Okot p'Bitek | Critical Essay by Ogo A. Ofuani

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Okot p'Bitek.
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Critical Essay by Ogo A. Ofuani

SOURCE: "The Traditional and Modern Influences in Okot p'Bitek's Poetry," in The African Studies Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, December, 1985, pp. 87-99.

In the following essay, Ofuani examines the traditional and modern literary influences in p'Bitek's poetry and the difficulty in separating the specific sources of influence.

This article discusses the traditional and modern literary influences in Okot p'Bitek's poetry. It must be borne in mind, however, that the question of influences is very complicated because it is difficult to pin down an influence to a particular source. If those sources have become assimilated into an integral whole, it is difficult to sort them out—to know where the modern ends and the traditional begins, or where the Western ends and the African begins. Therefore, no attempt will be made to show that the modern and traditional influences are mutually exclusive. As with all aspects of life, there are bound to be overlaps, and this kind of overlap cannot be any more expected than in the work of a poet with the diverse kinds of experiences of p'Bitek.

A brief survey of his background is illuminating. Okot p'Bitek is an Acholi from Uganda. His father, Opii Jebedyo, was a teacher from the pa-Cua clan of the Patiko chiefdom and his mother, Lacwaa Cerina, came from the Palaro chiefdom. p'Bitek has repeatedly testified to his early interest in oral literature and his mother's influence in forming that interest:

… my interest in African literature … [was] sparked by my mother's songs and the stories that my father performed around the evening fire. [Africa's Cultural Revolution]

The title, Song of Lawino, is derived from his mother's name and confirms that his mother, as a composer and singer, taught him many of the songs that he enjoyed throughout his life and used in many aspects of his varied career. [In an endnote, Ofuani adds: "In an interview at Aarhus University in 1977, p'Bitek said that Song of Lawino has his mother's name and that his mother 'was a very important woman in my life and she taught me a lot. She was talented and composed thirty-four of the songs in Horn of My Love.'"] In the several interviews p'Bitek granted, he revealed that the oral literature of the Acoli of Uganda had played a very prominent and significant part in his literary development. Oral literature shaped p'Bitek's imagination in his infancy through the contact with, and the influence of, his mother and was at the center of much of his adult employment in Makerere and Nairobi, where he organized several festivals of dance and song.

It is true that oral literature also shaped his own conception of literature. We are of the opinion that p'Bitek's statements at Syracuse University, New York, in 1970, seemed to have been taken too literally by Heron [in his The Poetry of p'Bitek, 1976] when he says that "Okot p'Bitek professes both a contempt and ignorance of the formal study of literature." From our reading of the text of that lecture, it is agreed that p'Bitek professes "contempt" for the formal study of literature because of the strains of examination, but not ignorance of it. As is obvious from his biographies and from numerous interviews, the study of forms of Western literature, if anything, seemed to have merged with traditional literary influences in sparking his own creativity. Thus, it is our contention that for a man who, as Heron points out, "went to a teacher training college immediately after his Advanced Level examinations and thereafter taught English and Religious Knowledge at a secondary school," any claim of complete ignorance of the forms and conventions of modern Western literature would amount to more than "a little exaggeration." Our understanding of that portion of p'Bitek's lecture that is often misinterpreted is that he showed full contempt for the rigors that accompanied the Advanced Level literature examination:

As a Sixth Former at Budo, near Kampala, I used to take part in the weekly seminar at the Headmaster's house for the final preparation for the Cambridge School Certificate. We dressed up like "ladies" and "gentlemen," and sat on comfortable sofas and were served coffee. Those of use who were smokers were offered cigarettes. The atmosphere was always relaxed and pleasurable. But, halfway through the evening, quite a number of us would be snoring in the corners. When the year ended we made a bonfire of the now useless notebooks and English setbooks. Somehow I managed to pass the literature paper; but, on leaving school, I never read another novel or book of poetry, and never visited the theatre, until very much later on (emphasis added).

Though recounted in 1970, this was about an experience that took place in the fifties before p'Bitek went to Government Training College, Mbarara, between 1952 and 1954. In the excerpt above, the crucial elements are those emphasized. p'Bitek did not deny the obvious influence of Western literary tradition on his work. All he said was that he "never read" Western literature of any type "until very much later on." Song of Lawino was published in 1966, more than a decade after his A Levels, but his creativity as a writer started in his school days. He published his Acoli novel Lak Tar in 1953 and wrote the early version of Wer pa Lawino in 1956. Before these, while still a student, he had written and produced an opera in English called Acan. There is, therefore, no doubt that those boring seminars and literary sessions at the headmaster's house must have left their imprint, at least in sparking his own creative instincts. Some of the influences of Western literary traditions, such as the use of verse lines, stanzas, and even writing in English in the first instance, are discussed later in this paper. There is also an unmistakable trace of the influence of such Western literary masters as Robert Browning in his predilection for the long poem and the dramatic monologue. Browning, Coleridge, Donne, Eliot, Milton, Pope, and Shakespeare may have been featured in the Advanced Level English literature syllabuses which in the 1950s ranged from Chaucer to Eliot. African writers and works were hardly featured since most of the prominent African writers today—Achebe, Clark, Ngugi, Okigbo, Soyinka and p'Bitek himself—were still students. One cannot but agree, however, that the place of oral literature in p'Bitek's works "separates him distinctly from many of his fellow African writers," since "all of these writers have been very much involved in the formal study of a European literary tradition." The predominant role of oral literature in shaping the trend of p'Bitek's works is not unconnected with his own conception of literature, a conception which he has been very vocal in defending.

In his article "What is Literature?" [Busara, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1972)] p'Bitek calls for a redefinition of "literature." According to him, the typical dictionary definition, with its emphasis on writing, implies that literature is the exclusive preserve of literate societies. It excludes the literary activities of the vast majority of mankind, both in terms of history and geography. This definition, he says, should be replaced by a "dynamic and democratic" one, by which:

… literature stands for all the creative works of man expressed in words. Writing … is a mere tool for expressing ideas … the poet uses words for expressing his feelings. Now words can be spoken, sung or written. The voice of the singer or the speaker and the pen or paper are mere midwives of a pregnant mind. A song is a song whether it is sung, spoken or written down.

He thus emphasizes the importance of a word, the substance, irrespective of its formal realization. This accounts for the overlaps we find in his poetry of traditional oral poetic forms in which the spoken word is supreme and modern conventions dependent on the graphic mode. With this in mind, p'Bitek defines oral literature as follows:

Literature is the communication and sharing of deeply felt emotions. The vehicle of this communication is words. The aim of any literary activity must be to ensure that there is communication between the singer and the audience, between the story-teller and his hearers. There must be full participation by all present (author's emphasis).

In this direction, literature is to be de-emphasized as an examination-bound subject which gives the student little joy but only "pains." Literature is to be made into a "festival" as it is in the countryside. His stand is also reiterated later in the preface to his collection of translated Acoli poetry, Horn of My Love and several other interviews. This belief aroused his interest in the literature of the Acoli, especially their poetry and short stories collected in Horn of My Love and Hare and Hornbill repectively. This interest in Acoli literature also influenced his own creations. It influenced his writing of Wer pa Lawino in Acoli language and the translation Song of Lawino, a song in which Lawino, the arch-traditionalist, seeks to maintain the Acoli culture from the corrupting Westernizing influence of Ocol, her husband, and Tina, Ocol's mistress. The conflict between traditional African and Western cultural norms and values is thematically central to Song of Lawino. The importance of this conflict, which is highlighted in his other songs, is that it reflects the centripetal (traditional and modern) forces which converge in p'Bitek's poetry.

We have so far seen that the main influences on p'Bitek's works are those of his mother, his home, his Acoli background with its tradition of stories, dances and songs. The school influenced his literacy in Acoli and the English language. [In "Aesthetic Dualism and Creative Literature in East Africa," in Black Aesthetics, edited by P. Zirimu and A. Gurr, 1973] Mazrui summed up the sources of this kind of dualism as it affects creative writing in East Africa:

The problem for creative literature in East Africa, as in much colonial Africa, is the problem of what one might call aesthetic dualism. This is the coexistence of two artistic universes drawn from vastly different cultures, which have yet to coalesce or merge into a new distinct phenomenon. In reality each African country has more than two aesthetic worlds since each nation consists of several ethnic groups with their own civilizations. But for each African individual, the dualism is between the foreign and the indigenous, or the modern and the traditional. The dualism which is most pertinent to the crisis of identity within the arts in Africa is the dualism between the pull of western artistic influences and the stability of older modes of creativity.

The major perceptible traditional influences on p'Bitek's poetry are those arising from his interest in and knowledge of Acoli oral literary performance, while the modern are those that arise from his exposure to Western literary art. That these two main areas have influenced p'Bitek's creative development has been affirmed by Heron, Mbise, and Moore. For instance, Moore has indicated [in "Okot p'Bitek," a paper presented at the Fourth Annual Ibadan African Literature Conference in 1979] that "the new educated class in Acoli land contained many who refused to let their English education turn them aside from the language and literature of their own people." p'Bitek is clearly a member of this class of educated Acoli.

Taken as they are, p'Bitek's four Songs (Lawino, Ocol, Prisoner, and Malaya) are in print, irrespective of mode of initial composition. The impression this therefore creates is that p'Bitek's poems are to be taken, first and foremost, as written. But this does not rule out the fact that poetry conceived and written may have features of oral art. [In "Aspects of Varietie, Differentiation," Journal at Linguistics, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1967)] Gregory has distinguished two kinds of poetry: in non-literate and in literate societies. In non-literate societies, poems are recited, technically meaning that they involve the speaking of the poetic texts, non-spontaneously, such texts "written down" in the reciter's memory, as it were. If this subdivision is pursued to its logical conclusion, we find ourselves immersed in the controversy about which medium is primary, speech or writing? The implication of the dual categorization is that, at one level, speech is primary (the written text is secondary and dependent upon speech in writing) and that at another, writing is primary and is aimed at speech.

This kind of dualism is perceptible in p'Bitek's poetry with both influences, the non-literate and verbal, blended with the written to produce a complex and integral whole. But whatever differences exist between the two in p'Bitek's songs, especially as we are presented with their printed texts, our desire to see poetry as primarily either written or spoken derive from our everyday experience of language, or rather from the way we tend to think about it. As Levenston observes [in "Speech and/or Writing: Lyric Poetry and the Media of Language," PTL, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1979)], we are accustomed to regarding the two media, speech and writing, as functioning independently. Thus because of the predominantly written form of the poetic texts in literate cultures, the tendency has been for poets and critics to see the written text as primary.

This conventional stereotyped view of the difference between speech and writing is clearly an over simplification. The continuous deliberation of speech and writing supremacy in poetry will not aid a resolution of the debate since it is obvious that poetry has a dual existence, a dual existence which is not sequential, one deriving from the other, but simultaneous. Poetry seems therefore to be essentially both written and spoken, with neither primary, both of equal status. Levenston further observes that this simultaneous duality is seen on examination of the actual process of a poem's composition where it seems that what really happens is the poet's representation in writing of an imagined utterance:

Neither the transcription nor the utterance itself can be independently completed. We can only say the poem when it is completely written out; we can only write it down when we have heard the end. Only when the poet abandons the act of composition is the poem complete.

This exposition about the process of a poet's composition seems to suit only literate societies. Does the composition of poetry in oral, non-literate situations fit into this scheme? How is the poetry "written down" (or conserved) in this context—in the memory through which it is stored or handed down through generations? According to Levenston again:

It has been assumed that poetry exists in a world of speech and writing. This assumption is largely justified as far as western tradition is concerned. It only breaks down when we broaden our conception of poetry to include oral performance in non-literate societies.

This observation is valid for the discussion of p'Bitek's poetry because it reveals that the "aesthetic dualism" Mazrui discusses can be exemplified in p'Bitek's work. This dualism has to a large extent become characteristic of East African poets, p'Bitek and lo Liyong included. As has been queried by the present writer in connection with this dualism in discussing lo Liyong's poetic form in Another Nigger Dead, especially in relation to the choice of medium:

What, for instance, is the pattern adopted or to be adopted by the African writer (poet), caught, as he is, in the web of western literate tradition but who is very much part of his immediate background, its poetic forms and devices?… Can he not use the graphic form of the Western tradition by putting his poems on paper where his ancestors had depended on memory for record-keeping, and at the same time, modify this alien medium to give the purely phonic substance of his background …?

The discussion here attempts to reveal how p'Bitek has successfully blended the two traditions—the non-literate "orature" of his Acoli background and the literate tradition of English literary art acquired through formal education. As will become obvious, the lines beyond the two are not usually as clear as could be suggested.

p'Bitek's language and imagery are drawn from the whole range of Acoli song. The sources of influence include the satirical songs of the beer party, the victory songs of the bwola dance, the war songs, and the praise songs. It has been pointed out that even the narrator's self-praise in Song of Lawino is deeply consonant with the Acoli tradition where praising is not merely permitted but required. Moore, for instance, points out that "every male Acoli carries an animal horn around his neck, on which he is expected to blow his own praise-name as he approaches any inhabited compound as a way of announcing himself." Girls too are allowed to praise not only their lovers but their own charms. Lawino does so a lot. The Malaya was especially exultant in praising herself, her kindred, and her profession (Song of Lawino). The funeral dirges (guru lyel) of the Acoli were also a source of inspiration for Lawino in her songs of mourning for the culturally dead Ocol, her husband (Song of Lawino):

     O my husband
     Let us all cry together;
     Come,
     Let us mourn the death of my husband,
     The death of a Prince
     The ash that was produced
     By a great Fire!

Every phrase, if compared to the dirges in Horn of My Love, might be found in many of the dirges which are sung and danced at the second burial ceremonies of the Acoli. But what lends them poignancy and force, contextually, is that they are being sung for a man who is still alive. Her song is a testimony of her rejection of her husband and his ways.

It is also possible to reveal the existence of a communal voice in the Songs, a voice typical of that of oral literary form. This communcal aspect has fundamental and philosophical implications. The communal nature of the narrator's voice is in the use of personal pronouns. For instance, the "I" of Song of Lawino is more than the obvious grammatical first person singular. When Lawino speaks, she does so with a collective tone. It is "I" on behalf of the clan, the kinsmen, the whole society. This happens too in the use of the pronoun "you"—a device p'Bitek exploits in using the English language since you is neutral and has both singular (individual) and plural (general, communal) meanings. The collective tone is an important aspect of traditional literature. It is a feature that differentiates oral literature from literature, emanating from modern industrial and technological societies whose poets can afford to be introverted and isolated (or alienated) from the very society they are writing about. The language which p'Bitek uses therefore has communally evolved symbols whose ideas are therefore shared, such as his use of the pumpkin metaphor. In very sense, he seems to speak for his community, its values and its norms.

Part of the background to Song of Lawino and the other Songs then is total participation by the poet in the still flourishing and developing culture of his people. It is possible to go on listing the traditional influences exhibited in p'Bitek's poetry. One could mention the use of formulas that initiate stories and aid memory—formulas that act as a mnemonic device, a device favored by the traditional orator, singer and storyteller. The impression that this leaves with a reader is that p'Bitek was merely imitating the literary form of his people by using a new medium. In going back to his tradition, there would seem to be little room for the individual's creativity or originality. p'Bitek has been shown to follow that which is traditional and that which is traditional cannot belong to any one individual. It can only be copied; and then it is transmitted from one generation to another for further imitation and modification. In traditional Africa this is how oral literature survived. But the concept of imitation here is to be defined, especially imitation that is transposed from the oral to the printed word.

A traditional singer is an artist, and his art involves a degree of creativity and originality. Since not everyone can write a novel or a poem or be a singer or composer, it can be concluded logically that an artist is indeed a unique person in society, whether traditional or modern. In traditional society, the originality or creativity of an artist was not necessarily in the material (the corpus) used as such, but in the artist's performance. This mode of operation demanded the use of the traditional aesthetics. Here, then, is where p'Bitek's mastery of traditional techniques elevates him above most of his contemporaries in East Africa. To produce a work of art with traditional artistic qualities like Song of Lawino, the poet must be a good listener, a good traditional singer and dancer. The poet has revealed these features in his Songs (the singers all sing; Prisoner even wants to "dance" in Song of Prisoner).

p'Bitek also reveals a tremendous zest for teasing, a quality which is really a common, if not essential, part of traditional praise songs and satires. Individuals like Ocol, Tina, the politicians, the general public, are satirized, but in doing so, p'Bitek seems to place more emphasis on ideas than on characters, such that the dramatic monologuers are more of p'Bitek's mouthpieces than fully developed characters. With the exception of Lawino, the characterization of these monologuers yields place to the ideas being developed. Commenting on p'Bitek's art, generally, especially in his relationship with his background, Moore observes that,

This is no question of plagiarism here [in p'Bitek's poetry], for within such a tradition the artist is judged by his knowledge of it and his ability to manipulate it. The western concept of originality is essentially post-classical in original and has no relevance here.

As traditional as p'Bitek may be shown to be, he is at the same time a modern poet with a personal idea of literature and commitment. He is speaking his own ideas in a way, especially if his Songs are seen as fiction, his own creations. It is in this creative realm that the merger of the traditional and modern features of his poetry becomes obvious. p'Bitek is essentially a poet, and poetry as a genre has certain features which distinguish it from other genres, particularly prose. Such distinguishing features are most prominently formal, though a relationship exists between the form and the language used. As a literate artist, p'Bitek has leaned on the written word rather than the spoken mode for the preservation of his art. (This gives his poems their fixedness.) It is possible, however, to talk of his poems as written to be spoken, performed orally, or sung. The features of his literacy in his work include the typography and the graphological lay out of his poems, the use of punctuation and the verse line as a feature of the written shape.

But poetry, whether spoken or written, traditional or modern, African or European, is poetry because of certain ways in which language is organically used in the genre to effect rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, metre, the line, enjambment, caesura, assonance, consonance, and other sound effects, metaphors, similes, hyperboles, litotes, and so on—irrespective of the language or the mode of expression. These are the areas where the traditional and modern features merge in p'Bitek's poetry.

One striking instance of this merger worth mentioning is the verse form of p'Bitek's poetry. As is usual in a discussion of p'Bitek's works, his monumental Song of Lawino often provides a take-off point since it set the trend for the other songs. Heron has demonstrated in his study of p'Bitek's poetry how the writer, in deviating from the traditional pattern of Acoli poetry which is not rhymed, has produced what he described as Acoli "unsung verse" by developing a new prosody for Acoli in using an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme and a more or less regular metrical beat of some nine or ten syllables per line.

This style was adopted in the Acoli original Wer pa Lawino which was later translated into English. p'Bitek was under no illusion about the losses translating would involve, stating in the preface that he must inevitably "clip a bit of the eagle's wings" in the process. He therefore wisely resolved to abandon both rhyme and metrical regularity. To have remained with those features would have forced him to move away from the mainly literal translation which "enabled him to preserve the force and character of the original imagery" (Moore). English is also more prolix than Acoli, which makes abundant use of prefixes and suffixes to modify root words. Okot therefore decided to adopt a short, fast-moving line in the English version, since a line-by-line translation would have been clumsy and long-winded. The result is that Song of Lawino has no rhyme and no consistent stress pattern, all combining to make it an irregular free verse song. This form is thereofre not accidental to Song of Lawino (having been determined by the translation constraints) since it is adopted for the other Songs.

In oral literature, poetry is mainly oral, chanted, or recited, and so there is the problem of establishing the verse lines when writing the poems down. The chanter or reciter often pauses to take a fresh, audible, breath. It is logical, therefore, to use these pauses to delimit the line in oral poetry. But as Olatunji has pointedly observed in a description of his transcription of Yoruba poetry:

There are problems arising from this [use of the pause to delimit the line] which cannot be glossed over. There are occasions when the chanter or reciter rushes through a very long utterance without taking any perceptible breath. Should we regard the utterance as a line? And when the pause occurs in the middle of a syntactic group, especially when the chanter has been struggling for breath, should we write the corpus on different lines? Apart from these two problems, we still need to set up degrees of pauses to know which shall delimit the line and which the period within the line.

His suggestion therefore is that a combination of pauses determined by lexicostructural, lexical, and semantic criteria, should be taken into consideration in determining the nature of the verse line in Yoruba oral poetry. Various questions arise about p'Bitek's poetry. Did he use something similar to Olatunji's prescription in determining his verse line? Did he represent an utterance in lines on the basis of the repetition of lexical items and sentence structure? Or is there any such rule that parts of a sentence or a clause should not be represented in separate lines. For a writer eager to put down all his ideas before he forgets (just as the oral performer who depends on memory and mnemonic devices does), are breath pauses not as useful for deciding his verse lines? Or is his verse so "free" that it has no system? Because he was writing in English, is it not possible that the dictates of English poetry determined his own form?

The answers will not be obvious until we have looked at some of these "dictates" of English poetic form. Such criteria for English verse have already been established. [In his A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, 1969] Leech has suggested the need to consider how to identify and define a line of poetry—"for to function as a phological unit of verse, the line must be distinguishable on some grounds other than mere typography." As Abercombie points out in working out such a guideline, a line of verse is delimited by "various devices which may be called line-end markers, and there seem to be three of these in English verse." The three he specifies which may be used individually or in combination are the following:

  1. rhyme, or some other sound scheme;
  2. a silent final stress; and
  3. a monosyllabic measure, not used anywhere else, coinciding with the last syllable of the line.

If one or more of these markers are present in a poem, even though it may be printed or recited as if it were prose, a person confronted with it for the first time should be able to recognise the line divisions.

As useful as these suggestions may have been about English poets, they do not seem to apply with any exactness to Song of Lawino or the other songs. For instance, rhyme is ruled out since all the Songs are free verse. The other two criteria may apply in different degrees, especially 2 which does not specify line length. The lines have irregular length and rhythm, and rhyme is absent. An examination of the two passages below makes this clear:

     (i) The one who follows Okang
       Is called Oboi.
       He is always jealous,
       He fights with his brother
       And fights for his brother
       The third son is called Odai
       And the last son is Cogo.
       If you hit his head
       With your finger
       His mother will throw
       Things at you;
       Because that is the child
       Of which a mother is most fond.
                   [Song of Lawino]
     (ii) I want to drink
       All the drinks
       Of the world
       I want to meet
       All the drunkards
       And chat with them …
                   [Song of Prisoner]

Example (i) has no perceptible rhyme and no specific metre as the lines are of irregular length with an unequal number of syllables. Lines four and five look like a couplet but that is not possible if we start from line one. They are only two parallel structures involving repetition of clause structure, lexical variation in the use of preposition in the prepositional phrase ("with / for his brother") and repetition of "brother"—all for emphasis. Instead of adopting some of the features Abercombie suggests, we instead notice that the lexico-structural, lexcial and semantic criteria Olatunji mentions in his work seem applied with some system in the passage. Whether a line is made up of a clause, a group or phrase, none of them is unnecessarily divided into two lines. For instance, line one is a nominal group, line two a predicate clause, line three a full sentence-clause, line 9 an adverbial phrase and so on, with the exception of 10-11 that look truncated.

The comments for (i) also apply to (ii). There is absence of rhyme: irregular line length in terms of syllables. In general, there is no specific rhythmic regularity though lines 4-6 seem regular but with irregular metrical patterning (in terms of stress). The verse here is more condensed than in (i) with the result that they are shorter, faster, with a sense of urgency unlike (i) that is rather slow and ponderous, a feature of the listing which its speaker is engaged in. Passage (ii) also has parallel structures. There are two clauses, each taking three lines (1-3, 4-6), and the structures in lines 1 and 4 ("I want to meet / drink") and in lines 2 and 5 ("All the drinks / drunkards") are repeated with lexical variation in the last word in each structure. This repetition could give these lines parallel rhythms, but the repetition is for emphasis as in the first example.

So it is possible that both traditional and modern influences may have helped in determining the shape of the verse lines in the Songs. It may be difficult to enumerate the degree of both sources of influence since the poet has denied any consistent and prolonged knowledge of Western literary art, but also accepted the influence of the Songs of Solomon and Longfellow's Hiawatha. He has on occasions said that he does not think that his songs are "very much influenced by the African oral tradition," but he assesses the sources of his imagery in the following words:

It is based mainly on the traditional, I think, but one is bound to be influenced by friends, enemies, school, etc., so it becomes all mixed up.

However, as indicated early in this paper, the poet was introduced to some Western authors (poets, novelists, dramatists) through exposure to texts in school syllabuses. The narrative and ballad form of poems is not peculiar to only English or European literary tradition, but it is possible to reveal similarities between p'Bitek's form and that of notable English poets like Browning, Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, and Yeats, especially in the predilection for the one-speaker, long, dramatic, monologue poem. Apart from their narrative forms, it is also easy to see how they all exhibit similar qualities of suggestion and concentrated power.

In terms of content or subject matter, in terms of the experiences verbalized, and in terms of the use of the English language, the monologuers in the poems are obviously East Africans of the modern period. The allusions of Lawino, to some extent, stand out from those of Ocol, Malaya, and Prisoner. Lawino is however a village woman living in East Africa. The others are metropolitan in their outlook. The speech of all the narrators, however, retains an unmistakable African flavor in the English they speak. It is as if p'Bitek, having established a kind of confidence between himself and his langage, is able to extend it to cover situations which are not encountered in traditional Acoli poetry. Lawino's comments on the style of independence politics have the same pungency as when she ranges over the familiar life of the village. Thus contemporary issues in modern East African life preoccupy all the monologuers, though they see them from different points of view.

We can sum up this discussion of the traditional and modern influences in p'Bitek's poetry with Mutiso's remarks [in his Socio-Political Thought in African Literature, 1974] which, though about Lawino, also applies to the other Songs and to p'Bitek's art in general and reveals the type of controversy that a compartmentalisation of influences can cause:

One of the most intriguing women in African literature is Lawino … Although p'Bitek has taken a traditional Acoli form, the praise song, and written an extended poem about Lawino's husband, Ocol, who is modern, the poem is not traditional since it is set in the present.

Mutiso agrees that p'Bitek's poetry has traditional form, but that because its content is contemporary, it is modern. This critic is clearly in the minority since most others conclude that because of its traditional form, p'Bitek is a traditional poet. We wish to observe that, often, Song of Lawino provides the basis for each conclusion, but an overall assessment of all his poems, including Song of Ocol, Song of Prisoner, and Song of Malaya, reveals that Lawino is the most traditional of all the personae in her protection of Acoli values. Prisoner, Ocol, and Malaya are products of the modern East African environment. Our interest, however, is not with only thematic influences but also formal influences, and as we have shown, such a discussion deserves utmost restraint. The influences under which a poet writes are often so complicated that they cannot be easily pinned down. These influences are not mutually exclusive, and without contradiction we may choose to label p'Bitek a traditional modern poet.

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