FAO Quotables

"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Monday, June 28, 2010

Poet of the Week from Nigeria: Niyi Osundare

Poet of the Week from Nigeria: Niyi Osundare

Osundare was born in Nigeria in 1947, and studied at the Universities of Ibadan, Leeds and York (Canada).  Today he is a Professor of English at Universities of New Orleans and Ibadan. A very political poet and a dedicated campaigner for human rights, his award-winning Selected Poems were published by Heinemann in 1992.

"Sing on: somewhere, at some new moon, We’ll learn that sleeping is not death, Hearing the whole earth change its tune.”
W.B. Yeats
  • I sing 
  • of the beauty of Athens 
  • without its slaves 
  • Of a world free 
  • of kings and queens 
  • and other remnants 
  • of an arbitrary past 
  • Of earth 
  • with no sharp north 
  • or deep south 
  • without blind curtains 
  • or iron walls 
  • Of the end 
  • of warlords and armouries 
  • and prisons of hate and fear 
  • Of deserts treeing 
  • and fruiting 
  • after the quickening rains 
  • Of the sun radiating ignorance 
  • and stars informing 
  • nights of unknowing 
  • I sing of a world reshaped 
Some of my favorite poetry books:


  1. Now this is an interesting poem, isn't it?

    At first sight it almost isn't a poem at all - just a string of liberal platitudes strung together in verse form, Maya Angelou-style.

    You know, slavery is bad, arbitrary authority is bad, divisions between people are bad things. All that sort of stuff. And presumably motherhood and apple pie are good things, right?

    But then you reach the 6th stanza, the one about the sun and stars and it's not what you expect at all.

    The 6th stanza talks about the sun radiating not joy, or peace, or kindness, or what have you, but 'ignorance'. The sun makes you ignorant. And then he goes on to talk about the stars 'informing' nights of unknowing - which, following on from the bit about the sun, is an ambiguous construction, to say the least. Because 'informing' means both 'to provide facts or information' (which would dispel ignorance) and it also means 'to give an essential or formative principle or quality to', which is to say, the stars are on some level causing unknowing.

    Now it's anybody's guess how to resolve this - you might square the circle by saying the poem posits ignorance and unknowing as good things - as essential to a better world (there's that bit in the bible about needing to become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven) - but that's just a theory. The poem doesn't make that or any other interpretation explicit. And ignorance is, generally, seen as a perjorative word, and the poem doesn't do anything to soften or qualify it. Another interpretation is to say that the stanza points to the unachievability of perfection in life: the ignorance and unknowing that cause divisions between people are a fact of nature, metaphorically radiated by the very stars and sun. Again, that's just an interpretation.

    But it's an interesting conundrum, no?

    1. Warwick, thanks for your comments. They definitely got me thinking about this poem on a deeper level. That last stanza is definitely the hook--building on your comments, I think that because both the sun and stars (day and night) fail to shed any light (knowledge) it might also speak to the hopelessness of the chance for change? Her song one of notes strung together of alternating hope and melancholy...