Celebrating William Butler Yeats
It was a mixed gathering of the diplomatic and art communities in Abuja, with the Ambassadors of Poland, Finland, and Ireland, our host, his family, and other guests. The Nigerian team includes Mrs. Osinbajo, wife of the immediate Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Mr. Thompson and Mrs. Eugenia Abu; Chidi Ukwu of 2MG Theatre; and Abdulkareem Baba Aminu, among others, on the evening of Friday, November 17, 2023.
The venue was the Embassy of Ireland in Abuja, and the purpose was the reception in honour of ‘Friends of Ireland’, and the Abuja unveiling of ‘Things Fall Apart: The Centre Cannot Hold,’ a commemorative book project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of W.B. Yeat’s emergence in November 1923 as winner of the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature.
While the name W.B. Yeats might not strike a chord with those who are not familiar with his works, a line from one of his most celebrated poems, ‘the Second Coming’, formed the basis of the title of one of Nigeria’s literary giants, Chinua Achebe’s popular novel, Things Fall Apart, which in itself has become one of the most read books in the history of literature.
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer who was one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 for his always-inspired poetry, which, in a highly artistic form, gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation. He was also a founder of the Irish Literary Renaissance, a movement that aimed to revive Irish culture and language through literature and theatre.
The poetry collection, compiled and edited by Aduke Gomez, with illustrations by Nigeria’s Abdulkareem Baba Aminu and Ireland’s Oonogh Latchford, comprises ten poems, five each from Ireland and Nigeria, as a response to that iconic poem, the ‘Second Coming’ by W.B. Yeats. They are: Adetola Eyimofe Jerry-Adesewo, Chidiebere Sullivan Nwuguru, Dagogo Hart, FeliSpeaks, Jane Clark, Lenient Amidu, Nandi Jola, Nithy Kasa, Saheed Sunday, and Seyi Ojenike.
The project, which itself is a collaboration between the Embassy of Ireland, Poetry Ireland, and Zacchaeus Onumba Dibiaezue Library (ZODML), according to Aduke Gomez, “arose out of a conversation held with the Irish Ambassador, H.E. Peter Ryan, about the influence of Irish writers on Nigerian literature. And there and then we concluded that a book project is an ideal way of commemorating such influence.” She went further, saying that a lot had to be done in a very short time to put the poets together, edit the works, illustrate them, and publish them again with the collaboration of Quramo Publishers.
The five Nigerian poets were selected from the ZODML Poetry Contest held a couple of months earlier, and according to Aduke Gomez, rather than re-invent the will, going about in circles in search of poets for the project, “these five, who had been carefully adjudged as the top five from the poetry contest, became our natural choice for this commemorative book project,” she explained.
The Irish Ambassador, H.E. Peter Ryan, himself a lover of poetry, started out the evening by explaining to the audience how influential W.B. Yeats is to Irish literature and art in general. And he went on to recite his favourite of Yeats’s poems, much to the delight of the audience. “Yeats is undoubtedly a huge part of Irish literature and art, and that influence extends beyond the shores of Ireland, including Nigeria, as has been established with the reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel, which I am not sure but believe must have been translated into the Irish language as well. That influence, and the spirit of cooperation and its cultural exchange potentials, is what we celebrate today through these ten young poets and their works.” He went on to explain the fact that, of the five poets from Ireland, two are of Nigerian heritage and one is of Congolese heritage, while only two are Irish. “That is the nature of the diversity of Irish society,” he affirmed.
The journey, which ended at this brief reception in Abuja, started in Lagos, where on Tuesday, November 14, the ‘Friends of Ireland’, as these five young Nigerian poets are christened, were flown to Lagos from their respective locations across the country to the 25th Lagos Book and Arts Festival (LABAF), another partner of the project, where the poetry collection was first unveiled and the poet felicitated by the Lagos literary community. A visit to the Fela Museum was part of the experience for the young poets.
At the event in Abuja, Ambassador Peter Ryan presented the poets and their poetry collections to the audience, following which the poets took turns reading from their poems and subsequently signed out copies for the guests before proceeding to wine and dine to wrap up an evening dedicated not just to pay homage to Yeats but also to highlight the enduring connections between Irish and Nigerian poets, fostering a rich tapestry of creative collaboration and shared literary heritage.
Sunday Saheed, who was the overall winner of the ZODML Poetry Contest through which the five were selected, summed up their experience as exciting and eye-opening. “This is a rare opportunity, and one that will remain memorable, given the exposure and opportunities we were presented with. It is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we appreciate it. There is no doubting the fact that this experience will further improve our knowledge and worldview,” he said.