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June 23, 2007

10

Songs on the Tube – Niyi Osundare

by quaesitor

Whoever decided to put Poems on the Underground was an absolute genius – reading those in the dark recesses of London’s nether world is far more edifying, thought-provoking and satisfying than adverts for hair loss remedies, online dating sites and Bachelors’ courses in Hotel Receptionist studies at Whitechapel-Northbank Polytechnic City Academy of the Arts & Leisure. The latest installment has been a set of 7 African Poems and this was the one i spotted yesterday.

I’ve checked out the poet – the Nigerian scholar and writer, Niyi Osundare – not come across him before (more the result of my ignorance than his renown i suspect). But he sounds a pretty impressive bloke: outspoken and fearless, articulate and passionate.

This poem is a dream – on a par, perhaps, with Martin Luther King’s – a dream of a society at ease with itself and in harmony with its environment. Who could fail to chime with its heartfelt cry – for a world finally rid of division, conflict, hatred? I found myself swept up in its optimistic yearning as i was hurtled through the tunnels far below the city streets.

But there is a problem. Far from being a realizable dream, it is actually just a pipedream. For how can division be finally expelled without the expulsion of human selfishness? How can freedom from all authority (from ‘kings and queens’) bring anything but anarchy which itself ALWAYS curtails freedom? Sure, we need to be rid of the bad ‘kings and queens’ and Osundare did suffer intimidation and opposition from the regime of General Abacha. But is the answer for all authority to be overthrown? Sounds nice – until you find yourself in the eye of a riot with everyone free to do precisely what they want.

I confess that the last 3-line stanza had me a bit puzzled. I guess it articulates the experience of living in an apparently silent universe where mysticism is the only real pathway into truth. Except it is not – for the universe is not silent but eloquent (Psalm 19 a case in point). But the optimism and yearning of the poem is completely understandable, for i do believe it resonates with what is in all of us – the eternity that is set in our hearts forces us to look beyond the present (politically, environmentally, spiritually etc etc). And what’s more, there will be a paradise, a paradise that far outstrips the beauty of Athens with its noble democracy (despite its slaves) and is utterly devoid of division (Galatians 3:26-29). It is a paradise that is another city, resembling the old, but renewed into the vibrantly new – the heavenly Jerusalem that comes down to us (Revelation 21:1-3). The difference is that instead of Osundare’s vision of an authority-free paradise, this will have the universe’s supreme authority at its centre – God himself will be with them and will be their God. And paradoxically, it is the service of this great King of Kings that brings perfect freedom.

That truly is a song to sing – a song not just of a world reshaped, but a world recreated. (Revelation 7:13-17) In the meantime, as we sing that song of the future, it is surely right to do all we can in the present to bring the values, aspirations and (dare I say it, for in political terms it seems so pathetic) love of this paradise into the present. For that is what it means to be godly – to be like God in how he acts and speaks.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jun 23 2007

    Eloquently writtten and a beautiful poem.

    Reply
  2. Jun 23 2007

    I agree with you – but is that what Christianity itself is: one big unrealisable “Imagine” (John Lennon)? At least its heart is in the right place …

    Reply
  3. Melinda
    Jun 25 2007

    I saw this poem last week and had much the same reaction as you Mark. It all sounds good until you get to the last stanza. The two words that stand out are ignorance and unknowing – these are the qualities that make for a better world. I wonder if he is wanting to go back to a childlike innocence where ignorance is bliss. I would argue that ignorance is not bliss at all – it does not eradicate pain and suffering – it merely seeks to hide it away from view. How, therefore, can it be the path to freedom and emancipation? A world reshaped is a world where knowledge and truth (in Christ) rather than ignorance and unknowing are the way to freedom.

    Reply
  4. Danilo
    Aug 8 2007

    I’m Italian and I saw this poetry in London Tube in July and Me and my friends trasleted it in Italian because it sounds really nice! I miss London! Bye
    Danilo, Martina and Angela from Policoro

    Reply
  5. Wadimase
    Oct 15 2008

    excellent poem,well crafted but generates some kind of controversy because of the last stanza which talks about ignorance.one wonders if ignorance could make a better world.

    Reply
  6. Jan 29 2009

    Hi, i’m a nigerian and i used this poem for my project. It is a well written poem.

    Reply
  7. Jhummy
    Sep 25 2011

    Hi dis is jummy,am a nigerian,your poem is inspiring

    Reply
  8. Apr 18 2012

    Now this is an interesting poem, isn’t it?

    At first sight it almost isn’t a poem at all – just a string of liberal platitudes strung together in verse form, Maya Angelou-style.

    You know, slavery is bad, arbitrary authority is bad, divisions between people are bad things. All that sort of stuff. And presumably motherhood and apple pie are good things, right?

    But then you reach the 6th stanza, the one about the sun and stars and it’s not what you expect at all.

    The 6th stanza talks about the sun radiating not joy, or peace, or kindness, or what have you, but ‘ignorance’. The sun makes you ignorant. And then he goes on to talk about the stars ‘informing’ nights of unknowing – which, following on from the bit about the sun, is an ambiguous construction, to say the least. Because ‘informing’ means both ‘to provide facts or information’ (which would dispel ignorance) and it also means ‘to give an essential or formative principle or quality to’, which is to say, the stars are on some level causing unknowing.

    Now it’s anybody’s guess how to resolve this – you might square the circle by saying the poem posits ignorance and unknowing as good things – as essential to a better world (there’s that bit in the bible about needing to become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven) – but that’s just a theory. The poem doesn’t make that or any other interpretation explicit. And ignorance is, generally, seen as a perjorative word, and the poem doesn’t do anything to soften or qualify it. Another interpretation is to say that the stanza points to the unachievability of perfection in life: the ignorance and unknowing that cause divisions between people are a fact of nature, metaphorically radiated by the very stars and sun. Again, that’s just an interpretation.

    But it’s an interesting conundrum, no?

    Reply

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