Chinua Achebe

Writers in this Module

Writers Referred to in Poetry of Wartime
Achebe, Chinua. All Things Fall Apart (Anchor; 1st Anchor Books Education Edition, 1994).
This is Chinua Achebe's classic novel, with more than two million copies sold since its first U.S. publication in 1969. Combining a richly African story with the author's keen awareness of the qualities common to all humanity, Achebe here shows that he is "gloriously gifted, with the magic of an ebullient, generous, great talent."

Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (Vintage; Reissue edition, 1992). 
By one of the most profoundly influential thinkers of our century, The Rebel is a classic essay on revolution. For Albert Camus, the urge to revolt is one of the "essential dimensions" of human nature, manifested in man's timeless Promethean struggle against the conditions of his existence, as well as the popular uprisings against established orders throughout history. And yet, with an eye toward the French Revolution and its regicides and decides, he shows how inevitably the course of revolution leads to tyranny. As old regimes throughout the world collapse, The Rebel resonates as an ardent, eloquent, and supremely rational voice of conscience for our tumultuous times.

Carruth, Hayden.  Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 (Copper Canyon Press, 1992).
Collected Shorter Poems presents hundreds of lyric, short narrative, comic, meditative, nature, and erotic poems that Hayden Carruth wrote over a forty-five year period. This is a reissue of the book, with new cover design. Noted for the breadth of his linguistic and formal resources, influenced by jazz and the blues, Carruth gives his poems a philosophical resonance. His explorations of rural poverty and hardship— sometimes grim, sometimes funny—are deeply informed by political radicalism and cultural responsibility.

Carruth, Hayden.  Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays (Copper Canyon Press; 1st ed edition, 1998).
Autobiographical Essays. These touching and intimate essays reveal the integrity of Hayden Carruth-- one of the most solitary, esteemed, and controversial poets of this century. Despite his wide erudition, he has lived largely outside academia. These essays chronicle a lifetime of wrestling with his personal demons and muses; time spent hospitalized for severe chronic depression; a passionate love of jazz and blues; his suicide attempt; and most of all, his uncommon, unflinching honesty.

Darwish, Mahmud; Munir Akash, Carolyn Forche, Sinan Antoon, Amira El-Zein. Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press, 2003).
Mahmoud Darwish is a literary rarity: at once critically acclaimed as one of the most important poets in the Arabic language, and beloved as the voice of his people. He is a living legend whose lyrics are sung by fieldworkers and schoolchildren. He has assimilated some of the world's oldest literary traditions at the same time that he has struggled to open new possibilities for poetry. This collection spans Darwish's entire career, nearly four decades, revealing an impressive range of expression and form. A splendid team of translators has collaborated with the poet on these new translations, which capture Darwish's distinctive voice and spirit.


Levine, Philip. Breath (Knopf; Reprint edition, 1996).
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for 1995, Philip Levine goes from strength to strength, having received the National Book Ward for Poetry for his earlier book What Work Is. This is the first paperback edition of this text, about which Harold Bloom said, "The controlled pathos of every poem in the volume is immense, and gives me a new sense of Levine."

Lorca, Frederico Garcia. Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Revised Bilingual edition, 2002).
Federico García Lorca is the greatest poet of twentieth-century Spain and one of the world's most influential modernist writers. Christopher Maurer, a leading Lorca scholar and editor, has substantially revised Frederico Garcia Lorca’s earlier edition of the collected poems of this charismatic and complicated figure, who—as Maurer says in his illuminating Introduction—“spoke unforgettably of all that most interests us: the otherness of nature, the demons of personal identity and artistic creation, sex, childhood, and death."

Lowell, Robert. Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).
Selected Poems includes over 200 poems, culled from each of Robert Lowell's books of verse--Lord Weary's Castle, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, Life Studies, For the Union Dead, Near the Ocean, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin. This edition, which first appeared in 1977, was revised by the author: there are additions, deletions, and a change in sequence in the Dolphin section; the five poems in the title sequence from Near the Ocean are now uncut; and a new poem is added to the "Nineteen Thirties."


Merwin, W.S.  The Pupil: Poems (Knopf, 2002).

Hailed by Peter Davison in the Boston Sunday Globe as a poet who “engages the underground stream of our lives at depths that only two or three living poets can match,” W. S. Merwin now gives us The Pupil, a volume of astonishing range and extraordinary beauty: a major literary event.

These are poems of great lyrical intensity, concerned with darkness and light, with the seasons, and with the passing of time across landscapes that are both vast and minutely imagined. They capture the spiritual anguish of our time; the bittersweet joys of vanishing wilderness; anger at our political wrong- doings; the sensuality that memory can engender. Here are remembrances of the poet’s youth, lyrics on the loss of loved ones, echoes from the surfaces of the natural world. Here, too, is the poet’s sense of a larger mystery:

. . . we know
from the beginning that the darkness
is beyond us there is no explaining
the dark it is only the light
that we keep feeling a need to account for
—from “The Marfa Lights”

Passionate, rigorous, and quietly profound, The Pupil is an essential addition to the canon of contemporary American poetry—a book that finds W. S. Merwin’s singularly resonant voice at the height of its power.
(Knopf, 2002).


Neruda, Pablo. Memoirs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).
The south of Chile was a frontier wilderness when Pablo Neruda was born in 1904. In these memoirs he retraces his bohemian student years in Santiago; his sojourns as Chilean consul in Burma, Ceylon, and Java, in Spain during the civil war, and in Mexico; and his service as a Chilean senator. Neruda, a Communist, was driven from his senate seat in 1948, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. After a year in hiding, he escaped on horseback over the Andes and then to Europe; his travels took him to Russia, Eastern Europe, and China before he was finally able to return home in 1952. The final section of the memoirs was written after the coup in 1973 that overthrew the President of Chile and Neruda's friend Salvador Allende.  

Many of the century's most important literary and artistic figures were Neruda's friends, and figure in his memoirs--Garcia Lorca, Aragon, Picasso, and Rivera, among them--and also such political leaders as Gandhi, Nehru, Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara. In his uniquely expressive prose, Neruda not only
explains his views on poetry and describes the circumstances that inspired many of his poems, but he creates a revealing record of his life as a poet, a patriot, and one of the twentieth century's true men of conscience.

Ray, Sukumar; Sampurna Chattarji (translator). Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray (Penguin Putnam, 2004).
This selection offers you the best of his world - pun-riddled, fun-fiddled poetry from Abol Tabol and Khai Khai, stories of schoolboy pranks (Pagla Dashu) and madcap explorers (Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary), and the unforgettable harum-scarum classic Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law, presented here for the first time in its entirety. All the stories and poems are accompanied by Skumar Rays inimitable illustrations.

Soyinka, Wole. Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World (Random House, 2005).
In this new book developed from the prestigious Reith Lectures, Nobel Prize—winning author Wole Soyinka, a courageous advocate for human rights around the world, considers fear as the dominant theme in world politics. Decades ago, the idea of collective fear had a tangible face: the atom bomb. Today our shared anxiety has become far more complex and insidious, arising from tyranny, terrorism, and the invisible power of the “quasi state.” As Wole Soyinka suggests, the climate of fear that has enveloped the world was sparked long before September 11, 2001.

Rather, it can be traced to 1989, when a passenger plane was brought down by terrorists over the Republic of Niger. From Niger to lower Manhattan to Madrid, this invisible threat has erased distinctions between citizens and soldiers; we’re all potential targets now. In this seminal work, Soyinka explores the implications of this climate of fear: the conflict between power and freedom, the motives behind unthinkable acts of violence, and the meaning of human dignity. Fascinating and disturbing, Climate of Fear is a brilliant and defining work for our age. (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005).

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition, 1990).
Wole Soyinka, one of the foremost living African writers, here analyses the interconnecting worlds of myth, ritual and literature in Africa. The ways in which the African world perceives itself as a cultural entity, and the differences between its essential unity of experience and literary form and the sense of division pervading Western literature, are just some of the issues addressed. The centrality of ritual gives drama a prominent place in Soyinka's discussion, but he deals in equally illuminating ways with contemporary poetry and fiction. Above all, the fascinating insights in this book serve to highlight the importance of African criticism in addition to the literary and cultural achievements which are the subject of its penetrating analysis.

Yeats, W.B. The Collected Works of W.B.Yeats (Scribner, 1996).
The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats includes all of the poems authorized by Yeats for inclusion in his standard canon. Breathtaking in range, it encompasses the entire arc of his career, from luminous reworkings of ancient Irish myths and legends to passionate meditations on the demands and rewards of youth and old age, from exquisite, occasionally whimsical songs of love, nature, and art to somber and angry poems of life in a nation torn by war and uprising. In observing the development of rich and recurring images and themes over the course of his body of work, we can trace the quest of this century's greatest poet to unite intellect and artistry in a single magnificent vision. Revised and corrected, this edition includes Yeats's own notes on his poetry, complemented by explanatory notes from esteemed Yeats scholar Richard J. Finnera (Scribner; 2nd Revised Edition, 1996).

Abani: Biafran Civil War








Questions for Reflection: On Poetry and the Biafra Civil War  

  1. According to Abani, how does poetry lend itself better to expressing the realm of war than does prose?
  2. How do you see poetry having the power to affect change in a nation or in the world?
  3. When Abani refers to a poem that can force us to engage with “our own moral landscape,” what does he mean?
  4. Comment on how you believe war affects you? How does your response support Abani’s belief that everyone at any level of a conflict is scarred in someway.
  5. Comment on how Abani explains growing up in the aftermath of war.
  6. Abani talks of Christopher Okigbo, a Nigerian poet who fought with words against the Nigerian regime, but eventually gave up fighting with his poetry and took up arms. Another writer, Mazrui in his novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo accuses Okigbo of giving up his social responsibility. Does an artist, a poet, owe something to the society in which he lives? If so, what are his/her responsibilities?
  7. Abani quotes another famous Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, and informs us that Soyanka believes that “every moment we are silent in the fact of tyranny, a little bit of our humanness dies.” What is implied by the word “silent” in this rephrased quote? What is Soyanka saying about each of our responsibilities when it comes to acts of tyranny?
  8. Research the Nigerian Civil War, its origins, the sides involved, and the outcome. Address the current political state of Nigeria today.
  9. Abani refers to the last poem, “Path of Thunder,” written by Christopher Okigbo. He indicates that it can be compared to the Irish poet’s W.B. Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming.” Locate these poems.   Both are accessible online. Compare the verses of each poem and write conclusions stemming from each.
  10. Research the lives and writings of the three Nigerian writers, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe of whom Abani speaks in his interview. Present their stories and inform your own report by including excerpts from their writings.


Abani: On Poetry

When Chris Abani was interviewed for Voices in Wartime, he spoke at length about his decision to be a poet, his feelings about poetry as an art form, the reality of writing about war, and about the influence war has had on his poetry. Excerpts from that interview follow. After having read his responses there are a series of activities and questions that will help put his statements in a historical and literary perspective.

What made you decide to be a poet?
Trying to express my [time] period as a political prisoner.  That experience.  Because I started off as a fiction writer, and just the intensity of that experience was better portrayed in poetry.  Partly because [poetry] allows people to come into a really profound and gut-wrenching experience, and stepping out of it almost like frames of still photography rather than the full-length feature a novel gives.  So that’s what really drew me.  I had always read poetry as a child. I had poetry read to me.  In terms of writing, the first time I really took that on seriously was in writing Kalakuta Republic.

What really drew me to poetry, I suppose you could say, is the brevity in it.  It is a distillation, but really it has more to do with the fact that you have a smaller palette you’re working with.  A smaller palette, and therefore you can not begin too many emotional directions.  It’s a form that resists sentimentality. And when you are dealing with a difficult subject, sentimentality is a problem because you’re sign-posting how people should feel.  

You want to create essentially almost religious icons that hang in a cloister and one meditates on it and brings the emotional baggage with the reader rather than providing it for them.  You are providing access at so many different levels. That aspect to poetry is really beautiful.

Tell us a little about Christopher Okigbo story.  What happened?

Christopher Okigbo died during the Biafran war.  He was a poet who decided it was not enough to write or to work for the broadcasting service. So he went on to the front lines and he was murdered—essentially, by betrayal.

He wrote a book a year before the war happened, in 1965. And there were poems prophesizing the war. He knew this war was coming.  There’s a particular poem called “Path of Thunder” and you can just see this war coming.  It’s like reading “The Second Coming” by Yeats.  It’s as if the portents are always there and the portents are there now.  

Chris was an intriguing character. He, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe all came out of the same arts movement in the 1960s when there were visual artists and all of that.  But, Chris was one of the most amazing poets ever produced, not just in his ability to reach back into traditions, the European and Yeats, but also in his ability to see into the heart of the matter.

And he believed that poetry was powerful enough to affect some kind of change or to halt some kind of progress.  And I think for him, (and this is entirely my perception of it, Chris died before I was born), I think the moment he lost faith was when the war happened anyway—in spite of all the warnings.  He lost faith in the power of poetry and I think for him that’s when he became a full-fledged soldier.  He felt that the gun was possibly the only answer.  

For me it’s kind of a conflicted thing.  For me to be an artist means to be immersed in a thing, but also to stand away from it.  To have some kind of objective distance, to observe what is happening in the moment. And to be absorbed in the moment makes it difficult to be anything more than polemic.  But also there are questions of what does an artist owe to the society in which they live.  Chris is dead and all they have are fragments of poems that maybe fill two or three collections.  

There is an interesting book by Ali Mazrui which is called The Trial of Christopher Okigbo where he puts him on trial in heaven, where he has to defend the reason why he gave up on his art in order to take up the gun. Wole, who is not an Igbo, publicly decries on the BBC the government’s policy of starving children to death, and gets arrested and spends three years in prison in solitary confinement.  Wole Soyinka was the first official political prisoner we had ever had.  But, that whole generation not only believed in the power of art to change things but also felt that the artists had a responsibility to society.  I think Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe in that way sort of represent the possibility of transmutation.

What is your motive for writing the poems?  Is that to remind us of the concrete reality?

The book [Daphne’s Lot] is split into two halves. The first half is a long 80-page epic poem, which is more about a personal odyssey of this war, and so a lot of it plays on an interior landscape rather than what’s gong on outside.  But in a war where millions of people have died it would be remiss of me to write only that section, because after a while we are so engaged with one character’s journey it becomes sort of a romantic quest.

With the next section I wanted to bring out the real devastating concrete realities of a war, but create them in such a way that there is no emotive landscape in the poem.  It’s simply what one brings to the poems as a way to really find out if the thing, if the moral center is in us—this which has been called many names, we can call it love—whether it still responds to that.  And it’s interesting what happens: that even a first reading of that poem in that last section will not elicit something, but a re-visitation suddenly triggers this thing.  The cynicism we’ve coated over our lives suddenly begins to disappear.  So the poem itself processes us not to engage with the poem or the realities of war, but to engage with our own moral landscape.  That’s what I was trying to do.

One of the things we’ve been discovering is that nobody comes out of a war unaffected.  Can you talk a little bit about this?
As a human being I am made up of all my experiences; I’m the sum of that, in a way.  Before I wrote this book I had been a young political activist and I had spent some time in prison.  It was a very difficult time and I wrote a book of poems to attempt to explore that.  Being placed in that kind of extreme situation forces you out of your usual easy judgments of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s black, what’s white.  And you begin to realize that the very fabric of the being who is oppressing is disrupted and damaged even as the oppressed is being destroyed.

Look at America for instance: you don’t need a better example than the impact of slavery.  It doesn’t matter how liberal or not liberal or how right-wing or left-wing you really are, there is nobody who is white or black who that experience has not scarred in some way.  The defense of that is actually nothing more than trying to defend what is really breaking up inside of the person and this is the truth with every kind of war.  Even if you go in there as a war correspondent, if you go in as a soldier, as a refugee, everybody, even if you’re just watching the flickering images on your screen and you pretend not to see it, even it if it’s being constructed by CNN to give a certain light to it, you will still always be affected by it.  

There’s an amazing thing that Wole Soyinka said in a book called The Man Died.  He said every moment we are silent in the face of tyranny, that which is human in us dies a little bit.  So you are either enacting it directly or by acquiescence, or it is enacted upon you and there is no way that can happen that you cannot be scarred by it. What separates us as human from the rest of the life forms on the planet is that elusive thing that we are trying to pretend away which is called a conscience.  It doesn’t matter what arguments you make for it, damaged childhood whatever, the point is there would be no need to create defenses against violence if violence were a natural state for us.   
How old were you when the conflict this happened?  What process of discovery have you gone through to write these poems?
I was born just as the war was starting in 1966.  For much of the war I was a toddler.   My particular family made our way out as refugees and much of that narrative of what happened during that war was received from parents, and from elder brothers. My eldest brother was actually detained and they were going to turn him into a boy soldier.  He was nine or ten.  I am actually bigger than him physically and he talks about lugging me on his back for miles and miles and miles.  We came back to Nigeria when I was five.  This was about 1970, 1971.  After the so-called peace and the “No Victors No Vanquished” treaty, the federal government instituted cantonments of soldiers all across the Igbo hinterlands to make sure that there would be no recurrence of this rebellion.

And so all of us grew up with the shadow of soldiers around us, with guns.  There would be road blocks.  You would be in the car coming home from school with your father or mother or whatever or whatever and they would be humiliated.  It’s like if you watch what’s happening in the West Bank now.  Israel is humiliating the Palestinians.  It’s not even about security anymore.  It’s about eradicating a human being’s right to any kind of dignity as a kind of way to quell any kind of rebellion against you.

And the war stayed around.  I remember one particular time, the army, the guy who ran the particular cantonment near the house I grew up in lived about five miles away.  He had this beautiful house on a hill.  And he was known for picking young girls up on the streets and raping them and this kind of stuff.  So finally, some people set fire to his house one day.  And I remember coming home from school to watch this blaze, and with a whole group of people who were laughing.  This was their only sort of revenge.

And so it builds into your psyche in that way.  From the first coup in 1966 right up to even now with what we call pretend democracy in Nigeria the military have overshadowed every form of government and politics.  The gun has been the way which we are run.  So we have become a brutalized people.  And of course no one has ever dealt with the trauma of the war.  The Igbos just wanted to put it behind them and get ahead.  But all the time it begins to surface and surface and people who are born who are just 16 years old talk about waging another war.

It’s kind of frightening how much this has been internalized.  I grew up playing in burnt-out tanks, in front of my primary school, picking up bullets that were still live, playing footballs and running into hamlets that still had skulls in them and things like this.  As a child you don’t realize until you’re an adult and can contemplate this in a way, how much this impacts your thinking. I think there’s a lot of callousness and brutality in Nigeria in general which is a result of that war and that has never been talked about.   And the real problem right now is that you can see the portents of another war coming.