As a West African artist, I am very intrigued by the effects of culture on art. I have come to see that culture strongly influences art  — directly and indirectly, passively and aggressively. It is not surprising to see how many historical events in different countries affect the way we write poetry. Of course, no one country has only one kind of poetry, but there is always a specific theme or topic that inspires the way a country writes poetry.

For example, in African countries, a lot of poems talk about the pain and struggles of Africans during and after colonization. Many writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mstshali write about all sorts of topics, but they focus a lot on the drastic effect of European colonization in Africa and the almost irreversible devastation of the continent. These poems usually have an element of hope to them, even though the voice of the poet seemed like that of a hopeless person at first — like the poem “Do Not Fear the Past” by Zuhura Seng’enge, a Tanzanian poet. Her poem expresses the deep anxieties and fears of Africans in the present age of confusion due to colonization.

“Do not fear the past.

It is ugly

but it is ours,

Do not hold on to lies

That you were fed when you were young.

Learn the history of your people

Find the truth

to free your soul from evil…”

Seng’enge encourages Africans to rise from the ashes and push forward despite the crippling effects of the past. Sometimes, the poet writes in pure anguish and leaves no form of hope in the hearts of the readers. Like Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s “Nightfall in Soweto.”

“Nightfall comes like

a dreaded disease

seeping through the pores

of a healthy body

and ravaging it beyond repair …”

Mtshali’s poem talks about the suffering of black South Africans at night because of segregation.

Similarly, in Central America, poetry is used to express the groanings of the unheard due to colonization and war.

In Honduras, “poetry tends to be more patriotic, and it is influenced by Spanish colonialism,” says Keila Funez, a Nursing major from Honduras.

According to Funez, poets like Augusto Coello and Froylan Turicos write about “history through the eyes of nature. They compare the natural beauty of Honduras before and after colonialism.” This is a very beautiful and creative form of poetry that sometimes loses its meaning when translated to English but still captures the essence of the writer.

Honduras’ National Anthem by Coello is a beautiful example of Honduran poetry. It portrays Honduras as a virgin and the land as a natural beauty and captures how colonialism stripped away the natural beauty of the virgin land.

“India virgen y hermosa dormías

De tus mares al canto sonoro,

Cuando echada en tus cuencas de oro

El audaz navegante te halló;

Y al mirar tu belleza extasiado

Al influjo ideal de tu encanto,

La orla azul de tu espléndido manto

Con su beso de amor consagró.”


“Indian maiden, virgin and beautiful you slept,

Of your seas to the resonant song,

When lying in your valleys of gold,

The bold navigator found you;

And on seeing your enrapturing beauty,

To the inflowing ideal of your enchantment,

The blue hem of your splendid mantle

With your kiss of blessed love.”

(English translation)

In Japan, one type of poetry is called haiku, and it is a very simple yet very intriguing. It encourages readers to be a little more sensitive while reading and to appreciate the beauty of the poem.

“The lamp once out
Cool stars enter
The window frame.”

The above poem by Natsume Sosuke is a perfect example of a haiku.

“He is one of my favorite authors” says Alana Bates, an Animation major and lover of Japanese culture. “I love haiku poems because they are so constrained, so it takes a lot of skill to convey so much beauty in three short lines. They are normally about aspects of nature or using aspects of nature to symbolize the everyday experience in life. It is a good reflection of some of the things Japanese culture places value on, not only nature but also wabi sabi aesthetics. Wabi sabi is an appreciation not only for that which is imperfect, but also for that which is impermanent.”

From the United States of America, this light-hearted poem by an unknown poet talks about a serious issue in the Western world, and this poem captures the minds of people who are fascinated by such topics and the humour that Americans like.

“Three Monkey’s sat in a coconut tree,

discussing things as they’re said to be….

said listen you two…”

There is a certain rumor that can’t be true,

that man descended from our Noble race;

the very idea is a disgrace….”

“A theme in the poem is that a lower life form (monkeys) can easily recognize what many intellectuals cannot,” says professor Michael Rowley, “that we are separate from the animals; we did not evolve; we were created in the image of God. And in a cynical analysis, even the monkeys agree.”

Every country has major topics that heavily influence art within that country. It may be colonialism or evolution or nature and beauty. One thing is sure, art reflects the values of a culture.