Hyperrhiz 16: Essays

Looking Back while Moving Forward: The Case of Concrete Poetry and Sankofa

Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang

West Virginia University


This article considers the intersection between African oral tradition and electronic literature by exploring the potential of Sankofa to interact with concrete poetry in an electronic space. Sankofa is an example of the Adinkra, a set of symbols that were originally created and used by the Akan in West Africa. These symbols have literary value which this article looks at in ways similar to concrete poetry; examining Sankofa as concrete poetry in an electronic context enables a simultaneous dovetailing with as well as convergence from oral and print based modes of engaging with the text: aspects of oral tradition influence this exploration.

Sankofa unlike most other Adinkra symbols has two variations as well as a strong connection to an oral folktale. Other elements of orality such as performance and narrative combine with these features to allow for an analysis of Sankofa through the lens of concrete poetry, both in terms of its Adinkra variation and its folktale rendition. In reverse, the unique implications of this analysis extend the visual-heavy features of concrete poetry due to the ways in which Sankofa impacts conventional understandings of orality, aurality, and the visual in concrete poetry.

Introduction: Conceptual Poetry, Shape, and Context

The general association between poetry and its shape has long been debated by scholars and audiences as well as by poets themselves, who interrogate this relationship not only via poetics, but especially through their creative process. Conscious experimentation with shape boasts a long history in the Western tradition for instance, with diverse examples stretching back to such Classical Greek poems as “Egg” by Simias of Rodes and “Pan Pipes” by Theocritus, through George Herbert’s 17th century poetry which includes “The Temple” and “Easter Wings”, to E. E. Cummings’s work in the 20th century. Such examples of poems that foreground shape are predecessors to (as well as illustrative of) concrete poetry, a genre that is created when the arrangement of words in print in a poem is intended to shift attention from the constitutive words the general form and shape. This genre of poetry is unique among other poetic genres like the epic, ballad, sonnet, or even haiku in the sense that for concrete poetry while the words that make up the poem might carry some amount of relevance and meaning, the larger shape tends to capture most of the focus. Visual rhetoric thus plays an important role in analysis, and informs various definitions of the genre.

The Encyclopædia Britannica (2013) for instance describes concrete poetry as “poetry in which the poet’s intent is conveyed by graphic patterns of letters, words, or symbols rather than by the meaning of words in conventional arrangement”. In this definition, the relationship between the letters, words, and/or symbols does not necessarily lie in say, syntax – as is the case in other more mainstream poetic genres – rather, the creative impulses behind the concrete poet’s choices lead to an examination of the resultant shape, which garners the bulk of attention; the visual is thereby favored over semantics. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012) on the other hand situates concrete poetry in a “distinct approach” where form and meaning “would be as close to each other as possible… [suggesting] a unification of the word with its presentation”. While enhancing the intimacy between making form and meaning implies a refusal to separate the constituent parts from the whole (and thus suggests an organic entity while sharply contrasting with the preceding definition), the offerings from both encyclopedias share an emphasis on text, shape, and the visual – as well as related sensory features – in making meaning out of a concrete poem. The relationship between form and content therefore leads to different ways of approaching and understanding works of concrete poetry.

The strong link between constitutive words and shape in concrete poetry has enabled the genre to evolve and broaden its scope, even coalescing its borders with similar genres. The emphasis on shape and form for instance allows for intimate comparisons with visual poetry, which is the focus of Willard Bohn’s Reading Visual Poetry. Bohn defines visual poetry as “poetry that is meant to be seen … Words no longer serve as simple notational devices but as building blocks in a visual edifice” (13). Rather than simply (or necessarily) represent information, the words are primarily components of a larger shape, and thus function in such a way as to point to its importance. As a result, the constitutive words typically do not “make sense”; thus, like concrete poetry, it appears more worthwhile to pay attention to form. Even though scholars like Michael Davidson use concrete poetry and visual poetry interchangeably as he does in Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World (15), it must be noted that other researchers including Johanna Drucker emphasize differences between the two terms. Even though her temporal criteria for categorizing these two genres ties in with a specific (or even narrow) set of what Brian J. McAllister calls “formal concerns” (249), these issues deflect from the core purposes of this essay. Thus it is safe to note that the similarities between concrete poetry and visual poetry have led to a wider definition of creative work that can relate to poetry that foregrounds the visual in this manner.

Such broad designations are due in no small part to the work of poets related to this category. Major concrete and visual poets include the Brazilian brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos (of the group Noigandres), the Spaniards Rafael Casinos-Asséns and Guillermo de Torre (known as the Spanish Ultraists), the Italian Ignazio Scurto (a proponent of futurist aeropoetry), the American Mary Ellen Solt, the Swiss-Bolivian Eugen Gomringer, and his mentor Max Bill, all of whom in the twentieth century experimented with this relationship between form and poetry to sometimes extreme ends. While all of these epochs and poets have been anthologized and researched on, missing from these conversations are examples from Africa, a situation which is not so much oversight as it is reality: the usual anthology of African poetry is often restricted to examples from oral literature as well as contemporary print poetry. Apart from the South African Willem Boshoff, there are no major African (or for that matter, Ghanaian) concrete poets. With this in mind, oral literature can provide a starting point from which this relationship can be explored, especially since there are symbols in oral literature that share connections with concrete poetry, as will be shown shortly. The importance of engaging with the potential in this relationship has at least a two-fold impact – in relation to practitioners of concrete poetry who do not cover the relationship between African literature and concrete poetry; and with regards to African poetry theorists who have not yet acknowledged the importance of concrete poetry to African literature. The immediate implications of achieving these aims will be to improve conventional understanding of concrete poetry while underscoring the versatility of African oral literature.

Extending this relationship within the context of electronic literature helps to complicate these different fields, and it is important to keep in mind that this extension does not stem from an incompatible or improbable association; after all, concrete poetry and electronic literature share a rich history of affiliation. In New Directions in Digital Poetry Chris Funkhouser contextualizes the relationship between concrete poetry and digital poetry, recollecting an Augusto de Campos reference in an interview to Oswald de Andrade’s contention that cultural imperatives such as anthropophagy influenced the evolution of digital poetry (228). The role of anthropophagy in this case is metaphorical and philosophical, highlighting the cross cultural relationships that characterized not only digital poetry and concrete poetry, but also the rise of concrete poetry in Latin America due to Western influence. After all, consuming – or cannibalizing, as it were – European high culture would feed the hunger of the poets who were interested in new directions of creativity. De Campos reveals in this same interview that as a result of influence from Ezra Pound, Cummings, and James Joyce, Brazilian concrete poetry “valuated ever more the semantic dimension” while being minimalist and radical: the feeding off another culture is reflected in multiple ways, including through stylistic terms.

The cultural relationships here concern Latin American and Western culture, but are relevant to any conversation related to the cross-cultural influence of literature and its implications. This essay accordingly extends the conversation to Ghana, but aside the difference in terms of geography and culture, any examination of the potential of a symbol of African oral literature to influence concrete poetry and vice versa has to keep in mind the thought that while the Latin American poets created works individually, features of oral literature such as the sense of the collective (both in terms of an anonymous author and nebulous audience) can propose a unique set of findings – after all, the lack of an identified author means that even though a rendition of the symbol in question can be examined, a story associated with this symbol will not have a stable version. Thus, the subsequent examination is not done to copy previous examples of inter-cultural exchange, while in order to address the presence of oral literature features, the perception of the symbol starts with but eventually departs from conventional modes of receiving concrete poetry.

In the introduction to her dissertation entitled Concrete Poetry in Canada and Quebec, 1963-1975, Caroline Ann Bayard recalls that “Concrete poetry was defined by its theoreticians and creators as sensuous objects meant to be perceived rather than composed to attract the spectators’ attention to its component parts (1). While the sensuous aspect of the concrete poem cannot be stressed enough, the choice to focus on perception rather than composition privileges the result over the process in interpreting the work in question. And yet the component parts can be equally, if not even more, valuable in approaching a work of concrete poetry. This point is important because the constituent parts of the work suggest an emphasis on the performative, which in turn recalls oral literature, where performance becomes the main driver of directing and interpreting the event. In other words, form and content can and should interchange more meaningfully during an enactment or reading of the work under consideration.

With these thoughts in mind, the specific direction for this essay relates to the use of Adinkra symbols from Ghanaian oral literature to theorize on concrete poetry. The Sankofa symbol is used to represent the potential of Adinkra to ultimately influence the evolution of concrete poetry within an electronic space. In order to arrive at this point, the following section historicizes Adinkra and Sankofa and considers the latter in the context of concrete poetry. The fact that Adinkra and Sankofa in particular are already associated with literature makes for a more straightforward analysis, and is seen below.

Adinkra and Sankofa: A Brief History

The ownership of Adinkra symbols is attributed to the Akan ethnic group that populates the coast of West Africa, mainly concentrated between present-day eastern Ivory Coast and western to central Ghana. Like most examples of oral literature (which typically do not have an identified author – and are therefore “communally” owned it is unclear when Adinkra symbols were created; they are however at least a couple of centuries old. These symbols can represent concepts, proverbs, or general philosophies of life, and were initially the preserve of traditional rulers, who used them to signify their power and position of honor (Boateng 3). Today, their use is more widespread and democratic: Adinkra symbols are prominent on clothing, as company logos, in advertising, and on earthenware material; they are again carved on stools and other such items for both public events and in domestic settings and are used by people from all walks of life. They are used both traditionally and in modern contexts, and are increasingly being found in electronic media. While traditionally they have fixed meanings, their proliferation in diverse ways means that they are used with intentions that vary from their original denotations.

The various meanings attached to these symbols may or may not be explicitly referred to by the user or wearer. In other words, while a person might wear a specific symbol to deliver a message or feeling (such as love, success, sorrow, or determination), or to be even worn on particular occasions including traditional festivals and funerals, another person might just have the symbol on a piece of clothing for cosmetic or aesthetic purposes. Popular Adinkra symbols include Gye Nyame (translated to mean “Except God” – representing the supernatural), Adinkrahene (translated as “King of the Adinkra” representing power and authority), Akoma (translated as “The Heart”, representing emotions), and Sankofa (representing a return). Even though these symbols are used idiosyncratically, their connection to their original meanings are evident for anyone who knows how to “read” them, as is the case with Sankofa.

Sankofa is literally translated as “Go back and take it” and connects closely with the Akan proverb: “se wo were fi a, wo san ko fa a yenkyi” (To wit, “it is not wrong to return to take something if you forget it”). Unlike most Adinkra symbols which have one designated symbol, Sankofa has two major variations. The first is the original, which was created with the other Adinkra symbols and is in the shape of the popular image of a heart, but with pairs of curves at the top and bottom (See Figure 1). The second variation is the Sankofa bird, which is represented in two major ways: with or without an egg on its back (See Figure 2 and Figure 3 respectively). Regardless of the presence or absence of this object, the bird has an elongated neck which arches backward to its back. It picks the egg on its back if this object is present; if it is absent, the bird’s neck still remains in the same position.

This bird is the protagonist in an oral folktale that is common among the Akan. The story concerns the Sankofa bird, who leaves her village without informing anyone (an action that is considered disrespectful of norms), and promptly gets lost in a nearby forest. While wandering in the forest, she begins to doubt herself after she is insulted by another bird. She then manages to find her way back to her village where her community helps rebuild her self-confidence after which she returns to the forest again, this time informing the elders of the village. She meets this other bird again, but this time overcomes its antagonism due to a renewed sense of self-worth – ostensibly gained from embracing the communal spirit of her village. Her first attempt to leave her village is seen as disregarding communal custom and tradition, and after her exploits in the forest are made public, a statue is carved with her neck turned backward so as to warn others of the dangers of forgetting or abandoning their roots (both in terms of disregarding custom as well as leaving home surreptitiously). The bird as the second variation of Sankofa allows for wider interpretation because of the story attached to it. Thus, even though the original Adinkra symbol has a fixed physical representation, the Sankofa bird is rendered differently by various artists: it is sketched in diverse colors and sizes, and can face different directions (as can be gleaned from the different renditions of the bird in Figure 2 and Figure 3).

There is a strong connection to storytelling, as the folktale demonstrates. It should be noted that consistent with (but not necessarily related to) this idea of different renditions, as an example of oral literature, the above story is simply a “template story” from which alternative narratives have been (and can be) told at any given time: there are various variations of this same story that tend to change details, characters, and plot structure. The type of bird with whom the heroine has the two verbal exchanges might change, or even be represented by a different predator from story to story. Again, (usually minor) events can switch places in narration – after the first encounter, the bird might stay in the forest overnight or return the same day; alternatively, the bird might live with human beings or other animals, or both, in the village. Another feature worth noting is musical performance, as song and dance intersperse with the plot of the story at different times. These aesthetic features tend to embellish, complicate, or enhance the story. Finally, the relationship between the storyteller and the audience is nebulous because any member of the audience can assume the role of storyteller during narration: there are countless examples of narration in oral literature, where an audience member interjects and appropriates narration, switching roles with the narrator (who promptly joins the audience). Due to the strong connections to storytelling, performance, and audience, all of which are prominent in oral literature, Sankofa as a symbol roots itself in literary contexts.

The original Sankofa symbol and the different adaptations of the Sankofa bird are designations of the same idea of a return. Thus like a typical signifier, the relationship between the sign and the referent can be arbitrary or even tenuous. But in her dissertation entitled Adinkra, Claudia Owusu-Sampah makes a distinction between signs and symbols. She opines that unlike signs, which usually stand for a tangible idea, symbols typically represent something less palpable than the representation itself. In the case of Sankofa, the overriding use of the curve to represent the notion of a return is a helpful way of complicating this arbitrariness, because the idea of “going back” can easily be physically represented by a curve. Still, the representation of something more abstract than the symbol allows Sankofa a wider room for interpretation and usage.

Sankofa, Concrete Poetry (and Visual Poetry)

Beyond grounding Sankofa in oral literature, the foregrounding of abstraction (through the meaning of “return”, as linked with the different Sankofa designations) allows the textuality of Sankofa to relate closely with concrete poetry. And with concrete poetry evolving in terms of reach and meaning, it is helpful to think about this symbol in relation to the genre. Even though any Adinkra symbol could be used for this exercise, Sankofa is chosen because of its iconic nature, strong roots in oral literature, and versatility in terms of global appeal. With all of this in mind, this section grapples with three connected questions: how can we see Sankofa as an example of concrete poetry; what does it mean for both oral literature and concrete poetry if we analyze Sankofa as concrete poetry; and how does Sankofa eventually relate to examples of concrete poetry in electronic literature? Examining the various designations of Sankofa can help answer these questions, even though it is helpful to note that prior knowledge (or lack of it) heavily influences a reading of the text.

Similar to Bayard’s claim, despite the potential that results from the relationship between performance and interpretation in concrete poetry, the audience is more inclined to see connections between the constituent text and the larger work, rather than isolate the component parts in order to make meaning. This inclination explains the logic behind Roland Barthes’s comparison of linguistics with concrete poetry; Bohn notes in American Poets and Poetry: From the Colonial Era to the Present that in doing so, Barthes remarks that just as the sentence is the largest unit within the scope of linguistic enquiry, the word functions as both the fundamental building block as well as an independent entity in concrete poetry (119). As it were, if linguistics stops at the sentence, then concrete poetry stops at the word. This logic holds for conventional examples of concrete poetry such as Augusto de Campos’s “Caracol” (written in 1960 and translated as “Snail”) and latter electronic-based examples like “Basic Con” or “Grammar” (both by William Poundstone and coming from his “Four Poems” collection of 2000), all three of which rely on an intricate interplay between constitutive words and shape. After all, de Campos was a co-author of the “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry”, in which is argued that

Concrete Poetry aims at the least common multiple of language. Hence its tendency to nounising and verbification. “The concrete wherewithal of speech” (Sapir). Hence its affinities with the so-called isolating languages (Chinese): “The less outward grammar the Chinese language possesses, the more inner grammar inherent in it” (Humboldt via Cassirer). Chinese offers an example of pure relational syntax, based exclusively on word order (see Fenollosa, Sapir and Cassirer).

Concrete poetry does not easily allow regular syntactic and semantic analyses, as is the case with other more well-known genres of poetry. On a surface level, analyses of these conventional genres tend to be achieved through traditional close readings, reinforcing linear understandings of language. One of the appeals of concrete poetry is therefore a relatively non-conformist mode of literary appreciation. Connections to isolating “Non-Western” languages such as Chinese are also clear because the relative lack of morpheme development means that inflections (and other such word-class influencing affixes) play a minimal role in understanding. Forcing a different form of analysis thus opens up space for novel ways of engaging with poetry.

Sankofa on the other hand requires an even more nuanced analysis, not least because it does not fall neatly into a language category. The features of Adinkra in general make it difficult to compartmentalize Sankofa as a language. Even though the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of language as a “system of spoken or written communication … typically consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactic structure” means it is a stretch to consider Adinkra symbols as conventional language, Sankofa is still “language” or at least a “text”, in the sense that it achieves communication. It must be noted that in “The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States”, Christel N. Temple makes the bold claim that naming elements of the Adinkra system as “symbols” or “designs” is “seemingly innocent” but “incorrect”, becoming another example of “European-inspired oversimplification of African culture” (130). She thus posits “communicators” as an alternative. While the intention behind describing Adinkra elements as communicators is laudable – in that they then express “timeless values and philosophies” (130), one could also argue that regardless of how “shallow” a symbol might be, it also achieves the same aims of communication; and depending on its definition, it can achieve the same goals as a “communicator”. Temple’s argument, then, could benefit from the word “symbol” embracing the meanings that she attributes to “communicator”.

Even though the case against using “symbol” for Sankofa is viable, it relates more closely to the larger struggle of parsing indigenous African thought forms in a foreign language, as K. A. Myles points out in the introduction to a Ghanaian poetry collection (qtd. in Temple 130). While European modes of communication straitjacket the understanding of such traditional African terms (as is the general case in translation), on the other hand this situation highlights the shortcomings of a Western mode of communication in adequately catering for the strength of a traditional African term, throwing into sharp relief the uniqueness of Adinkra. Thus, whether “symbol”, “design”, or “communicator” is used as a designation, the shared properties of language overlap with Sankofa. It is safe, then, to say that without the inherent grammatical properties of a word, meaning for the original Sankofa symbol is more concentrated on the image, which is a “word” in oral literature (due to the fact that the image conveys a coherent and cohesive message). Concentration on the image allows for visual analysis, as is attempted below.

The notion of return is seen (or at least meant to be seen), as mentioned previously, primarily in the curves. Close scrutiny of the original Adinkra symbol reveals six curves presented in three pairs: two on the outer edges of the symbol, two within the space created by the outer curves (both pairs are at the top), and the final two at the bottom, curving outward. The constituents of each pair mirror each other and thereby imply symmetry, balance, and uniformity, not just in terms of the visual, but also with respect to the ensuing message. This notion of balance is supported by the appearance of a “stand” at the bottom of the image, which completes the symbol by providing a foundation. Due to the plethora of curves, one thus gets the impression that there is a consistent message which is then told in different ways. The uniformity in diversity is enhanced, in other words, by repetition. Having three complementary pairs, or six curves, suggests an anxiety of disburdening the message of a return (recalling Quarcoo’s note about the constant reminder) – as is the case with having curves repeated at the top, within, and at the bottom of the image. All of these choices underline the necessity with which one must return to history in order to move forward. The fact that the symbol is not a perfect circle tells its viewer that the return is neither straightforward nor meant to be a return for the simple sake of a return. Going back to glean the positives of the past is intended to enrich progress into the future.

While being an example of oral literature means that the Sankofa symbol is in many ways diametrically opposed to written text, there are also avenues for complementing this other mode of communication. One should keep in mind for instance that even though the symbol connects with oral literature, it is a physical entity; and as such is in a sense, “printed” or “written” text. Of course, the symbol does not refer to a specific aspect of history; still, the fact that it calls for the both reverence of and thorough engagement with history complicates any binaries between written and spoken modes of communication because it presently refers to all kinds of history, whether written or spoken.

Considering the fact that this symbol was created at a time when oral tradition was not yet complemented by written language, the importance of returning to history speaks to the importance of understanding customs, traditions, and norms that prevailed in traditional Akan societies. After all, and on a very basic level, oral tradition does not enjoy the relative stability of the written word; in other words, the malleability of a spoken word makes it difficult, if not impossible, to retain the same rendition of any given issue as is the case of written history. Repeating and re-repeating the curves thus means that the culture is aware of the ephemerality of the spoken word and is accordingly careful to mitigate its negative implications. In present times, the general call for an engagement with history obviously includes written history, and as such the relationship between oral literature and print literature in the context of this symbol adds a layer of understanding. There is another set of meanings that come with the bird.

The Sankofa bird leads to even wider possibilities, if examined as concrete poetry, due to it being a symbol from a narrative. Narrative is an aspect of concrete poetry that is not usually taken into consideration during analysis of concrete poetry, Brian J. McAllister notes in “Narrative in Concrete/Concrete in Narrative”. McAllister traces this tendency to practitioners of concrete poetry such as Gomringer, the de Campos brothers, and Carlo Bellolo, all of whom explicitly disown the presence or utility of narrative in their work. McAllister still manages to undercut poetic intention in his article, going to great lengths to point out the elements of narrative in various examples of concrete poetry. The examples he uses typically have words from which he perseveres in establishing his version of close reading; yet he admits that “it would be hard to make a case” for a “strongly narrative text” in the examples he employs (243). In the case of Sankofa, the absence of conventional words suggests a different form of analysis in order to embrace the presence of narrative.

The textual relationship embedded in concrete poetry creates the ability to translate ideas into visual images (Bohn 119); by extension, the relationship between idea and image with respect to Sankofa foregrounds the importance of the symbol as text. On the surface, then, Adinkra symbols and concrete poetry again share a relationship due to the issue of typography. Sankofa became part of Akan culture before written literacy was introduced into the Ghanaian socio-cultural fabric. It can therefore be argued that the symbol comprises the background story, which helps shape the reading of the text. The bird’s association with narrative means that even before the symbol is analyzed as narrative, narrative is already always present, allowing for thematic and stylistic appreciation. Further focus on the associated story then, can allow for an enrichment of animal studies (by discussing the implications of anthropomorphism – as the bird and people interact freely in the folktale); gender studies (by examining the gender relations and expectations – since the protagonist is female and the villain is male); and narrative studies (through the intricate plot structuring and re-structuring); among other sub-disciplines of literature. As such conversations risk veering from the purpose of this essay, the next step here is to consider the Sankofa bird.

When analysis is concentrated exclusively on the image, the presence or absence of the egg on the bird’s back leads to different interpretations. In Akan tradition, the egg signifies the delicateness of power, recalling an Akan proverb which is translated as “Power is as fragile as an egg; those who hold it too tightly and those who hold it loosely risk breaking it”. Paul Banahene Adjei explains that the sacredness of eggs in traditional Akan custom informs its use in important rituals such as festivals (6). Positioning the egg as the bird’s target therefore underlines the importance of history as a powerful and influential construct: in basic terms, history becomes power. The one who controls history is therefore in a strong position to benefit from power relations.

Beyond contextual knowledge, there are other possible interpretations. The egg could represent offspring from the bird; as such, the bird could be reaching out to its child in order to teach it, protect it, or just be nearer to it. In this case, the inter-generational relationship comes to the fore, as the image points out the importance of reaching out to younger people in order to steer them on the right path. Representing the younger generation as unborn also underlines their lack of knowledge, unawareness, and fragility and reinforces the importance of reaching out to them before other competing influences negatively affect them. Without the egg on the back of the bird, the importance of arching backward still highlights the necessity to return. Not having an object in mind implies that returning to the past is not only intended for issues of societal importance; accessing the banal can also yield positives in moving forward.

In representing a thought or maxim, the Sankofa symbol connects with its audience by complicating the interplay between the image and the message it conveys (or is supposed to convey). Similar to mainstream examples of concrete poetry, Sankofa condenses information in order to interrogate the relationship between constituent parts and the whole. While the association between Sankofa and its conceptualization implies a limited set of possible meanings, when viewed in the context of concrete poetry these meanings explode the boundary while interrogating the notions of concrete poetry. Placing Sankofa in conversation with examples of electronic concrete poetry by Poundstone and Brian Kim Stefans allows us to explore the uniqueness of Sankofa. For example, Sankofa’s connection to orality largely lies in its inherent story and association with community and folklore, while these individually created works typically interpret the issue of sound very differently from African perspectives on orality. In other words, the aural aspect of the signifier is intricately woven into its orality; this unique feature helps us to think more about the ways in which sound and image coalesce, even in a multimedia space.

R. P. Draper’s view of concrete poetry as the creation of verbal artifacts that exploit possibilities of sound and space (329), in this light, would consider Sankofa in ways different from modes associated with oral literature. As Walter Ong points out, written texts all have to be related somehow, directly or indirectly, to the world of sound, the natural habitat of language, to yield their meanings (8). Symbols like Sankofa on the other hand include another aural layer in terms of the contextual story, which provides another complex layer of grounding. Irrespective of whether the Sankofa symbol is the original or the bird, the story therefore performs the role of the contextual signifier. With this in mind, a prominent Western example of concrete poetry such as “The Dreamlife of Letters” by Brian Kim Stefans is rooted in an episteme or paradigm of thinking that favors visual logic. The visual, while also important in the case of Sankofa, is heavily complemented by oral tradition.

As mentioned before, the relationship between oral literature and electronic literature is not one that has been explored. Still, shared features such as the relationship between performance, interface, and audience allow the two genres enough commonality. The versatility of Sankofa is also seen in other spaces; one of such spaces is geo-political, and its ability to cut across borders in this sense primes it as an entry point for electronic literature into African creative endeavor.

Sankofa as an International Signifier

There is a story from 1991 of an excavation of a building during which a cemetery for both freed and enslaved African Americans was discovered in Manhattan, New York. Out of the 419 remains that were found and examined, one particular coffin caught the attention of officials due to a design which the New York Times called “an enigmatic, heart-shaped design”. Upon further investigations, it was suggested and later generally agreed that the emblem was Sankofa. Internationally Sankofa is probably the most widely known of the Adinkra symbols, with its popularity undoubtedly tied to the significance imbued in it by members of the African diaspora who, according to Ann Reed in “Diaspora Tourism: The Heritage of Slavery in Ghana” employ it as a connection to Africa as their motherland (528). Aside this early example, there are more contemporary uses of Sankofa, one of the most famous being the singer Janet Jackson, who has a Sankofa tattoo on her wrist. Furthermore, there are many commercial enterprises, museums, tours to Africa from America, and even films and books that use the name Sankofa. The symbol is thus marketed to Africans of the diaspora as artificial memory since the past is physically inaccessible. Temple notes that in most African Diasporic communities, Sankofa has a formal legacy in relation to forming a unique identity (128). The constructed-ness of this artifact does not necessarily undermine authenticity among Diasporic Africans, especially due to the unique tragedy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

While this connection stresses temporal, emotional and political concerns, other adaptations of Sankofa range from tattoos through jewelry, attire and other products. One cannot expect every single use of Sankofa to necessarily partake in the notion of a return. Like any other fashion trend that goes viral, interpretation will move in multiple and sometimes competing directions. There is a threat posed for instance by Chinese artisans who mass-produce cheap and affordable imitations of Adinkra products (Boateng 2011). Sankofa as a visual symbol thus circulates as a commodity, available everywhere and fetishized as a result. With this in mind, practitioners of electronic literature can appropriate such symbols to creative ends, whether familiar or not.


This essay has attempted to read a symbol in oral literature as an example of concrete poetry, inspired by Rachel Blau Duplessis’s argument that the poetic effect of a work arises from the interplay between page and text space. McAllister argues that this interaction prioritizes gaps in poetry, focusing on meaning through a negotiation of these gaps (236). This argument is radically extended in this essay, as the poetic effect of the Adinkra symbol is seen in physical and oral terms. The iconicity of Sankofa is thereby informed by familiarity and context, even though these factors are not binding in how the symbol can be interpreted.

When Michael Herzfeld defines iconicity as the principle of signification that is derived from semblance (28), he grounds the importance of a signifier in the issue of familiarity. This linkage is vital because social connections within any given field of communication are established on a set of agreed upon codes and conventions. These connections therefore appear “natural” and are thus “effective in creating self-evidence” Herzfeld notes (27). An implicit understanding of the use and value of these signs, in other words, informs an engagement with icons. One has to keep in mind that interpretation of these signs is relative and therefore dependent on a set of complex situations. Irrespective of how culturally embedded these codes and conventions are, the lack of an inherency gestures to arbitrariness. Signifiers are unstable entities that shift meaning due to prevailing conditions and contexts. The derivation from semblance, then, has to make space for semblance as defined by interplay between the members of the communicative field in context.

As Kwame Appiah argues in his seminal book In My Father’s House, literacy enables the “modern” image of knowledge as something that is constantly being remade – the economic logic of modernity is what makes this possible (133). The anxiety that informs the tendency to make and remake introduces the question of economics

Both Adinkra and concrete poetry can learn from each other in the context of new media: concrete poetry is usually not thought of in political terms. The politics of memory and ownership with regards to Adinkra is not only an international issue due to the actions of some Chinese entrepreneurs. Historically, Adinkra has been claimed by different ethnic groups in Ghana – the Ewe have claimed ownership (Boateng 117) while the Asante who are conventionally accepted as the owners, according to their own oral tradition, seized the technology behind fashioning the symbols from a subjugated leader of a neighboring kingdom. On the reverse side, Adinkra explodes its meanings when viewed as concrete poetry. The “loss of the sacred” leads to novel ways of understanding these symbols.

Humans have always employed images to make sense of the world – the images can eventually influence communication by becoming a screen rather than a map.

One disadvantage of a writing culture is that it presumes a circulation and loss of memory of a culture that does not emphasize literal writing. As an icon that generates both narrative and memory, Sankofa occludes context through a simultaneous loss and repetition of context. Adinkra symbols therefore present a useful avenue for thinking about new media because of their iconic nature coupled with the tendency to be hung up on text. Rather than think about symbols, in other words, there is the risk of privileging text. In working against this notion, Adinkra gives us a better approach to thinking about the visual aspects of electronic literature rather than textual approaches even though they start from the iconic.


Figure 1: Original Sankofa Symbol
Figure 2: Sankofa Bird without the Object on its Back
Figure 3: Sankofa Bird Picking Object from its Back

Works Cited

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Appiah, Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Arthur, Kojo. Cloth as Metaphor: (Re)reading the Adinkra Cloth Symbols of the Akan of Ghana. Legon: Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems, 2001.

“Augusto De Campos.” Augusto De Campos - Site Oficial - UOL. N.p., n.d. Accessed 12 Feb. 2016. http://www2.uol.com.br/augustodecampos/home.htm.

Bayard, Caroline Anne. Concrete Poetry in Canada and Quebec, 1963-1975. ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 1977.

Boateng, Boatema. The Copyright Thing Doesn't Work here: Adinkra and Kente Cloth and Intellectual Property in Ghana. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Bohn, Willard. “Concrete Poetry.” American Poets and Poetry: From the Colonial Era to the Present. Eds. Jeffrey Gray, Mary McAleer Balkun, and James McCorkle. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2015. 119-20.

Bohn, Willard. Modern Visual Poetry. Newark: U of Delaware, 2001.

Corrêa, Marina. “Concrete Poetry as an International Movement Viewed by Augusto De Campos: An Interview.” Ubu. Ubuweb, Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Davidson, Michael. Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997.

Draper, R. P. “Concrete Poetry.” New Literary History 2.2 (1971): 329-40. https://doi.org/10.2307/468606.

Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word. New York: Granary Books, 1998.

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Literature in Africa. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2012.

Gikandi, Simon. “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference.” Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003): 455-80. https://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2003.0062.

Gillian Engberg. Concrete Poetry. 106 Vol. Chicago: Booklist Publications, 2009.

Herzfeld, Michael. Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-state. New York: Routledge, 1997.

MacDonald, Jean. “Adinkra Symbols of West Africa: Sankofa.” Adinkra Symbols of West Africa: Sankofa. Well-Tempered, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. http://www.adinkra.org/htmls/adinkra/sank.htm.

Ofori-Ansa Kwaku. “Identification and Validation of the Sankofa Symbol.” Update: Newsletter of the African Burial Ground and Five Points Archaeological Projects I (1995): 9.

Quarcoo, Alfred K. The Language of Adinkra Symbols. Accra, University of Ghana, 1994.

Reed, Ann. “Diaspora Tourism: The Heritage of Slavery in Ghana” in A Companion to Diaspora and Transnationalism. Ed. Ato Quayson and Girish Daswani. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.

Seeman, Erik R. “Reassessing the 'Sankofa Symbol' in New York's African Burial Ground.” William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History and Culture 67.1 (2010): 101-122. https://doi.org/10.5309/willmaryquar.67.1.101.

  1. Poets who postulate their theory through poetics range from William Wordsworth through Kofi Awoonor to T.S. Eliot; none of which, however, is the focus of this essay.
  2. Concrete poetry has expanded from this initial definition, as will be shown in this essay.
  3. In this book, Bohn also includes a chapter entitled “Brazilian Concrete Poetry” and by this mere act strengthens sensory associations as he examines concrete poetry in tandem with the visual.
  4. Brian McAllister posits that visual poetry blurs formal boundaries between the poetic and the visual, and the organization of the text can matter even more than the semantic content (234).
  5. McAllister contends that visual poetry blurs formal boundaries between the poetic and the visual, and like concrete poetry, the organization of the text can matter even more than the semantic content (234).
  6. Even aside collections of different types of African literature that cut across drama, prose, and poetry, poetry-specific anthologies like The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry and New African Poetry: An Anthology for instance tend to not so much overlook concrete poetry as to not even mention concrete poetry in passing, a dearth that underlines the absence of the genre within African poetry scholarly and non-scholarly conversations.
  7. Willard Bohn traces the evolution of concrete poetry from print to electronic media, and posits further that the availability of different types of electronic media has encouraged poets to redefine art and poetry in revolutionary ways (141). Similarly, in Prehistoric Digital Poetry Chris Funkhouser identifies concrete poetry as one of the major influences on electronic literature (9-11)
  8. According to Funkhouser, both concrete poets and digital poets approach anthropography through processing and redefining the “language of ‘original’ writings”; via direct incorporation of external elements (such as multiple languages, images and symbols); and in the “mechanical presentation” of the resultant work (230).
  9. Artistic influence between Africa and Europe is well documented, including Pablo Picasso’s imitation of traditional African forms, as shown in “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference” by Simon Gikandi; and the influence of modernists such as James Joyce on Wole Soyinka (seen in Biodun Jeyifo’s Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, and Postcolonialism).
  10. Ruth Finnegan explains this point in Oral Literature in Africa (373-375).
  11. For more contextual information, see Alfred K. Quarcoo’s The Language of Adinkra Symbols.
  12. While Owusu-Sampah opines that Adinkra symbols were created in the 19th century (6), Quarcoo traces Adinkra as far back as to the early 1700s.
  13. The Website http://adinkra.org/ has an exhaustive list of Adinkra symbols.
  14. In The Language of Adinkra Symbols, Alfred Quarcoo explains further that the symbol is a constant reminder on the need to learn from or “pick up the gems” from the past, since not all parts of the past are shameful; indeed, the future may be profitably built on these gems of the past, which “must be picked up from behind and carried forward on the march” (17).
  15. In African Philosophy: An Overview and a Critique of the Philosophical Significance of African Oral Literature, Victor Ahamefule further explains the relationship between the audience, narrator, and narrative situation (36, 40-41).
  16. Karin Barber notes in “Text and Performance in Africa” that attaching verbal expressions to material objects, as is the case in Adinkra symbols, testifies to the “impulse to generate verbal formulations that pass over space and time by means of an objective correlative; thus such objects “transcend time, to fix or trap text in a material form” (327).
  17. This argument hearkens to the tradition made prominent in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where many Igbo words remain untranslated because there are no English equivalents.
  18. In Cloth as Metaphor: (Re)reading the Adinkra Cloth Symbols of the Akan of Ghana, Kojo Arthur identifies three different Adinkra symbols that signify this proverb (38, 76, 154)
  19. Even though the historian Erik R. Seeman expressed doubt as to the legitimacy of the claim in “Reassessing the “Sankofa Symbol” in New York’s African Burial Ground”, scholarship by the likes of Kwaku Ofori-Ansa and Michael Blakey have sought to validate the symbol as indeed Sankofa.