Commentary – Piano and Drums by Gabriel Okara
In Gabriel Okara’s poem, “Piano and Drums”, Okara expresses his feelings and thoughts of a primitive society in contrast to a western society. Being an African himself, and having studied in a western society, the poem reflects the confusion in his emotions as well as the loss of self-identity. The title of the poem itself, “Piano and Drums” displays a sense of dissimilarity and contrast as the instruments are so unalike in terms of sophistication. Throughout the entire poem, Okara incorporates the instruments to further express, through music, how the speaker is feeling. By using well-structured stanzas and poetic devices such as imagery, symbolism, sensory detail, personification, and diction, Okara is able to immerse the readers into the difficulties of cultural conflict and the confusion of a person in the midst of the two contrasting societies.
Some of the most important poetic devices utilized in this poem by Okara are imagery and symbolism. Throughout the progression of the poem, there is a constant use of images to assist in displaying Okara’s conflicting emotions about the two separate worlds. The title of the poem, “Piano and Drums” clearly displays the symbols that are used in the poem. In expressing views of his native culture compared to Western culture, Okara uses the “jungle drums” (2) to represent the African culture and does the same with the “wailing piano” (17) to represent Western culture. These symbols are used particularly because of the complexity of the instruments. Being such a simply crafted instrument, with just a resonance chamber and animal skin, the jungle drums are a good symbol to signify the African life. On the contrary, with the piano being such a complex instrument with many components assembling it together to create more variety of sound, it is distinct that it embodies the Western lifestyle. In consideration of these symbols, the speaker implements more imagery to further display the contrast between the two symbols and emphasize the disorientation the speaker is enduring. Therefore, in order to execute his use of imagery successfully, he proceeds further by making a clear contrast between the images of a sophisticated society in contrast to a primitive society.
For example, beginning the poem with, “when at break of day at a riverside” (1) the speaker is able to communicate to the readers that there is a sense of a beginning of a natural life. It also shows that the speaker is trying to convey that there is new civilization, as in the past, rivers have been the starting point of a developing civilization. In the same stanza, the speaker displays raw images of the jungle drums being like “bleeding flesh” (4). By implementing such primeval pictures, the poet is aiding the readers to make a connection between the drums and the rawness of the instrument and where it originates. Additionally, in the first stanza, there is reference to predator-like animals; for example, the “panther ready to pounce” (6), the “leopard snarling about to leap” (7), and the “hunters crouch[ed] with spears poised” (8). All these predatory images of wild animals are symbols to portray instinctive, primal behaviour which show the aspects of African culture that focus on survival and a natural lifestyle.
Furthermore, the poet continues the idea of the drums symbolizing African culture in the second stanza through implementing more imagery. An example in this stanza is of the “blood rippl[ing], turn[ing] torrent” (9). This image of blood flowing and turning into streams refers back to the raw, primitive tone of the poem as the image of blood makes readers infer hunting and survival. In the next lines of the stanza, Okara includes an image of the speaker “in [his] mother’s lap a suckling” (11). This image of a mother feeding her young is extremely naturalistic and shows the ingenuousness of African life as well as the simplistic way of life. However, readers...
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