In this paper, we examine the rhetorical effect of the use of pronominal forms in Tanure Ojaide’s collection, The Fate of Vultures and Other Poems (1990).
Ojaide has been classified into the ‘alter-native tradition’ of Nigerian poetry. This, as Funso Aiyejina informs, is made of
young Nigerian poets…set to make poetry as relevant to the realities of their daily existence as possible: no more pursuit of the clever and esoteric lines of Soyinka, the Latinate phrases of Okigbo and Echeruo or the Hopkinsian syntax of Clark. (119)
We show here that much of the effect Ojaide achieves in this work arises not just because his themes are topical, but because he uses pronouns, among other stylistic devices, to heighten the rhetorical impulse of a large number of his poems; to delineate the opposing forces that people his vision. The conflict in the poet’s view of his society is, therefore, summarily statable in a Them and Us opposition, the them being the wielders of political power (the metaphorical ‘vultures’), and the us, the exploited mass to whom power really belongs. In line with his poetic vision, Ojaide’s sympathy is with the us of his poems, and the pronominal forms They/them, I/mine/our(s)/us, you etc., form a major part of his repertoire for criticizing, on the one hand, and maintaining solidarity, on the other.
Overall, the essence of this essay, which is linguistically (or, more appropriately, stylistically) orientated, is to show that though personal pronouns may be simple, they provide useful references which sufficiently point in the direction of a writer’s artistic vision; they form part of his rhetorical resources. In choosing to use linguistic insights to explicate literary-critical issues, we are motivated by the belief that such insights may offer a more solid foundation for critical intuitions.
Tanure Ojaide is not an unknown figure in African poetry. He has to his credit, till date, more than eight published poetry collections, one of which (Labyrinths of the Delta, 1986), was the Africa regional Prize Winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1987. Another collection, The Eagle’s Vision (1987), clinched the 1988 Okigbo All-Africa Prize for poetry. The title poem of the collection under study received the 1988 overall BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Award. Ojaide’s other published works include the Endless Song (1988), which received an Honourable Mention at the Noma Award for book publishing in Africa, and Children of Iroko and Other Poems, which was released as far back as 1973, making Ojaide easily the first among the members of Aiyejina’s ‘alter-native’ tradition of versification to be published1. It is, perhaps, partly to give affirmation to this fact and also to acknowledge Ojaide’s prolificity and clearly defined social vision that one of the contributors to the blurb of The Fate of Vultures, Joseph Bruchac, editor of The Greenfield Review Literary Centre, whose press published the poet’s first collection, notes that he personally regards Ojaide “as perhaps the most important voice in the generation of African writers following Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka”. Another contribution to the same blurb, which is drawn from the 1988 ANA Review, generously observes that Ojaide’s
simplicity and acuteness of language, the deftness of symbols and images,the causticity and poignancy of the message, the specificity and musicality of the free verse structure all remind one of David Mandessi Diop, Pablo Neruda and Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Much critical opinion on Ojaide has been as highly celebrative.
The critics not only try to straddle the poet within the ambits of the ‘new tradition’, whose primary concern is to give clarity to poetry rather than confound it, or make it confounding, but also readily state in glowing terms that in Ojaide, Okigbo has an heir. Unfortunately, however, hardly any linguistic evidence is provided to support much of the intuitions expressed, even when it is common knowledge that a poet sieves experience using the material of language, so that views, perceptions, thoughts, etc., seek realization through this very medium (S. K. Verma 23). In this vein, we can easily respond with the following questions to the imprecisions contained in the assessment of the ANA Review review quoted above. What, for instance, accounts for Ojaide’s “simplicity and acuteness of language”, the “causticity and poignancy of the message”, or, even, “the specificity and musicality of the free verse structure”? Intuitions such as these demand support linguistically, which are, unfortunately, not even considered.
In the approach such as we adopt here, we attempt to relate the linguistic with the literary-critical; in other words, to lend linguistic support to the literary-critical facts we raise in Ojaide’s poetic rhetorics. In focusing on pronominal forms in The Fate of Vultures, we recognise their communicative value. Interestingly enough, the exploitation of pronominalisation as a communicative device actually peaks in The Fate of Vultures, and we venture to opine that this has something to do with the high degree of social commitment in the collection.
Pronouns (we use this term here now as a nominal) are reference items used in place of nouns. They could also be classified as personals. According to Halliday and Hasan, “The category of PERSONALS includes the three classes of personal pronouns, possessive determiners (usually called ‘possessive adjectives’), and possessive pronouns” (43). They go on to state that this category has no general name in traditional grammar as its members belong to different classes that are given a wide range of structural roles. But they, in fact, “represent a single system, that of PERSON” (Halliday and Hasan 43).
As reference items, pronouns refer to something by specifying its function or role in the communicative situation. This system of reference is known as PERSON, a special term for ‘role’and we also have it traditionally recognised that such PERSON (or role) may fit into the FIRST PERSON, SECOND PERSON and THIRD PERSON, all of which intersect with the NUMBER categories of SINGULAR and PLURAL (See Halliday and Hasan 44). In English, we thus have the following distribution of personals: I, me, my, mine, we, us, our , ours, you, yours, He, him, his, her, hers, it, its, they, them, their, one, one’s, depending on such variables as person, speech roles, speaker only, speaker plus, specific reference, generalised human reference, singular/plural, human/non human, male/female reference taken into consideration. (For a full tabulation of this distribution, the reader is referred to Halliday and Hasan’s Cohesion 44).
Coming to the word ‘rhetorical’, we use the term in this essay to refer to a language user’s use of devices “to achieve the intellectual and emotional effects on an audience that will persuade them to accede to his point of view” (M.H. Abrams 159). By ‘rhetorical strategy’, we refer to the strategies of “discourse geared towards securing audience rapport, or achieving reasonable ends” (I. I. Elimimian 168). Our position here is that, in electing to write The Fate of Vultures, Ojaide not only seeks to explore experience, but also aims at ensuring that that experience is shared with his readers. This is the primary concern of art which, as Niyi Osundare has noted, also thrives on the urge “to make known and if possible, pass into common currency what was once a private fancy in the agitated flux that is the writer’s mind” (134). In doing this, the artist (poet) exploits facilities at his disposal to achieve not only efficiency and effectiveness, but also immediacy. Above all, he seeks to move his readers along, for it is only in doing this that he gets the necessary response and, therefore, fulfil the purpose of ever wanting to share.
The Fate of Vultures is made up of 51 poems broken into four sections, all dealing with different themes which range from the personal to those “reflecting on society” and our national health. Notably, even Ojaide’s seemingly personal or private poems are so only ostensibly. Both the significance and motivation (of consumption) are undeniably largely “public”.
Preliminary insights into Ojaide’s patterning of pronominals in The Fate of Vultures can be provided with the following samples of texts drawn from the poem, ‘The Wanderer’s Victory’(8 – 10), a poem which speaks of the triumph of resilience and personal will over oppressive forces:
(1) They Vs I
They for pride of birthplace/ I, for a wider world to wander. (8)
(2) They Vs my/me
They planted malice in my body/ it grew flowers of
friendship all over me. (9)
(3) They Vs me/I/my/myself
They denied me hospitality,
I grew strong from the trials of want,
They threw a bone at me (and kept the flesh).
I defended myself with my only weapon
They cleared my feet from the ground,
I stood firm in the hearts of those I loved;
They tortured me and made a warrior of lazybones
They covered the sky with clouds of disbelief,
I saw God in the mysteries of the earth. (9)
We can identify the They/I in (1) as the ‘opposition’ and the poet-persona, respectively, who (as we shall soon see) often speaks with a collective voice. The pronominal forms are parallelistic. They has exophoric reference, i.e. the reference lies outside the text. It is, however, clear that it is also a reference to the ‘opposition’. The personal pronouns me, I, my, myself, on the other hand, refer to one person; i.e. poet-persona.
Ojaide devises the same dialectical opposition in his use of pronominal forms in the poem, ‘The Ambush’ (38), which cautions both ‘my people’ and the they, the ‘oppressors’, on the issues at stake. For the unmarked ‘they’, it is for them to always “beware of the ambush”, the collective snares laid by the masses of the people whom they have always deceived, tempted and cheated, believing that their victims have no power to discern the truth from the lie and appearance from reality. For this ‘people’, it is for them to be on the alert when the deceivers come calling: “Beware of their beautiful drums” (stanza 1, line 1), because “Theyalways want to impress you” (stanza 2, line 1); “And they are sworn to bringing you down” (stanza 3, line 8). Again, Ojaide’s rhetorical force lies in the beautiful patterning of the third person pronoun: “If they have sung hymns to vulture/ they pair and coo; “If they colour crows bright/ to pass for peacocks of the tribe/ whom will my people not dance for”. Ojaide seems to be very much aware of the gullibility of his own ‘people’: because they are poor, lowly and deprived, they are always ready to be overwhelmed by the temptations of the rich. Hence, he lets them know:
(4) They always want to impress you
with the music of wealth
the parties are many
you eat and dance to their rhythms
the masquerade mimes tradition
the lie becomes the truth
if you dance beyond the song
if you eat up the host
a catholic practice of believers
and you can go beyond a mere touch
into a marriage on heat
The patterning of the second person you with whom the poet-persona identifies and shares such great solidarity suggests a high degree of urgency. The poet seems to be very much aware of the snares lying around and his desire is to appeal to the emotions of the you he is addressing. while alerting them to the snares. The imperative issued to the you at the beginning of the poem ‘The Ambush’ is indicative of the poet’s deep sympathy with the subjects he is addressing on the real issues at stake. The first three stanzas of the poem are used to address the people, the you, and as if satisfied that enough caution has been given, Ojaide delves, in the fourth and last stanza, into issuing strict warning to the deceivers. Although he uses the second person pronoun you, this you can be distinguished from the earlier one which the poet devises for establishing and consolidating solidarity. This distinction is facilitated by the poet’s deployment of the vocative “my people” immediately after you: “Whatever step you take among my people always beware of the ambush”. This caution for the ‘opposition’ is meant to raise hope that a counter force exists somewhere manned by the I, we, us of the poem.
In the poem, ‘The Fate of Vultures’, which won the overall prize at the 1988 BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Competition, Ojaide’s use of the third person (plural) they/their has more direct, specific reference. In the second stanza of the poem, we have:
(5) I would not follow the hurricane,
nor would I the whirlwind
in their brazen sweep-away;
they leave misery in their wake. (11)
The poet-persona here asserts that he will resist temptation. The first and second their are anaphoric in reference, in that they “point back” to both the hurricane and the whirlwind of lines 1 and 2. They is also anaphoric, referring to the hurricane and the whirlwind. But then, in the text, we find that the two natural phenomena are symbolic of all-sweeping corruption and graft and the loss of moral rectitude. These usually leave in their wake misery, which only the gullible suffer.
Ojaide makes effort to involve (or draw the listening ear of) the reader. This constitutes the second person you in the text. It could also be extended to imply the unidentified person ‘one’ and ‘himself’, as we have in text 6, drawn also from the same poem:
(6) You can tell
when one believes freedom is a windfall and fans himself with
In this highly ironic text, you can also be considered in the generic sense; i.e. in the sense of ‘everyone’, but this reference establishes tenor relations; it seeks to elicit some response and even appreciation, to draw greater credibility to the poet’s assertion or declaration. By it, the poet assumes too that the reader is also familiar with the proposition he offers; that it is indeed true that times exist when people indulge in self-aggrandizement in the name of freedom.
The chief and his council (‘The Fate of Vultures’) are described by Ojaide as “a flock of flukes/ gambolling in the veins of fortune” (11). They are also “range chickens” and “they consume and scatter…/ they ran for a pocket-lift/ in the corridors of power/ and shared contracts at cabals…/ the record produce and sales/ fuelled the adolescent bonfire of feathers” (stanza 3).
Ojaide here exposes the corruption and graft in the Nigerian state. His approach is quite unequivocal. The two uses of they here are anaphoric in reference. They refer to “the chief and his council…” and “Range chickens…”, and even more further to the synecdocheic ‘hands’ “that buried mountains in their bowels/ lifted crates of cash into their closets” (stanza 1., lines 6 and 7). In “the chief and his council” (stanza 3, line 4), Ojaide uses the deictic the, which is article-specific to achieve a definite reference. This definite reference has its communicative impact. It does not leave the reader to wonder or wander. He is led specifically to a particular group which in the text is the very symbol of the corruption and graft the poet is exposing. This has the effect of image vivification and character identification. It is, however, in the 4th stanza of the poem that Ojaide provides a most unequivocal clue to who “the chief and his council” are, apart from the ordinary hint at the they who “ran for a pocket-lift/ in the corridors of power/ and shared contracts at cabals”:
(7) Shamgari, Shankari, shun gari
staple of the people
and toast champagne;
Alexius, architect of wind-razed mansions,
a mountain of capital
Abuja has had its dreams! (11 – 12)
This rather sarcastic text takes our minds to characters in the civilian regime in Nigeria which existed between 1979 and 1983. Hard as Ojaide’s satire may be, it is therapeutic. It offers a release from the bonds of indirectness which could be a snare. This is why the poet is just content to call a spade a spade.
In the poem ‘Compatriots’ (113) where Ojaide laments the erosion of progressive will by his own compatriots, he is not quite as direct. The poem opens with a bemoaning of a situation where the poet-persona’s “worst enemies are gathering strength”. This is because these enemies, the They, “not only brought down the eagle/ but felled irokos on sight…”. Also “They cashed on the absence of stars” and “they cashed on the eclipse of the sun” (13).
The they above refers anaphorically to the “worst enemies” implied in line 1 of the poem where the collective pronoun ourincludes both the poet-persona and his fellow countrymen whom he calls upon and appears to be soliciting their sympathy. But throughout the text the names of the worst enemies are not specifically mentioned. Rather, Ojaide uses several epithets to describe them. In stanza 2, they are “priest (sic) without a creed”, “The guardians, chronic lechers”. The poet’s affirmation not to “share in their communion” is definite enough. His rhetorical questions vivify this definiteness:
(8) What (sic) does not know of their ritual murders;
who does not know they fortify themselves
with vicious charms
to live beyond their tenure? (13)
There is a pattern to the use of these third person pronouns. They refer to subject heads that the reader can specifically point to in the poem. But their qualifications, however, do not confer upon them any positive status, which helps to distance the poet from them and to further intensify the deep divide between the them/they and the I/me/us. Ojaide suggests that a great enmity exists between these ‘camps’, and the I/me/us camp must, therefore, hold the they/their/them in deep loathing. The members of the they/them/their camp are dubious, hypocritical and deceptive, because\
(9) As soon as they had their hold on the land
they upset the customs of truth
Now they have blunted the sacred sword
how will justice be executed
when the metal is no longer blade
and the beast escapes communal rage?
These questions are not meant to leave the poet in quandary; they are designed to elicit the response of the readers (who are held by the poet’s rhetorics) on the helplessness of the state of affairs for which the ‘enemies, must be loathed. The opinion is derived from the last line of the poem which serves to restate (specify) the very object to be loathed: “My worst enemies, my compatriots!”. We do not ignore the ambiguity here, though. While the utterance can be processed as (i) “My worst enemies, oh my compatriots!” by which the poet may be seen to be addressing his compatriots, his fellow “sufferers” and telling them of his “worst enemies”, it may also be interpreted as (ii) “My worst enemies are my compatriots!” which hints at some lament. Though these interpretations are encouraged by titular ambiguity, we have chosen the first interpretation, because there are sufficient textual clues to back our choice. The text totally decries the activities of looters of office who batter the national psyche with their suffocating visionlessness. But unlike the poem, ‘The Fate of Vultures’, this poem only subsumes the presence of a third party to witness the poet’s ‘testimonies’.
Ojaide’s ‘The Arrow Flight’ (16 – 17) adopts the medium of satirical indirectness in its use of the pronouns they/them/their. It opens without the them being specified. Not even the title of the poem provides an adequate clue to contextualisation. The text opens hypotactically thus:
(10) And for them there’s only one advantage:
the hare’s over the crestfallen cock,
the lion’s over the goat
And they exact it to the last breath of their victims. (16)
Ojaide’s images of the they/them there are immediately those of overwhelming power. The they are commanders (stanza 2, line 1), seducers (stanza 2, line 3) and they thrive in ‘muscles’ and ‘fanfare’, but no where does he openly reveal their identity, though he raises a vital question about them all the same to draw the reader’s hatred of them: “How can one be commanded to love them/ born of incestuous parents”. And he also makes vital declarations like “There’s a terrible divide, a gaping hole/ into which the king falls when stroked/ beyond the propriety of his robes” (stanza 2, lines 4 – 6). It is, however, as the reader progresses towards the end of the poem that the images he has been gathering from the poem’s beginning unites into a central image. This unity is achieved through the tying of the reference to ‘king’ in stanza 3, line 5 with that of ‘Ogiso’, which comes at the last but one line of the poem. The ‘Ogiso’ is Ojaide’s symbol of the tyrannous monarch, the ruler and, by extension, the one in the position of “authority and power”. (This is a member of the class he says in the poem, ‘Stone Culture’, 30 – 1, which wields “the stone culture of power”).
The poem, ‘New Vision’ (29) also opens with the ubiquitous they:
(11) They stare at me with flaming eyes, biting
their lips in regret for letting me pass.
Am I daring enough, fighter of fortune,
To brush savages aside with a smiler. (29)
The poet qualifies the personal pronoun I with the description “fighter of fortune” (line 3 above) and in stanzas 2 and 3 of the poem ‘New Visions’ as “Burrower through millennia of materials” and “Adventurer into the Cosmos”. But as in some other texts we have examined, the they/their pronouns are not directly identified. The most vital clue Ojaide supplies is in the question he asks in lines 3 and 4 of stanza 1 (above), though this is not marked graphologically: “Am I daring enough, fighter of fortune,/ to brush savages aside with a smiler”. It becomes obvious that the ‘savages’ indirectly referred to shares a link with the pronouns. Again, as with preceding texts, the poet-persona adopts the techniques of indirectness to name the ‘opposition’. Rather than make his poem less daring, however, it endows it with richness of significance and intensifies its suggestiveness.
The same effect is achieved in the poem ‘No’ (43), which is a definitively radical celebration of defiance. Like in the poem ‘The Ambush’, the text opens with a rather forceful imperative “Stop them”. The person to whom the directive is given is, however, not specified though the poem flourishes in the use of the second person pronouns you/your held in sharp opposition to the them:
(12) lest your enemies think you are too weak
you hurl a stone mountain at them
and you become a murderer. (43)
The internal logic of the text, however, provides enough suggestion that the you/your of the poem is one whom the poem holds in deep solidarity. The structure of pronominal forms deployed here is not merely to serve the function of putting forward propositions; it is meant to achieve a rhetorical force that would make the you/your really see the foolishness in working hard to ruin himself/herself by trying to please others. It is foolish, because, as the poet reveals (stanza 6 of poem): “They are all pitched against you/set to run you down and out/ they need you to triumph over their failings” (43). To really show the intensity of the divide Ojaide sees existing between the they/them and you/ your which, in our interpretation, really shapens into a we/us/our, the poet-persona once again cautions: “before they deliver you/ for their own reasons for your own fears/ stop them with an instant ‘No’” (43).
The structure of pronominal forms in The Fate of Vultures readily shows that Ojaide does not indulge in name-calling. Although one property Niyi Osundare has ascribed to new-generation Nigerian poets is the ability to call a spade a spade, to tell it as it is, Ojaide’s position seems to be that you could name things without actually appearing to do so. This accounts for the recourse to indirectness and structured references which aim for satirical effects in the poem. Interestingly enough, Osundare himself, who, while agreeing in what has come to be considered his poetic ‘manifesto’ that poetry is “not the esoteric whisper/ of an excluding tongue/ not a claptrap/ for a wondering audience/ not a learned quiz/ entombed in Grecoroman lore” (‘Poetry is’, Songs of the Marketplace 3), also believes somewhere else that sometimes it is necessary for one’s tongue to still remain in his clamorous mouth; i.e. for the poet to remain indirect and continue to talk rather than face the risk of being censured (‘New Figure of the Committed Poet?’ 9) Ojaide’s, then, is a justifiable approach. His is not the indirectness of intellectual mechanical gamesmanship resulting from arcane collocational indulgence or turgid lexical anarchy. It is a reasonable escape from banality while creating room for intense allusiveness, suggestive and imagistic vivification.
The poet certainly takes sides. He represents and articulates the perspective of the marginalised, the poor, lowly and deprived. His politics is the politics of these people. He seeks their eventual triumph over the forces of oppression and evil. He seeks to liberate them not only from themselves, but from the powerful, wealthy and scheming. His vision of hope lies frequently in raising requiems to the opposition even when its members seem to be alive and well. He prophesies their tragic fates and predicts their disgraceful end.. It is these concerns that instruct his language and his poetic style. The poet is simple without being simplistic, accessible without being banal. He seeks to share, and, in doing this, he structures his choices. He clearly outlines his ‘oppositions’
While the dialectical structuring of oppositions, as we have seen, reaches highpoint in Ojaide’s devising of pronominal forms, however, even when the poet does not exactly name his they/ them/ their, he does succeed in whipping up enough sentiments in the we/ us/ our, etc. to sensitise them to their plight as a determined step towards their self liberation. Ojaide seems to believe that the raison d’etre of poetry is to provide room for self-search and then self-liberation. Poetry becomes a utilitarian mirror on the soul.
The artistic triumph of The Fate of Vultures certainly depends on more than one factor, but in this short essay, we have isolated one of them – the linguistic device of pronominalisation. Pronominalisation remains a communicative, structuring device enabling Ojaide to outline his vision of art: it must mean to man; it must answer to his needs; it must talk to him; it must show him his face, so that by it he can work in concert with others in similar circumstances to change the sordid state of affairs.
1 Ojaide has also published Blood of Peace (1991), Cannons for the Brave (1997), Daydream of the Ants (1997) and Delta Blues and Home Songs (1997).
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