Prof Wangusa @80 is poetry and scholarship personified

Prof Timothy Wangusa.

Prof Timothy Wangusa. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Elgon (Lukingi Masaaba) man, Prof Timothy Wangusa, finally turned 80 on Friday last week, as I had mentioned to you. We readers, best know “Uncle Tim” Wangusa as a poet. But he has been, and still is, a man of stunningly many parts, even in an admittedly and gratefully long life.

This was reflected in the attendance at his birthday party, held at Nakasero Hill in the heart of Kampala. It looked like a grand reunion of who-is-who in the cream of Uganda’s political, academic, literary and even church circles. Apart from writing poetry, Prof Wangusa has served with distinction as a government minister, Member of Parliament, Vice-Chancellor, and a Presidential Adviser, all in addition to his stellar pedagogic, literary and family man roles.

My acquaintance with Wangusa dates back to the beginning of our academic careers in 1969, when we shared a bungalow right next to Queen’s Court (currently Arts Court), the main Humanities teaching area at Makerere. He was embarking on his teaching career after his graduate studies at Leeds and I was a graduate student fresh from Dar. A dyed-in-wool Makererean, Wangusa was instrumental in coaching me into the hybrid “DarMak” product that I eventually became.

Poetic craft

But I will spare you the narrative until Makerere officially celebrates him, within its Makerere@100 festivities, on July 8 this year. Today, I would like to highlight for you what I think are the main features of Timothy Wangusa’s verse, and what makes him tower above us aspirers to the poetic craft. I know many of you already write or aspire to be writers, even of poetry. One of the best ways to become a good writer is to read and study the works of successful writers and try to understand how they do it. The idea is not necessarily to imitate them but to use them as reference points.

Wangusa has published a greater number of substantial poetry volumes than most East African writers I know. Some of them have been translated into various languages, and many critical studies attest to the rare quality of his verse. I propose that his poetic success derives from four main characteristics of his skill, which any aspiring verse writer can profitably emulate. These we can code as language, shape, humour and concern. We will outline each of these with reference to my best-loved piece of all Timothy Wangusa’s verse.

It is a piece that runs, “The Father in the root/The Son in the shoot/The Spirit in the fruit”. Those familiar with Christianity will realise that this is about the Trinity, a fundamental tenet of the faith envisaging God as a three-personed Being. It is the most difficult concept to define or comprehend and most believers leave it at the altar of simple faith.

The daring poet, however, chooses to deploy all that he has to try and grasp at the mystery. His tool is language and he draws on all its resources, sound, structure, suggestive imagery and cultural evocation. We might not understand the mystery, but we are given a palpable and memorable vision of it. We note the absolute economy of usage, giving us not a word more than what is necessary for comprehension. Fond readers imagine that poetry is a flood of words. Poets know that condensation, brevity, is the soul of wit.

Then there is the tantalising balance of the lines of the piece, each of which comprises six words, and all rhyming in the “root/shoot/fruit” sounds. Good written verse is a composition, like a music piece, and its “shape” is not only graphically discernible but also harmoniously audible. This is a far cry from the garbled, jumbled, ungrammatical outpourings and vociferations that are frequently thrown at us in the name of “poetry”.

Verse compositions

Successful verse compositions, like those of Timothy Wangusa, are not achieved by so-called “natural” talent or nebulous “genius” but by serious study and dedicated practice of both language and verse techniques. A person may have an aptitude or inclination towards a skill, but it will only come out best with systematic training, study and dedicated practice.

 We note that all Prof Wangusa’s degrees are in Language, Literature and Poetry. He may have had a natural fascination with language, but he took his fascination to school and the result is the monumental achievement we celebrate today. Some people assume that literary creativity and, now increasingly, church ministry are the only professions anyone can practice without training.

I will yield humour and concern to those who might be recoiling at my hard-line insistence on study and training in literary creativity. Humour means the ability or capacity to look at phenomena from a particular and maybe unexpected angle. This “angling” may amuse us or even make us laugh. But that is only one effect of humour.

Fundamentally, a communicator’s sense of humour leads the reader or listener to see an object, a situation or a concept from a fresh perspective. In Wangusa’s piece, his creative deftness pulls the lofty doctrine of the Trinity from the heights of heaven to the soil of our fields. This makes us relax a little about the hallowed tenet, making our minds gently receptive to the simplicity of its presentation.

Human struggles

Finally, Wangusa’s verse is significant because of its consistently profound concern about our human struggles. The struggles may be existential, political, relational, or spiritual, as in the case of our Trinity piece. Wangusa himself is a remarkably spiritual man, but not in the smug, self-congratulatory way that characterises many of today’s “believers”.

His faith is a struggling, often agonised, but unrelenting search for a working relationship with his Maker. He will soon be publishing a memoir, through which this struggle clearly emerges, as it does through his poetry. Sharing our human concerns through his verse, Wangusa reminds us that poetry is not an exercise in self-indulgence but a strong tool for coming to grips with the many challenges of our existence.

Join me in wishing “Uncle Tim” many more years and many more poems to share with us.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]