memory of Awoonor. What fascinated these poets, especially Nigerians in their numerous obituary articles, and other Africans including of course Ghanaians, was what Awoonor’s generation did: a very responsible management of oral traditions of their grandmothers, mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles into a modern poetry transition. They maintained (notwithstanding their training in mostly European and American universities), the sense and sensibilities of their elders. Awoonor like J. H. Kwabena Nketia before him (in praise poetry whether of the palace type of Asante influence or the poetic music of women ensemble) or later by Anyidoho took after Ephraim Amu of getting to the roots; they were unlettered, these elders, in the new calculation of literacy but held in their attic minds the treasures of the ancient past.
In The Promise of Hope however, are over 150 poems about 60 previously unpublished as a collection but now under : Herding the Lost Lambs (2013) and Latin American and Caribbean Notebook (1992). Otherwise many of the remaining are from previous collections : Until The Morning After; The House by the Sea; Ride Me Memory; Night of Blood and Comes the Voyager at Last: A Tale of Return to Africa. Awoonor provides more in this book - of preservation of traditional Ewe poetry of life’s cruelty, clan pride, wars of redemption and ‘ancestral veneration’ but also a cosmopolitan outlook of urbanity and its troubles. There is as well the poetry of nature in our sphere, themes and observation that inspire the Romantic poets or tradition of England centuries before but which hunt all poets irrespective of geography ; of ambition of conquest, interconnectedness as by-products of slavery, colonial experience and dilemmas of the post-colonial stance.
It is interesting that for now, it is the second part of this book that will define Awoonor’s career. It is older, more familiar, have clear identity, been taught in schools over the years and written at a period of a “renaissance” in African literary thought of the 1960s and 70s. It will be a while as it is with all literary works for the newer part of this collection to make their impact. V.S. Naipaul now an octogenarian Nobel laureate has argued convincingly that, writers of substance are defined by the first two decades of their writings. There is as much truth in this as it also does not measure their full stature.
Anyidoho writes in the Introduction: “However, it is important to note a fundamental difference between the funereal voice and mood in these last poems and what we find in the early ones. These are not typical songs of sorrows. Rather, they demonstrate a mature reflection on life, a philosophical balance sheet carefully drawn to weigh life’s gains and losses, with the final balance showing an impressive credit in favor of hope and promise of hope.”
There is the intriguing sense at least to me, of a craving for sorrowful poetry whether of dispossession like Awoonor’s, Mahmound Darwish’s After the Last Sky or By the Rivers of Babylon. Is sorrow out of desolation, an inevitable nemesis of many poetic outcomes?
There is definitely poetic license which Awoonor maximizes. I do not know if there is a spiritual license to its creation. I know however that, poets in the Judeo-Christian traditions and in some cultures of the Middle East centuries ago, were identified as prophets. Awoonor for a while was almost domesticated in ethnocentric parlance for a controversial political tract of a book. In a pretended, perhaps not so, state of clairvoyance, he says in that popular stanza in Songs of Sorrow:
Something has happened to me
The things so great that I cannot weep;
I have no sons to fire the gun when I die
And no daughters to wail when I close my mouth
I have wandered on the wilderness
The great wilderness men call life
The rain has beaten me,
And the sharp stumps cut as keen as knives
I shall go beyond and rest.
I have no kin and no brother,
Death has made war upon our house.
If he could see from yonder, this dirge was too soon. In September at the Storymoja Hay Festival in Nairobi, exactly where he did not have the opportunity to read his poetry almost a year ago, there will be more than sons and daughters, enough poets, novelists, playwrights, essayists, angry polemists of the old and new generations as they gather to defy the creators of his death. They will use nothing but words and create new poetry in memorial. And if the perpetuators of demise bear names like: Nyidevu, Kpeti and Kove, these writers would tell them that, “they have done us evil.”
[The Promise of Hope- New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013 by Kofi Awoonor, Edited and with Introduction by Kofi Anyidoho, African Poetry Book Series, Amalion Publishing. pp297]