Okai, John

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OKAI, John

Nationality: Ghanaian. Born: Ghana. Education: Gorky Literary Institute, Moscow, M.A. (Litt.) 1967; University of Ghana, Accra; University of London, M. Phil. Career: Lived in the U.S.S.R., 1961–67; lecturer in Russian, University of Ghana, Legon. Awards: Royal Society of Arts fellowship, 1968. Address: Department of Modern Languages, University of Ghana, P.O. Box 25, Legon, Ghana.



Flowerfall. London, Writers Forum, 1969.

The Oath of Fontomirom and Other Poems. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Lorgorligi: Logarithms and Other Poems. Tema, Ghana Publishing, 1974.


Critical Studies: "John Atukwei Okai: The Growth of a Poet" by Jawa Apronti, in Universitas (Legon, Ghana), 2(1), 1972; "Polyrhythmics and African Print Poetics: Guillen, Cesaire, and Atukwei Okai" by J. Bekunuru Kubayanda, in Interdisciplinary Dimensions of African Literature, edited by Kofi Anyidoho and others, Washington, D.C., Three Continents, 1985; "Patterns of Oral Poetic Trends in West and South African Poetry: Atukwei Okai and Mazisi Kunene" by Ohaeto Ezenwa, in Literary Griot (Wayne, New Jersey), 8(1), spring 1989.

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The use of musical rhythms in poetry is nothing unusual, but few contemporary writers make so great a use of the musical heritage of their culture as does John Okai. The sounds of the talking drums of Ghana figure strongly in his poems, and the titles of most of them, such as "Fugue for Fireflies" and "Okponglo Concerto," bear witness to the musical bent of his work. The repetition and alliterative forms that are a part of traditional verse are brought by Okai into the English language, producing effects that are often close to hypnotic. This occurs, for example, in "Modzawe," where the line "Let human beings be human beings again" is repeated six times and where Okai refers to traditional drums, allowing the musicality of their names to shape his lines:

Descend O God! descend O God!
To the echo-wail-boom and music of
The Dodonpo and the Odono
And the festive Bintim Obonu...

His Ghanaian background is not the only source Okai draws from, however. Having studied in England, the United States, and Russia, Okai can refer as familiarly to apple trees as to palms, and his poems often contain catalogs of people and places that reflect this catholic experience:

the swallow
  and the bougainvillea...
modigliani's woman with a necklace...
leonardo da vinci's mona lisa
the parrot
  and the bougainvillea...
shostakovich's leningrad symphony...
dvorak's new world symphony (part two)...
the sparrow
  and the bougainvillea
frank lloyd wright's falling water...
ya-na's palace at wa in ghana...

If there is a fault in Okai's work, it may be that some of his lines take on a singsong quality, seeming to sacrifice sense in favor of sound, for he can be more alliterative in his writing than was Old English verse. His "Sunset Sonata" is filled with lines such as

Still stand stubborn
  To stones that strangle the dawn,
Still stand stubborn
  To stones that maim the morn,
Still stand stubborn
  To stones that assail the sun...

Because of this some critics attempt to dismiss Okai, not seeing that even in his most highly alliterative passages there is still meaning.

It cannot be denied that Okai's work is assertive and, especially when read aloud, charged with vitality. His work has been a great influence in enlivening the poetry scene in Ghana, and the directions in which his poems move take advantage of a rich and, in English, relatively unexplored patrimony.

Joseph Bruchac