The use of both identified and unidentified narrative voices has been an essential feature in most of the poetry I have studied, as it determines the manner in which the content of the poem is presented. Poets will often use an identified persona to express views which they themselves might disagree with in a negative light, such as in My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. Unidentified personas are often used by poets as well; perhaps to give a more universal application to their poems. Conversely identified personas may understandably be used for the opposite effect of giving the poem a personal and intimate appeal. Although this does not necessarily mean that the poem does not have universal applications.
This method of narration is used in the epic poem Song of Lawino by Okot p’Bitek. The persona Lawino is a prominent female member of the African Acoli tribe. p’Bitek uses her character as a spokeswoman and advocate of traditional African customs. Lawino’s character dislikes her husband’s behaviour as well as the other African’s who abandon their roots in order to conform to the ways of colonialists. By choosing this tribal African woman as his persona p’Bitek manages to criticize colonialism and defend African traditions in a much more basic, pragmatic and personal manner. This choice also allows p’Bitek to illustrate the basic everyday problems of the post colonialist situation in Africa, instead of giving a more generalised critique of the whole situation which would probably not be as striking. In the first section of the epic poem (My Husband’s Tongue is Bitter) we are quickly introduced to the characters of Lawino and her husband Ocol, who she immediately addresses and beseeches to show respect towards the Acoli society from which his tribal roots stem. She does this because Ocol has developed an arrogant, self-important and scornful attitude towards the Acoli tribe and his wife due to their lack of education and literacy. p’Bitek expresses this with the following remark made by Lawino’s about her husband:
My husband pours scorn
On Black People
He behaves like the hen
That eats its own eggs.
By focusing mainly but by no means exclusively on Lawino’s personal problems with her husband and other members of her surrounding society who have been influenced by missionaries and colonialist educations, p’Bitek seems to portray the internal dilemmas using a very authentic and personal line of attack. Another advantage of using Lawino as the persona is that she is a native unaffected African which allows p’Bitek to give a distinct African view on western culture and criticise it in the same way that westerners usually criticise African culture; by making it seem obscene and savagely. These methods of denigration and “scandal-making” are used to illustrate how western customs may also seem absurd to foreigners. This is illustrated with the extensive use of similes throughout the epic poem which compare western conduct and more specifically, the African’s like Ocol who try to adopt western culture as their own and reject their true customs in an undignified style, to vulgar and unsightly animals and objects. For example when Clementine, the second wife of Ocol who is equally influenced by a colonialist education, is described to be pomading her hair Lawino describes it by saying that Clementine “smears black shoe polish” in her hair, which results in a strange smell described to be like rats/ [t]hat have fallen into the fireplace.” Thus p’Bitek has used Lawino as an instrument for defending East-African culture and attacking the enforced values of western culture on these societies from the perspective of a native unaffected African woman instead of making vaguer more general criticisms that are less relatable.
This use of the persona’s voice in poetry as a medium of approaching an...