A personal voyage around Canon J. P. Clark
In the year 1961, an initial volume of poetry titled, simply, Poems, by John Pepper Clark was published in Ibadan. In the year 1964, some fifty years before America swore in Donald Trump as their 45th President, J.P Clark published America, Their America. In the year 1966, J.P Clark published Ozidi, a triumph of dramatic invention so thoroughly complete in its sweep that it is still a benchmark in the genre even today. Before the decade came to a close, J.P Clark published another collection of poems titled Casualties. The Encyclopedia Britannica made an entry on the poet from Kiagbodo and described him as the most lyrical of Nigerian poets. In those days unlike today, one couldnít just create an encyclopedia entry on oneself.
A poet gives speech to a culture. Once any culture matures sufficiently to have a poet in it, it crosses a threshold which confers maturity. As with humans, there is both birth and infancy with culture. The poet is the Carbon-14 of culture, the age of the culture can be reckoned through the poet. The infant is called an infant because, in the etymology of that word, it is ëunspeakingí. It knows what it wants but can only express itself by crying in its cradle. The infant can be cute or pretty but cannot ever be a poet. There is a knowing, a bank of awareness and consciousness implied in poetry which signifies coming of age. The poet is proof that someone has broken the silence and now speaks not just for himself or herself but for the culture.
John Pepper Clark Bekederemo entered, within a decade of his first published work, into the African literary canon. In his entry into the canon, he, like Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Mabel Segun were fulfilling an aspirational goal of the new Africa they inherited. They were the first reapers on the field and they worked assiduously to make the harvest both ample and durable. J.P Clark distinguished himself in one respect however ñ whereas his contemporaries all entered into the canon mainly through one particular genre within each decade of being published, Clark made canon in not one but three genres before the year 1970. His command of prose, poetry and dramaturgy was already so assured and undeniable that had he created work in only one of those genres, he would still have come to be regarded as a master.
With artistic amplitude that remained at once consciously gladiatorial and deeply cognizant of aesthetic demands, a range of poems meditative, erotic, political, platonic and profoundly imaginative populated the prepuce field of African poetry. To be sure, Clark had the very best competition the African landscape had to offer. From South Africa Esíkia Mphalele and Dennis Brutus; from East Africa Jared Angira and Okot píBitekand from the West coast of Africa Kofi Awoonor, Lenrie Peters, Birago Diop and Kwesi Brew; from home Okigbo and Soyinka. Clark is the kind of writer who would have written his way into reckoning anyway but I like to think he utilized his milieu positively indeed as iron sharpens iron
By 1980 when my father who taught literature in secondary schools made me read, memorize, recall and record with his Sanyo tape recorder Night Rain, Streamside Exchange and Abiku in order to learn how the English tongue could be made to obey the African will, I had come to regard the poet as almost mythical. The naira was stronger than the dollar in 1980 but audio tapes were not cheap. At age ten, one couldnít possibly understand the word-magic in the Clark poems but one could already sense the charge that Clarkís lines carried. A certain current ran through the lit fuse of the poems. Whether oneís initial encounter with the creations of Clark is the bravura performance in Ibadan, that unforgettable memorialization of the sprawling city or the more sustained alchemy of Agbor Dancer, there is an awareness that one has moved away from the alien atmosphere of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Keats and Yeats, exquisite as those poets were, into a decidedly African dimension that is extant and contemporaneously defamiliarised.
The trouble with becoming canonical as opposed to being merely a candidate for the canon is that one does not get to retire or rest. Value and weight come to be measured against what one has done and everything one has ever created becomes the subject of continuous scrutiny. The canonical playwright or poet is continuously prodded and poked to see what gives and what doesnít. In the case of J.P Clark, whose most memorable contributions in poetry happen to be in the lyric form of the craft, some measure of stress must necessarily have attended the constant attention the works receive. It makes most poets irritable, to be pestered for clues and pelted, I grew up learning that Clark could be brusque. As Bion of Borysthenes observed, boys throw stones at frogs in jest, frogs donít die in jest but in earnest.
I suggest, with J. P Clarkís poetry particularly, that there are a variety of ways to observe how his status in the canon has shaped culture and the poetic progeny coming after him without having to harass the poet for clues into the how and the why and the where and the whom. If, like me, you live in Ibadan, you will necessarily notice that the word ësplashí is used more in that city than in most other places. One could, as the poet Derek Walcott once noted, supply statistically significant confirmation of this assertion but it wouldnít prove much if there isnít also the propensity to notice the word ërustí coming up in conversations within the city so often. Having only really lived in four cities around the world for any appreciable length of time however, I can safely say that nowhere else I know is a radio station, the most popular radio station in the city, named Splash. Only in Ibadan. Is this happenstance? I doubt it very much. The strange thing is that one can almost always bet that these people who speak of rust and splash so often arenít the poetry reading kind. One must conclude that the poet who first made those words memorable in the context of the city found them in situ and simply strung them in a particular order only he could have.
Another way is to read the man himself on poetics and aesthetics in his significant essay, The Example of Shakespeare. I have not encountered many people, even in the ivory towers, who have. The same people, in the ivory towers, usually are people who have read Tradition and the Individual Talent and who can discuss it with some measure of competence. They might even have read some other Eliot essays and perhaps some Auden and Carlyle. I find this lacuna both intriguing and disturbing especially among the scholars. How to account for it eludes me entirely because, were Clark European, the rËgle du jeu would include basic familiarity with seminal works such as this among graduate students of literature. What this lacuna reveals about the state of the academy is basic as blood. Something urgent needs to be done. I have heard people argue that one can take the horse to the stream but one cannot make it drink. This may be true but it seems truer that the horsemen donít want to take the trip to the stream.
One may get a chance to sit with the master over a bottle of wine to discuss poetry and art generally. This was my lot some 33 years after I first memorized those poems from the early canon of J.P Clark. I had written three collections of poetry of my own and the third had made some ripple. The maestro asked to see the work for himself so I set off from Ibadan to Lagos and arrived at Professor Clarkís home in time for an early dinner. The poet asked his cook to make fishermanís stew with eba for me, he also ordered two bottles of lager beer, one for himself and one for me. It was a very forthright dinner and beer. He inquired after my journey to Lagos. Did I have any problems locating his home? We discussed some of the paintings in his living room. We drank the beer and time went by.
At about 9:00pm we went up to his study and he asked for my book, which I handed over, not without some doubt about the value of what I was handing over especially as the poet called his cook and man for all seasons to look in the store and to bring the bottle of Champagne. Not, he said, the American brand, the French Champagne, the real deal. The man brought the drink and the appropriate flutes to drink with. We popped the drink and drank. It felt, for me, festive but also faintly tense. This book had better be worth all this fine wine and lessons in Mbari and Yeats. Time can flow like a placid stream when there is a trove to discover and that evening, there were whole troves up for discovery. The old man dipped in my book from time to time and asked a few questions ñ did I read Senghor much? Why did I find the Senegalese woman so fascinating? He reminded me of a painting downstairs in the living room. It had particular character. I noticed it rightaway. It was by a famous Nigerian artist. It was a painting of a lone Senegalese Woman.Even the painting sufficed to evoke poetry.
The conversation, mostly on poetry and poets, proceeded unscripted and free and the drinking proceededapace until the flutes had emptied all the Champagne from the bottle. We talked some more into the small hours before I bid my generous host goodnight. I remember how he settled himself into a reclining chair in the study with the book I had brought him all the way from Ibadan. I went into my guest room and slept, but not before setting the alarm for 6 in the morning seeing that I must head out of Lagos early the next morning.
The alarm clock woke me as it was programmed to do and I took a quick bath and dressed up. I met J.P Clark on his reclining chair still reading, very close to the end of the book. I greeted and, yes he greeted back and followed up quickly with questions. How long did the writing of The Sahara Testaments take? Did I set out to write an epic? Where did I find the reserves for formal discipline? Did I know I neednít try to prove anything anymore by way of formal execution? Who was Leila?
I did my best to answer the poet of deep calm and rivers, the poet who first brought us the immensity of the sea. I sensed that J.P Clark saw through what must have been my struggles with the ëanxiety of influenceí. We underestimate the perspicacity of mind required to put all the disparate subjects which form Canon Clark. His labours in rendering and describing these various realities are a study on their own. He sat there and because he sat there I could not tell him that I had only wanted to write as memorably as he did.
J.P Clark had written more than four hundred lyric poems at the height of his powers. The collected poems are now available and they allow the reader to observe Clark evolve from a poet in search of his own idiom into the poet of whom the most influential critics of African literature (AbiolaIrele and Femi Osofisan among them) will ascribe the transformation of paradigm and idiom impossible to ignore by poets ever since Clark came into his own.
What time of night it is
I do not know
Except that like some fish
Doped out of the deep
I have bobbed up bellywise
From stream of sleep
And no cocks crow.
J.P Clark, Night Rain
Clark is the poet who continuously rescues us from the tyranny of the clock, connected as he is with the more ancient and organic timekeeping ways of his people and land. I could not believe that the man, at eighty, could still stay awake all night in order to finish reading a collection of poetry but as he peppered me with questions from various parts of my own book, I realized that the mind I was engaging was as razor sharp as any senior advocateís during cross examination. Something about the seriousness with which a poet must always approach poetry rubbed off on me that morning. I wish every poet in this land knew that there are old poets who stay up with contemporary poetry all night. Something tell me weíd write slightly differently. More seriously.
Clark wrote of a large variety of subjects, real, illusory and metaphysical (not at all the same things) with a vividness and immediacy which arrests the reader. He suffers no foolishness gladly and he is as firm in his original stand on issues now as he ever was. The debt that poets coming after Clark owe him is large. It consists, largely, of incorporating the innovations of his time into that emerging body of works known as contemporary African poetry. The bar, as Clark has raised it, is high. But this is precisely what poets do. He has set it because of an abiding confidence in the poetic progeny to raise it even higher.
I have read the poems of J.P Clark as a boy compelled to meet a master and I have read him as a seeker on my own. I have come away with a very vivid sense of Clarkís gift to his audience. Life isnít a single frame of reference, it is plural. It is possible, without any sense of contradiction, to contemplate the fate of those we will not see again on this side of existence and yet look the sun full in the face. Yes, there is gravid and intimate sorrow in this world but yes, too, to the sweetness and light in it. This is what poets of all the ages set out to help mankind understand. This is what Clark does so well with his poetic imagination, his undimmed and abiding stream of rare consciousness.
In my conclusion to the review of his latest collection of poetry I had written that in the end, an artist can only give so much. The people must claim their poets for their own. I was lucky to have encountered Clark so early in life. We have had giants walk among us long enough even if we do not always call them by their true names. JP Clark has cleared a swath. Let those privileged to know him and his works rise, proud that he is and ever shall be, African, one of us.
Ipadeola, lawyer and poet, won the 2013 LNG Prize for Literature with Sahara Testament.