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In Gabriel Okara’s poem, “Piano and Drums”, Okara expresses his feelings and thoughts of a primitive society in contrast to a western society. Being an African himself, and having studied in a western society, the poem reflects the confusion in his emotions as well as the loss of self-identity. The title of the poem itself, “Piano and Drums” displays a sense of dissimilarity and contrast as the instruments are so unalike in terms of sophistication. Throughout the entire poem, Okara incorporates the instruments to further express, through music, how the speaker is feeling.
By using well-structured stanzas and poetic devices such as imagery, symbolism, sensory detail, personification, and diction, Okara is able to immerse the readers into the difficulties of cultural conflict and the confusion of a person in the midst of the two contrasting societies. Some of the most important poetic devices utilized in this poem by Okara are imagery and symbolism. Throughout the progression of the poem, there is a constant use of images to assist in displaying Okara’s conflicting emotions about the two separate worlds.
The title of the poem, “Piano and Drums” clearly displays the symbols that are used in the poem. In expressing views of his native culture compared to Western culture, Okara uses the “jungle drums” (2) to represent the African culture and does the same with the “wailing piano” (17) to represent Western culture. These symbols are used particularly because of the complexity of the instruments. Being such a simply crafted instrument, with just a resonance chamber and animal skin, the jungle drums are a good symbol to signify the African life.
On the contrary, with the piano being such a complex instrument with many components assembling it together to create more variety of sound, it is distinct that it embodies the Western lifestyle. In consideration of these symbols, the speaker implements more imagery to further display the contrast between the two symbols and emphasize the disorientation the speaker is enduring. Therefore, in order to execute his use of imagery successfully, he proceeds further by making a clear contrast between the images of a sophisticated society in contrast to a primitive society.
For example, beginning the poem with, “when at break of day at a riverside” (1) the speaker is able to communicate to the readers that there is a sense of a beginning of a natural life. It also shows that the speaker is trying to convey that there is new civilization, as in the past, rivers have been the starting point of a developing civilization. In the same stanza, the speaker displays raw images of the jungle drums being like “bleeding flesh” (4). By implementing such primeval pictures, the poet is aiding the readers to make a connection between the drums and the rawness of the instrument and where it originates.
Additionally, in the first stanza, there is reference to predator-like animals; for example, the “panther ready to pounce” (6), the “leopard snarling about to leap” (7), and the “hunters crouch[ed] with spears poised” (8). All these predatory images of wild animals are symbols to portray instinctive, primal behaviour which show the aspects of African culture that focus on survival and a natural lifestyle. Furthermore, the poet continues the idea of the drums symbolizing African culture in the second stanza through implementing more imagery. An example in this stanza is of the “blood rippl[ing], turn[ing] torrent” (9).
This image of blood flowing and turning into streams refers back to the raw, primitive tone of the poem as the image of blood makes readers infer hunting and survival. In the next lines of the stanza, Okara includes an image of the speaker “in [his] mother’s lap a suckling” (11). This image of a mother feeding her young is extremely naturalistic and shows the ingenuousness of African life as well as the simplistic way of life. However, readers are particularly able to use this image to surmise that the speakers comfort lies in his mother’s lap and his motherland.
Despite the primitiveness and rawness, the speaker reminisces on his childhood and the security of being with his mother. This idea of missing his homeland is further sustained in the image of “simple/paths with no innovations” (12/13). The choice of the word “simple” describes the ease the speaker feels in his homeland as there are no complex advancements or difficulties to deal with. Also, the simple paths are concomitant with the Africans’ primary focus on basic survival as staying alive is their only concern in life.
The speaker feels “fashioned with the naked/warmth” (14/15) which is another example of the unsophisticated, primordial style of African culture as the image shows a bare person. Yet, even though they are unclothed, they still feel the warmth of their body suggesting their healthiness and livingness which is the most important to them. In complete contrast, the third stanza portrays the piano as a symbol to exemplify Western culture as being sophisticated, complex, and intricate which is also portrayed through additional images.
However, despite the usual thinking of sophistication being praised, the speaker, in this case, puts Western culture in a negative light which is presented through the music of the piano. When first introducing the piano, it is described as a “wailing piano” (17) which gives the readers an image of a disturbing, crying baby that is an annoyance to the ears. This is in contrast to the speaker’s views of the “mystic” sound of the drums which the speaker views as a simple, but magical instrument.
Also, the fact that the piano is playing a “solo” (18) displays the independence, individuality, and the selfishness of the people in the Western world. In addition, the “far-away lands/and new horizons” (20/21) illustrate the distance at which the speaker feels he is with the Western society. As the speaker feels so close to his roots and his native land, the Western society is foreign to him and, therefore, feels far away and distant. The new horizons just further emphasize the alienation he feels to be in that sort of culture where there are constant innovations and discoveries being made.
This isolation is also expressed through the image of the speaker being “lost in the labyrinth” (23). Once again, the complexity of the labyrinth reflects onto the speaker’s view of the complexity of the Western world. However, as he feels lost in the labyrinth, it shows that he is not fitting into the society and feels uncomfortable. This especially contrasts with the comfort he feels in his mother’s lap in the second stanza. To add, in the last line, the word “daggerpoint” (25) strikes out to readers as the image of the dagger is strong.
Even though the speaker displays the violence of the African natives, readers get the sense of the speaker viewing the Western society to be more violent in the sense that African’s kill animals to stay alive, but Western people use violence against other human beings which is unacceptable. Although, because of the primitive lifestyle, it seems to be that the African’s are more violent, in actuality, the speaker believes that Western people are more predatorial. To conclude, Okara uses imagery and symbolism to express the speaker’s feelings towards African culture in comparison to Western culture.
Another important poetic device that Okara integrates into his poem, “Piano and Drums” is sensory detail, and in particular, sound. The use of sound helps to develop the images, but to also express musically, the emotions he feels in regard to then two contrasting cultures. For instance, in the first stanza, the speaker hears the sound of “jungle drums telegraphing/the mystic rhythm, urgent” (2/3). The use of the sound coincides with the use of imagery yet the sound of the drums and the “mystic rhythm” lures the readers into the poem and assists them in hearing the rawness of the drums and also sets a jungle-like atmosphere to the poem.
To show the contrast, this “mystic” sound that lures the readers in, contrasts with the speaker’s interpretation of the sound of the “wailing piano solo”. “Wailing” already gives a negative image of the sound, and throughout the whole stanza, all the readers can think about is the annoying sound of the piano. The sounds that the piano makes are elaborated with “coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,/crescendo. ” (22/23). When the diminuendo occurs, the word “coaxing” allows for the readers hear the piano at a distance yet when the counterpoint enters, the other melody interferes and becomes more confusing to the ears.
Just when the confusion intensifies, the crescendo makes the piano get louder and harsher to bear. All of the sounds combined and the melodies playing at different times is bewildering to the speaker and essentially causes him to feel “lost”. This relates to the idea that the Western society is too complex for the speaker to handle and, thus, with everything that is happening at once, the speaker cannot handle it. As a result, the Western culture is not viewed in high regards to the speaker which is translated to the reader through the sounds.
Lastly, in the final stanza, the clash of the piano and the drums is revealed through the line “the mystic rhythm of jungle drums and concerto” (28/29). When the two sounds are placed next to each other, it sounds like a cluster of noise which explains why the speaker feels “lost in the morning mist” (26). The percussion of the drums and the melody of the piano concerto are such contrasting sounds that it is evident that the speaker wants to distinguish the difference between the two cultures. Therefore, through the usage of sounds in the poem, Okara helps to establish the speaker’s feelings towards the two different cultures.
Not only is sensory detail an important literary device, but personification in “Piano and Drums” helps to express the speaker’s attitude and feelings towards the African culture and the Western culture. The first example of personification is “groping hearts/in green leaves” (15/16) which is soon followed by “wild flowers pulsing” (16). The idea of the groping hearts show how united the African natives are with nature and life around them. By personifying the heart, it makes it come alive and truly connects to life and shows the primary concern for the Africans – survival.
Just after the reference to the heart with the green leaves, the roles switch and this time the flowers are pulsing. This further accentuates the extent to which nature and life collaborate in the lives of the Africans which demonstrates the great significance and preciousness of their lives. On the other hand, the personification of the “tear-furrowed concerto” (19) exhibits a different effect on the readers. The concerto, or the sound produced by the piano, is given the characteristic of being crumpled in tears. It is compared to a human face that is crying and leaving wrinkles.
This negative image expresses to the readers that the piano is miserable and suppressed. Once again, the reference to the piano is put in a negative light and made to look despondent. Another personification of the piano is the “wailing piano” (17). It is compared to a hysterical, loud cry which again shows the suppressed and unhappy state that it is feeling. Perhaps the speaker feels as though the Western culture is unable to “bleed” out and be close to nature, so they are deprived from the rawness of life and, consequently, feels sad.
Evidently, the use of personification in this poem, stresses the difference between the two cultures as well as the way in which the speaker feels about it. In final analysis, through the use of the poetic devices: imagery, symbolism, sensory detail, personification, and diction, the concept of the piano and drums being two separate cultures was emphasized and contrasted throughout the poem to show the conflict between cultures as well as the feelings of disorientation a person dealing with both would feel. In the
end, it was clear that the speaker is still baffled and confused as to how he would accept both cultures and make it so that there is no conflict between the two. Yet, the sense of isolation and separation is distinct in the speaker as he endures a journey through two cultures that are on opposite poles of each other. Despite the sadness and confusion in the poem, the readers feel that they can empathize well with the speaker because of the well-detailed portrayal of the speaker’s emotions, particularly the piano and the drums. Word count: 2,094
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