The Poet And The Environment

Project and Seminar Material for History

The Poet And The Environment


The study seeks to understand the ways that environmental concerns and the phenomenon of oil production in the Niger Delta are captured in contemporary literary representations. In the work, I enlist several works, five poetry collections to investigate and analyse the different ways they engage with the effects of oil extraction as a form of violence that is not immediately apparent.

I propose that the texts, in very different ways, articulate these experiences by concatenating social and environmental concerns with representations of the oil encounter to produce a petro-literary form which inflects and critiques the ways in which oil extraction, in all its social and environmental manifestations, inscribes a form of violence upon the landscape and human population in the oil sites of the Delta. I suggest that the texts articulate a place-based, place-specific form of petroculture. They emphasis the notion that the oil encounter in the Delta is not the official encounter at the point of extraction but rather the unofficial encounter with the side-effects of the oil extraction.

The texts, in very different ways address similar concerns of violence as an intricate feature in the Delta, both as a physical, spectacular phenomenon and as a subtle, unseen category. They conceive of violence as a consequence of the various forms of intrusion and disruption that the logic of oil extraction instigates in the Niger Delta. I suggest that the form of eco-poetics that is articulated gives expression to environmental concerns which are marked off by an oily topos in the Delta. I maintain that in projecting an artistic vision that is sensitive to environmental and sociocultural questions, the writings that we encounter from this region also make critical commentary on the ontology of oil. The texts conceive the Niger Delta as one that provides the spatial and material template for envisioning the oil encounter and staging a critique of the essentially globalised space that is the site of oil production.

Chapter One

1.0 Introduction

Since prehistory, literature and the arts have been drawn to portrayals of physical and human environmental interactions. The modern environmentalist movement as it emerged first in the late nineteenth century and in its more recent incarnation, in the twentieth (20th) century, gave rise to a rich array of fictional and non-fictional writings concerned with humans’ toward the natural world. Only since the early 1990s, however, has the long standing interest of literature studies in these matters generated the initiative most commonly known as “ecocriticism”, an eclectic and loosely coordinated movement whose contributions, thus far, have been most visible within its home discipline of literature, but whose interests and alliances extend across various art forms and medium (Ezeochi, 2008).

Therefore, it could be said that art essentially, is committed to practical social realities, therefore, writers (or critics) adopt different literary approaches and strategies to register their messages. The artist is saddled with the task of practically assessing the contemporary situation in society with the mind of identifying and proffering solutions to the different prevailing contradiction situations.

Accordingly, literature and environmental studies commonly known or called “ecocriticism” or environmental criticism, in analogy to the more general term literary criticism, comprise and eclectic, pluriform and cross disciplinary initiative that aims to explore the environmental dimensions of literature and other creative mediums in a spirit of environmental concern not limited to any one method or commitment. Ecocriticism begins from the conviction that the arts of imagination and the study thereof – by virtue of their grasp of the power of word, story and image to reinforce, enliven and contribute significantly to the understanding of environmental problem: the multiple forms of ecodegradation that afflict planet earth today.

With this view, ecocriticism concurs with other branches of environmental humanities such as humanistic geography, among others, in holding that environmental phenomena must be comprehended and that today’s burgeoning array of environmental concerns must be addressed qualitatively as well as quantitatively. This agreement is, therefore, fundamental to the remediation and breakthrough as well as strengthening of policy implementation which is the impetus of creative imagination, vision, will and belief. Therefore, the combination of poetry and the experiment of literature and other mediums, can offer unique resources for activating concern and creative thinking about the planet’s environmental future. However, by themselves (only poetry), creative depictions of environmental harm are unlikely to free societies from lifestyles that depend on radically transforming ecosystems. But reflecting on works of imagination may prompt intensified concern about the consequences of such choices and possible alternatives to them (Wikipedia).

Ecocriticism is, therefore, the study of literature and the environment from an interdisciplinary point of view, where literature scholars analyze texts that illustrate environmental concerns and examine the various ways literature treats the subject of nature. Some ecocritics brainstorm possible solutions for the correction of the contemporary environmental situations. Ecocriticism is a broad approach that is known by a number of other designations such as: “green studies”, “ecopoetics” and “environmental literary criticism”.

In comparison with other political forms of criticism, there has been relatively little dispute about the moral and philosophical aims of ecocriticism, although its scope has broadened rapidly from nature writing, romantic poetry and canonical literature to take film, television, theater and animal stories and narratives as well as an extra-ordinary range of literary texts. At the same time ecocriticism has borrowed methodologies and theoretically informed approaches liberally from other fields of literary, social and scientific study (Buel).

1.1 Background of the Study

Accordingly, this work seeks to examine the social and environmental injustices through Ojaide’sDelta Blues and OgagaIfowodo’sThe Oil Lamp. The research sets out to examine how the two poets’ works are maximally opposed to inhumanity which has become the recurrent index in the lives of man and the insensitivity that has adorned the attitude of the oppressors in their relationships with the environment. Ojaide and Ifowodo, therefore, by implication of their poems call for social and attitudinal change from the oppressive tendencies unleashed against the environment through their poetry.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

In response to the persisting environmental crisis occasioned by man’s activities of depleting of earth’s physical and aerial layers, this research seeks to examine the inherent problem of environmental exploitation. Such exploitation may include: gas flaring, environmental pollution, indiscriminate waste disposal, air and water pollution, deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction. This research, using Ojaide’sDelta Blues and Ifowodo’sThe Oil Lamp will also pay close attention to the elements and imagery which describe these forms of exploitation in the two texts as the yard stick to solving this problem.

1.3 Aims and Objectives

The aims and objectives of this research include:

  1. To identify Ojaide’s and Ifowodo’s poetry as viable tools for achieving environmental justice.
  2. To examine Ojaide’s and Ifowodo’s style and techniques in presenting environmental problems.
  3. To justify the suitability of ecocritical theory as a tool for interpretation of literary works such as poetry.

1.4 Methodology

For the purpose of this research, selected poems from Ojaide’s Delta Blues and Ifowodo’sThe Oil Lamp shall constitute the primary source of data from which analysis will be done. The library will serve as the major source of information for this research, while books, journals, reviews and notes on related areas shall be adequately consulted to further strengthen the level of information used for the research. Additionally, the internet will also be consulted to further enrich the contents of the research.

1.5 Scope of the Study

This study shall primarily concentrate on ecocritical study through examination of Tanure Ojaide’s Delta Blues and OgagaIfowodo’sThe Oil Lamp. It shall also consider any issue related to the concept of ecocriticism or environmental studies.

1.6 Limitation of the Study

By reason of the constraints placed by time and money, the researcher will not be able to spread the scope of this study to include oral interview of the poets whose works are used as study case. Therefore, the researcher will limit his research to the analysis of the works of the authors.

1.7 Significance of the Study

The significance of this study shall be its overall contribution to scholarship. Accordingly, scholars of literature in general and those in ecocriticism in particular as well as environmental campaigners are likely to benefit from this research. Additionally, those who may wish to work using ecocritical framework to analyze other texts are equally likely to be beneficiaries of this research. In other words, this research will contribute to the body of knowledge toward this direction.

Chapter Five


So far I have explored the ways in which literary and filmic texts collectively draw from the same experience of the oil encounter to engage with tropes of violence, which are considered as being inscribed and orchestrated by the technologies and politics of oil extraction in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. I have attempted to establish the different kinds of violence and the ways they are represented in contemporary poetry and video film which capture the oil encounter. I have shown how the texts bring to the dominant paradigms that inform environmental writing and ecocritical practice, a baggage of geopolitical and sociocultural ideologies of disaffection from the Nigerian national political process to bear upon their environmental consciousness. I have argued that the texts consider the devastation done to the Delta environment by oil extraction as a form of violence. This violence is framed as a kind of intrusion which eludes visibility because of the subtlety of its existence and operation. I focussed on how the texts consider this violence as analogous to the oil commodity, both circulating and permeating every aspect of being in the Niger Delta. I attempted to understand the specificity of this violence in the texts, especially the manner in which violence is engaged and surfaced in its unseen valences to make them visible as instances of the oil encounter in the Delta.

In chapter one I explored the field of ecocriticism in relation to African writing, and suggested that the critical paradigms that underlie its critiques are inadequate to account for the environmental consciousness that the texts which capture the oil encounter adumbrate. I suggested that the particular environmental concern and its entreaties for justice in Niger Delta writing are mobilised within and around the representations of the oil encounter. I have argued that in the projection of these two concatenating forms of environmental concerns and the oil ontology in the Delta, narratives are spawned, through lived and imaginative experiences, to advance what I call a literature of petro-environmentalism.

Ghosh argues that representing something of such magnitude as oil modernity can only be done adequately through narratives of epic quality such as realist fiction or the historical novel (75). He further notes that this has made the oil encounter suffer a representational crisis, not just in American literary circuit but also, and even more perturbingly, in the Arab world, which is the very stage (or theatre) of oil extraction and the nastiness that attends its production and circulation, one that is underwritten by the politics of neoliberalism. In situating Niger Delta representations of the oil encounter within this ferment of petrocultures, I moved away from the above assumptions to suggest that the texts, poetry and video film, have adequately captured the oil encounter, but not on a grand scale or through realist fiction. And this suggests that the texts I analyse might not fit into Ghosh’s taxonomy, precisely because the writers’ imagination of the oil phenomenon does not elicit the kind of narratives that Ghosh would have anticipated. In my reading I showed how poetry intervenes in the daunting reality of the oil’s presence to point society in the direction of transformational possibilities, even if immediately unrealistic. This process of looking beyond the real to create a world of radical possibility is what accounts for the taxonomic invisibility of Niger Delta poetry in the discussion of the literatures that write about the oil encounter.

In their signification of the oil ontology in the Delta, lived-experience, in its actual, quotidian specificity, takes precedence in the writers’ imagination. It is from this vantage point of being in the particular milieu of the oil sites that the writer negotiates possible meaning(s) of the oil’s presence in the Niger Delta. Against this background, I suggested that realism does not seem to serve the purpose of the poets’ intentions, because what confronts the writer’s fictive possibility is an intimidating reality which stupefies their creativity into fragmentation, their narrative into incoherence and their point of view into contradictions. To forestall these incongruities the poets begin to deploy narrative techniques that they deem appropriate for their poetic intentions. Thus in chapter two we encounter Yeibo, in A Song for Tomorrow, approaching the oil imagination by focussing on its temporalities in the Niger Delta. In the poem, “Barren Rivers”, as I have already discussed, the poet creates a narrative in which his persona identifies with a pre-oil modernity Niger Delta, an imagined past, to speculate about a world of harmony, abundance and peace in which oil production had not destroyed all that held society in cultural and environmental cohesion. But when the persona attempts to engage with the present setting of the Delta, one that is permeated by the presence of oil with all its incongruities, his narrative slips into fragments and conjectures, and this makes his poetic witnessing become unreliable. In a similar vein, Bassey’s We Thought it Was Oil but it Was Blood provides us with a poetic of environmental justice advocacy, but what we encounter is a measure of reticence in the way that the poet offers open-ended concepts of resistance to petro-capitalism. In the poem, “Polluted Throats”, he deploys the word ‘something’ to constitute for the reader the transformational possibility that collective
action might catalyse.

In the third chapter, Ojaide, Ifowodo and Ikiriko, unable to narrate the suffering of the human populace in the oil sites with no identifiable oppressor, conjure up a fraught history of national becoming in which they conceive the Nigerian political process as the context within which their oppressive conditions take root. The poets create a world in which ethnic identity and regional autonomy are valorised and privileged over nationalism, precisely because that seems to serve their geopolitics of social and environmental justice, a sub-regional concern to which their texts are addressed. The poets tend to assert their ethnic identity by performing a form of regional distinctiveness, a creative act of dissidence in which they deploy concrete historical and geopolitical verities to assert this regional specificity. And this becomes the basis upon which they stage protests against forms of environmental injustices and geopolitical marginalisation that are enabled by what is considered a fraught nationalism.

This form of nationalism is disavowed because it is perceived as merely political and superficial, one that is conjured up, mobilised and rallied around the oil proceeds.

In chapter four, the engagement with notions of violence in Liquid Black Gold may be understood as a means of achieving a state of national being, a reinvention that is at once a closure and a window of possibilities for a new regime of oil governance in Nigeria. It is closure because it enables a quintessential Hegelian principle of political as well as practical “negation of the negative” (Mbembe, Zizek 27) valences of the unseen and spectacular violence that are embedded in the technologies and politics of oil extraction that the film dramatizes. It provides a window of possibilities because, it attempts at making visible the unseen violence that underlies the structural violence, through the instrumentality of organised transgression. Violence, also, in a sense proceeds to enable a new regimes of operation, an atmosphere of free ordering that produces affirmative possibilities for attaining justice and a rethinking of a truly democratic Nigeria. Violence, as evidenced in the concluding part of Liquid Black Gold (where a resolution is reached), may then be conceived as the vehicle by means of which the human society is re-inscribed in freedom and brought into being.

Having so far examined the poetry collections and film, I want to briefly return to the photographs that I discussed in the introduction of this thesis in order to show how the insights from these texts might enhance our understanding of those visual images. To be sure, what the poetry and film provide is an insight that suggests at least two ways in which the notion of violence is a complicated one in the representation of the oil encounter in the Niger Delta. The first insight is that the portrayal of the oil phenomenon in the Delta is one that includes the human experience of the unseen textures of violence of the oil encounter, in its quotidian verities, at the sites of oil extraction. And, these verities of human provenance are at odds with the first photograph which captures the signpost of the first oil-well in an environment that is fallow and uninhabited.

The second insight that the texts provide, which may enhance our understanding of the visual images, is that the notion of violence is staged as a form of performance in the sense that, to a certain extent, it proceeds to govern attempts at making the felt experience of violence visible through the instrumentality of representation. In effect, violence is signified as the visible expression and extension of the unseen experience of violence that is felt, but at the same time eludes visibility because of the nature of its operation in the Delta. In any case, what noticeable in the second photograph is that the unseen violence embedded in the injustices of environmental pollution and socioeconomic marginalisation of the Niger Delta is elided by the spectacle that characterises the protocol by which these disaffections are protested and made visible. And this spectacle tends to become the violence in itself. Indeed, it has come to constitute itself as the violence in the public mind, especially given the preponderance of militarised insurgency in Nigeria’s petro-modernity. The spectacle of violence which the photographs portray has made the images circulate much faster than the poetry collections. Notice the excessive form of violence that is performed in the photograph by the rebels, the rocket propelled gun (RPG) and Kalashnikovs (AK-47) pointed at their hostage. Looking at the photographs after reading the poetry collections, it becomes possible to see the extent to which they stage and limit the way in which the oil encounter gets represented to the world. The poetry collections I have explored demand a more complex, nuanced reading of the oil encounter in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, and this is what I have attempted to do in this study.

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