Kofi Awoonor – Portrait by the amazing Nana Kofi Acquah
Two months ago, we in Ghana woke up one Sunday morning to the news that our own Kofi Awoonor had died in the senseless massacre of civilians by Al Shabaab militants in the Kenyan Westgate mall attack. It was a difficult loss for us in the arts here and I have decided to review a couple of his poems for readers who may not be used to the man and his style. My luck is that I share the same mother tongue with him and if I translate along in my head, it makes me see better what he intends to convey in his poetry, even when it is written in English. Primarily, he wrote for an Ewe audience and is hailed with Kofi Anyidoho (also reviewed for Ghanaian Literature Week) as the two principal voices for Ewe poetry. Read this tribute I wrote a day after Awoonor died and while at it, visit Nana Kofi Acquah’s photo blog for amazing photography from Ghana as we celebrate literature from Ghana. I will do other posts on Awoonor as the week proceeds, hang on. I want to dedicate this #GhanaLit week predominantly to his works and memory.
Kofi Awoonor was one of Ghana’s leading poets and wrote previously under the pen-name George Awoonor Williams. He is probably cousin to Ghana’s other poetry great, Kofi Anyidoho and both of them have shared poetry in which they were talking to the other. Awoonor was born in 1935 at Wheta, in the Keta district of Ghana and had his schooling variedly in Ghana, the UK and the US. He taught literature also in the State University of New York, Stony Brook and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. He has acted on stage, written for radio and been the director of a film company. At one time, he was Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil.
The distinction Awoonor’s poetry makes is its strong use of vibratory and rhythmic Ewe pronouncements. He is credited with popularising Ewe poetry and folk songs and many of his English poems have been twined with Ewe words in the right places. That is his open invitation to all who read his works to come to the understanding of his roots. He shows that primarily, he thinks in his local lingua and then in English, if it so requires. His published works include Rediscovery and other poems and Night of my blood. I review here Harlem on a Winter Night.
Harlem on a Winter Night
Huddled pavements, dark,
the lonely wail of a police-siren
moving stealthily across
grey alleys of anonymity
asking for food either
as plasma in hospital jars,
escaping fires in tenements
grown cold and bitter,
or seeking food in community garbage cans
to escape its eternal nightmare.
Harlem, the dark dirge of America
heard at evening
mean alleyways of poverty,
dispossession, early death
in jammed doorways and creaking elevators,
glaring defeat in the morning
of this beautiful beautiful America.
Usually, I don’t do literary style and device criticism of the poetry I review but look at the structure of the first three lines of this poem. I have been studying a bit about styles of poetry and I came across a style known as imagist. Imagist poems paint pictures and let you see scenery by contrasting ideas. This style of imagist poetry originated with the Japanese in their haikus and anyone seeking to read haikus should hop over to Celestine’s blog at Reading Pleasure for tons of them. Why am I talking about haikus? Because Awoonor’s first three lines are written to mimic a haiku. The way you identify a haiku is by checking to see if it is 3 lines usually unrhymed, with syllable count by line at 5-7-5, adding up to 17. The opening three lines here make that 5-9-7, adding two syllables each to the last two lines, but they should pass as some sort of flawed haiku for their structure, imagery and unrhymed three lines. Don’t stretch that too long though; it’s just a personal observation. In any case, haikus will end on the third line.
The poem is a description at winter time of Harlem, a district of New York on Manhattan Island. Awoonor is describing this district to us and in his first three lines, he immediately tells us that the pavements are dark and huddled (line 1), expressing a sense of loneliness. He emphasizes that in line 2 by calling a blaring police-siren ‘lonely’ as it steals its way across town.
In the fifth line onwards, Awoonor tells us why he writes this poem at all. Harlem is one of those poor districts, probably taken for granted by authority and consequently, overridden by criminals and gangs. There are poor people ‘asking for food’ (line 5) ‘as plasma in hospital jars’ (line 6). This gives a feel that they are destitute, so poor they need reviving food like life-blood, served as supplements on hospital handouts. They escape ‘tenements’ (poor housing with only basic amenities; line 7), which themselves have become too ‘cold and bitter’ (line 8).They would rather seek food in ‘community garbage cans’ (line 9), living like stray dogs and cats in order to find some solace and escape ‘eternal nightmares’ (line 10). Is this America? Yes. Awoonor is not mocking Harlem. He is mocking America and sympathizing with Harlem because he goes on to call Harlem ‘the dark dirge of America’ (line 11). He is almost asking if, surrounded by all the abundance, a suburb could be so neglected. The dirge, ‘heard at evening’ (line 12), is an allusion to the siren-blare from line 2 which he also calls a ‘wail’. That wail of the siren is like the dirge of all Harlem, paraded stealthily across the streets like a funeral procession for a neighbourhood that has no reason to be poor. He talks about ‘alleyways of poverty/dispossession’ (lines 13-14) that evoke robbery and impersonality. The ‘dispossession’ could refer to people getting robbed of their possessions in the district or America in subtle denial that it knows Harlem. But Awoonor is not asking America for explanations for Harlem. He has concluded that Harlem is ‘glaring defeat in the morning’ (line 15), after the night has passed, ‘of this beautiful, beautiful America’ (line 16). America, too beautiful, too developed, too rich to have as poor a suburb as Harlem. In this context, ‘beautiful’ is not only literal but also refers to the country’s economic might. His emphasis on the word ‘beautiful’ is to buttress the utter disbelief he feels that America has a slum, a Harlem unlike any he has probably seen in his home country, or continent.
Awoonor can never be forgotten. Rest in peace, wise old man. We shall tell your stories to our children.