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Oríkì: From A Poet's Glossary

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Edward Hirsch


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Posted

November 04, 2014

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Poetic Terms/Forms
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oríkì: Oríkì is the oral praise poetry of the indigenous Yórùbá communities of Western Africa. Similar praise poems turn up throughout much of Africa (Zulu izibongo, Basuto lithoko, etc.). The invocation or praise poem starts out as the stringing together of praise names that describe the qualities of a particular man, animal, plant, place, or god. These praise names are handed down from the past and invented by relatives or neighbor or often drummers. The akewi are praise-singers at a king’s court. The oríkì of a plant or an animal is sung by hunters; the oríkì of a god is sung by his worshipers. Olatunde Olatunji explains, “Oríkì is the most popular of Yórùbá poetic forms. Every Yórùbá poet therefore strives to know the oríkì of important people in his locality as well as lineage oríkì because every person, common or noble, has his own body of utterances by which he can be addressed.” In Yórùbá culture, a person’s name relates to his or her spiritual essence (“a child’s name follows him”) and each individual has a series of praise names. The use of one’s praise name is a part of daily life as well as of traditional performance. Call people by their oríkìs and you inspire them.

Oríkì Esu are the narrative praise poems or panegyrics to Esu, the divine trickster of Yórùbá mythology. Here is a traditional Oríkì Esu, which Leo Frobenius quotes in The Voice of Africa (1913):

     Ah yes!
     Edju plays many tricks
     Edju made kindred people go to war;
     Edju pawned the moon and carried off the sun:
     Edju made the Gods strive against themselves.  
     But Edju is not evil.
     He brought us the best there is; He gave us the Ifa oracle;
     He brought the sun.
     But for Edju, the fields would be barren.


Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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