The Politics of Robert Udoikpa’s Poetics: A Review of Six Poems in Songs at Dawn

Theme Quote

‘All Literature is Political’

  • Levar Burton

Title: Songs at Dawn

Author: Robert Udoikpa

Publisher: Robert Minder International Limited

Town of Publication: Uyo

Year of Publication: 2013

ISBN: 978-978-51903-0-8

Pagination: viii+102 = 110 pages

Price: Not Stated

Reviewer: Eyoh Etim, PhD.

Introduction: Robert Udoikpa has, through his literary masterpieces, established himself as one of the prolific authors in Nigeria and beyond. Apart from Songs at Dawn (2013), Pastor Robert Udoikpa has also published Lines for Children, Seat of Contest, The Reaper’s Fruit, Pearls of Passion, The Orphan’s Throne, Spiritual Diet for Dominion and Portraits of Prodigies. A multitasker, Pastor Udoikpa combines writing with running his business and pastoring his church, being the Founding Pastor, City of Glory Chapel and Chairman Board of Directors of Robertminder International Limited.

In the era of committed literature, political commitment goes a long way to defining the relevance of a writer. In this article, I am interested in reviewing six poems in Udoikpa’s Songs of Dawn as a way of exemplifying the ideological positionality of his poetic offerings. The politics in Udoikpa’s anthology refers to the issues that are raised in the poems while poetics refers to the way or manner in which these issues are treated. Thus, this review is interested in the themes and style of Pastor Udoikpa’s poems in Songs at Dawn.

Organisation: One of the ways through which Udoikpa impresses with his arts is craftsmanship which is not only expressed in his choice of rhetorical and poetic tropes, but also in the way he renders the poems. The collection is organised in six (6) parts, with each part having a heading accompanied with varying number of engaging poems totalling eighty-one (81). The anthology is equally blessed with a Foreword by one of Africa’s most revered literary icons, Professor Joseph Ushie, who extolls the poetic contents of Pastor Udoikpa’s collection.

Subject Matter and Major Themes: Pastor Udoikpa situates Songs at Dawn in the social scene of man and takes the posture of a preacher, as he sermonises on our everyday realities; urging everyone to toe the path of uprightness and eschew the ways of the worldly and the ungodly in politics and in day-to-day personal dealings. This explains the didactic texture of most of Udoikpa’s poems in the collection in which he documents the defining moments in man’s life, reporting them mostly from the moral vantage point of a concerned shepherd and a visioner who desires for an erring society to avoid the blights and plights of the future by turning a new leaf in the present and letting go of the dark ways of the past. In this anthology, one is sure to come across poems on human virtues which both adults and children should imbibe for a successful life. One is also likely to encounter poems on the value of the human knowledge system, as well as poems that satirise failed leadership and the dehumanisation of the citizens in our climes and times. There are poems that eulogise important persons in the life of the poet, as well as ones that bemoan their demise. In other words, there is hardly any moment in human life that is not touched by the poetic canvas of Udoikpa’s art. In the ensuing paragraphs, I will analyse six (6) poems drawn from Songs at Dawn. Each poem is chosen from each part of the anthology.

Analysis of Contents: Among the most impressive poems in the first part of the collection, Songs at Dawn, are ‘Appreciation’, ‘The Black Kingdom’ ‘The Leader’ and ‘The Disciplines’. The first part is entitled ‘Philosophy’ and most of the poems it treasures are didactic poems which speak to the beliefs and the ideals of the poet. The poems ‘The Disciplines’, ‘Drama’ and ‘Education’ contextualise the poet’s firm belief that education in general and literature in particular can transform both the individual and society. Indeed, these are the kinds of poems that adolescent students should be exposed to especially at a time like this when conventional and humanistic education looks to be in a decline owing to quick-rich schemes and the utter disrespect accorded teachers and the education system by some of the highly-placed members of society. The poem ‘Appreciation’ is particularly interesting because of its aim to inculcate the virtue of appreciation in both the young and the old, especially in our temporality where many have decided to wear ingratitude as a batch of identity. Apart from teaching contentment, the poem also urges its readers to learn to appreciate God’s creative works instead of passing judgement. It echoes the themes raised in Alexander Pope’s ‘An Essay on Man’ which decries man’s ingratitude towards God by questioning His creation.  

I am particularly interested in analysing ‘The Leader’ because it embodies the theme of leadership determinism which so fittingly opens up for us the discussion on the politics in Pastor Udoikpa’s poetics. It is a two-stanza poem organised in six lines per stanza. The poem is written in free verse and makes use of run-on-lines. The poem has post-postcolonial leadership ethos because it links all of society’s destiny to its leadership. The opening lines are instructive in this regard: ‘The world would paradise be/When leaders in earnest would take/Inputs from those they lead’. The lines harp on the imperative of inclusive leadership where the leaders listen to the yearning of the people they govern. Thus, in an overtly didactive tone, the persona wishes to disrupt the existential gulf in the leadership/followership binary structures which has been the bane of African leadership in recent years. The persona subtly decries the existing reality where the leaders are completely cut off from the followers. Udoikpa’s ‘The Leader’ has a dialogic relation with Niyi Osundare’s ‘The Leader and the Led’ which is another allegorical poem that prescribes the qualities that African leaders must possess to qualify them to lead. One dominant trope in Udoikpa’s ‘The Leader’ is the use of inversion marked by the ingenious reversal of the normal syntactic order of a sentence in order to give the expressions archaic, King-James-Version tonality meant to sound like words from on high. It is befitting of the tone needed to speak to leaders in a didactic officiality. A good instance of inversion is seen in the first line, ‘The world would paradise be’ (6). Another important trope in the poem is alliteration found in expressions like ‘world would’, ‘when. . .would’, ‘who. . . wise’ all in the first stanza in lines 1, 2 and 3, respectively.

The second stanza of ‘The Leader’ discusses the need for the equitable distribution of leadership goods so as to breach the gap that exists between the haves and the have-nots in society. One of the signs of poor leadership is the uneven development of society where there exist bold lines that demarcate the rich and the poor. Taken together, the two stanzas of ‘The Leader’ have the trope of repetition in the first expressions and in words like ‘leaders’ and ‘paradise’, with ‘paradise’ constituting a metaphor for an ideal society and a biblical allusion to that perfect space which was and is still God’s wish for man.

The second part of Songs at Dawn is entitled ‘Loyalty’. Some of the outstanding pieces in this section of the anthology are ‘I have a Conviction’, ‘Bird’s Plea’, ‘The Giants’, ‘I See Freedom’, ‘The Parrot’, ‘A Tribute to the Elephant’ and ‘Our Democracy’. The title of the section announces the anthology as a book of virtues or one that aims to make its readers conscious of values that make for a better society. Of the poems mentioned, I prefer to analyse ‘The Parrot’ because its concern with the unity of the country resonates with the realities of the times in our polity. We live in a deeply divided clime where ‘For decades we know not peace’ and ‘labour but in vain’ (23). The persona of the poem is a parrot known for its oratorical skills and courage for speaking truth to power and raising difficult topics for conversations. The five-stanza poem has the folkloric motif that echoes the Late Prof Ime Ikiddeh’s The Vulture’s Funeral, which equally has a parrot as one of its personages. The poet-persona refers to Nigerians as ‘Citizens of the feathered breed’ who are ‘most favoured by God’ but who have allowed disunity to keep them backward and underdeveloped over the years. The persona deploys rhetorical queries to make the reader think on the importance of the poem’s key thematic concern: ‘Can’t we earnestly love ourselves?/Can’t we unite like godhead?/Can’t we be unfeigned and concerned?’ (24).

Like most of the poems in the collection, ‘The Parrot’ is a free verse and mostly rendered in enjambment. It is rich in anaphora found in stanzas 2 and 5 with the repetition of ‘we’ and ‘can’t’ at the initial points of the lines, respectively. Another trope worth mentioning in the poem is caesura, a break in the middle of a line, deployed in the penultimate line of the first stanza, the final line of the second stanza, the fourth line of the third stanza, the fifth line of the fourth stanza and the final line of the fifth stanza.

The third part of the collection is entitled ‘Humanity’ which has star poems like ‘The Poet’, ‘Minds’, ‘The Place we Stay’, ‘Death’ and ‘I Can Hear the Orphan’. The section raises issues that reflect on our humanity like the importance of having a healthy mind and the need for us to play our roles well as actors on the great stage of life. However, the poem that interests me for analysis in this section is ‘Genes of Beauty’ because its message is instructive for the times that we live in. The poem talks about the need for us to radiate godly beauty which is seen in character, virtues and actions, not merely in the physical appearance. Thus, the persona plays down on grooming the physical beauty when the inner beauty stinks. The two-stanza poem has tropes such as hyperbole, simile, imagery and alliteration. Hyperbole and simile are seen in the opening lines of the first stanza, ‘Millions purchase expensive cosmetics like thorough-trained artist’. The poem is rich in visual imagery as can be seen in words and expressions such as ‘curves’ and ‘straight lines’, ‘paint lips, nose, eyes and cheeks/with black, red, blue and pink’ (36).

Part four of Songs at Dawn is entitled ‘Lamentation’. The mood of this section is elegiac as it treasures melancholic verses like ‘Colossal Loss’, ‘Letter to Death’, ‘Farewell Prof’, ‘Unfinished Discussion’, ‘Slain Hope’ and ‘Swansong of Albert Udoikpa’. Most of these poems bemoan gargantuan losses that are personal to the poet. These losses refer to persons close to the poet who have been snatched away by death. ‘Unfinished Discussion’ which laments the demise of Prof Ikiddeh is one of such poems. But the poet also mourns political losses and the fate of a failed society. An instance of such politicisation of grief is seen in ‘The Passengers’ which uses the motif of a journey to critique the Nigerian political history for its treachery and betrayal orchestrated on the citizens by their leaders in a glaring and blatant disregard of the policy documents that founded the Nigerian nation.

I have chosen for analysis the last poem of the section entitled ‘Coronavirus’ not only because of its recent thematic concern, but also because of the poet’s interesting perspective on the global pestilence. ‘Coronavirus’ is organised in four (4) stanzas of seven lines each, which gives the poem some form of spiritual significance due to the number 7 associated with it. In the poem, the persona addresses God whom he refers to as ‘Author of all nations’. The poem is structured like a prayer or a form of free association in psychoanalytic terms. The first stanza reports on the havoc that coronavirus has done to the world, calling on God to ‘impose sanctions’ against the virus itself and those nations not doing enough to check the spread of the pandemic. In the second stanza, the persona believes that God may also be the author of the deadly virus ‘To punish a sinful generation’ (71) that has not kept God’s commandment. This perspective at once counters and compliments the scientific, as well as other perspectives, that competed for attention at the time of the pandemic. In the third stanza, the pastor-persona intercedes for the world, asking for healing that only God can bring upon humanity. This poem teaches the importance of prayer and seeking God in times of crisis like the dreaded coronavirus pandemic.

The dominant trope in this poem is repetition in the form of a refrain seen in the expression ‘Author of all nations’ at the beginning of each stanza of the poem. Then there is the device of personification as Coronavirus is personified in the poem.

The fifth part of Songs at Dawn is entitled ‘Adoration’ and contains poems that the poet uses to celebrate the dear persons in his life including his wife and children. Some of the poems in the collection are ‘Letter to Roberta’, ‘Daughter’, ‘First Son’ and ‘Jewel’, which is dedicated to the poet’s better half. The poem ‘Daughter’ celebrates the female child as a priced possession against the background of our patriarchal setting which tends to place less value on the female child. The poem is organised in five stanzas with all the stanzas made up of six lines except stanza four which has seven lines. The poem is replete with metaphors which are deployed to eulogise the persona’s daughter. Instances of these metaphors are ‘First seed of promotion/First fruit of godly marriage. . ./Apple of my eyes’ (76). In the second stanza, the persona has words of advice for the daughter. He advises her to lead a godly life in a world that he calls ‘Theatre of war’. In the third stanza, the persona advises the daughter to be hard working and courageous. He promises to stand by her as a father and as a helping hand while she should rely on God as sole guide in her life’s journey. This poem depicts the best legacy that a father could bequeath his daughter; words of advice to guide her through life. In the final stanza, the persona urges the daughter not to be deceived by false prophets and should not allow her gender to limit her.

The final section of the poem is entitled ‘Devotion’ and has poems like ‘Immigrants’, ‘Blasts at Sabbath’, ‘Faith’, ‘I Long to See your Face’, ‘The Merchant’ and ‘The Pilgrim’. The poem ‘Immigrant’ reinforces the Christian notion that the earth is a temporary space and a passage way to somewhere greater. However, the poet uses the poem to send out a message on the urgency of our earthly mission, warning that procrastination and delay are dangerous as time counts on without stopping or waiting for anyone.

Evaluation: In Songs at Dawn, the poet, Pastor Udoikpa, demonstrates his craftsmanship not only as a poet but also as a dramatist of no mean standing. His talent as a dramatist manifests in the theatrics of his poetics as the poems dramatise the significant moments in man’s actions on the earth. The poems have all the literary paraphernalia that admit them to the general canon of well-written works. As a committed art, the collection dwells on those burning issues that require deep conversations as we evolve as a people. Most importantly, the poems also portray timeless and universal themes on morality and the need to cultivate godly virtues that would last a lifetime and beyond.

The collection is ingeniously put together and well-published with clear, clean, pages and legible fonts for the delight of the readers. The graphics of the cover page synchronise with the title of the anthology. It comes with full colour separation that depicts dawn and has the picture of a cock which, in African societies, is used to determine the coming of a new day when the cock crows in the early hours of the day. There are, to the best of my knowledge, no grammatical and typographical errors in the text as it has been well-edited. I do not, therefore, hesitate in recommending the anthology to readers as its didactic content appeals to all.

Conclusion: Pastor Robert Udoikpa’s Songs at Dawn sings of the ills of our time. It is a timely warning and contains timeless lessons on life which every lover of literature stands to learn from, apart from savouring the wordsmanship of the great novelist, poet and dramatist. My analysis of selected poems in the collection reveals that Udoikpa is interested in enthroning a godlier society morally and politically. He understands that a society works better when its leadership has risen above base instincts like selfishness and unmindful accumulation of wealth. A beautiful and dutiful outing, Udoikpa’s Songs at Dawn is variegated enough to serve the poetic needs of everyone who encounters its rich contents.

Recommendation: I do hereby recommend Pastor Robert Udoikpa’s Songs at Dawn to all literary enthusiasts all over the world who are interested in the kind of poetry that gives directions to society. It is a book of verses that should be read by young people who are being raised as future giants in society. Teachers and leaders in all fields of endeavour will gain from the didactic contents of this anthology. Happy reading.

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One thought on “The Politics of Robert Udoikpa’s Poetics: A Review of Six Poems in Songs at Dawn

  1. A very insightful review!
    Thank you very much for this review, Sir.
    I’ve learnt more from you through it.

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