Content Analysis of Jared Angira’s “If”

“If” by Jared Angira is a simple poem that conveys the poetic persona’s superstitious beliefs and the whimsical nature of his interpretations

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Jared Angira is a notable Kenyan poet whose poems often critique the social injustice in post-colonial Kenyan society. His poems also address the challenges of nation-building and cultural identity. His poem, “If,” which is the focus of this discourse, is a pointer to how superstition is an integral part of the African belief system. It clearly illustrates the place of superstitions across African communities and ethnic groups. The superstitions reeled out in the poem are not peculiar to a particular African community or ethnic group. They cut across several African communities and ethnic groups. Take for example, the knocking of one’s right foot or left foot on a stone, as illustrated in the second stanza of the poem. It is a prominent part of an inexhaustible list of superstitions in the Yoruba belief system, passed from a generation to another, that even the advents of Christianity and Islam have not been able to change.

“If” by Jared Angira is a forty-eight-line poem arranged into eight stanzas. It depicts several ways people attribute meaning to seemingly mundane occurrences. They attach significance to every random event, from encountering animals to stumbling or dreaming, and interpret it as an omen. Knocking one’s right foot, for example, is a good omen and means one should proceed with one’s activities, but knocking the left foot is a bad omen that prompts retreat from where one is going. Similarly, encountering a squirrel brings good luck, while encountering “a cheetah or wild cat” means bad luck, an indication that the poetic persona should not proceed with whatever activity he is undertaking.

The deeply held beliefs in omens, signs, and superstitions are actually communal and not exclusive to the poetic persona. In fact, the speaker’s interpretations of the random events around him are heavily influenced by what his society has ingrained in him. His beliefs are shaped by his community practices, passed down through generations and embedded in the collective consciousness of members of his community. Jared Angira employs a series of contrasts, as shown earlier in this essay, to signify the duality of the mystical significance of these events. The omens can be either good or bad.

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Therefore, “If” by Jared Angira is a simple poem that conveys the poetic persona’s superstitious beliefs and the whimsical nature of his interpretations of events. In the poem, the poetic persona pictures various conditional scenarios where he interprets everyday occurrences as signs of luck or misfortune based on deeply ingrained superstitions.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis of “If”

The title of the poem, if, introduces conditional scenarios and how the society has taught the poetic persona to react in the circumstances that they occur in his everyday interactions.

Stanza 1 (Lines 1-6)

The first stanza sets the tone for the poem by introducing the theme of superstition. The poetic persona believes that encountering a squirrel during a journey brings luck. But if “it’s a cheetah or wild cat that crosses” his path, then he will readily alter the course of his journey because it is a bad omen. This is the universe trying to communicate with the poetic persona. The contrast between a harmless squirrel and the dangerous predators like a cheetah or wild cat gives him insight as to what to expect in the course of his journey.

Stanza 2 (Lines 7-12)

In the second stanza, the poetic persona describes his reaction to stumbling. If he knocks his right foot on a stone “while on a trip,” he interprets it as a positive sign. In his words, “I melt in joy since I shall be overfed.” In other words, it is a sign that something good will happen to him whether in the course of his trip or at the end. However, if it’s his left foot, he sees it as a bad omen. So, he has to “turn and go back” to where he is coming from to avert whatever disaster awaits him. In another instance, it could mean something bad has happened already. This particular superstition is well pronounced in many African cultures.

Stanza 3 (Lines 13-16)

Here, the poetic persona finds joy in a seemingly trivial event: slipping in his shirt with the inside coming out. He interprets this occurrence as a sign that he will be overfed. Now, don’t take the “overfed” word too literally. The speaker’s use of “overfed” can be read as his way of saying the universe has or will take of his needs. This stanza goes on to reinforce the position that every occurrence in Africa has an underlying meaning attributed to it.

Stanza 4 (Lines 17-21)

In the fourth stanza, the poetic persona says if the first person he meets “in the feeble dawn is an old woman”, then, he would turn to his blanket for “it’s all ill luck.” In other words, seeing an old woman first in the morning is believed to be a sign of ill luck. So, the poetic persona is required to go back to sleep to re-awake in order to ward off any traces of bad luck that day.

Stanza 5 (Lines 22-26)

If the poetic persona dreams that his relative has passed away, he wakes up feeling joyous. The reason for his joy is the belief that the relative is well-fed the “previous night.” This particular stanza shows the arbitrariness of superstitions because it is surprising that instead of interpreting this dream as a bad omen or harbinger of grief, the poetic persona interprets it as a sign that his relative is doing quite well.

Stanza 6 (Lines 27-33)

Stanza 6 continues with the interpretation of dreams. The poetic persona says that if he dreams of his own death, he rejoices because it signifies his growth. It brings about joy for him. However, if he dreams of his “ideal girl,” he loses hope because it means he will never have the girl. She will never agree to be his romantic partner.

Stanza 7 (Lines 34-39)

The poetic persona claims that if he wakes up in the morning to find his “teeth shaking and loose,” then it means “they went eating excreta while soul courted in fairyland.” This stanza hints at two things. The first one is a subtle dig at the irrationality of some of these superstitions. The poetic persona could easily have attributed the looseness and shaking of his teeth to a dental issue or natural aging process. The second one is the reinforcement of the African belief in the thin line between the physical and the spiritual realms. Within this belief system, souls can drift from the physical world to the spiritual realm. The bodies left behind during such sojourns are vulnerable to negative influences. In this case, the poetic persona believes that the loose and shaking teeth is as a consequence of his soul’s absence.

Stanza 8 (Lines 40-48)

The poetic persona projects a series of superstitions regarding animal behaviour. He believes that if “a hen crows, it must be killed” because it is a “bad omen.” Similarly, a dog howling instead of barking is interpreted as a sign of imminent death for the village owner.

The poetic persona ends his expose of superstitions with one that says if he walks on his head, then he is dead. This is quite reasonable because human beings do not walk on their heads. And it is believed in some quarters of African spirituality that spirits and the dead walk on their heads.

Figures of Speech in “If”

Irony

There is an instance of irony in lines 27-28:

and if I dream I am dead
I rejoice.

Dreaming of one’s death typically evokes fear or sadness, yet the poetic persona rejoices because he sees it as a sign of growth or transformation. There are others too:

Lines 30-33:
and if I dream
of my ideal girl
then I lose hope
the answer is no.

Lines 22-26:
I dream my relative dead
in midst of sweet slumbers
I wake in joy
knowing he’s overfed
the previous night.

Symbolism

“If” by Jared Angira is suffused with symbolisms. Certain animals and actions are used as symbols of luck or misfortune. For example, encountering as squirrel symbolises luck, while stumbling with the left foot is seen as a bad omen. These symbols contribute to the mystical atmosphere in the poem.

Repetition

“I turn and go back.” (l. 6 and 12)

The poem is also characterised by “if . . . then” statements. It’s in lines 1-3, 30-33, and 47-48.

Enjambment

The poem is characterised by run-on lines. All through the poem, sentences keep running from one line into the next. A good example of this is in the first stanza:

Lines 1-6:
a squirrel crosses my way
while on a trip
then luck is mine
but when it’s a cheetah
or wild cat that crosses there
I turn and go back

The entire stanza is a single compound complex sentence that runs from line 1 to 6.

Transferred Epithet

There is an instance of transferred epithet in line 18: “feeble dawn.” While “feeble” syntactically modifies “dawn,” it semantically describes the “old woman” the poetic persona meets. In other words, the poet transferred the quality of the old woman to dawn

Allusion

Although allusion is not explicitly used in the poem, the poem in its entirety alludes to the superstitions peculiar to some of African cultures. Besides, as ridiculous as it may sound, each superstition has one background story or the other that informs its existence and practice.

Further Reading:

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