Saturday, December 10, 2011

Five in One: A New Critical, Formalist, Psychoanalytic, Feminist and Archetypal Reading of J.P. Clark’s “Abiku”


Works of literature are worthy of their values only when they are carefully scrutinised. And this scrutiny comes in hand through different methods. These methods – five of them here – include New Criticism, Formalism, Psychoanalysis, Feminism and Archetypal. Being a work whose scope is as wide as heaven, the poem, ‘Abiku’ by J.P. Clark fits into the selected world views.

A look at ‘Abiku’ from the viewpoint of New Criticism gives us the courage to meticulously expand the scope of its meaning. For instance, far from all that have been said about the poem, one gets a little more interested in the work as one tends to delve into the yet-to-be-tampered-with underpinnings. To begin with, since the poet himself does not completely approve of the callousness of the spirit-child whose main preoccupation with the earth is to destroy it, we may then be safe to aver that his (the poet’s) lamentation is unnecessary. Of course almost everyone rooted in the African belief of the Abiku myth understands the futility of any attempt to subdue the child from his unwholesomeness. Thus, it is ‘unliterary’ that the poet should, even though it is true, reveal to us the travails undergone by any household visited by the spirit-child. In this connection then, the lines: ‘We know the knife scars serrating down your back and front/Like beak of the swordfish’ is, to a large extent, baseless, and so, impotent.

As against the above, the Formalist is only concerned with meanings derived straight from the text itself. With this approach in mind, one then sees ‘Abiku’ as a stubborn and callous spirit who frequents the fragile womb of his mother to and fro for ‘several seasons.’ What does one make of such a child whose playground is nowhere but the ‘baobab tree.’ And worse is the case with the household this callous monster of a child visits. In such a house, ‘floods brim the banks/And the bats and the owls often tear in at night’. At least this unfeeling child should show a little mercy to this bereaved and poverty-stricken household by considering the timeless sufferings of his mother whose milk has gone ‘sour.’ At last, he is being begged to, please, ‘stay/ For good.’

Psychoanalytic Criticism is obviously different from formalism. Instead of a direct derivation of the meaning of a text through the text itself, the psychoanalyst is interested in how relevant the poet’s state of mind is to the poem. Whatever must have prompted Clark to write this poem? Perhaps he was a little disenchanted and dispirited as a result of the Abiku who is probably one of his relations. If this is genuinely not the case, then the poem would have been subject to meaninglessness. In other words, ‘Abiku’ must have sprung to Clark’s mind at a time he witnessed (or was witnessing) the travails the spirit-child has caused the household in which he is a member. To some extent, this is true, especially when one considers the tone of lamentation in the poem and the overriding mood it creates on the reader.

Of course Abiku is indeed begotten. Whoever be a mother to this devil of a child is faced with some spite of discrimination. The feminists are especially interested in this area. So they raised questions such as: why is it the mother and not the father that usually suffers most when Abiku strikes a household? And the usual response to this question has been: of course the mother is the one through whom the child comes to life. One (as a feminist now) may then want to know why only the mother should suffer when indeed both parents produce and own the child. Even in the poem, no clear reference is made on the father. But only the mother whose tiredness from the child’s devilish antics has caused the milk on her breasts to go sour is constantly pitiably portrayed. The germane question here is: has the woman come to the world to suffer?

No doubt, the character of Abiku as a persona in the poem, ‘Abiku,’ is archetypal. For one, Abiku is a myth common to many African societies, especially in Nigeria. In Nigeria, virtually every culture believes there is indeed a child whose only purpose in life is to be born and die and be reborn continuously by the same parent. It is this belief, therefore, that is responsible for the different names and sacrifices given to and made to subdue the same evil tendency found in any hard-hearted child. Thus, a child is tagged or branded an Abiku if he exhibits the above traits. And this surely justifies the Abiku child as an archetype.

So far, any piece of literature is incomplete unless critical analyses, as above, are applied to it. It is then that we see its beauty; it is then that we appreciate it better.