Analysis of Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drum”

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Before you go through this analysis, read “How to Understand Poetry”

Now let us ride on over this piece of poem; “piano and drum” by Gabriel Okara. You should read it first to the end, then try to understand it and get what it is about. On the surface, it may not be making much sense but with close attention you will see the sense in it.

When at break of day at a riverside
I hear the jungle drums telegraphing
the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw
like bleeding flesh, speaking of
primal youth and the beginning
I see the panther ready to pounce
the leopard snarling about to leap
and the hunters crouch with spears poised;

And my blood ripples, turns torrent,
topples the years and at once I’m
in my mother’s laps a suckling;
at once I’m walking simple
paths with no innovations,
rugged, fashioned with the naked
warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts
in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.

Then I hear a wailing piano
solo speaking of complex ways in
tear-furrowed concerto;
of far away lands
and new horizons with
coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,
crescendo. But lost in the labyrinth
of its complexities, it ends in the middle
of a phrase at a daggerpoint.

And I lost in the morning mist
of an age at a riverside keep
wandering in the mystic rhythm
of jungle drums and the concerto.

The sense in the poem

Does this poem make any sense to you? Maybe it does and maybe only little and maybe not at all. If it looks confusing, maybe we should try looking up some difficult words in the dictionary.

e.g.

  1. mystic – seeking to know God
  2. primal – primitive
  3. panther – a black leopard
  4. pounce – to attack
  5. snarling – growling
  6. crouch – bend low
  7. concerto –
  8. horizons –
  9. groping –
  10. ripples –
  11. labyrinth –
  12. diminuendo –
  13. counterpoint –
  14. topples –

Do this for the first stanza and read again and try to make some sense.

Take not of the choice of words

Talking about riverside in the morning, jungle drums, primal youth, panther, leopard, hunters and spears should give an idea that the stanza is about a rural setting, a village let’s say. Usually in the villages people go to the stream early in the morning to get water. Perhaps the persona has just done the same, and he hears the sound of drum in the bushes; and drums are sometimes used in the villages to send messages to the people. He “hears the jungle drums telegraphing the mystic rhythm” – a message of urgency and fear about the illiterate villagers who are mostly hunters. The people are faced with a leopard – a dangerous animal.

I am sure you can now have a picture of villagers, precisely youths, trying to defend themselves against a leopard in the bush in the morning. Now find the meanings of difficult words in stanza two.

Line nine shows the terrible feeling of the person and suddenly, he feels like a baby who cannot help himself because he does not know how. He is confused in this jungle and feeling helpless.

In stanza three he hears “a wailing piano where the singer’s voice is that of weeping and talking about something new that has forced itself into the society to change the original existence.

Stanza four he says he is lost and confused because of the nature of the jungle drum and concerto.

Take note of the imagery

The jungle drum represents our traditional society, its culture and experience. The piano concerto represents the western civilization. It is true that this days, the African society is a mixture of African traditions and western civilization so that people are confused not know how to live the tow. They find it difficult to hold onto any of the two alone. This is the position of the persona on the sad note. Civilization has changed our way of life yet it has not left it any better.

How do you feel at this point? The poem is simple, is it not?

Now let’s examine the poetic devices Okara has used. You can try that first before you come back and we do it together.

  • You can notice the flow of idea from line one to line two, what do you call that? It is a run on line. The writer uses that to break the long whole of idea into smaller parts so the reader can follow easily. The poem has run-on-line all through.
  • I hear the jungle drums telegraphing. You may ask; can drums send telegraphs? So, what would we call such expression? “The same applies to wailing piano.” Is it personification?
  • Line 4 – “like bleeding flesh” is an example of simile. The writer compares the mystic rhythm to a wounded body to make the message of agony very vivid.
  • “break of day” in line one, shows the repetition of vowel sounds which is an example of assonance. Likewise “jungle drums.”
  • Alliteration can be seen in “panther …pounce, turns torrent, morning mist”.
  • Repetition – “at once” is repeated in lines 11 and 13
  • Metaphor – “my blood ripples”.
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