What is Traditional African Poetry? The short answer to this question, at least according to Wikipedia, is that traditional African poetry refers to any poetry written and performed in the way that African poets have done it since as far back as we can trace African history and poetry.
When most people think of poetry, they think of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, or the Great Gatsby. However, many people do not realize that many cultures worldwide have rich traditions of oral poetry that predate writing and the Western concept of poetry itself.
While it is impossible to cover all the world’s forms of oral poetry in one article, this article will focus on one important type – traditional African poetry – and explain what makes it unique and how it has changed over time.
Examples of Classic African Poetry
There are various types of classic African poetry, some of which include: blues poetry, sonnets, free verse, and narrative verse. In South Africa, renowned poets like Khulu Phasiwe and Zukiswa Wanner have created a genre that is known as blues poetry.
Scholars have studied Blues poetry in America and Europe for its unique form of expression about dealing with current issues such as politics, racism, and personal relationships. Most of their work has been published in anthologies and collections.
Sonnets emerged from 14th century France but continued to gain popularity in Italy, where they were used extensively during Shakespeare’s time. Sonnet poems possess fourteen lines divided into three quatrains with an ABAB rhyme scheme. Free verse as we know it today began in America with Edgar Allen Poe, whose poem The Raven introduced a new poetic style replacing rhyme & meter within poetry writing.
Examples of Contemporary African Poets
Some renowned contemporary African poets are Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Chinua Achebe. Okot p’Bitek, Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka, and Audre Lorde. Each of these writers blends traditional themes with the modern, western subject matter, which opens up many possibilities for interpretation. Their remarkable works invite readers to understand and adore the conventional writing styles. The original works of these writers display recurring thematic patterns that help the readers to visualize the true spirits of African poetry.
Connecting with the Past through Poetry
Although poetry may seem a bit old-fashioned, it still has an important place in many cultures. In fact, culture and poetry are almost inseparable when it comes to Africa. One need only look at a few notable examples of traditional African poetry to understand its importance in maintaining cultural integrity and celebrating heritage. However, with such an enormous diversity of cultures and traditions, defining what makes something truly African can be tricky.
Over 50 countries across Africa have unique histories and value systems; it would be impossible to characterize any one piece of poetry as a universal representation of all of Africa’s people or cultures—or even any one particular country or region. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! So before you set out to define traditional African poetry, let’s get clear on some basics. What exactly is traditional African poetry? How does it relate to indigenous folklore? And how did these literary traditions begin?
Let’s start by clarifying just what traditional African poetry means: When most people refer to African poetry, they usually mean oral verse forms like famous proverbs, folk tales, and songs. This type of poetry was traditionally handed down from generation to generation through stories told by elders around fireside gatherings—and until very recently (the 1960s), it was passed along in nearly exclusively oral forms rather than written down by poets themselves.
Because of its oral history, much of our information about African poetry exists today due to European explorers who came into contact with native Africans while traveling inland during colonial times. Unfortunately, most tribal communities never used paper or permanent markings for recording purposes, so by necessity, ethnographers either wrote their findings down as soon as possible after interviews or took notes and memorized them later before setting off back into the native territory.
Of course, little thought was given to intellectual property rights back then—which meant that anything witnessed went straight into travel logs without hesitation if it could help shed light on local customs and traditions. Today, Africans continue to pass along their native poetic tradition via song, although translations have been available for several centuries now thanks mainly to explorers’ painstaking efforts.
Motivation, Wisdom and Spirituality
Poetry in traditional Africa was used for many reasons. African poets were motivated by what was going on in their society. They used poetry to share social change, offer political opinions, and spread religious beliefs, often wit and humor. The wisdom of traditional poems can be attributed to an oral tradition that has passed down stories and rhymes from generation to generation as early as 5,000 B.C., according to Religion Today (2015).
Many ancient poems were used to honor ancestors or historical leaders and showcase accomplishments through time. Spirituality and religion were also important aspects of African culture, so using poems to praise deities became a way to practice spiritual devotion. Traditional religions in Africa focus on polytheism rather than monotheism, meaning several gods are not separated into one God or male deity (Flexner & Flexner, 2007).
At its core, traditional poetry aimed to connect humans with God (s) while providing them guidance in life; it became customary during funerals when offering praises and prayers was part of grief rituals. Given that significant portions of modern-day Africa still hold tightly onto ancient traditions such as these cultural beliefs, so too do they uphold their folklore within everyday life.