Sierra Leonean poetry started in the late 19th century with poems published in English and the lingua franca, Krio in The Sierra Leone Weekly News, amongst the first newspapers to be established in the colony in 1860. The most famous of all the Sierra Leonean newspapers (which were of high quality) in the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was founded in September 1884, by Rev. J.C May aided by Dr. E. W. Blyden and edited by J. C. May’s brother, Cornelius, who later became mayor of Freetown in the 1920s.
Poems were sometimes written by settlers, mostly Europeans, who had migrated into the country. The first Krio poems appeared in the issue of The Sierra Leone Weekly News of Saturday April 21st 1881. Others appeared in the issue of June 23rd 1888 and July 1907. Though most poems were written by non-Sierra Leoneans, they served as sources of inspiration to the educated Sierra Leoneas who thus became anxious to prove that they were as competent poets as their European counterparts. Poems were written usually in regular patterns of feet, lines and rhyme schemes as was the vogue then. Consequently there was an upsurge in the publication of poems in the newspapers.This practice continued for quite a long time, according to Leo Spitzer’s The Creoles of Sierra Leone which contains a whole range of such poems.
Then came Gladys Casely-Hayford and Thomas Decker who were writing poems in Krio. Gladys Casely-Hayford’s first selection of published poems was titled in Krio Take um so (1948). In 1948 three Krio poems were published by Thomas Decker. These were ‘Plasas’,’Yesterday, Tiday en Tumara’, ‘Slip Gud’.
But these early publication of poems in Krio in The Sierra Leone Weekly News had a restrictive and constrictive effect on the even-handed development of Sierra Leonean poetry. For it helped to confine Sierra Leonean poetry to the Western Area. Parts of the country were thus left preoccupying themselves with oral poetry as there was no written literature available there then.
There has always been direct relationship between the development of written literature and education. Education in Sierra Leone was mainly concentrated in that early colonial period in the Western Area.. It was only later that some schools got built in the provinces. But inspite of this, education was not as widely and readily received by the provincials for many failed to send their children to school early. It was in only in1906 that the first secondary school was established in the provinces.
The head start the Western Area had in education and the lukewarm attitude of the people in the other areas towards education led to most of the recognized poets coming mainly from the Western Area. This also resulted in the poets being manly Krio who largely failed to penetrate and exploit the rich cultural traditions and customs of the country of which they were largely ignorant. As a result their works were characterized by the absence of traditional myths, legends and lore unlike the case of other West African writers then writing especially the Nigerians, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka and J.P Clark who made much use of such oral lore. Christopher Okigbo for his part often used the myth of the watermaid in his poems while both Wole Soyinka and J.P.Clark used in common the myth of Abiku amongst others.
The poetry of the pioneering Sierra Leonean poets was infused instead of traditional and cultural materials with Christian religious doctrines and principles and moral platitudes. Little of even the emergent Krio culture were purveyed through them. But they also wrote about burning social issues of the times.
But in a poem like ‘Joseph’s Betrothal’ Gladys Casely -Hayford transposes the Krio traditional ‘put-stop’ ceremony to the Jewish situation of Joseph and Mary, the earthly parents of Jesus. In ‘Nativity’ the baby Jesus is wrapped in ‘blue lappah’ and laid in’home tanned door skin hide’, instead of a swaddling band and a manger. Later poets made use of some cultural material. Lemuel Johnson in ‘Prodigal’s Canticle’ features ‘Awujoh’ and ‘KuOmojade’ two Krio traditional ceremonies.
The subsequent spread of education accompanied by missionary activities in almost all parts of the country promoted the spread of literature which led to breaking of the previous monopoly the Western Area had on the production of poetry. As a result there has been a considerable increase in the volume of poetry written in the country over the past four decades. The impetus to this was given to it by efforts at Fourah Bay College, Njala University College, Milton Margai Teachers College in promoting and hosting literary events such as creative writing, poetry reading amongst others. These efforts were complemented by those of the writers association, the Fourah Bay College Bookshop and various campus bulletins and magazines.
The bulk of Sierra Leonean poetry could thus be said to have been written in the 20th century. But the poetry of this period bore a marked departure from the earlier forms of poetry being produced, especially in their style and to a limited extent their subject matter. The pioneer poets had stuck to the conventional forms of poetry using regular line lengths and rhyme schemes. Their simplistic poetry usually expressed insipid sentiments and strong religious Christian doctrines, with most of the poets themselves being avid churchmen strongly influenced by the 19th century English poets and by the Bible, the common prayer and hymn books. One of them, Crispin George was a long-standing chorister. That they lived in a turbulent period of much political clamor for nationalism and self-determination and other destabilizing social as well as political movements is not too apparent in their poetry except for the subtle use of Christian doctrines to hide their aspirations for social justice. This is very true for the poetry of Crispin George and Jacob Stanley Davies and to a lesser extent Gladys Casely-Hayford.
The modern poets, contemporaries of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Christopher Okigbo, who whilst at university abroad, mostly in Britain, were exposed to modern English poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence started breaking from the previous poetic tradition through the modern influence borne on their style. They also started infusing some African customs and tradition in their poetry as they felt estranged and cut off from their roots. They thus dumped old methods of writing in regular lines and rhymes for free verse, distortion of logical syntax, obscurity and personal symbolism and imagery. They critically examined the hitherto readily accepted British and American values and standards. They questioned racism and other social ills as they were exposed in their foreign domicile to racial discrimination and its debasing consequences.
Abioseh Nicol’s poetry for instance spans the pioneer and younger modern poets showing some African consciousness and not blindly accepting foreign values longs for eventual return home in Sweet Sierra Leone.
Most of Gaston Bart-William’s poetry is concerned with racism and racial discrimination. Jacob Stanley Davies though a pioneer poet expressing Christian doctrines in his poetry has some poems like ‘Libretone’ which seem to speak to timeless issues. Crispin George in ‘Help Deferred’ breaks free from the constricting effect of rhyme scheme.
Much development has taken place since to change the profile of Sierra Leone poetry though the publishing opportunities in print are not as welcoming as then. But such changing profile will make interesting study.