The Miseducation of Nigerian Poets The Excessive Influence of American Literary Magazines on Nigerian Poetry

Social media sparked a new life into Nigerian literature in the 2010s. But since American magazines became more popular among Nigerian poets, many poets have adopted a choreography of derivative styles and themes.

Poets are often the most sensitive members of society. In whatever a poet takes a special interest, they unveil the subject’s innermost secret with language. As humans, the monotony of existence sometimes makes us so used to our surroundings that we often forget the immense beauty surrounding us. It is to poets—these people who never lose their sense of seeing the world afresh—that we look to, to remind us of the intricacies, beauty and ugliness of existence, blurred to us by familiarity. As philosophers, through language, poets encapsulate the variety of human experience in their words and capture the soul of an era. When we study history, we often turn to the poets of the times to see the thoughts that warmed the hearts of the people the most, and to learn what voices such people heeded. Lithuanian-American filmmaker, Jonas Mekas, captured the immensity of the importance of poets when he said, ‘In the end, civilizations perish because they listen to their politicians and not to their poets.’

First-generation [post-colonial] Nigerian poets succeeded at capturing the national imagination, in how they encapsulated certain experiences as regards, among other things, culture, politics and travelling. J. P. Clark’s ‘Ibadan’, for example, captures Ibadan in an image that is immediately identified with the city. There are many things about Ibadan, but it could only have been through poetic wisdom that J. P. Clark captured the brown roofs that run along a long distance when viewed from a rooftop. Reading some of Christopher Okigbo’s poems in Labyrinths, one is able to feel the ethnic tensions that underlined the historical Nigerian conflict from 1966 that led to the Nigeria-Biafra war. Wole Soyinka’s ‘Telephone Conversation’ does not just capture an experience of racism abroad; it captures the awkwardness, the politeness of the ‘house owner’, as they try to discharge the potential tenant; the naivety of the foreigner who thinks he stood a chance because he was light skinned. And from second-generation poets, we can see how Niyi Osundare’s ‘Not My Business’ applies to the Nigerian condition today. Following the injustices around issues like police brutality and our present economic downturn, it is no longer a case of ‘Why should I worry, as long as if does not take the yam off my mouth,’ as Osundare’s poem satirizes. The poem lets everyone know that those who are silent when their neighbours are taken out, are awaited by the belly of a waiting jeep in the future. In the achievements of the first and second generation of post-colonial Nigerian poets, there was a clear sense of poets at work, not just in capturing the experiences of their times, but in actively awakening the consciousness of the people who read them. We see the sense in which poets, despite the esotericism of their arts, display not just an important consciousness, but also indispensable activism.

When a civilization thrives, its poets thrive, too, in the sense that their role in society is fruitful; similarly, in a suffering civilization, poets have either been persecuted, suppressed or forced into exile. The relationship These positions are given in recognition of the contribution of the poet’s art to the development of society. According to the US-based Poetry Foundation, for instance,

…a former American Librarian of Congress, James. H Billington was fond of calling American poet laureates, “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” To this end, many Poet Laureates have developed programs and projects designed to increase the appreciation of poetry among the American public.  

I have written before about how at the height of the 2015 general elections, I encountered a poem by Kanma Oduwegwu titled, ‘Their Fates May be Mine’. I explained how the poem sparked my journey into writing poetry. The poem spoke to an instinct deep within me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. For years, I had only read science texts where everything was rendered in prose and technical language. Discovering that poem seemed like the most profound way to express rebellion; to pass the message of what was a forewarning at the time. It was the beauty of language overwhelming me. Afterwards, I began to encounter people who wrote poems on social media; and the wonderful poems these young people wrote had me in a chokehold. It was almost impossible to resist becoming a poet. I then joined the assembly of social media poets, from which some of the most profound poets of my generation have emerged. Among the things they wrote about were love, culture, myths, the deplorable state of Nigeria. In hindsight, it is striking that even with our inexperience and imitation of poets we admired at the time, our style and voices were varied. The general consensus was that the social media revolution had revived Nigeria’s poetry tradition. From the online community of poets came gatherings of people like Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, Ayoola Goodness Olarenwaju, Erhiata Orhibabor, Efe Paul Azino, Romeo Oriogun, Chibuihe Obi and Aremu Adams Adebisi. Social media had filled the gaping hole left by the deteriorating literary system. Social media made it easy for isolated individuals scattered around the country to come together and create a community of poets who wanted to work together.

The culture of writing and posting poems on social media was mainstream for most of the 2010s, but then many poets, as they grew and got accepted in magazines, began to post their poems less on social media, submitting them instead to literary magazines. Soon, young poets formed their own magazines: in 2009, Dami Ajayi and his friend, the essayist Emmanuel Iduma formed Saraba; in 2014, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson formed Words Rhymes and Rhythms; in 2015, Wale Owoade began the now-defunct Expound. These platforms alongside other platforms like Praxis, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Jalada Africa and Brittle Paper became prized platforms to publish works. For a while, these platforms served the same purpose magazines like Black Orpheus and Transition did for the first generation of Nigerian poets.


Over time, my generation of poets began to get publishing opportunities outside the continent, especially in the UK and the US—particularly the latter whose capitalist and liberal cultures meant plenty of literary magazines and a well-paying market. Like a sweeping current, the US market eventually directed the course of many young Nigerian poets.

The rise to prominence of American magazines among Nigerian poets caused some changes to the Nigerian poetry landscape. Among the positive changes was the fact that Nigerian poets now had more opportunities to get paid for their poems, and less represented groups like the queer community were now more in the spotlight than when they had to combat the prejudice of the Nigerian literary sphere. But then, with the decline of the social media writing culture, the thread of conversation among poets seemed lost. Mainstream Nigerian poetry soon became a correspondent to the American literary magazine culture. This resulted in a situation where many poets began to write similar poems about similar issues and, worse, with similar diction. Words like ‘body’, ‘room’, ‘water’, ‘mouth’, and ‘boy’, became recurrent in poems. It did not stop there. Some poets also adopted the American style of writing poems in the structure of prose or using double slashes as punctuation, which is a mark of the new school of American poetry, as evidenced by what is obtainable in American magazines. The poet, Ernest Ogunyemi, in his 2023 essay on this subject, writes:  

 Because we are studying poetry in America, and we are putting out work through American publications, and most of the poems we consume are recent American poems: we are constantly drinking Lowell and Plath from these streams. I believe this explains why much of what we are now writing is so alike.

As a social media spectator of poets from Nigeria for the better part of the last decade, and having authored a poetry chapbook myself, it often too easily came to my notice how poets began to sound like each other. The anxiety to get into American magazines became all too palpable. Over the years, the common route has been to get published in as many of these magazines as possible and to get into an MFA in an American university. But for a lack of better word, the Americanization method is one that has been proven to work and has been adapted by many poets. It did not help when the Brunel Prize for poetry began to spotlight MFA poets at the expense of those writing wonderful poetry in Africa, a trend I wrote about in Brittle Paper in 2018. (At the time, the Brunel Prize was highly anticipated among poets, and like every important prize, it was a trendsetter.)

Literary journalist, Otosirieze Obi-Young, thinks the rise in prominence of American literary magazines has affected the landscape of poetry by creating more opportunities for success and for assimilating into American trends. Obi-Young also believes this has created more opportunities to forgo thematic sophistication for sensationalism which has led writers to think that the sensationalism ‘…either makes up for technical expertise or that it’s okay to have the latter without the former.’ This opportunity to forgo thematic sophistication for (American) sensationalism has led many poets to trade the soul of their craft for a place in the American tablewhere many poets seem to be caught in a choreography of grief. The excessive sensationalism in the poetry about personal grief and trauma has given rise to an overwhelming recurrence of words such as ‘body’, ‘water’, ‘boy’, ‘tree’, and on some level killed the diversity of expressions.

The first of Oriogun’s Brunel-winning poems from 2017 began with, ‘And the voice was a lost bird embedded in a boy/ like a word stranded between pages// He said flee from the heat wrecking your body/ and you ran to a place where water/ running over your body is a whisper of wildness…’ And here is a more recent poem titled, ‘The Grace of the Mountain’ by U. A Edwardson, a younger poet of substantial talent in Lolwe: ‘The body hesitates toward the water and the valley serenades into the mouth/ around the edges licking skies wearing hue, the body blooms/ away without scent the feet tuck into rock…’ The latter poem was published at least five years after Oriogun’s and yet, there is such a similarity in imagery. There is the repetition of body and water, and both poems are expressions of queerness. In this same vein many poets have not shown ways to express their queerness in their poetry without mentioning body or water or fire. Likewise, the struggle to write poems about anguish without the word, ‘grief’.

Critics like Paul Liam and Carl Terver have often criticized the monotony among contemporary Nigerian poets. In his 2022 essay about Abubakar Sidi, Liam stated that poets cosying up to the American culture of confessional poetry has led them to be quick to separate themselves from their African roots and embrace the tag of international poets who write for a global audience. Liam seems to think that one of the most definitive qualities of Sidi’s poetry is his divergence from the popular convention of confessionalism which pervades contemporary Nigerian poetry. Many poets, of course, do not take kindly to these criticisms. I have written before about how contemporary Nigerian writers are quick to accuse critics of wanting them to continue to write like the Chinua Achebe generation. However, many times, writers believe that critics police their works or try to belittle them, or to instruct them on how to write; whereas, what the critics do often is to point out the changes happening in the arts, often as a result of changes in the condition of the artistsand as in this case, how artists have easily succumbed, and in some cases, put up irresponsible attitudes towards the craft itself.

It is unreasonable to expect my generation of poets to write like the first or even second generation of post-colonial Nigerian poets. At least, I don’t. In some ways, I applaud our arts for having acquired to a reasonable extent, better aesthetic value; writers of my generation are generally more expressive and attempt to be more flamboyant in their art. A great deal of the confessional poetry we produce is admirable, and it is important to recognize the importance of international influence on our culture—after all, for a culture to prevail, it must open itself to external influences. But influence should not cause a loss in the distinction of a culture’s blueprint of experiences. Some of the changes in the landscape of Nigerian poetry have shown that the collective consciousness of poets is being driven in a direction, not at all, ideal.

Some writers presently think the recent trends in Nigerian writing such as a focus on poverty, trauma and grief are a result of writers expressing their artistic freedom. But the scorecarda result of the output of Nigerian poetsseems to say otherwise. It does not even seem that poets are writing what they want to write, as opposed to what they are conditioned to write in order to make it to America. When poets put up the argument of ‘I write what I like’, they forget that Steve Biko, whose writings on Black consciousness espoused the philosophy of I write what I like, was writing in protest against colonial influences that plague African consciousness. Today, contemporary poets make the argument of ‘I write what I like’ to make it easier for them to submit to neo-colonial influences.


Speaking with the essayist, Chimezie Chika, he observed that American magazines in their submissions pages often ask poets to look at works they have previously published to get a feel of the kind of works they are looking for. ‘American magazines by virtue of their emphasis on projecting certain ideals, kick against individuality,’ he told me. Speaking on innovation, Chika added, ‘Innovation is always important for the progress of a literary culture; what we see here (in recent trends in Nigerian poetry) is not innovation, but something born out of deprivation.’ Chika felt that if you randomly selected the works of ten poets from Nigeria, you might end up concluding that the works were written by the same person. ‘Again, the issue with this is that contemporary Nigerian poets have, for the most part, lost their individuality,’ he said. ‘Our poetry—at least in part—is now an extension of a country in North America, 7,000 miles across the Atlantic.’

One of the biggest problems among the poets of my generation is, arguably, the refusal to embrace the true consciousness of the state of their art. The imagination is held captive without true consciousness. It is for this reason that it has been all too easy to sway scores of poets into a Passover of sorts. The poet, Warsan Shire writes, ‘Nobody leaves home, unless home has become the mouth of a shark.’ And this poem is primarily written to explore the wars which have for decades torn and displaced people from their ancestral roots in Somalia. But the war is not just physical. It is also ideological. Shire is able to write such poems because she is conscious of those wars which rendered many who were once happy in their home as refugees in exile. Nigerian poets may not all be leaving Nigeria on boats in extreme conditions and being granted asylum; in an ideological sense, however, we are refugees fleeing our homes because the system at home has become like a shark threatening to eat us whole. But we lack the consciousness to observe that this is the reality we are facing, and hence, we face the risk of being deluded by the forces which define our arts. We think of having to go to America and Europe to better our crafts as salvation, which altogether it is not. Nigerian poets are writing what they feel they have to write to escape the ‘trenches’ of the Nigerian literary scene. The collective imagination of Nigerian poets seems to be held hostage.

Additionally, history—a topic, conspicuously missing from contemporary Nigerian poetry—was for a long time scrapped from the curriculum, a matter which we seem to be glossing over as though we do not understand the effect a lack of historical awareness can have on poets. The history-deprived education which my generation of poets have has led to a very shallow consciousness and is the reason we are more easily swayed towards new, foreign trends.

Pointing all of these out is not an effort to deride the work of artists. Instead, I aim to inspire consciousness about the artistic forces that elude the poets of my generation. We can only create great art if armed with consciousness, else we run the risk of ending up as the generation lured away from their artistic responsibilities.

We cannot write off the social responsibility that comes with creating art. Trying to gloss over the fact that the poets from Nigeria are now writing to a culture that is not necessarily attuned to the cultural advancement of Africa is a mindless submission to neo-colonialism.

Poets have often been known to be thought leaders. One cannot think of Osundare’s ‘Not My Business’ and not be instructed. Even more recently, Oriogun’s 2017 ‘After a Visit to the Museum’ combines satirical storytelling and an impressive consciousness of history.

Poets, as I wrote earlier, are the most sensitive members of society. Their insight into the human condition and their environment is unmatched. Even the novelist or the dramatist or the physician relies on the poetry of their experience to perform at the top of their trade. Poetry is an art first and foremost for the advancement of the human condition. Even psychotherapists who deal with the most intimate aspect of the human psyche have appraised the work of poets. The kind of poems written by poets of a society is a measure of their wellbeing and the resilience of their spirits. Contemporary poetry from Nigeria today neither mirrors a healthy society nor resilient people. It mirrors a lack of consciousness and a culture of many poets imitating each other in an American brand of grief. It is important that younger poets know that there is still a place (even in American institutions) for a poet who has decided to take a path that speaks better to them and to excellence. We come from a society desperately in need of new ideas. And there is no better way to begin than to awaken consciousness in our poetry

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