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Structurally, Okara’s love lyric, “The Mystic Drum,” evinces a tripartite ritual pattern of initiation from innocence through intimacy to experience. By comparison to the way of Zen as manifested in the experience of Zen Master, Ch’ing Yuän Wei-hsin, this pattern resolves itself into an emotional and epistemological journey from conventional knowledge (born of innocence) through more intimate knowledge (born of closer apperception of reality) to substantial knowledge (born of experience). The substantial knowledge born of experience empowers the lover to understand that beneath the surface attractiveness of what we know very well (such as the women we love) may lie an abyss (“a cavity”) of the unknown and unknowable “belching darkness.” But experience teaches us, at this stage of substantial knowledge, not to expose ourselves to the dangers of being beholden to this unknown and unknowable reality by keeping our passions under strict control, including the prudent decision to “pack” the “mystic drum” of our innocence and juvenescence, making sure that it does not “beat so loud anymore.”


The present commentary is a revised and updated version of a paper originally entitled “Zen in African Poetry: Gabriel Okara’s ‘The Mystic Drum’” and shared privately with several of my students and academic colleagues at Ibadan, Lagos and Nsukka (Nigeria) and Boston (Massachusetts), USA.



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