Afam Akeh “I Returm To Okigbo” continued from previous page
Decades after Okigbo’s death, incidents in the experiences of some African admirers of his work still refer to his life and work. One of such Okigbo-related incidents is narrated by Robert Fraser in Ben Okri: Towards the Invisible City, his introduction to the work of the novelist. Okri’s respect for the work and memory of Okigbo was a precipitate factor in that minor 1991 incident at Cambridge University. Indeed Okigbo’s influence is significantly evident in Okri’s first collection of poems, An African Elegy (1992). I believe it is fair to observe that though Leopold Sedar Senghor was identified as the early champion of the African way of modern poetry, it was actually Chris Okigbo and Okot p’Bitek who provided the great poems of that poetics. But Okigbo the internationalist might have denied that dubious honour. Not that p’Bitek and Okigbo were the only capable African practitioners, or that other attempts at styling modern African poetry are inauthentic, but that in ‘Song of Lawino’, ‘Song of Ocol’ [Okot p’Bitek] and ‘Paths of Thunder’ [Chris Okigbo], the modern poetry of Africa found its earliest authentic masterpieces, its great show poems, or “anthem poems” as Nigerian critic Pius Adesanmi might call them.
From Okigbo to the other legendary voices of African poetry is actually more travel than might be expected by the initiate. Wole Soyinka, Augustinho Neto, Dennis Brutus, Tchicaya U Tam’si, Jean-Baptiste Tati-Loutard, Lenrie Peters, Kwesi Brew. Gabriel Okara, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, David Rubadiri, Mazisi Kunene Kofi Awoonor, Clark-Bekederemo, Birago Diop, David Diop, Arthur Nortje, Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote, Jack Mapanje and even younger pathfinders like Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Dambudzo Marachera, Tanure Ojaide, Syl Cheney-Coker and Kofi Anyidoho are all of the same African tradition of poetry as Okigbo. But they also offer other exciting interpretations or possibilities of that variable poetics. This is an incomplete list, of course, not including some other significant Africans who have also written poetry, sometimes winning awards for it – writers like Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah and Micere Mugo, who have been better received and honoured as novelists or playwrights. Other things can be observed about the list. It is unconsciously patriarchal. Recent poetry in Africa has moved to include, publish and appreciate more of the practice from women. Starting from the Molara Ogundipes to the Kola Boofs, Toyin Adewale-Gabriels and Gabeba Baderoons, and the many others playing overseas venues principally as performance poets, poetry from African women is becoming just as varied and empowered as the poetry from African male writers. There remain serious performance, translation, literacy and economic challenges to the production and appreciation of African poetry but the poet of Labyrinths, accused of elitism in his time, might be pleasantly surprised today at how varied and inclusive, if not quite populist, his favoured art has become.
In rediscovering or recovering poetry through Okigbo, it is important to remember that he loved and lived his art. He often revised his work, hunting that moment of mastery which might have eluded his resolve at earlier attempts. Older Nigerian writers and other intellectuals who were associated with Okigbo in his lifetime agree that he was in love with his poetry. This might seem unsurprising. All poets love their art, don’t they? Well, not quite. You commit to nurturing what you love. You will hone it to brilliance. You would never think of poorly presenting or representing that thing you love in the public domain. But it is the case, these days, because of the ease of publication, multiplicity of media and the greater exposure of everything and everyone to everything and everyone else, that a greater temptation now exists for would-be poets to focus not on the perfection of their craft but on its placement, on playing the system. There are opportunity providers outside Africa, who are sometimes inundated with unsatisfactory material from young African writers and left with no option but to help and allow passage to whatever is seeking passage or approval. But marking up Africans or African initiatives because the material is out of Africa is just as bad as marking down Africans for the same reason. It is not on record that Okigbo’s poetry won many prizes and was thus dependant on that kind of validation. For him, there were no unmerited media appearances and references for work or an oeuvre still evidently at an inchoate stage of development. His work recommended itself and it continues to be studied, revisited, emulated, reviewed and honoured many years after his death, by his peers and by the generations after them. Some degree of self-packaging and promotion is unavoidable in the writing trade. But more important to Okigbo was his commitment to excellence and craft.
It is never quite possible to wholly recapture that early flush of excitement with which a romantic liaison begins. But none of those I know who encountered Okigbo in their youth, and were smitten in much the same manner as I was, have become bitter and bored with the relationship. Some of the excitement may wear off with the years,
SENTINEL POETRY (ONLINE) #42
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002
MAY 2006 ISSN 1479-425X Editor: Amatoritsero Ede