The African Sonnet: Notes on Kenyan Aesthetics

On learning that I have been “hiding” in my apartment as I work on the book, Njeri Wangari took pity on me and invited me to see the sunshine and good people at POWO November, held at the IHub. The topic was, broadly, African languages, pasts, presents, futures, including, and perhaps especially, digital futures. Amidst several provocative claims—Fred Iraki’s prophecy that in 50 years, Kenya’s dominant languages will be English and Sheng; Kelvin J’s argument that Sheng is an African language; Laila Le Guen’s contention that Sheng bridges class barriers; Kithaka wa Mberia’s (very welcome) contention that we need to re-periodize African literatures by considering works other than those in European languages—I found myself wondering, as I frequently, do about the aesthetic resources of African languages.

In brief notes before the session, I wrote:

I have become increasingly interested in sound and its relation to meaning. We see this relationship most explicitly in music, where, for instance, we often dance or move to a beat, less to denotative or connotative meanings. And so I want to push the register of this conversation from that of loss and preservation within systems of denotation and connotation, that is, from the register of summary, paraphrase, analysis, critique, description, and one could use a host of other words, to the register of sound.

I hoped to emphasize two points:

  • All language is much more than meaning understood as denotation and connotation. It is also sound and rhythm and stance and pose and attitude. This is why we can experience emotion when hearing something even when we might not understand the words.
  • While the content of ethnic languages is important, they can also be formal resources. In this sense, it would be possible to write a Gikuyu or Kamba or Kipsigis or Rendile poem in any language, not through the translation of content, but through the formal resources of the language.

Music is one point of entry into how sound works. I think, for instance, about the typical 5/8 time of most Gikuyu music, with its not-quite syncopation. I have often wondered how that might translate into the shape/sound of a poem. Perhaps a modified ballad form with alternating lines of 5 and 8 syllables? Or stanzas that alternate between 5 and 8 lines. (Perhaps not the best examples, but possibilities.) How might the vigorous shoulder-shaking of many dances (I’m thinking Kamba dancing here) translate onto the page, into sound? Obviously, one can imagine repetition as a key element, but imagine rendering the shaking shoulders of multiple bodies on the page or as sound.

Possibilities abound.

The aesthetic resources of African languages can also be approached through what Charles Bernstein might term “close listening,” even though casual listening also works. What do we hear and feel and experience as sound, as vibration, when others speak in languages we do not understand? I’m certainly nowhere near original in this question. Pound’s “Chinese” poems are one model for what I’m suggesting. He didn’t understand the language, but he created “representations” of it. I shelve, for the moment, the politics of such an act.

We experience a range of languages as variously hued and sounded: guttural, melodious, shrieking, harsh, mellifluous, cutting, irritating, spitting, laborious, ponderous, high-pitched, low-pitched, mournful, light, rapid, slow, and so on. I think of Gikuyu as serrated, for instance. Perhaps it is all the “r” sounds. A double finger snap with a slight delay between the first and second snap. Strictly speaking, 5/8 time is not completely accurate, as there’s something more than a little irregular about note lengths—they do not fit “neatly,” if at all, into the time of quavers.

In thinking about the “African sonnet,” I am reminded that sonnet means “little song” and is an adjectival form: the two “main” branches are the English sonnet and the Italian sonnet. But we need not stay within these linguistic parameters with their formal specifications. What might a genge sonnet look like and sound like? How about a mugithi sonnet? Or a benga sonnet? Picture (aurally) a sonnet written in Dhuluo based on Taarab rhythms. Or, a KiKamba sonnet to Pokot dance patterns. Some of these combinations might not work, of course. But imagine the possibilities they open for Kenyan sound, on the stage and on the page.

To argue for the African sonnet is not to dismiss the English and Italian forms. I certainly buy Bill Maxwell’s argument that the sonnet is a cosmopolitan form, not simply in that it travels widely but, reading cosmopolitanism through Derrida, that it is a hospitable form. As one reads the range of authors who have taken up this form to express love, lust, rage, indifference, desire, boredom, irritation, and so on, one realizes its elasticity. That said, I am struck by the incapacity of metrical feet such as iambs and trochees and anapests to render what I hear spoken or performed as Kenyan languages. And I am often saddened when I see young(er) Kenyan poets twisting themselves into pretzels to create mediocre-to-bad poems according to strict stanzaic forms learned from handbooks or from handy “how to write poem” guides published from the U.K. or the U.S.

I am not opposing the value of enjoying, studying, or even emulating what are considered standard Euramerican formal strategies. I have some Lawino in me, but not that much. Instead, I am interested in a vaguely Worsdworthian project routed through Kamau Brathwaite’s T.S. Eliot that articulates a sounding and sounded geo-history. I am interested in more deliberately formal work rooted in our quotidian histories and experiences. Again, my concern is not with content: I am not suggesting that Kenyan poets start writing about mugithi and benga and genge, though I welcome such efforts. I am interested in the formal resources available in our local geo-histories and geo-presents, resources that we have yet to map and take advantage of as poets and writers.

6 thoughts on “The African Sonnet: Notes on Kenyan Aesthetics

  1. Keguro,
    Don’t encourage these genge folks. Next thing you know we’re going to end up with poems that clang like kapuka tracks. Ah, bana, I hate those two genres of music so much. Moving on.

    The music theory in this one flew over my cerebral cuckoo’s nest. That said, the idea of

    a sonnet written in Dhuluo based on Taarab rhythms [or] a KiKamba sonnet to Pokot dance patterns

    really fascinates me.

    And yet one of the things I appreciate the most in words is not just sound, but the manner in which there are certain words that are so perfect and untranslatable in one language that no matter which language you’re speaking you feel compelled—I do—to use said words in that language they sound so perfect in.

    I don’t know if I’m making any sense. Let me steal words from Junot Diaz to try and make a point. Asked once why he uses a lot of Creole and Spanish words in his stories, Juno said

    all of us, whether we only speak on language or we speak thirty, we all live in a universe, in a world, in a society where other languages are always finding ways to sit next to us, to put their arms around us, to heckle us. And I feel as a writer that I’m trying to represent a ten dimensional world with a two dimensional tool, which is writing

    I think words from different languages do just that: they find their way into English when I’m speaking and writing simply because there might not be a better sounding or better “imaging” word than the one I know in Luo, Swahili, French or some other language.

    And I’m not sure that Sheng—with its mishmash of languages—goes for this kind of aesthetic. I think Sheng goes simply for what sounds cool.

    • @Kweli, I feel what you are saying but I was in attendance of the POWO November meet-up and Sheng doesn’t simply go for what sounds cool but it feels a void in that people of different social class, ethnicity are able to communicate freely and such….

      Also there’s this poet “Teardrops” who did a presented a poem in sheng in the same event. It was quite something from the mad applause from the audience keguro included lol…

  2. I’m fascinated by the Sheng debates, but I’ll absent myself from this one, as I really don’t know enough. Fred Iraki is tracing a history of Sheng from the 1940s to the present–I suspect that his book will be a major contribution to how we understand Sheng and its uses.

    It’s also worth noting that Sheng does something interesting for class and geography–Teardrops had a comment about the Sheng from “mtaa” and that for “campo,” which Kelvin J. re-described as the relationship between Sheng and Engsh. I would defer to both of them and wish there had been more time to talk about the uses of Sheng within and across class and geographical lines, including the imaginary one that divides “East” and “West” Nairobi–imaginary, but all too real.

    I understand the claims about translation and translatability, which are also part of sound and meaning. I worry, however, about the Kenyan space for poetry that is so driven by “message” and “meaning” that too many of us don’t think enough in formal terms, at least not as richly as we might. And when we do, we subscribe to formalisms that sound awkward to my ear. We come close to what I’m suggesting when we “accent” how we speak, at least to registering the formal qualities of our sound geo-histories. I think we can push such work further or at least experiment with it–more of this has happened in music than in poetry.

    • Leaving this POWO session, I felt that Sheng’ could easily have been a topic of discussion on its own.

      I am also eagerly awaiting to read Pr. Iraki’s work which, from the look of things, is going to challenge some of our perceptions on the subject!

  3. Absolutely!

    I think there’s something important to be said about Sheng as it works in “mtaa” and in “campo” and how those two spaces are variously augmented or perhaps diminished by the online space. I wish Kelvin had more time to talk about “digital Sheng” and how it relates to the spaces of “mtaa” and “campo.”

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