Nationality: Ghanaian. Born: Wheta, 13 March 1935. Education: University of Ghana, Accra, B.A. 1960; University of London (Longmans Fellow, 1967–68), M.A. 1968; State University of New York, Stony Brook, Ph.D. in comparative literature 1973. Family: Six children. Career: Research Fellow, Institute of African Studies, Legon, 1960–64; director, Ghana Ministry of Information Film Corporation, 1964–67; poet-in-residence, 1968, assistant professor of English, 1968–72, associate professor, 1973–74, and chair of Department of Comparative Literature, 1974–75, State University of New York, Stony Brook; visiting professor, University of Texas, Austin, 1972–73. Detained on suspicion of treason, Ghana, 1975–76. Senior lecturer in English, 1975, professor of literature, and dean of the faculty of arts, University of Cape Coast, Ghana, 1977–82. Ghana ambassador to Brazil, 1984–88, and Cuba, 1988–90, and Ghana's ambassador to the United Nations, 1990–94. Since 1997 minister of state, aide to the president, and member of policy management group, Office of the President, Ghana. Formerly editor, Okyeame, Accra, coeditor, Black Orpheus, Ibadan, and associate editor, Transition, 1967–68, World View, and Okike.Awards: Gurrey prize, 1959; Commonwealth poetry award, 1989; Ghana Assocation of Writers distinguished authors award, 1991; ECRAG national award for poetry, 1992, 1994. Address: Ambassador, Ghana Mission to the United Nations, 19 East 47th Street, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.
Rediscovery and Other Poems. Ibadan, Mbari, and Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1964.
Night of My Blood. New York, Doubleday, 1971.
Ride Me, Memory. Greenfield Center, New York, Greenfield Review Press, 1973.
The House by the Sea. Greenfield Center, New York, Greenfield Review Press, 1978.
Until the Morning After: Selected Poems 1963–1985. Greenfield Center, New York, Greenfield Review Press, 1987.
Latin American and Caribbean Notebook. Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1992.
Ancestral Power, and Lament, in Short African Plays, edited by Cosmo Pieterse. London, Heinemann, 1972.
This Earth My Brother: An Allegorical Tale of Africa. London, Heinemann, 1970; New York, Doubleday, 1971.
Comes the Voyager at Last: A Tale of Return to Africa. Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1992.
In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. Seattle, University of Washington African Studies Program, 1975.
The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara. New York, Doubleday, 1975.
The Ghana Revolution. New York, Oases, 1984.
Ghana: A Political History from Pre-European to Modern Times. Accra, Sedco Publishers, 1990.
Africa: The Marginalised Continent. Accra, Woeli, 1995.
Editor, with Geormbey Adali-Mortty, Messages: Poems from Ghana. London, Heinemann, 1970; New York, Humanities Press, 1971.
Editor, Guardians of the Sacred Word: Ewe Poetry. New York, Nok, 1974.
Translator, When Sorrow-Song Descends on You, by Vinoko Akpalu. Merrick, New York, Cross Cultural, 1981.*
Bibliography: "Kofi Awoonor: An Annotated Bibliography" by Kwaku Amoabeng and Carol Lasker, in Africana Journal (New York), 13, 1982.
Critical Studies: "The Restorative Cycle: Kofi Awoonor's Theory of African Literature" by Rosemary Colmer, in New Literature Review, 3, 1977; "Kofi Awoonor: Restraint and Release" by Martin Tucker, in English in Africa (Grahamstown, South Africa), 6(1), 1979; "Kofi Awoonor as Poet" by Ayo Mamudu, in Kiabàrà, 5(1), 1982; "Myth, History and the Poetry of Kofi Awoonor," in Toward Defining the African Aesthetic, edited by Lemuel A. Johnson and others, Washington, D.C., Three Continents, 1982, and "Poetry as Autobiography: Society and Self in Three Modern West African Poets," in African Literature in Its Social and Political Dimensions, edited by Eileen Julien, Mildred Mortimer, and Curtis Schade, Washington, D.C., Three Continents, 1986, both by Thomas R. Knipp; "Plights of Contemporary Life in Recent African Fiction" by Jai Shyam, in Arizona Quarterly (Tucson, Arizona), 42(3), Autumn 1986; "Rites of Passage in the Poetry of Kofi Awoonor," in Commonwealth Essays and Studies (Dijon, France), 8(2), Spring 1986, and "Aspects of Myth in Two Ghanaian Novels," in Commonwealth Essays and Studies (Dijon, France), 10(1), Autumn 1987, both by Elaine Saint-Andre Utudjian; "Ritual and Reality in the Novels of Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara and Kofi Awoonor" by Derek Wright, in Kunapipi (Aarhus, Denmark), 9(1), 1987; "Oral Tradition and the African Novel" by Edward Sackey, in Modern Fiction Studies (Baltimore, Maryland), 37(3), Autumn 1991; "Kofi Awoonor as a Prophet of Conscience" by Mary Ebun Modupe Kolawole, in African Languages and Culture (Oxford, England), 5(2), 1992; "Landscape as Expression of Alienation: Armab, Awoonor, Soyinka" by Koku Amuzu, in English in Africa (South Africa), 20(1), May 1993; "Kofi Awoonor as Critic" by Obi Maduakor, in Africa Literature Today (Freetown, Sierra Leone), 19, 1994; "Kofi Awoonor" by Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown, in Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Source Book, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood, 1998.
Kofi Awoonor comments:
Traditional oral poetry of the Ewes, with its emphasis on lyricism, the chant, repetition of lines, symbolism, and imagery transfused into English through the secondary mediation of Pound, Dylan Thomas, etc.* * *
Kofi Awoonor is Ghana's most famous poet. The pervasive mood of his poetry, keenest in his early work, is lyric lament, expressing the Western-educated African's drifting sense of loss and his anguish of severance from indigenous cultural traditions, cut away by a too hasty, perverting modernization. Night of My Blood, which reprints two-thirds of the earlier Rediscovery, is permeated by the returning exile's complex aura of nostalgia and fatalism, longing and foreboding, about what he will find. Awoonor's model is the Ewe dirge as performed by the great Anlo dirge singer (or heno) Vinoko Akpalu. A recurring motif in Ewe dirge poetry is the myth of the thwarted or desolate return, in which the ancestral pilgrimage leads back to a land of neglected and ruined shrines eaten by termites. Awoonor's much anthologized poem "The Weaver Bird," with its rediscovered shrines defiled by the droppings of foreign religions and false political messiahs, is written in this tradition. In "Dirge" the inarticulacy of the poet's grief over bygone poetic traditions is itself living evidence of their loss.
The persona in the poems of Night of My Blood is both liminal and central, and his journey is at once realistic and mythical, leading into himself and his society. The speaking "I" of an Akpalu dirge is simultaneously the grieving individual singer and the whole community plunged into mourning by the death, and though the heno lives a socially secluded life, he carries society's collective memory and conscience as part of his hadzivodoo, or gift of songs. In his priestlike role he is medium and clairvoyant, vessel and vehicle, of primal energies. Accordingly, Awoonor's imitative elegiac songs are not isolated outbursts of private melancholy but function as expressions of a collective desolation and as a threnody for the spiritual death of an entire culture and the passing of an era. The radial, macrocosmic swell of their nebulous funeral imagery, though attenuating and diffusing its impact, makes for a poetry of remarkable range and resonance, full of daring imaginative syntheses and startling superimpositions.
Onto the dirge archetype of the soul making its moonlit canoe journey across the waters of death are suggestively grafted both the legendary migration of the Ewe people from the Upper Niger to their present home in eastern Ghana (this is the "night" of the poet's "blood" in the title poem) and the modern poet-exile's circular passage of departure and return, rediscovering at last the wisdom of ancestors and of ritual poetic traditions and submerging himself in their sustaining communal ethos. The haunting paradoxical imagery of these delicate lyrics is of flood and the ferryman, drums and bells, cooking fires and sacrificial altars, bitter herbs and incense, and purification and putrefaction, and the constant contextual shifts present the poet-exile in compulsively eschatological terms. The dead man journeys to a new life among the ancestors, the poet to the dead in search of new life for his songs. After the spiritual death of alienation in a foreign culture, the homecoming is a painful initiation, another kind of death that must be endured if a new birth is to be possible. This is sometimes accompanied by the darker perception that the poet's visionary liberation, like the protagonist's in Awoonor's experimental poetic novel This Earth, My Brother, is destined to be achieved only by the passage through madness and bodily death, by returning literally to his native earth where his buried birth cord waits to regather him. As the dead man must become an ancestor in order to be put in touch with powers that may be used to benefit the community from a position outside it, the poet, by analogy, must leave his society to acquire the power to revitalize it on his return.
The latter trope—death or exile as mediating agent—and the subsequent retention of what is vital in alien influences are important in this poetry. Awoonor is no cultural purist bent on the retrieval of pristine, precolonial African art forms. On the contrary, he is a great amalgamator and assimilator of experiences and poetic styles, though his syncretism is squarely based within an African cognitive system. Night of My Blood contains many distorted and inverted echoes of the Christian liturgy as well as scraps of Hopkins and Eliot. Between the anvil of Africa and the hammer of the West the poet's pains are transformed "in the forging house of a new life … / Into the joy of new songs" ("The Anvil and the Hammer"). Even so, the ominous pun of "forging" suggests that some counterfeiting, falsifying agent may be at work, and in the same poem the refrain "Sew the old days for us, our fathers / That we can wear them under our new garments" images Western and African forms as two separate entities still awaiting combination, giving the impression, as in many of Awoonor's longer and more ambitious poems, of an admixture or juxtaposition rather than a genuine synthesis of influences. Moreover, even the old "garment" of tradition that is worn closest to the poet's skin and heart is the cause of some discomfort.
Though it is a poetry of the speaking (and singing) voice, Awoonor's work is, of course, a print-based approximation to dirge oratory rather than the thing itself (we experience the poet alone on the page, not the singer abroad in the marketplace), and there are many places where the strain of simulation begins to show. Once the poet has denied himself both the natural polytonality of his native Ewe tongue and the external reinforcements of Western metrics (all the poems are written in free verse), the reproduction of the rhythmic counterpoint of the dirge, through the equivalent devices of syntactical parallelism, balanced antithesis, and repetition, is no easy task. Nevertheless, in the best poems of Night of My Blood there is a genuine and powerful sense of a voice coming through from another language and culture, progressing from virtual translation through personal adaptations to the creation of entirely new forms. If there is a fault, it is perhaps an excessive and limiting reliance on ready-made ritual formulas, producing poems that are sometimes profound and sometimes trite and empty, and it is perhaps significant that one of the finest poems in the volume is a personal elegy in which the familiar dirge imagery is put to very private use. In "Lament of the Silent Sister," for Christopher Okigbo, Awoonor presents his poetic self as a female persona, artistically immature and unready to be impregnated by Okigbo's uncompromising muse until the moment of the Ibo master's death, when the floods of poetry are released in a state of sexual tumult. The canoe and flood symbolism carried by the poems' rhythmic surge is simultaneously funeral and sexual, telescoping death and procreation, sexual initiation and immolation, ancestral passages and rebirth.
The theme of exile becomes poignantly personal in Awoonor's next volume, Ride Me, Memory, which is the fruit of his American experience (1968–1975). Here mellow African memories crowd in alongside American anecdotes and larger political statements. The range of Ewe forms is extended to include the halo, the earthy song of abuse, and the praise song, and these are used to paint individual portraits that are, respectively, jocularly caustic and earnestly adulatory (under the first category come meddling first world scholars; under the second black American writers, singers, and jazz musicians). There is in these poems a violent energy together with a tightening of the bonds of political commitment and, along with the greater looseness of form and slighter dependence on hypnotic ritual formulas, a more boldly explicit and less dreamlike imagery. The volume as a whole, however, perhaps because of the preponderance of proper names for people, places, and events, tends toward the diffuseness and breezy thinness of the travelogue.
On his return to Ghana in 1975 Awoonor very quickly found himself in prison on the charge of collusion with a coup plot, and the experiences of his year in Ussher Fort Prison are recounted in The House by the Sea. The prison poems at the center of this volume, in their remorseless examination of the nature of political involvement and responsibility, reveal a harsh, distilled intensity, gritty sharpness, and brittle clarity that are new in Awoonor's work. The volume opens out beyond the merely personal to take in political outrage and injustice over the African continent and throughout human history in the world at large, but in the last and most ambitious poem, "The Wayfarer Comes Home," the lyric lusciousness returns (home is simultaneously Eweland, Ghana, and Africa) and the dominant mood is one of affectionate celebration. Awoonor says in the prison poems that the pursuit of political liberty, though it may involve "the possibility of being murdered in a dark cell," is also worth postponing dying for: "On such a day / who would dare think of dying? / So much Freedom means / that we swear we'll postpone dying / until the morning after." These lines provide Awoonor with the title for his volume of collected poems, in which nine new poems offer a mixture of undaunted resilience and stoical resignation in the face of the everyday tragedies of economic ruin, destitution, and early death that continue to devastate modern Africa: "Do not lose heart, / have arms, we have shields … / Some rivers there are you cannot swim / some strong rivers there are you cannot ford" ("So the World Changes").
Awoonor's 1992 collection Latin American and Caribbean Notebook is the fruit of his diplomatic employment and travels in Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Awoonor presents himself, self-accusingly, in the historical present as "the braggart loudmouth boastful / uncertain diplomat" who has taken "refuge in an inane occupation," shunted off abroad to serve a country that is being wrecked by fools and criminals back home ("Rio de Janeiro," "Of Home Once More"). In other poems he projects his own sense of displacement upon victims of the black diaspora in other lands and indulges a sentimental adulation of the heroes of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions.
The poems that carry the most conviction in this volume, however, are the nostalgic and delicate love lyrics that wrench subtle reflections upon time and aging from hallucinated childhood memories and the casual affairs of the lonely middle-aged diplomat, condemned to empty beds in alien cities ("Time Revisited," "Distant Home Country," "Lover's Song," "Dream-Again," "Readings and Musings"). The most disappointing efforts are the long, rambling prosy pieces in which obliquely personal reminiscences are randomly interspersed with catalogs of political outrages and scandals (America's impoverished blacks and Britain's homeless in "Betrayers") and with snapshot newspaper headlines (an American-downed Iranian airliner, Arab boys killed by Israeli soldiers in "Of Home and Sea I Already Sang"). Significantly, the most poignantly moving poem in the collection—about the poet's first diplomatic assignment in Cuba and the death of a nineteen-year-old African girl—is one in which the poet confines himself strictly to the experience at hand ("The Girl That Died in Havana"). Notebook is Awoonor's most prosily self-indulgent volume. Bearing out the title, many of the poems read like uncoordinated diary jottings, thinly contextualized anecdotes that have not been imaginatively energized into poetry.