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IFRA Special Research Issue Vol. 2

Complexly Intertwined’: Poetry and Politics

Ismail Bala Garba

Author's note

Note portant sur l’auteur1

Full text

Attahiru M. Jega, Ibrahim Bello-Kano & Asma’u Garba Saeed, The Public Poet: A Biography of Mudi Sipikin Kano. Centre for Democratic Research and Training, Mambayya House, Bayera University, 2003, XXV+236 pp., ISBN 198-2 035-03-3, Paperback.

I

1The Public Poet is the first book-length intellectual biography of the preeminent Kano-born, Hausa poet, Alhaji Mudi Sipikin. The individual chapters, while demonstrating Sipikin’s accomplishment as both a poet and a politician, also reveal his poetry’s engagement with a wide variety of concems. Among such concerns are his politics, especially his pre-independence political activism as a member of the anti-monarchist party, the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), and other issues such as religion, the socio-historico-political status of northern Nigeria, and so on. And when read as a whole, however, the book foregrounds the centrality of religion and politics within Sipikin’s poetics, and their subtle synthesis in his poetry’s epistemic inclination and tropological sophistication.

2In more ways than one, The Public Poet is also a companion book to the concurrently published volume of Sipikin’s selected poetry in an expansive Hausa-English translation, Mudi Sipikin: Selected Poems of a NEPU Activist (2003), which, for the first time since his first published volumes, Tsofaffin Wakoki Da Sababbin Wakoki “Old and New Poems” (1978), and Wakokin Ilimi da Tarbiyya Don Yara na Alhaji Mudi Sipikin “Poems on Education and Training for Children by Alhaji Mudi Sipikin” (1981), has made available Mudi Sipikin’s poetry not just in a significant selection spanning many years, but also in making available many unpublished poems, including the highly acclaimed, “Wasiyya Sipikiyya”, Sipikin’s Will. Alhaji Mudi Sipikin was born at Darma quarters of Kano city. His grandfather came to Kano from Auyo in the Hadeja Emirate of the present Jigawa State. His father, Malam Muhammadu Buwa, was his first teacher, and later Mudi attended Qur’anic school of Malam Umaru Badamagare. Sipikin did not attend any formal (Western) school, but was, all the same, educated informally through a correspondence course with a British school in the 1960s, and afterwards in a series of adult education/literacy classes in Kano.

3He is a founding member of NEPU, founded in 1950. And for daring to uphold the interest of the talakawa (the masses; the poor) under the oppressive Native Authority, he was imprisoned many times; while his house was auctioned off by the colonial authorities several times. Sipikin’s early poems portray his radical political inclination, which keeps evolving in line with his maturity, and development as a politician and poet. For this, Sipikin’s poetry betrays his deep knowledge of Islam, his acute political consciousness, poetic accomplishment, as well as his famed poetic celebration and critique of Hausa culture and people. In addition, Sipikin’s poetry often thematizes both temporal and transtemporal issues, namely the philosophical exploration of human will in relation to a larger will of God. And this is often achieved, and consciously highlighted, by what could be called “Sipikin’s philosophy of composition”: a kind of an “exclusive” clutch of poetic techniques. A distant, even unconventional instance of Sipikin’s philosophy of poetic composition is his unique employment of doxology, (opening or closing prayer). Sometime in his poems, Mudi completely ignores the opening or closing doxology; in such instance, he chooses to plunge into the poem directly, without any doxological mediation as in the following example:

Fellow countrymen I have corne to tell you
My views so that you may know the truth
On the poem Zungur wrote where he talked about “Republic”
(From “Arewa Jamhuriya Kawai”, North is for Republic Only, 12).

4Many critics of Hausa poetry have recognised doxology as one of the characteristic markers of Hausa poetry, whether written or oral. The use of doxology is, in a way, an attempt to follow the Islamic injunction of making one’s presence known to others, a way of recognising them. According to such disparate critics -like Hiskett (1975), Furniss ( 1993 and 1996:213), Liman ( 1994), Sa’id ( 1995), Junaidu (2001 ), Aliyu (2001 ), and Munkalla (2001 ), among others -the use of doxology is a form of self-renunciation, and-effacement in the presence of not only one’s peers, fellow humans, but also before the Divine. But, in the case of Mudi, to invoke God, (as he does in many of his poems, too numerous to cite here), is for the poet to imbue himself with life, in a quasi-narcissistic, semitranscendent way.

5Another instance of Mudi’s distinct philosophy and technique of composition is his special way of employing multiple voices and personas in his poetry, in a manner which shows up his deep tropological, or rhetorical sophistication, and philosophical inclination. This in itself is nothing remotely “philosophical”, or special, but its uniqueness arises from the way in which Sipikin’s poems are conceived and written with a conscious audience expectation: the way in which he inserts his poetry into a certain kind of reading formation; the way in which the poems are placed, invitingly, before the reader. Accordingly, there are about three different imbricated “readers” in Sipikin’s poetry. These are: the Ideal Reader, or the Authorial “I”, (when Sipikin seems to be addressing God), the Inscribed Reader, represented by a form of narrative presence, (when he seems to be addressing no one in particular, or seems to speak to a sort of a universal subject), and, lastly, the Implied, or Ostensible Reader, or, simply, the lyrical “I” dispensing poetic/epistemic truth, (when he is, impliedly, addressing someone for either tropological or rhetorical effect).

6The poetic and analytical thrust of Sipikin’s poetry’themes is often didactic, sometimes prescriptive or admonitory (as in any other modem Hausa poetry). Hausa poetry is indubitably marked by its didactic, admonitory and prescriptive tones. Hausa poetry, Jihadist or modem, written or oral is inherently characterised by its moral discourse, Sipikin’s poetry is not, then, an/exception. A quintessential case of Sipikin’s poetry’s didacticism is in the following poem, “Gadar Zare”, Grand Deception:

I want the people to understand that belief in
Superstitions and phantoms amount to ignorance:
Magic and bori are crazy
Believing in them is going astray and
Foolish and nonsense and a waste of time.
People should know there isn’t such thing as Inna
Which deforms hands and legs... How?
It is a disease you had better know.
Go to the doctors; there is remedy
You should ask to find the truth.
Know also there’s nothing called Fatalwa
It is mere fantasy, you should know:
Do not succumb to the ideas of those misled
They will “kick” you like football
And lead you into the wrong path (102-3).

7Here, Sipikin is an unapologetic modernizer, very much open to the issue of “progress” and “modernization” as Liman (1994) would say. He is also indulging into a “poetic reprove” of some customs, beliefs, and behaviours, which he considers backward, and, therefore, unbecoming of people slowly imbibing modernization -as opposed to, say, Modernity, which the philosophical consciousness of the Modem. Likewise in the poem North is for Republic Only Sipikin’s concern is with the wanton exploitation of the talakawa, by both the colonial administration, and the aristocratie rulers as the sole reason for turning northern Nigeria into a republic:

The exploitation of the talakawa is too much
Many of them (monarchs) drink beer
That is why I don’t agree
With that poem by Sa’adiya
But only where he says there is
No way to overthrow the monarchical system.
That is why 1 have corne to speak,
Corne, people, and hear the truth (105).

II

8The book is divided into six chapters, with a concluding chapter. There is also a chronology of Mudi Sipikin’s life; while the “Notes on Texts and Translations” offers the ways in which the authors have attempted to negotiate the thorny issue of cultural translation, (or the transposition of one linguistic, textual and cultural tradition into another). This is necessary since Sipikin’s poetry and politics are both written, and performed within a milieu, which is not just Hausa, linguistically and culturally, but informed and occasioned by it. And in order to compensate the loss arising out of translating Sipikin’s poetry from Hausa to English, the authors arrange both the original Hausa poems with the English translation in sequential order whenever his poems are quoted in order to illustrate, or further highlight a particular biographical point as in the following example from the poem, “Karara”, The irritant:

A ya jama’a ina tashin
Ku don ku rage yawan barci.
Mu wo himma mu tashi tsaye
Mu gyara kasa ta san ‘yanci.
Rashin ilimi ya sanya kasa
Kasar nan duk take baci.
Idan ba tattali a kasa
Kasar nan dole ta baci.
Idan an zub da hakkin dan
Adam domin wulakanci.
O you people wake up
Rise from that deep slumber.
Let us make an effort and
Prepare the grounds for country’s freedom.
Lack of education is the bane
Of the decrepitude of this country.
Lack of proper economy in a country
For sure necessitates its recession.
If human rights are disregarded
It must be because of a general degradation ( 168).

9And the “Notes on Sources” identifies, as it were, the sources, both primary and secondary, from which the biography is assembled. They are, principally, oral interviews with Mudi Sipikin -the subject of the biography -and members of his family, friends, political associates, business partners and other informants. Various books, archival materials and the poet’s unpublished manuscripts show the extent to which the book also relied heavily on secondary sources.

10Chapter one of The Pubic Poet, “Roots”, looks at Sipikin’s brief family history leading up to his birth in 1930. In some mesmerizing passages, the authors were able to show how Sipikin’s early education had had a deep impact on his early involvement in politics, and his immersion into poetry in later life. Chapter two, “Young Man”, traces the youthful days of Sipikin from 1948 onwards. Here, the concern is on Sipikin’s experience as an apprentice businessman. While chapter three, “Political Man”, is about Sipikin’s political career: his early political activism, the formation of NEPU and PRP (People’s Redemption Party), etc. The remaining chapters, i.e. chapter four, five, six and the concluding chapter, are. more or less, about Mudi Sipikin’s poetry.

III

11The central tradition, the over-arching poetic ideology of Sipikin’s poetry is his revolutionary poetics; and his main theme -pervasive, always looming large -is a ceaseless attack on colonialism, and aristocratie political structure. His poetry is also revolutionary, (if the word is permitted here) in its appropriation of both Arabic poetry and Jihadist’s poetry tradition. And this could be seen in Sipikin’s poetry’s profundity of both notable rhyme and rhythms on one hand, the use of Arabic loan words, and the use of English words on the other, by appropriating them as essentially Hausa words, or better still “Hausanizing” them, as in the poem, “Amsar Wakar Elemantare”, A Reply to Poem on Elementary Education. Indeed, Sinikin has mastered, in addition, the difficult-to-handle two stanzas poems, complete with acoustic rhythms. Sipikin is also adept at paying close attention to his various subject matters, and the narrative contexts at hand as in the poem, “Kukan Kurciya”, Wise Saving:

You can glimpse at the Falcon hovering
In the sky everyday, and visibly, too
You can see the Eagle, even with its massive body,
On seeing the Falcon becomes petrified with fear (145).

12Here, images from the natural world are deployed in order to properly delineate the limitation of political power cruelly wielded by both the Native Authority, and the aristocratic rulers. The images, most importantly, too foreground the transience of such power, and portend to the possibility of obliterating such power by the poor who are being exploited. Sipikin’s other poetic craft is his superb organization of ideas, the way in which disparate things are effortlessly chained together to produce a composite vignette as in the poem, “Wakar ban Kwana da Mallam Aminu”, Farewell to Malam Aminu:

If you could recall the day Malam was to depart,
Some miscreants were asked to corne and hubbub.
And four people were meant to corne to him for a handshake,
Before he arrives, dead he would have been
He could die before getting to his destination
He said by God he would give them a handshake,
For he surrenders everything to the Almighty alone
So he eventually made it despite the odds, and arrived in London
alive and fit (146).

13In the end, Sipikin’s poetry is built around three pillars: (a) his influence (or poetic inspiration) by such older poets as Sa’adu Zungur, Sani Kwantagora, etc, (b) his talent, or absolute belief in natural gift about poetic creativity, and (c) his political, and creative ideology, i.e. his concern with social, economic, and political condition of the masses in much of his poetic oeuvre.

IV

14The Public Poet’s aim, as the authors say, is to present Mudi Sipikin, the poet, and the politician in a simple, accessible way; it seeks to emphasize the socalled biographical details of Sipikin’s life, showing along the way how Sipikin’s poetry necessarily arises out of his political engagement, which, in turn, catalyses his stature as a political poet, and a popular public intellectual.

15It is here that the problem that the authors are desperately trying to avoid emerges in the most glaring way: in their attempt to collapse Sipikin’s poetry and his biography without assuming any trace of discursive hitch; though they (the authors) concede that the events of Mudi Sipikin’s life clearly, even naturally delineated, and marked his poetry in a significant way. They further hint at the difficulty of capturing their subject, Mudi Sipikin, within the decidedly linguistic, textual, and metaphorical trope of biography. Nevertheless, they bring to the fore the inherent aporia in their subject by, for instance, separating their complex subject into two phases, of Mudi Sipikin: the shrewd politician, and Mudi Sipikin: the consummate poet. To do this is to presuppose that Mudi Sipikin’s complex life could, neatly and successfully, be compartmentalized into two different phases, two different careers that are not related or complement each other.

16For example, the book claims that it intends to highlight the social, political, as well as ideological imperatives of Sipikin’s poetic career, they, the authors, never bother, (and it is apparent that they do not care) to justify why this approach is adopted; since, by dint of this claim, they appear to be privileging one aspect of Mudi Sipikin’s life over the other, while clearly claiming the contrary. In many instances in the book we have a scenario where both the poet and the poem are unmistakably one, for instance on page 178 they claim that “the poem and the life (of Mudi) are difficult to separate”, even asserting further that Sipikin’s poetry functions as his “surrogate”, an other, and an extension of his self. In other words ascribing an unmediated quest for self-presence to the poet. Whether this is tenable via poetic textuality is open to debate. Yet the authors always aspire to uncritically collapse Sipikin into his poetry. And this could be seen more clearly in their discussion of self-presence and-presentation. They regard the poet’s innocuous autobiographical exploration in his poetry as, explicitly, an attempt to narrativise his ownself, and as a desire to occupy the narrative situation of his poetry, via his authorial presence. To buttress this they subject the poem, “Wasiyya Sipikiyya”, Sipikin’s Will into some kind of a psychoanalytical tool to justify, rather erroneously their thesis.

17The authors also “mistake” the poet’s willingness to recite his poems before an audience as a teleological desire for an unmediated self-presence, as well as Sipikin’s use of first person pronoun to open and close his poems, or what is called poetic signature as partaking in the same quest. They (the authors) “misread” Sipikin’s public recitation of his poetry as a deep yearning to fuse together, in an ontological sense, the poem and the self, speech and metaphor, text and context. This is in no way a “transcendental need” that the poet needs to necessarily make obvious, either via the continuum of certain textuality availed by his poetry, or by public recitals of his poetry.

18And for this they (the authors) offer, here and there, a close reading of Sipikin’s poetry with a view of purportedly presenting some aspects of his biography. By this the authors have again rather uncritically collapsed the author into his book. A good example of this aporetic biographical representation is chapter four, “Poetic Man”, which documents Sipikin’s poetry, seeing him, via close reading of his poems, as, among others: an ideological poet, an epistemic modernizer -both in his poetry and his cultural sensibility -and as an indubitably urban writer whose universalism intersperses his poetry, as much as his temperaments as a politician, and a businessman. Although the authors claim that they only offer selective close readings of Sipikin’s poetry within the larger frame of offering what they call “biographical representation”, yet they close prepare Sipikin’s poetry solely, at certain instances, it seems, for what they said they would avoid: i.e. “sustained literary criticism”, and seeing their subject as decidedly produced by his poetry. For example, on page 167 they claim, “there is no place to enter upon a close reading” of Sipikin’s poetry, but, all the same, they subject Sipikin’s technique of signature, (or the protocol of textually couching the poet’s name in his poems) as an opportunity for close reading as in the following representative passage:

Mudi, it should be stressed, freely uses all the available techniques of poetic composition. He is not content with using one or two only. One answer lies in a secret wish, namely: a deep wish to redouble his effort to live through the Name, his name, by also taking that very name into the very structure of his work, in ways as to increase his own involvement with Death (or a pendingone). That is, as a mortal, Mudi wants, or actually needs to use the structure of his poems (the first person narrative voice, the proper name, etc.) to guarantee his own self-presence, to deflect further from the End promised by his religion, Islam—the taste of Death. He wants, by these poetic maneuvers, to overrun Death, by releasing, so to speak, himself and his Self, through his Writing, his Poetry (125-6, original emphasis).

19This lengthy quotation shows the book’s reliance on close reading, while making it so obvious that despite these kinds of readings, the subject (Mudi Sipikin) would not, could not, and need not to, as the authors say somewhere else “step out of metaphor” (211); but this is further “contradicted” when the authors claim on page 215 that the so-called epistemic truth in Sipikin’s poetry is nothing but that, since “the poet”, as it were, “affirm[s] nothing” they claim, “otherwise he may have to prove that he never lies, that is, never tells it as it really is”.

V

20Despite the book’s brilliance as an intellectual biography, there are some annoying citational and typographical errors. Some books and articles are cited, or referred to in the book, but not listed in the bibliography. For example, on page 3, “Kirk-Greene 1966”, page 73, “Report on Kano Disturbances 1953:45-46”, page 135, “Said (2001) and Said (1989) ” are all not cited in the bibliography. While on page 9 the bibliographical entry “Ibrahim 2000” is given as “Ibrahim 2001”; and on page 18 “Feinstein 1987” is rendered as “Feinstein 1998”. Yet again on page 69 “strong” is substituted with “strongly”, on page 72 “objectives” is rendered as “objects”, and on page 76 “Mudi” is spelt as “Mud”. And on page 223 (of the Bibliography), one of the cited authors is referred to in her first name (Bara’atu), rather than her surname (Maikadara); while Boehmer (Elleke) is spelt as “Boemer”. It is also surprising that apart from Mudi Sipikin’s lone essay on “Ma’aunin Wakar Hausa”, The Prosody of Hausa Poetry, none of his published books is cited; not even the recent volume of Sipikin’s selected poetry in English translation, which is concurrently published with the present book, (even though poems from such collections might have been referred to, or quoted at length). Conversely, all the Hausa texts of Sipikin’s poems in the book are quoted without the usual Hausa hooked letters, even with the current availability, in fact explosion of UCLA’s Hausa font (which is based on the Arial font), and others.

21After three years of publication in 2003, The Public Poet is still not in circulation, and despite the fact that numerous PhD theses are being written on Mudi’s poetry at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and Bayero University, Kano, etc. The book was written in the first place to, according to the blurb, “fill a potent gap in the literature on the works of Alhaji Mudi Sipikin in particular and indigenous non-English poets, dramatists and novelists in general”; yet the book is still locked away, perhaps falling apart at Mambayya House, while researchers are anxiously waiting for it.

22And there is also a huge gap between the content of the book—written with bravura, intelligence and brilliance -and the book as a fmished product -aesthetically uninviting, bland and hastily packaged. This is not to argue that there must always be a correlation between the two. The book, sadly, is poorly produced, with the binding popping out halfway through one’s reading, the pages constantly falling out, and the spine that is peeling off.

23Despite these shortcomings, and theoretical deficiencies (if the above mentioned “aporias” could be referred ;to as such), The Public Poet is a good book that would surely fill the wide gap on critical/biographical literature on Mudi Sipikin’s poetry, and on other Hausa poets, and writers whose works also engage Sipikin’s intertextually in its varied themes and concerns. This is the first book of its kind. There is no intellectual biography of any other major Hausa poet. What exist are commentaries, textual exegeses, and biographical references, rather than sustained critical, intellectual examination of their works, or the relationship between the work and author.

Bibliography

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Endnotes

1 Department of English and French Bayera University, Kano

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