The Example of J. P. Clark, By Ogaga Ifowodo
JP’s poetry, Irele asserted, “provided the sounding board against which the new generation of Nigerian writers who came after him, especially those who have emerged since the Nigerian Civil War, have sounded their voices and thus found the confidence of their own expression.”
On 14 December 2019, which is ten months ago, I had one of those chance encounters that seem too propitious not to memorialise. So I made the following post, together with photos, on WhatsApp and Facebook, entitled Setting out for Lagos with Prof. J. P. Clark-Bekederemo: “I entered the VIP lounge at the Osubi-Warri Airstrip to catch the morning flight for Lagos then took a seat before looking around. And there was JP, its lone occupant, sitting in a corner, contemplative. I went to greet him — in Isoko, his grandma was from Iyede, as he never fails to tell me. He tapped the seat next to him and bid me sit down. Poet, playwright, memoirist and elder statesman of Nigerian letters. Showed me a new volume of poems to be out next year. Hurray, he is still writing! I started my morning with a Master!”
What I did not add was that I felt shamed by the fact that at eighty-four, John Pepper Clark — he would compound his last name with Bekederemo many years after his fame had been firmly established (but simply JP as he was endearingly known) — had completed yet another manuscript of poems, not mentioning his many plays, while I was still ruminating about just my fifth volume. I swore that day to set to work right away. On the midlife book in which I return to my childhood, hoping to conjure some of the magic of place(s), faces and experiences that shaped my primitive heart, to be captured in fifty-five sections of varying lengths. I’m happy to announce that I have written thirty of them, with seven already accepted for publication in magazines in the U.K. and Germany. I had hoped to present a copy of the published volume to him in Kiagbodo when I visited as he had bid me do during that airport lounge meeting. “You are in Warri. Kiagbodo is nearby. Come and see me,” he had said. And now my regret: I didn’t. So spry he looked at four-score-and-four that I could never have thought his raft would sail beyond our earthly shores a mere ten months after! I wanted to be sure to have something to show him, like a proper Delta son going home to see his father, taking with me not just a bottle of Schnapps (or cognac) but also the manuscript of the new book, at the very least, just like he had shown me his at the airport.
When JP turned eighty, I was in Kiagbodo. And there I said that he taught many of us much younger Nigerian poets how to write. Not literally, of course, but by what — adapting the title of his famous essay, “The Example of Shakespeare” — we might call “The Example of J. P. Clark.” With Wole Soyinka, the fledgling poet is bound to feel not a little intimidated: the sheer density and complexity of thought and diction, syntax and semantics, might easily make him or her think that poetry was perhaps a dream too far. And with Christopher Okigbo, his lyricism would be so seductive that the would-be poet would rush to crank out lines that she would soon learn will not and cannot do: Okigbo’s learnedness and sophistication-writ-large in his far-ranging allusions and even direct appropriations carefully camouflaged by his inimitable sleights-of-hand will soon suggest that it is not even midnight yet, never mind morning, for him on creation day! But with JP, and I must add, Gabriel Okara, the aspiring poet can try. I mean, you can teach a whole poetry workshop on what poetry is, and how to write it — image, metaphor, concision, figurative language — with nineteen words and a dash, as in the universally acclaimed poem,
running splash of rust
and gold—flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun.
When I made my claim in Kiagbodo, I had not known that the departed doyen of literary criticism in Nigeria, Professor Abiola Irele, had expressed a similar sentiment. JP’s work, says Irele, “assumed a specific historic significance in the evolution of Nigerian, and indeed, African poetry in English, for it is indisputable that his early efforts were central to both the thematic re-orientation and profound transformation of idiom that led to the decisive advance that the new poetry came to represent.” Speaking of the crucial role played in the constitution of Nigerian and African literature by JP’s early poems in The Horn, the literary magazine JP edited in its first year at the University College, Ibadan, Irele says they were marked by their “originality” and “a radical departure in relation to the previous efforts at producing African poetry in English.” Closer to my point, however, was his conclusion. JP’s poetry, Irele asserted, “provided the sounding board against which the new generation of Nigerian writers who came after him, especially those who have emerged since the Nigerian Civil War, have sounded their voices and thus found the confidence of their own expression.” Again, needless to say, not literally, for even where “no conscious debt to him can be traced in the work of younger poets such as Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Harry Garuba, Tanure Ojaide, and Femi Osofisan, they have had of necessity to look to the foreground of Nigerian literature occupied by Clark-Bekederemo and other major writers in order to find their own space.”
I can think of no higher tribute to pay the third of the Fabulous Four of modern Nigerian literature. Christopher Okigbo was first to depart, leaving painfully too soon, consumed by a war he could not bear to merely watch and beating his iron bell into a gun went and joined it. And then Chinua Achebe, who tarried agreeably longer but, alas, while confined in his last three decades to a wheelchair as Nigeria’s treacherous roads tried but failed to kill him in an accident just after being celebrated on his 60th anniversary. May the ancestors preserve the life of Wole Soyinka, the lone lion left in that literary lair of Nigeria’s eternal glory!
Ogaga Ifowodo, a poet, is also a lawyer and principal partner at Remedium Law Partners.