Amharic poetry: a short introduction
Amharic is one of over eighty languages and dialects spoken in Ethiopia today. It is the first language of just under a third of the population, but is taught in all Ethiopian schools and is the main language of government. Many writers of other or mixed ethnic backgrounds also use it to reach the largest audience for their work.
Professor Getachew Haile has said that ‘poetry is at home in the Ethiopian mind’, and Solomon Deressa in discussing his long Poem to the Matrix wrote, ‘there is no way to divorce the poem from the land’. Most Amharic proverbs and idioms are in the form of poems, as are song lyrics, prayers and hymns; all of which find their way into everyday speech. There are two basic types of Amharic poetry: get’em and q’ine. The word get’em means rhyme, but a get’em poem also implies the rhythmic, meaningful expression of an idea. There are many different structures of get’em, according to rhythmical patterns, types of rhyme, numbers of lines; but arguably the most common distinction is by number of syllables per line, as classified over the years:
1-4 syllables per line. . . . . . Buhe Belu Bet
5 (or 10) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sengo Megen Bet
7. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sedefo Bet or Wodaj Semede Bet
8. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Medina Bet
12 (2 x 6) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yewel Bet
16. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Tsegaye Bet
18. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yohannes Bet
Traditionally some of these lines have been associated with:
children’s songs. . . . . . . . . . . Buhe Belu Bet
praise songs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sengo Megen Bet
azmari (minstrel) songs. . . . Yewel Bet
thanksgiving songs. . . . . . . . Sedefo Bet, Wodaj Semede Bet, Medina Bet
Q’ine are religious themed poems traditionally composed in Ge’ez (the precursor of Amharic, now largely confined to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). Students learn in church schools how to improvise and recite eleven types of q’ine for performance during church services. They also learn to use semenna worq, ‘wax and gold’, so that the poem has a surface meaning (wax) and a deeper hidden meaning (gold), using puns and homonyms. But a mixture of playfulness and political expedience (you cannot always say what you think in Ethiopia without being locked up…) means that wax and gold is a common feature now of all Amharic poetry: it can make solemn or righteous poems naughty or critical; it can add a profane or sexual subtext to the most poker-faced of religious poems; it is explainable in other languages, but almost always untranslateable.
Before the twentieth century, poems were not often written down, and there is still a thriving oral literature that only occasionally reaches the page. War cries and boasts (q’ererto and fokara) are common to many if not all cultures but have been particularly celebrated and enjoyed in Ethiopia down the centuries. Wailing songs are normally sung by professional mourners (alqash) who study the biography of the dear departed and compose songs lamenting that dust has dared to consume such a brave person, such a handsome man or beautiful woman, such a generous person, a good mother or father etc. At the other end of the spectrum, insult poems were even sometimes used in the law courts to attack and discredit an opponent.
Written poetry only properly emerged after the liberation of Ethiopia from the Italian occupation in 1941. Haile Selassie’s regime opened many new schools and universities during the 1950s and ’60s. As students were often despatched abroad to help modernise the country, the scope of poems and their influences widened. For example, Kebede Mikael’s morality tales, ostensibly for children, often sound like witty Christian Ethiopian versions of Aesop (himself of course rumoured to have been Ethiopian).
Despite the relative stability of this period prior to the 1974 Revolution which ousted Haile Selassie, protest and criticism thrived, particularly in the student movement, for example in the poems of Gemoraw, who famously recited his poem lambasting inventors for the misuse of their inventions, Bereqete mergem (Gift of a Curse), at a regular poetry event in Addis Ababa University, prompting a furious Haile Selassie to get up and walk out. The fact that Haile Selassie attended such events is testament to the power of poetry as a mainstream method of expression: it was normal for the best poems of the year to be read over loudspeakers to crowds around the football field on college open days.
Some of these poets, like Gemoraw, were forced into exile. Other poets have managed to stay in Ethiopia but still throw critical bombs, using wax and gold or humour to deflect reprisal; for example, Nebiy Mekonnen’s football/election chant ‘it’s rigged…it’s rigged…it’s rigged…’ (My continent’s election song) or Fekade Azeze’s Boiling Weeds or Solomon Moges’ sarcastic Let’s burn Axum down!
But Amharic poetry is not all about protest, of course. It discusses many difficult and distressing problems but it also likes to talk about love and sex, the pleasures of music, smoking, good food, even if sometimes there may be a ‘gold’ subtext which is socially or politically critical, eg in Zewdu Milikit’s gentle ridicule of fat cats, My silly stomach, or in Mekdes Jemberu’s swaggering City chicken.
These poets write their own concerns but these include important public issues, like how to hold such an ethnically diverse country as Ethiopia together, and what it even means to be Ethiopian today, when so many have dual residency and flit between USA, Europe and Ethiopia. So, at the first ever Ethiopian Literary Festival in Dalston, east London, in February 2019, there was a line-up of exciting poets performing in Amharic, but also an interview in English with Lemn Sissay, the celebrated Ethio-British poet and dramatist who packs halls in Addis Abeba as well as UK whenever he gives a reading. Lemn is an ambassador for many good causes, but he also highlights the growing self-confidence of Ethiopian poets today, wherever they are, whichever passport they hold, whichever language they write in.
Chris Beckett & Alemu Tebeje,
when the goddess Atete appears
bedecked with beads,
let’s drape her in sheets of light
strew the floor with grasses
and splash our colours for her…
satin, fierier than silk,
auburn, fairer than coffee,
gleaming yellow, purer than the sun
and grey, as pale as bitterness
where white and black bleed into each other,
the crimson of embers
cultured lavender, bright as eternity,
jet black that snuffs the light and tames it
and misty green, cradle of life
and mellow yolk-distilled brown
and pearly sapphire, heaven’s teardrop,
ultramarine blue like the Madonna’s dress
and beige, taupe, fawn, russet, ruddy,
calm this side of clamour,
rush beyond rush,
infinities of colour outstripping enumeration,
an ornate basketry where interweaving grasses jostle
for the Divine Feminine,
like truth turned tale,
like all of spring and summer, autumn, winter,
as if one life could ever satisfy a life
Work in progress
Work in progress growing continually
Work in progress growing continuawhiling away the days.
A small room,
A small roshelter from the world’s ills.
A small chair
Work in progress that hugs
Work in progress growing continuathat braces.
Work in progress worn out comfortably
Work in progress growing continuathread-bare.
Work in progress that have served
Work in progress growing continuathat have worked.
A decanter, a plate, water
Work in progress water to wash in.
A towel, rough.
A stove, charcoal fire,
Work in progress fire, warmth.
A crumb of bread,
Work in progress milk in a bottle
Work in progress growing continuafruit on a plate.
Work in progress half gone,
Work in progress growing continuasmoking.
A letter, a note-book of memories,
Work in progress growing continuaa newspaper.
Kinsmen in a frame,
Work in progress photo of a friend.
A bedside lamp,
Work in progress on the wall shadows
Work in progress growing continuaa picture.
Work in progress books,
Work in progress growing continuabooks
A bedside lamp(to lean on, to run to, to hide in)
that are company,
Work in progress that teach,
Work in progress growing continuathat bait a dialogue.
A bed, a mattress, a pillow
A bed, a mattress, a bed to sink into
Work in progress growing continuathat bait repose.
A bed, a mattress, a bed sleep,
Work in progress growing continuathat bait sleep.
A bed, a mattress, a bed also many
Work in progress growing continuathat bait many others.
ገብረ ክርስቶስ ደስታ
Gebre Kristos Desta
I left Africa carrying my skin
and my father’s thick ringlets
braids were for children,
tussled locks for grown women
eleven and unaware
a black child in a white playground
learns new words
girls flock to touch a tamed head
weaved by loving hands
and chemical cravings set in
It’s your crown says my mother
whose gorgeous mane gets wrapped tight
rolled ready for feverish waves
that convert to straight
what a word
These three poems and introductory essay are from Songs We Learn from Trees, edited by Chris Beckett & Alemu Tebeje and published by Carcanet Press. The essay has been lightly edited for republication online.
Readers can purchase Songs We Learn from Trees direct from Carcanet.
Image credit: Wosene Worke Kosrof, Color of Words IX [detail], acrylic on linen, 2002
This is part of RHYTHM, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring rhythm as individual and collective, as poetic and biological, and the ways that rhythm dictates life. RHYTHM is conceived and edited by Rachel Goldblatt.