History of African Poetry Content and Form


The content of African poetry, is made of themes that emanate from the African background. This background, as you will recall, consists essentially of experiences of colonial and post-colonial eras. The details of these experiences involve firstly a clash of cultures which featured in the initial colonial contact between Africa and the West. Western culture, which was the culture of the colonialists, was superimposed on the African culture of the colonized. A clash of cultural values emerged as the African culture resisted this superimposition.

This cultural clash became a ready theme or element for many African poets. Okot p’Bitek explores it well in the two poems he wrote “The Graceful Griraffe cannot become a Monkey” and ‘My Name Blew like a Horn among the Payira.’ p’Bitek protests against the superimposition of the White culture on African culture.

Exile and alienation are two important elements in African poetry that resulted from colonial contact especially in areas of Africa colonized by the French. For example, Senegal. In these places, the French practiced a policy of assimilation whose aim was to turn the Africans into black Frenchmen. These Africans imbibed so much of the white culture of the French that they virtually lost their identity as Africans. The result was that they were alienated from their African roots and, as it often happened, went to live in France, thus exiling themselves even physically. Senghor in ‘in Memoriam’ and ‘I will pronounce Your Name’ protests vehemently against this experience.

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Do not be misled into thinking that African poetry is made up of only themes that concern Africa and Africans. That is, themes that are localized. Some African poets write about themes that could apply to any part of the world. The example we have here of such universal themes is in ‘Soyinka’s ‘Telephone conversation’ which deals with the issue of racism and his ‘post mortem’ which deals with the theme of death. The poet’s response to these issue is that racism is irrational and a hateful evil. Death in Soyinka’s view is unfathomable and therefore not worthy of man’s consistent but futile probe.

African poetry covers very many themes, both local and universal, depending on the experiences Africa and Africans have gone through.


In terms of style, African poetry is written mainly in free verse which is common among many modern poets. It is not written according to any fixed rules, forms or conventions. The form which African poetry takes is governed by the subject – matter that are treated. Free verse allows for freedom of expression and style.

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Instead of using rhyme, rhythm, metre or other fixed forms to enhance their meaning, African poets employ other poetic devices in skillful ways that enable them to achieve the same effect as those achieved by the use of fixed rules and conventional forms.

On a final point: Remember that we are not saying African poets do not use devices like rhyme, rhythm, meter, sonnects etc. They occasional use these devices but they do not particularly make them convey the meanings of their poems as they make the devices we have just discussed embellish their meaning.

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by Chima Tim