Sentinel Poetry (Online) #57 ISSN 1479-425X
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...since December 2002
The Masquerade of Masquerades
Between the 19th and 23rd September 2007, the first Christopher Okigbo International Conference will be held in Boston, USA. Everyone who is anyone in African Literature who can, will be there. The great masquerade may have discarded its mask in the Biafra-Nigeria battlefield, but the spirit behind the mask lives, and it has crossed oceans to dance in the United States of America.
Christopher Okigbo holds a different meaning to everyone who encounters him. Like a god whose worshippers refuse to forget, he has refused to die. Students and teachers of Okigbo’s poetry continue to find efficacy in his utterances and fulfilment in his prophesies. Even the utterances of the god that cannot be understood are hung on to and enjoyed. A great worker with words, I can only say from all pointers that Okigbo was great because he was great at what he did. He was powerfully eloquent because he said what he wanted to say, how he wanted to say it and most importantly he meant every word of what he said.
As I struggled to cook up some sort of editorial for this issue, I became aware that there is not a lot I can say about Okigbo that greater Okigbo scholars have not said. I turned to the official website of the Christopher Okigbo Foundation where Labyrinths, his post-humous collection of poetry is described as “an exacting, burning and truthful work from beginning to end. Prophetic and visionary, his words were first heard by his equals. An outstanding personality, Christopher Okigbo tells everyone not to be confined by their cultural, political, artistic, creative and humane limits.”
The exactitude, fire and truth in his work of course come alive only when one is in the same wavelength as him. From everything I have read about Christopher Okigbo, he was at once a simple and somewhat complicated person. The way he worked with words still astounds today as it probably astounded those who heard him more than 40 years ago, especially with his music. Personally, I have only truly appreciated what everyone seems to go on about Okigbo when I have heard somebody read his work out loud. I have no idea whether he was a great reader of his own poetry. If he was, his premature passing robbed the world of what would have been an unforgettable experience.
I was thankful Ben Okri’s comments on Labyrinths and Okigbo; “an interlinked volume of poems. Christopher Okigbo was an extraordinarily gifted poet who died in 1967 during the civil war in Nigeria. It is his only volume of poems, a meditation on everything from our origins to our obscure destinies; it's autobiographical; and it's a piercing lament on war. I think of him as our Lorca. He belongs to that class of poet who brings out one work and that work is a world. It says everything he needed to say in his lifetime. It should be read by everyone in every country. I can't think of him without the shadow of tears in my heart.”
I immediately found the easy way to dance with the big masquerade; get one or two people to talk about him and dig out what people have said to me a while ago in interviews, conversations, or simple e-mail exchanges of discovery.
The first person I returned to was Obi Nwakanma for a good reason. Obi Nwakanma has devoted nearly seventeen years writing the biography of Christopher Okigbo. He did not know Okigbo in life, but I think that when one spends nearly 20 years researching and writing about somebody’s life, he will know what he is talking about.
Christopher Okigbo, Obi Nwakanma and I have one thing in common – we are all Umuahians – meaning that we all attended Government College Umuahia. Therefore though we are generations apart, Okigbo left Umuahia in 1950, Nwakanma and I, classmates, left Umuahia in 1983, but dead or alive, in keeping to the Umuahian motto – in unum luceant – we continue to shine as one alongside our other stars including Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Chukwuemeka Ike and a host of others.
Nwakanma has been kind to contribute the short piece The Meaning of Christopher Okigbo to this edition of Sentinel Poetry, but back in 2002, given that Christopher Okigbo died in 1967, it is only natural to talk about him in reference to his contemporaries, however I find everyday that even the poets born decades after him who are reviewed seem to have Christopher Okigbo as one bug they have caught, I had asked Nwakanma; Why is it so difficult to talk about post-1966 poetry in Nigeria without mentioning the name Christopher Okigbo?
I was not quite
seven months old when the first shots rang out on July 6, 1967,
initiating the shooting stage of the Biafran war. That war claimed the
poet, Okigbo, in the very early months. By the time he died, Christopher
Okigbo had established a reputation as the most gifted poet of his
generation - one which had Achebe in the novel, Soyinka in drama, and
Okigbo quite pre-eminent in poetry. Somewhere in between all these was
JP Clark. But Okigbo was absolutely the poet of that generation.
Uche Nduka author of Eel on Reef, the Nigerian poet who spent ages in Bremen, but has now relocated to the United States is one of the poets that is constantly referred to as having been influenced by Christopher Okigbo. I asked him who he thought Christopher Okigbo was and why he is still relevant to African and indeed global poetry.
Uche Nduka: Christopher Okigbo was a man who found himself saddled with the sweetsour burden of poetry. Beginning from his childhood years in Ojoto his hometown in Anambra State in Nigeria, he seemed marked out for the main work of his life through existential trials, religious questionings, adolescent scrapes, intellectual challenges, solitariness, and artistic restlessness. As an adult he was riven by contradictions. A garrulous man who ferociously cultivated silence. An Igbo to the core who saw himself as a citizen of the world. A free thinker who eclectically fashioned his personal religion. A rough-and-tumble personality held spellbound by sentimentality. A humble man who viewed himself and his calling in epic terms. A chaotic man whose capacity for focusing his interest and attention was astounding.
It is not difficult to see why Okigbo's poetry remains relevant/important in African poetics. He wrote with everything in him. He captured the inner and outer fauna of his life. The rituals of his origins gilded the earliest lines he wrote. The oral and the scripted were equally given space in his elegant verses. The worrying politics of his day were masterly addressed in his poems. Love as the centre of the human universe received heightened poeticizings.
His poetic gaze that took in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Asia examplified the activist and prophetic model of the traditional African artist. Okigbo's themes and the ways he freighted them in his work remain tutelary, significant, astute, universal. The seriousness and commitment he brought to his work are hallmarks which generations shall strive to emulate.
To my generation Christopher Okigbo's poetry is both a guide and challenge. To me he is one of the most exciting writers and masters of the literary art I have ever encountered. I shall always remain in his debt.
One of such writers of our generation who also feels she is in Okigbo’s debt is Unoma Azuah, author of Night Songs and Sky-High Flames. I wanted to know from her what Christopher Okigbo meant to her and what he did for African poetry - especially how he facilitated its travel globally.
Unoma Azuah: Christopher Okigbo was one of the most profound and hybrid poets Nigeria ever produced. He was indeed a non-conformist, not just in his ideals as a strong-willed individual but also in the convoluted nature of his poetry. He introduced the world to his African audience, and introduced Africa to his world audience. As a student of Okigbo I was re-awakened to the place and importance of my African traditional religion; I rediscovered the place of Onishe, the river goddess of the Niger even as I held on to my Rosary as a Roman Catholic. Therefore, Okigbo bridged the gap for spaces where most other African poets could not fill; he was, for example, able to expand boundaries from Greece to Ojoto and from a novena to a chant at Idoto's shrine. His was not a philosophy of contradictions, but a philosophy of reconciliation and making the world a foot stool.
Okigbo is one of the most anthologized Nigerian poets. He is often credited as having helped make African poetry international. He is also almost always placed at the very top of the food chain in Nigerian poetry with such big names as JP Clark, Gabriel Okara, Pol Ndu, Okogbule Wonodi appearing as footnotes. In July 2003, I had asked American poet and publisher Stephen Vincent to give me a detached and independent assessment of the 1960’s Nigerian poetry. This is what he said:
Stephen Vincent: Most of the world I first encountered in Nigeria was a long reach from both Williams and my own urban roots. Poetry in sixties Nigeria often seemed academically rooted in European modernism. I could read Christopher Okigbo with respect for his careful ear and phrasing, but I could not connect with the mythic content. Similarly Gabriel Okara could write quite beautifully and, I think, more movingly. J.P. Clark was more solid. His "Abiku" poem still resonates for me. (Parenthetically I and my colleagues in the English Department were able to invite J.P. and Gabriel to give great public readings to students and faculty which I suspect had long term influence on me as well as students). Soyinka's London encounter with the English landlord was (Telephone Conversation), however, in my terms something I could "hear."
Christopher Okigbo would have been 75 years old this year and we celebrate him. He has already had a funeral in Ojoto this year, (see Okigbo: Empty Grave for the Poet), and in the United States the first international conference on his life and works will kick in next week. (See Okigbo Conference Programme). I was going to have others share the space in this month’s issue of Sentinel Poetry, including his daughter, but changed my mind, let this be all about Christopher Okigbo. In due course, I expect that we shall have other special issues of sentinel to celebrate our other gems dead or alive.
Welcome to the Christopher Okigbo edition of Sentinel Poetry (Online).
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