‘These poems engage readers on multiple levels, delving into the human psyche, society’s dilemmas, and the eternal quest for understanding. Each piece leaves a lasting impression, confirming Soyinka’s place as a masterful poet and an essential voice in the world of literature. This collection is a treasure trove for poetry enthusiasts and those seeking to explore the depths of human emotions and experiences’
I RECENTLY had the privilege of immersing myself in Wole Soyinka’s literary masterpiece, “SELECTED POEMS (1965-2022: A Retrospective” This collection of selected poems by the renowned poet, spanning from 1965 to 2022, offers a mesmerising glimpse into the vast array of themes that characterise his poetic genius. I selected twenty poems that spoke to me, and here is my review
- Abiku: A haunting and evocative poem that delves into the mystical Yoruba belief of the wandering spirit child. Wole Soyinka, through mesmerising imagery and powerful language, portrays the essence of the Abiku as a recurring entity that dies and returns to plague its mother repeatedly.
The poem opens with a sense of resignation and defiance as the Abiku rejects the charms and offerings made to keep it from returning. It resists attempts to tie it to the mortal realm, declaring its eternal nature. Soyinka’s vivid descriptions, such as “the snail is burnt in its shell,” create a haunting atmosphere, underscoring the enigmatic nature of the Abiku. The imagery of the squirrel teeth and the god’s swollen foot further deepens the mythical quality of the poem.
The poem’s emotional depth lies in the pleas of the mothers who try to hold on to their wandering children. The supplication and anguish of the mothers are palpable as they seek to find a way to keep the Abiku from departing once more.
“Abiku” is a poignant exploration of life’s transient nature and the eternal cycle of birth and death. It delves into the human desire to hold on to what is ephemeral and the struggle to confront the inevitability of loss. Through Abiku’s repetitive return, Soyinka captures the essence of the human condition, where joy and sorrow interweave in a perpetual dance.
Overall, “Abiku” is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that beautifully weaves together elements of mythology, life, and death, leaving the reader contemplating the complexities of existence and the profound mysteries of the universe.
- Telephone Conversations: A powerful and thought-provoking poem that delves into the complexities of race and prejudice. Soyinka masterfully uses a seemingly ordinary telephone conversation between a potential tenant and a landlady to explore the deeply ingrained racial biases and discrimination that exist in society.
The poem begins with a sense of hope as the speaker seeks a place to rent. However, as soon as the landlady realises that the speaker is African, the tone shifts dramatically. The landlady’s questions about the speaker’s skin colour and race reveal the deep-seated racism that underlies her attitude.
The poem highlights the absurdity of racial prejudice as the landlady tries to categorize the speaker based on skin colour, comparing it to shades of chocolate. The speaker’s response, “West African sepia,” cleverly challenges the landlady’s racial stereotypes and expectations.
Soyinka’s use of descriptive language, such as “rancid breath of public hide-and-speak” and “red booth, red pillar box,” creates a vivid and intense atmosphere, capturing the tension and discomfort of the conversation.
The speaker’s plea for understanding and acceptance was, “Wouldn’t you rather see for yourself?” exposes the hypocrisy of racial prejudice and emphasizes the importance of looking beyond appearances and stereotypes.
“Telephone Conversation” is a scathing critique of racism and a powerful call for empathy and understanding. It serves as a reminder that racial discrimination is not only hurtful but also absurd, as it reduces individuals to superficial and irrelevant characteristics.
Overall, this poem is a brilliant commentary on the destructive nature of racism and the need for genuine human connection, challenging readers to question their own preconceptions and biases and to strive for a more inclusive and compassionate society.
- The Child Before a Mirror of Strangers: A poignant and introspective poem that delves into the theme of identity and the complexity of human relationships. Wole Soyinka artfully captures the emotional turmoil of a person reflecting on their past, questioning their place in the world, and grappling with the societal expectations imposed upon them.
The poem opens with a sense of disorientation as the speaker questions their own existence and wonders if they have been forgotten or misunderstood by those around them. They feel like strangers in a world that they once knew so intimately, now distanced from their true selves.
The metaphor of the mirror is used to symbolize self-reflection and introspection. The strangers in the mirror represent the child’s perception of themselves as seen by others in the poem. This mirror becomes a lens through which the speaker examines the judgments and perceptions of society.
Soyinka skillfully explores the idea of societal pressures and expectations that force individuals to conform and suppress their true identity. The references to being labelled with derogatory terms like “pauper, pagan, dirty, low-born” underscore the struggle to break free from the constraints of stereotypes and judgments.
The structure of the poem, with its repeated “as if” phrases, emphasizes the speaker’s internal conflict by evoking a sense of uncertainty and hesitation. The use of enjambment and vivid imagery adds depth and intensity to the emotions conveyed.
Overall, “The Child Before a Mirror of Strangers” is a profound exploration of self-awareness, societal pressures, and the quest for authenticity. It invites readers to reflect on their own sense of identity and the complexities of human interactions. Through evocative language and an introspective tone, the poem offers a deeply moving and thought-provoking experience.
- Wailing Wall: A powerful and evocative poem that delves into themes of religion, faith, and the enduring struggle against evil. Wole Soyinka skillfully weaves together vivid imagery and metaphors to create a haunting and thought-provoking piece of poetry.
The poem revolves around the metaphor of a “Wailing Wall,” a sacred place of prayer and lamentation. However, this wall takes on a deeper meaning as it becomes a symbol of human suffering and the harsh realities of life. The wall is described as a roof in “blood-rust,” alluding to the countless tears and bloodshed that have been offered in prayer.
Soyinka portrays a stark contrast between the spiritual facade and the sinister presence that lurks beneath the surface. The vulture presiding in a tattered surplice and the crow with legs of “toothpick dearth” represents the hypocrisy and corruption that can sometimes be found within religious institutions.
The poem challenges the effectiveness of prayers and rituals in eradicating evil, suggesting that evil remains impenitent and continues to thrive on the wounds and tears of the innocent. The juxtaposition of “mass burial” and “buried in soil of darkness” conveys a sense of despair and hopelessness in the face of persistent suffering and injustice.
The language and imagery used in the poem are striking and compelling, drawing readers into a world of profound reflection and contemplation. Soyinka’s use of metaphors and descriptive language creates a sense of intensity and urgency in the message he conveys.
“Wailing Wall” is a profound exploration of the human condition, raising questions about the complexities of faith and the struggle against malevolence. It prompts readers to reflect on the true meaning of prayer and the need for genuine compassion and action in the face of evil and suffering.
- Ikeja, Friday, Four O’Clock: A poignant and thought-provoking poem that paints a vivid picture of a bustling and chaotic city, specifically the area of Ikeja in Lagos. The poem delves into the themes of human consumption, excess, and the consequences of unchecked greed and wastefulness.
The imagery of “laden trucks, mirage of breath, and form” presents a bustling scene where material possessions and desires are abundant. However, beneath the surface, there lies a deeper reflection on the nature of human existence and the never-ending pursuit of more.
The poem uses the metaphor of “gourds for earth to drink therefrom” to symbolize the insatiable thirst for material wealth and power. The “crop of wrath” and “loaves of lead” signify the heavy burden of excess and the hollowness of material accumulation.
Through its concise and evocative language, the poem serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of human actions. It critiques the culture of consumerism and greed that can lead to the wasteful use of resources and the loss of essential values.
“Ikeja, Friday, Four O’Clock” offers readers a powerful reflection on the human condition, urging them to consider the impact of their actions on the world around them. It serves as a timely call for greater mindfulness and responsibility in our pursuit of material abundance.
- Harvest of Hate: A deeply evocative and poignant poem that delves into the destructive consequences of human conflict and violence. The poem uses powerful imagery and metaphors to convey the sense of loss, pain, and sorrow that arise from the ravages of war.
The opening lines, “the sun moves to die at mid-morning,” set a sombre tone, indicating the disruption of natural order and the pervasiveness of darkness even in broad daylight. The imagery of wilting laughter and savaged palm fronds suggests a world turned upside down, where joy and beauty are marred by hatred and destruction.
The mention of “rashes break on kernelled oil” symbolizes the human cost of conflict, with lives shattered and families torn apart. The line “Fall, unfledged, to the tribute of fire” paints a heartbreaking picture of innocent lives lost in the flames of war.
Through its eloquent language and vivid imagery, “Harvest of Hate” delivers a powerful message about the devastating impact of violence and the need for peace and understanding. It serves as a poignant reminder of the toll that hatred and war take on humanity and calls for empathy, compassion, and a commitment to building a more harmonious world.
- Civilian and Soldier: Another thought-provoking and emotionally charged poem that delves into the complexities of war and the profound impact it has on individuals caught in its midst. The poem presents a poignant encounter between a civilian and a soldier during a time of conflict.
The speaker, a civilian, finds himself confronted by a soldier who is armed and prepared to kill. The civilian’s declaration that he is not a combatant only serves to further confuse and frighten the soldier, who grapples with the gravity of his actions. The poem skillfully explores the theme of the human cost of war, highlighting the moral dilemmas faced by those who are ordered to fight.
The speaker’s reflection on the soldier’s training sessions, urging him to scorch the earth behind you” and not leave any potential threats to the rear, adds depth to the poem’s exploration of the dehumanizing effects of war. The civilian’s desire to understand the soldier’s perspective and to find common ground is juxtaposed against the harsh reality of armed conflict.
The final lines, where the speaker envisions a future encounter in a trench, bring the poem to a powerful and evocative conclusion. The ambiguity of whether the encounter will be peaceful or violent reflects the unpredictable and chaotic nature of war.
“Civilian and Soldier” is a powerful poem that encourages readers to reflect on the destructive nature of war and the importance of empathy and understanding in times of conflict. It is a poignant reminder of the human toll of violence and the need for peaceful resolutions to complex issues.
- Journey: A contemplative and introspective poem that explores the idea of never truly feeling settled or content, even when reaching the destination of a journey. The speaker reflects on their life’s journey, which seems to be filled with uncertainty and questions.
The poem portrays a sense of restlessness and the perpetual feeling of being on a journey, both physically and metaphorically. The speaker expresses a yearning for a deeper connection and a sense of belonging, but somehow they find themselves detached and distant from the celebrations and feasts of life.
The repetition of “I never feel I have arrived” emphasizes the speaker’s ongoing search for fulfillment and meaning. The juxtaposition of arriving at a destination and yet feeling unfulfilled adds to the poem’s sense of longing and introspection.
Wole Soyinka’s use of metaphors, such as “fretful fish among the rusted hulls,” enriches the imagery and conveys a feeling of being adrift and disconnected. The poem’s contemplative tone encourages readers to ponder the nature of their own journeys and the constant pursuit of meaning and purpose.
“Journey” is a poignant and thought-provoking poem that captures the essence of human longing and the eternal search for a sense of belonging and fulfillment in life’s ongoing journey.
- An Anthem to Humanism: A powerful and visionary poem that celebrates the triumph of reason, knowledge, and human potential. The poem calls for a shift in perspective, urging humanity to look skyward not in fear or supplication but to embrace the fall of superstitions and embrace a human-centered worldview.
Wole Soyinka emphasizes the importance of raising our gaze to the heavens not to seek blessings from indifferent deities but to celebrate the wonders of the cosmos and our place within it. It advocates for the rejection of blind faith and the questioning of beliefs that no longer serve the advancement of human understanding and progress.
The poem celebrates the power of human reason and the pursuit of knowledge to temper and shape nature, promoting a world where minds are unfettered and free to explore the mysteries of the universe. It calls for the liberation of humanity from dogmas and creeds, allowing individuals to embrace their own volition and freedom of choice.
Overall, “An Anthem to Humanism” is a call for a more rational, enlightened, and compassionate world where human potential is celebrated and the quest for peace and understanding prevails. The poem encourages us to embrace our capacity for reason and empathy to create a more harmonious and fulfilling human experience.
- Hamlet: “Hamlet” offers a compelling and thought-provoking reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic play. In this poetic rendition, Soyinka delves into the depths of Hamlet’s psyche, capturing his inner struggles and contemplation of life’s uncertainties. The poem skillfully explores themes of doubt, fear, and the eternal clash between reason and passion that have captivated audiences for centuries.
Soyinka’s poetic language and imagery create a vivid and evocative portrayal of Hamlet’s turmoil as he grapples with his doubts and insecurities. The protagonist’s inner turmoil is depicted as a battle between reason and passion, and the poem captures the essence of this internal conflict with remarkable insight.
Through the lens of his own unique poetic voice, Soyinka brings a fresh perspective to the familiar tale, shedding new light on the complexities of Hamlet’s character and the universal themes that lie at the heart of the play. Wole Soyinka’s skillful portrayal of justice’s despair and the treachery that surrounds Hamlet adds depth and nuance to the narrative, leaving readers with a profound and lasting impression.
Overall, “Hamlet” is a masterful poetic exploration of the human condition and the timeless struggle between reason and emotion. Soyinka’s rendition breathes new life into Shakespeare’s classic, making it a must-read for both lovers of the original play and those seeking a fresh and captivating perspective on this iconic tale.
- Night: “Night” is a mesmerizing and evocative poem that delves into the enigmatic embrace of darkness. Through exquisite imagery and captivating language, Soyinka personifies Night as a powerful force that leaves its mark on both the physical and emotional realms. His skillful use of metaphor and symbolism creates a vivid and haunting atmosphere, transporting the reader to a realm where Night’s presence is palpable. The heavy hand of Night upon the speaker’s brow becomes a poignant representation of the weight of emotions and experiences that Night brings.
The poem explores the contrast between the tranquil beauty of the sea and the lurking shadows that Night casts, hinting at the dual nature of darkness. In its essence, “Night” is a meditation on the transformative power of darkness and the profound impact it can have on the human soul. It invites the reader to reflect on the hidden depths within us, the unspoken fears and desires that surface when enveloped by Night’s veil.
Soyinka’s poetic prowess shines through in “Night,” making it a captivating and thought-provoking read that lingers in the mind long after the last lines are absorbed. The poem’s lyrical beauty and profound insights into the human experience make it a true testament to Soyinka’s mastery of language and expression.
- Ever-Ready Bank Accounts: “Ever-Ready Bank Accounts” is a thought-provoking and satirical poem that delves into the complexities of wealth, power, and human nature. Wole Soyinka creates a vivid portrait of a society where materialism and greed are the driving forces.
The poem explores the concept of wealth and its impact on individuals and society as a whole. The portrayal of “ever-ready bank accounts” as “ever red” implies a constant hunger for more, an insatiable desire for wealth and possessions that never wanes. It speaks to the relentless pursuit of money and the power it holds over people’s lives.
Soyinka highlights the stark contrast between those who hoard their wealth and those who struggle to survive. The poem sheds light on the plight of the impoverished, the hungry children who resort to eating insects, and the desperation of the father-forager seeking to provide for his family.
The use of the balance sheet and the recurring motif of the colour red serve as powerful symbols of the cost of living in a world obsessed with material gain. The poem critiques the excesses of a system that values financial success over human compassion and empathy.
Overall, Soyinka’s poetic prowess shines through in “Ever-Ready Bank Accounts”, inviting readers to reflect on the values and priorities that drive our society and challenging us to seek a more equitable and compassionate world.
- A First Deathday: “A First Deathday” is a poignant and introspective poem that reflects on the profound impact of loss and the passage of time. Wole Soyinka skillfully captures the bittersweet emotions that arise when confronted with the death of a loved one at a young age.
The poem begins with a juxtaposition of birth and death, celebrating the triumph of birth while acknowledging the grief that lingers over time. Soyinka contemplates the significance of the child’s death occurring around her first birthday, emphasizing the irony and precision of fate. The notion of knowledge thinning as growth progresses evokes a profound sense of loss and the fading of memories over time.
The poem also touches on the theme of secrecy and the mysteries of life and death. In the final lines, Wole Soyinka addresses time itself as a witness to his emotions, expressing a sense of resignation and acceptance of the inevitable cycles of life and death. “A First Deathday” is a beautifully crafted reflection on the complexities of grief and the enduring impact of loss on the human experience.
- My Tongue Does Not Marry Slogans: “My Tongue Does Not Marry Slogans” is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that challenges the use of empty rhetoric and slogans in addressing real issues and struggles faced by society. Wole Soyinka skillfully critiques the prevalence of slogans and empty promises that fail to address the deep-rooted problems and injustices that plague humanity.
In the poem, Wole Soyinka rejects the allure of catchy phrases and calls for a deeper examination of the true causes and solutions to societal problems. He advocates for a more genuine and meaningful approach to addressing issues, one that goes beyond the surface and delves into the complexities of human existence.
Through vivid imagery and powerful language, Soyinka exposes the futility of relying on slogans and superficial solutions to address profound challenges. He urges readers to look beyond the façade of slogans and confront the harsh realities of the world with honesty and courage.
“My Tongue Does Not Marry Slogans” is a call to action, urging individuals to embrace the complexity of life and engage in meaningful dialogue and action to bring about genuine change. The poem serves as a reminder that real progress and transformation require a deeper understanding of the human condition and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths.
- Her Joy is Wild: “Her Joy is Wild” is a captivating poem that exudes a sense of untamed energy and boundless enthusiasm. Wole Soyinka’s use of the word “wild” throughout the poem reinforces the notion of unbridled passion and intensity that the protagonist embodies.
The poem celebrates the exuberance of a woman, whose joy is likened to the untamed crashing of waves. She exclaims with a fearless spirit, encouraging her partner not to hold back from experiencing life’s richness to the fullest. The imagery of “strong teeth” weakening from nibbling the rind conveys the idea that embracing life’s pleasures and challenges fully is the path to strength and fulfillment.
Soyinka’s choice of words creates a vivid picture of a woman unafraid to express her desires and emotions. She yearns for a joyful connection, which the concept of a “joyful womb to bind” represents. The poem explores the essence of freedom and passion, celebrating the unapologetic expression of one’s true self.
The poem’s language is dynamic and rhythmic, mirroring the vivacity of the woman it describes. The repetition of “wild” adds a sense of intensity, emphasizing the vitality and liveliness of her character.
In “Her Joy is Wild,” Wole Soyinka celebrates the power of unrestrained joy and the unyielding spirit of a woman unafraid to embrace life’s wonders. It is a vibrant and uplifting piece that encourages readers to revel in their own wild joy and live life to the fullest.
- Lost Tribe: “Lost Tribe” is a thought-provoking poem that delves into the complexities of modern society and the loss of genuine human connection. The poem portrays a world where people seem to be going through the motions, following societal norms and insincere rituals without true understanding or conviction.
The imagery of ants disturbed by every passing tread and a wandering tribe in search of a lost community symbolizes the fragmented nature of human interactions in the poem. People seem to be constantly on the move, searching for something they have lost but cannot quite define.
Soyinka highlights the prevalence of superficiality and shallowness in modern life, where love and care are reduced to mere inscriptions and incantations without any real magic or depth. The poem criticizes the emptiness of clichéd expressions and social expectations that lack genuine meaning or connection.
The use of slogans and imperatives, such as “have a nice day,” “touch someone,” and “enjoy,” reflects the artificiality of communication and the pressure to conform to societal norms. The poem suggests that these phrases have become empty clichés, devoid of true emotion or intention.
Soyinka’s critique of the instant cult of fame and the pursuit of instant gratification highlights the shallow nature of modern culture. He emphasizes the transient and disposable nature of fame and the fleeting attention given to so-called gurus and experts.
“Lost Tribe” serves as a powerful commentary on the loss of authentic human interaction and the yearning for genuine connections in a world dominated by superficiality and materialism. It calls for a deeper examination of our actions and words, urging readers to seek true meaning and connection beyond the surface level of societal expectations.
- Lessons Since Eternity: “Lessons Since Eternity” is a poignant and searing commentary on the enduring struggles and injustices that have plagued humanity throughout history and continue to persist in the present. The poem delves into the complexities of human nature, the failure of leadership, and the perpetuation of societal ills.
Soyinka’s use of vivid imagery and powerful language brings to life the harsh realities of the world we live in, from the atrocities committed by terrorist groups like Boko Haram to the exploitation and suffering of innocent victims. He challenges the reader to confront the dark side of human behaviour and the hypocrisy of those in power who claim to be righteous while perpetuating violence and oppression.
The poem also touches on the role of religion and faith in shaping societal norms and actions. It critiques the manipulation of religious beliefs for personal gain and the use of slogans and empty rhetoric to mask the truth. Soyinka’s words serve as a wake-up call, urging us to question the status quo and strive for a more just and compassionate world.
“Lessons Since Eternity” is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that forces the reader to confront uncomfortable truths about the state of our world. It serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy, compassion, and genuine human connection in the face of violence, oppression, and indifference.
- Bringer of Peace: “Bringer of Peace” is a beautifully crafted poem that explores the delicate balance between tranquillity and underlying tension. The poem presents the image of light rain, symbolizing the peaceful and calming force that tries to soothe the fires of aggression and conflict within and around us.
Soyinka’s use of poetic language and vivid imagery creates a sense of calmness and serenity while also hinting at the simmering potential for violence and unrest. The rain serves as a metaphor for the desire for peace and harmony, gently attempting to quench the flames of anger and hostility.
The poem delves into the complexities of human emotions and the constant struggle to find inner peace amidst the chaos of the world. It acknowledges the presence of aggression and the innate instinct to fight but also highlights the importance of finding moments of stillness and connection to bring about peace.
“Bringer of Peace” is a thought-provoking poem that reminds us of the fragility of peace and the constant effort required to maintain it. It serves as a reminder of the transformative power of compassion and understanding and the need to strive for peace in both our personal lives and in the wider world.
- “The Last Lamp” is a poignant and evocative poem that paints a vivid picture of a fading light in the darkness of the night. The poem uses powerful imagery and metaphors to convey a sense of quiet contemplation and resignation. The title itself, “The Last Lamp,” sets the tone for the poem, suggesting a gradual decline and approaching end. The lamp, representing both light and life, becomes a symbol of the passing of time and the inevitability of mortality.
Soyinka’s language is beautifully crafted, with lines like “A pale Incision in the skin of night” and “Her shadow Now indrawn from dances” creating a sense of delicacy and melancholy. The poem explores themes of aging, solitude, and the passage of time, as well as the human experience of seeking peace and meaning in the face of mortality.
Overall, “The Last Lamp” is a thought-provoking poem that captures the fleeting nature of life and the transient beauty of existence. It serves as a reminder to cherish each moment and find solace in the quiet moments of reflection and acceptance.
- ORLANDO MARTINS: A Self-Portrait in Monologue: “ORLANDO MARTINS: A Self-Portrait in Monologue” serves as a touching tribute to a charismatic individual whose larger-than-life personality left an indelible mark on those who had the pleasure of knowing him. Wole Soyinka’s portrayal of Orlando Martins is a masterpiece of words, capturing the essence of a man whose laughter and wisdom resonated far and wide.
The poem brings to life the vivid image of Orlando’s laughter, described as a giant’s breath that challenged the constraints of power and pretentiousness. Through Orlando’s monologue, the reader is taken on a journey of personal anecdotes and insightful reflections, revealing a man who cherished his independence, valued simplicity, and possessed an irreverent spirit that defied societal norms.
In this heartfelt self-portrait, Orlando emerges as a man unafraid to speak his mind, confronting social prejudices and hypocrisy with boldness and wit. He navigated life with a keen sense of self-assurance, remaining resilient in the face of adversity. His distinctive voice echoes through the verses, serving as a testament to the power of individuality and the refusal to conform to the expectations of others.
The poem encapsulates the essence of a friendship that bloomed in unexpected ways, making it a poignant addition to an extraordinary collection of poems that celebrate the human experience in all its complexities and contradictions.
In “Selected Poems: A Retrospective,” Wole Soyinka’s artistry shines through as he navigates the complexities of human existence, offering timeless insights and profound reflections. These poems engage readers on multiple levels, delving into the human psyche, society’s dilemmas, and the eternal quest for understanding. Each piece leaves a lasting impression, confirming Soyinka’s place as a masterful poet and an essential voice in the world of literature. This collection is a treasure trove for poetry enthusiasts and those seeking to explore the depths of human emotions and experiences.