Sentinel Poetry (Online) #55 ISSN 1479-425X


Editor-in-Chief: Amatoritsero Ede

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Sentinel Poetry (Online) #55, July 2007



The Bandung Poets


In some measure, this is a self-generated echo from the June editorial, “The Grain and the Chaff”, where I concentrated on the connectedness of Imperialism, colonialism, and bad or inept writing – especially in the absence of poetry committed to a high standard of execution, coupled with an ideology critical of contemporary status-quo. Central to that discussion was the political focal meeting point of newly independent and freedom-agitating states of the South in Bandung, Indonesia. The foot-soldiers of that conference were those poets of the South – doubling sometimes as politicians, especially in Africa – whose ideological exertions led to a didactic, propagandist poetry, weak in execution, propelled by the political urgency of the day, and whose manifesto was Allen Ginsberg ‘sanctity of the first draft’. I will refer to this group as ‘the Bandung Poets.’ We shall see why shortly.


The Bandung conference in 1955 saw the emergence of a ‘non-aligned’ new “Third World”. Again, in the aforementioned editorial, one noted the spatial and temporal elusiveness of the term, South, or say, ‘Third World’, ‘Fourth World’, ‘Fifth World’, ad infinitum, in contemporary global configurations. The South might easily be found up North, while the North may turn up in the South. As such central Johannesburg in South Africa is as North in terms of infrastructure as Long Island in the USA, while Harlem in New York is as South as Ajegunle in Lagos, Nigeria; and the New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina is as ‘Fourth World’ as a hijacked Iraq.


Arif Dirlik puts it succinctly when he says that “the references of North and South are not merely to concrete geographic locations, but metaphorical references: North denoting the pathways of transnational capital, and, South, the marginalized populations of the world, regardless of their actual location” (“Global in the local”, 31). In like manner marginalisation cannot be reduced to a temporal specificity across historical space, since “time”, to quote Walter savage Landor, the English poet, “like a note in music, is as it appertains to what is past and what is to come.” Where geography and time are defeated in the mapping of the location of the South, and the ‘lack’ it connotes, ideology becomes its one sensible and unifying cartographical and a-temporal grid. The engine of anti-imperialist agitation in the 20th century were discourses ranging from the religious – like liberation theology in Latin American and South Africa, dependency theory, which was the liberal western academy’s response to the political determination of the Bandung spirit, colonial discourse analysis, which in part, elicited the aforementioned response from the western academy; all of that accompanied by actual, physical political activism. Bandung is a culmination, and an affirmation, of the spirit of liberation, which the two world wars were an immediate catalyst of amongst the colonised at the time, and amongst all oppressed peoples.


During the historical point in focus – from the early 20th to the turn of that century – Bandung then becomes a political metaphor for all those areas of the world, bound by a common history of oppression, from section of the United states – like the 20s Harlem in New York or the historically slave-holding south – to the black Paris of Negritude; all of Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. And in all of those places, decolonisation and agitation for freedom and self-determination were dove-tailed by poetry, mostly political.  As it has been hinted earlier, the urgency of the condition of the oppressed meant that the rule of the first draft took sway, apart from the fact of a language fashioned in a spirit of demagoguery, awash in the hand-wringing syntax and tone of “Africa my Africa!” and so on.


Due to the political undertow of their work, it is understandable that the Bandung poets congregated within political and pseudo- political movements, namely, in the USA, ‘The Harlem Renaissance’ and The Black Arts Movement’ – the first has an historical working association with another, ‘Negritude’ in Paris; Nergrismo in Latin America and indigeneity in the Caribbean – here there is a confluence with Negritude, say in the work of Leon Damas or Aime Cessaire; the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements in sub-Saharan and South Africa respectively. Of course, there are other movements (like the one that energised the 70s Sandinista struggle in Nicaragua) in the spirit of Bandung, nevertheless the first examples are the most notable ones.


The level of literary achievement of individual poets within these movements is chequered, if close critical attention were to be paid to them. The language of the Bandung poets is generally replete with propaganda, didacticism, emotionalism, archaism, nativism and, in some cases, surrealism. The themes are urgently political and existential. Despite all of that, some Bandung poets achieved a marrying of politics to art, without descending to banality. Apart from a general organising ideological and political identitarian rubric of ‘South’, when it comes to poetic practice, we see a further bifurcation – this time literary – in terms of quality.


The further ‘North’ the Bandung poet is, in terms of literary resources, influences and ambience, the more of an ‘achieved’ poet he is. Pointing to Northern literary resources and infrastructure does not preclude the fact that the South had its own traditional literary (even oral) archive, but the symbolic Bandung we have been talking about marked a progressive confluence and insertion of the literary archive, practices and resources of the South into the project of modernity. Thus we find the ‘north of South’ Bandung school in, say, the USA and Paris – or that in the New world, with its proximity to the aforementioned – more achieved than the ‘south of South’ one in Africa. Surely we cannot compare an Aime Cessarie, a Leon Damas, a Langston Hughes or Nicolas Guillen to a Nnamdi Azikiwe or R. E. E. Armattoe. The Harlem Renaissance had the aura of mainstream American literary tradition and their African-American variations, around it, not counting important nurturing critical figures – like Alain Locke et al. In Paris, the Bandung poets of the Negritude Movement had the whole arsenal of the French critical and intellectual left of the day, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Picasso, surrounding it, apart from the old colonial French literary archive and, surrealism.


Political urgency affected the quality of poetic production. The more agonised the body-politic was, the more deterioration we see in the quality of poetry produced, progressive to a point where it becomes mere pamphleteering. The decline went in a ‘Bandung line’ from north of North to the south of South.  As such by the time the increasingly ‘southwardly’ harassed critic travels down towards Africa, say, Nigeria or South Africa, Ghana and so on, the more he is frustrated by that deterioration, which finally turns into inflammatory prose masquerading as poetry. Let us take the example of Africa, south of the Sahara. The anti-colonial fervour of the late 50s and 60s, in most of that area, resulted in propagandist work. It abounds in the Bandung school in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, in Nigeria, Ghana, Angola and French West-Africa’s anti-colonial movements. The political pamphleteers abound: in Ghana – R. E. E. Armattoe, Michael Dei-Anang and Benibengor Blay; in sierra Leone – Crispin George; in Liberia – Roland Tombekai; in Nigeria – Dennis Osadebay and Nnamdi Azikiwe. Of course this list is not exhaustive and there are others in Angola, and elsewhere on the continent. But these were the arrow-heads of a kind of Bandung poetry pushed so far south of South that it ends up on a dung-heap of poetic ineptitude.


Having said that, the Bandung poetasters or pamphleteers – because at this point one should desist from deploying the word ‘poet’ to describe them – were very important in the various 20th century liberation movements across a hapless South, which were the building blocks of the ideological, political and, existential structure of Bandung. Freedom from colonial rule, from apartheid and a measure of the economic self-assertion of some Asian countries, could not have been achieved without the indomitable spirit of the Bandung pamphleteers. The Bandung School was an important catalyst and pre-cursor to modern poetic practices of the South. They taught the succeeding generations a signal lesson: the difference between pamphleteering and true political poetry, or great poetry of any sort.






Amatoritsero Ede



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