The Purchase of Song: Ṣẹnwẹlẹ Lawino at Fifty
- Title: Song of Lawino
- Author: Okot p’Bitek
- Publisher: East African Publishing House
- Number of pages: 216
- Year of publication: 1966
- Category: Poetry
‘A song is a form of linguistic disobedience, and its sound casts doubt on more than a concrete philosophical system: it questions the entire philosophical order’. – Joseph Brodsky
In 1966, Okot p’Bitek, who wrote first in Acoli, then English – who made his mother his main muse – published Wer pa Lawino or Song of Lawino to wide acclaim, in Africa, by the East African Publishing House. At the time, there was no way of telling just how far Song of Lawino would travel. What was evident was that the poet had inaugurated a practice which defied easy categorisation and which ruptured the established conventions of poetry written in English or French or Portuguese and published on the continent.
As a child, listening to elder cousins and nieces talk about one Lawino’s song, my imagination pictured this Lawino as a colourful songbird. I do not know why this visualisation of Lawino persisted throughout my juvenile years but it did. In the way that life sometimes happens, I came to read Song of Ocol before reading Song of Lawino. As a young adult, I felt the affront against Lawino was simply unforgivable because it was everything a man was not supposed to do against a songbird. I would grow out of the outlandish conception of Lawino as bird but I will forever find Ocol’s insults unforgivable, because unforgettable. I would grow to realise that this is a strategy frequently deployed by African writers. In Ola Rotimi’s Kurunmi, the protagonist will ask the white clergyman seeking to persuade Kurunmi to overlook an ancestral insult, ‘Do you have a father?’
Poetry is a passionate art and translation is an art of passion. Song of Lawino is that creation at the intersection of passion and the passionate, it is that liminal, penumbral phenomenon that invites the audience today, fifty years later, to a rereading of its inceptive singularity. With the publication of Song of Lawino, the continent gained a poet whose very debut work was both song and manifesto, verse and roadmap.
Before Song of Lawino made its English incarnation, the Cape Verdean poet, Felisberto Viera Lopes, writing under the pen name of Kaoberdiano Dambara had published his Creole collection using language accessible to the majority of his audience. Noti (Night), also published by the East African Publishing House, made its debut in 1964. But Noti is a different class of creative endeavour. Noti had more in common with poetry written in Swahili or Afrikaans in the East and South of Africa than poetry written in Izon or English. Okot p’Bitek chose Acoli (or Acoli chose him) as the medium through which this creative impulse will effloresce.
Husband, now you despise me
Now you treat me with spite
And say I have inherited the stupidity of my aunt;
Son of the Chief, now you compare me
With the rubbish in the rubbish pit,
You say you no longer want me
Because I am like the things left behind
In the deserted homestead.
If it were possible to render the aperçu of 86 pages of poetry in eight lines, these first eight would be it. There is a sense in which Song of Lawino is a rage against two of the seven cardinal sins of the universal human consciousness. It is a song against pride (superbia) and anger (ira). If we agree with Leo Tolstoy that pride necessarily incorporates stupidity, then Song of Lawino is also a rage against a kind of emotional if not intellectual stupidity. Tolstoy argues that whereas it is possible for stupidity to exist without pride, it is impossible for pride to exist without stupidity. The opening charge against Ocol seems a validation of Tolstoy’s thesis for it is one thing to have a tiff with a spouse and quite another to insult an in-law in the African worldview.
Lawino argues for the enduring value of African perspectives while raging against the machine of Western progress. Very few poems that set out to accuse or argue a position succeed in the long term. Alfred Noyes’ ‘Tycho Brahe’ and others come to mind. The principal reason is that poetry resists being instrumentalised. It is one field with a total intolerance for theme-park development. How do we then account for the enduring success of Song of Lawino? Part of the answer lies in this: that the artistic vision driving the poem largely outstrips the polemic impulse behind the work and that of the pendant piece following in its wake, Song of Ocol. When we realise that Lawino is the name of the poet’s mother, that the poem was first written in Acoli, we begin to understand that this is no supercilious or superficial venture but one which the poet felt and identified with deeply. Anyone who has followed the wide but closely plotted arc of Lawino’s Song comes to this conclusion fairly easily. No one fountain can possibly flow with such force for such a sustained duration without passion as the driving force.
Another reason for the enduring quality of Song of Lawino is that it came about through the poet’s willingness to enter the feminine consciousness in a way that male poets at the time were not so prepared or able to do. The confidence in the poetic voice, the gravity with which each charge is laid against Ocol and the sass with which caustic barbs are delivered are all elements which a Yoruba person, for instance, would easily recognise in the Ṣẹnwẹlẹ genre of song which is part of the repertoire of the language and culture as practiced in the Ilorin axis of Yorubaland. Okot p’Bitek was not out to exhibit a well-wrought poem in English. He was being, first, amanuensis and then polemic and then an architect of a heuristic construct. The scholar, G A Heron, in his introduction to the Heinemann edition of the combined Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol notes that the rhymes and rhythm in Wer pa Lawino did not survive the transition into English. I will go as far as saying that Lawino, the muse, barely survived into the English.
Okot p’Bitek, as poet, was deeply invested in the product as he was in the process. The poem he arrived at may not be the one-to-one correspondent of Wer pa Lawino but it retained the emotional charge and edge of the motherlode as much as was possible. Those who encountered Lawino only in the translated state can hardly complain of being shortchanged. A notable poet, Taban lo Liyong, who has equal facility in Acoli and English has helped those of us not so lucky to be so blessed with plural linguistic reach, appreciate the quality of horse trading that went into what we have of Wer pa Lawino in English.
Song of Lawino is translation and interpretation on many levels. In this the poet was being part of the zeitgeist (Wole Soyinka would go on to title one of his novels The Interpreters). The work is a psychic, linguistic and mystic iteration of a central idea with many corollaries. Usually, poems of this magnitude undergo various emendations. No doubt, if the original papers of Okot p’Bitek are all located, diligent scholars would be able to provide a variorum of his canonical text in Acoli (which reportedly underwent multiple revisions), and in English (suffering far fewer editorial interventions) but the core mystique of the poet’s ideas and arguments are virtually immutable and good for all time.
Song of Lawino is unique also in this: that apart from its birth through translation and experimentation, it achieved a place in the African canon as interpretive idiom even in the lifetime of its author. Entire philosophical treatises had been written at the beginning of the twentieth century about the true meaning and measure of time, for example. Some insisted that time has no meaning and cannot be measured apart from the idea of duration. Some others insisted as emphatically that the essence of time is in moments. Here p’Bitek weighs in on the debate with a fully Acoli and therefore fully African contribution of his own, that of time as occasion. As when a baby demands for its mother’s milk. The significance is not in the duration as such, neither is it in moment. It is neither particle nor wave, it is a particle-wave duality, p’Bitek posits. It is an occasion. And occasions are not defined by chronographs even though chronographs may describe their boundaries. Time is an element with which Lawino is strangely preoccupied. Then and now, today and tomorrow, seasons of drought and rain, moons of leanness and surplus. We glimpse Ocol too, under the watch of the clock, minion to the chronograph, a creature with whom Lawino cannot relate.
But the woman
With whom I share my husband
Does not wash her head;
The head of the beautiful one
Smells like rats
That have fallen into the fireplace.
Lawino’s description of how her rival’s burnt hair smells is illustrative of Okot p’Bitek’s practice. When at his best, p’Bitek’s writing is dense, approaching what might be described as a syntax of the senses, a verbal, not merely oral, athleticism which convinces the audience of Lawino’s investment in the stock of Acoli tradition. Lawino is comfortable with deploying the behavioural characteristics of her native fauna to depict her meanings; she invokes visceral images to undergird the communal ideas of filial honour and personal dignity. As protagonist, she drags all the elements at her disposal into the arena of conflict and presses them all into service.
The human pulse was and is the true measure for p’Bitek’s lines, he does not allow any other metrics to get in its way. This measure, established from before birth, stamps the breath with life-force, with prenatal music. The poet’s score is an extended rendering of euphonies from the four chambers of the beating human heart. For all the simplicity which commentators over the decades have dressed the Song of Lawino, it was, and remains, poetry of ideas. It is easy to miss this because though written in accessible language, there is a basic dialogic thread running through Lawino’s dramatic monologue.
The writing is not merely polemic, not merely argumentative but heuristic. Lawino’s end is not to debate Ocol but to learn and to make whole. The song is a machine with reverse-hermeneutic capabilities as Brodsky posited in his other words. This is why, at the aesthetic level, the Song of Lawino is easy to grasp but difficult to grapple with. In the way that the eye can comprehend the horizon but not compass it, in the way that the ear luxuriates in musical chords without necessarily being able to distinguish component notes, this one song presents a case as ancient as the human heart beyond the ordering powers of mere logic. In contemporary world poetry, the poet that comes closest to Okot p’Bitek’s sense of the heuristic, in my view, is the long-lived Les Murray of Bunyah, New South Wales, Australia. It is no surprise that their sense of song is brash but concomitantly brilliant most of the time. They are not content to be polemic if their song is not going to be organic at the same time.
Song of Lawino is a debut volume of poetry. The ‘song’ in the title is an indication of the source of the work. It is not a brainchild of the poet – it is sprung from the heart, its wellspring lies at the core of the poetic persona. Lawino (it is a winsome name, Lawino) makes her song the theatre of struggle for her husband, Ocol’s heart. The dramatic possibilities of the song are multiple, making the dialectic of Lawino transcend the dialect of her anguish. Though an early edition of the work describes it as a lament, the enduring characterisation of the work is that of song.
It is a song, in part because it states its case with relish, with a zest that drowns pain, a flourish that pushes the pain in plaints into the background. There is an intelligence to Lawino’s song that builds an argument on a basis far removed from Aristotelian syllogisms, it rises to the task before it through a craft far older than the if-this-then-that of cold, cerebral logic.
Song of Lawino became a poster poem for how not to read African poetry, or poetry from Pluto, if ever one of our probes should return with samples. Okot p’Bitek’s poetics could not be parsed by counting syllables or seeking stress points. Lawino’s plaint could not be rendered into dactyls or sorted into assonantal or alliterative crates like so many Acoli eggs. Song of Lawino threw back the audience into an era in which the song aimed for the emotional core with a rhino’s focus. The pleasure in the poem is in the polycentric location of subversive tropes interspersed with biting literal renderings of the catechumen intent on getting the advantage over an emotionally unintelligent proselytiser.
Lawino makes her marriage to Ocol into a metaphor for the waywardness of Ocol who would not entirely marry Western values but continues to flirt with it while being married to the older and demonstrably wiser Acoli values. When Lawino refers to Ocol as Son of the Chief, she is reminding him of his identity much the same way this is done throughout Africa. Lawino’s plea to Ocol are sometimes hard to understand in English, as when, for example, she pleads with him not to uproot the pumpkin. She is saying Ocol should not play the wastrel with what makes him a man. Nutritional science confirms that the pumpkin is a veritable source of dietary zinc, which is a critical metal in the making of healthy males. Lawino had no sophisticated laboratories to determine this fact but simply draws on millennia of observation of the Acoli, the same way that the Xhosa will do.
Okot p’Bitek came to Nigeria and lectured at the University of Ife where he left lasting impressions on campus. He had long left the university by the time I became an undergraduate there in 1986. In that year, The Eye of the Earth by Niyi Osundare was the set text for poetry and one could get no purchase on the scope of the song through studying Tennyson or Spencer or Eliot. One was referred to Song of Lawino, a work with a different thrust but in the same tradition of song. This was the way in which the consciousness was expanded and a tradition understood.
Only one other poet of equal talent was published in 1966, in South Africa, by New Coin. Sydney Clouts. His One Life is a treasure. Both p’Bitek and Clouts, members of the same generation, would die in 1982, fairly young, each pushing his frontier to its artistic limits. The two poets would follow radically divergent trajectories in theory and praxis and I will argue that between them, intimations of what new African poetry will mean was foreshadowed, going forward into the twenty-first century. Their two collections can sometimes read like an ensemble of brass and wind but it is an ensemble, nevertheless, that works.
Okot p’Bitek has practically overshadowed his contemporary, Clouts, who was no mean poet in his own regard. It is not just because Clouts published in his country of birth, South Africa, while living in Britain and p’Bitek left Britain to publish his work at home that makes the difference. It is not just because both poets treated the subject of the dialectics of Western and African philosophies differently even though it can be argued that both were possessed of what Clouts described as ‘the penetrant eye’. It is not because one poet was black and the other white. I will argue that it is because Okot p’Bitek has done what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o calls ‘securing the base’ that makes him tower today so much so that his kinsmen have decided commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Song of Lawino with a translation into Luganda. The emotional honesty in Clouts and p’Bitek is palpable, their craft is evident and the arc they trace distinctive. But Clout’s muse is unmoored while Okot p’Bitek has made a study of tethering his camel in the desert before his big sleep.
Any occasion to revisit the work of a literary ancestor is golden and this fiftieth anniversary is as good as any to celebrate the bold venture of Okot p’Bitek, singer, dancer, athlete, thinker, drinker, jurist and general man of many parts. His influence, we now know, is transcendental and his voice assured a permanent place in the constellation of African voices. The purchase his song has given the world on the possibilities of poetry in any language and from any culture reiterates the primal place of that art in human civilisation throughout time and space. Born through translation, Song of Lawino transcends the transformational, firmly planting a transfigurable flag for African poetry on the world stage.
Photograph: ‘Cesto, Uganda/ Sudan’ by Soggettimigranti
Comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please use the appropriate review title in the email subject line.