Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Nation. It is made up of ethnic nationalities like: Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio, Bini, Nupe, Igala, Urhobo, Itsekiri, to mention a few, each with its distinct language. The country’s multi-ethnic and multi-lingual nature engenders an equally multi-cultural setting. Nigeria’s cultural diversity find expressions in the literary and artistic endeavours of her peoples, namely: poetry, prose, painting, music, sculpture, drama, dance, etc.
Poetry as an art form has undergone evolution from pre-colonial to colonial and then to post-colonial and contemporary eras in Nigeria. Poetry in the pre-colonial era was unwritten. There existed a thin line between poets and musicians, who composed and rendered poetry in musical form. Poets then like Mazi Oparan’aku Onyeukwu(author’s grandfather), of Umude Avuvu in the present day Ikeduru local Government Area of Imo State Nigeria, whose nocturnal poetry renditions earned him the nickname “Obe na abali” meaning “the nocturnal voice”, published their works in form of renditions at funerals, marriage ceremonies, etc. Poets then were also prominent in boosting the morale of tribal warriors, as well as composing verses for use by diviners like the Ifa priests of the Yoruba race. Their presence in palaces were also considered as a paraphernalia of royalty. Poetry themes then consisted in praising virtues and condemning vices in the then compressed society. One feature of pre-colonial Nigerian poetry that is lacking in other eras is its spiritual leaning. Poets in that era had affinities with deities worshipped in their cultures. In most pre-colonial Nigerian cultures, poets were regarded as anointed mouthpieces of deities and are accorded recognition as quasi-priests. Remarkable also is the resilience of the (oral) poetry of this era which still find expressions in the works of modern day Nigerian scholars of oral literature like Professor Wande Abimbola.
The introduction of western style education in Nigeria by the colonial missionaries, radically changed the shape of poetry, this generation of Nigerian poets, like; Wole Soyinka, John Pepper-Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, et al, having acquired western education, published their poems in book form and rendered them in radio and television stations and on the stages of semi- modern theatres. The themes however, centered mainly on fighting colonialism, which was regarded as a vice. Poetry themes during the colonial era tended towards academic, resulting into a tendency to weave the poetry of that era to appeal principally to members of the academia. The polarization of international political economy into capitalism and socialism also affected the themes of colonial era Nigerian poets, most of whom were educated in Europe and America. The effect of this polarization will better be appreciated when the works of Nigerian poets of this era are assessed.
By the end of colonialism, poets in post-colonial Nigeria, now exposed to technological education, drastically changed the style and themes of poetry writing and rendition. Compressing Nigerian poetry themes in the post-colonial era into particular moulds is somehow difficult. This is because of the emergence of various socio-economic, political and cultural tendencies which poets of this era must appeal to. Even in the midst of this difficulty, post-colonial era Nigerian poets like Niyi Osundare, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Chari Ada Onwu, et al, managed to focus on socially, politically and culturally relevant themes.
Contemporary Nigerian poets like: Obi Nwakanma, Odia Ofeimun, Chidi Anthony Opara, Ogaga Ifowodo, Maik Nwosu, Sola Osofisan, et al, publish mainly on the Internet and render their poems with sophisticated audio-visual instruments via equally sophisticated audio-visual broadcast channels and on stages of ultra-modern theatres. One of the major challenges faced by Nigerian poets of this era is the inability and/or reluctance on the parts of literary critics, who should normally be the fulcrum of qualitative literary craftmanship to upgrade their own skills to meet the challenges of literary productions in an Internet age. Another major problem is the erroneous belief in contemporary Nigeria that Poetry is only an intellectual exercise, whose entertainment content should not be emphasized. While contemporary Poets in other parts of the world are exploiting this entertainment aspect to enhance themselves and their societies, professionally, economically, politically, socially and culturally, contemporary Nigerian Poets still view their craft from an erroneous prism of poetry being only an intellectual exercise, with its attendant professional, economic, political, social and cultural consequences. Internet poetry publishing has however, contributed largely to the collapse of poetry hegemonies formed along Ibadan-Ife-Lagos and Nsukka-Enugu-Owerri literary axis respectively, immediately after the Nigerian civil war.