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Why Christopher Okigbo matters 50 years after

By Dan Izevbaye
05 November 2017   |   4:27 am
The status of an author can be judged by the fullness and variety of the critical attention to his works after his death.

The status of an author can be judged by the fullness and variety of the critical attention to his works after his death. The critical reception of Christopher Okigbo’s work has been of such variety and degrees of intensity that a personality cult has grown up around author, producing a yet to be resolved distance between the poet and the persona in his poems, especially because some critics complain that not much is known about the personal life of the author himself. Except perhaps for the details of his biography, much of the essential interpretive groundwork on his work has been done. But there is important information and Okigbo’s interviews and the comments of his former Mbari colleagues. The toast that Christopher Okigbo’s elder brother, Pius Okigbo, delivered in 1994 at the Cambridge House, may read in parts like an idealized tribute by Christopher’s intellectual twin. But it provides valuable insights into the life and personality of the poet and it is essential reading for further work on the poet. And further work will come, for the life and work of a major poet like Okigbo never exhausts its critical interest, and there will be further elaborations, corrections and re-evaluations in alignment with the ideology and taste of the readers that come after our generation.

The celebration to mark the life and works of an accomplished poet is an opportunity to revisit the two primary levels at which poetry matters in our country, especially now that a hierarchy of preferences and privileges is being officially established between the different fields of human production and disciplines. Since creativity is vision and its medium, or idea and its expression, poetry is a branch of creativity, like any other branch of human creativity, including science, technology and affiliated fields. The difference is in the application. Given this socially infectious official attitude, we poetry believer should briefly remind ourselves of the two fields in which poetry functions. The relevance of poetry is generally measured by the amount of pleasure and moral value it provides. The primary sources of these functions are the social and cultural roots of poetry or its transforming role in these areas, the renewal of the dialect of a community or race, and as a spring from which poetry readers and listeners could draw aesthetic, emotional and psychological satisfaction. Poetry takes on an extra psychological and spiritual function in societies just emerging from the colonial experience, like Nigeria in the 1950s. The poet is one of the guides to the individual’s recovery and reassertion of the cultural self after a period of subordination by the colonization of a people’s culture. In times like these, the question that is put to the poet by writers and critics of a certain ideological schools is, in the words of Bob Marley, where he stands in the cultural struggle. Some of these issues were important in the reception of Okigbo’s work, especially among readers who expected ready access to poetry that mattered to them, like an explicit postcolonial tendency in the poetry. He has been described as individualist, deracinated and historically displaced into the mimicry of Euro modern literary fashions because of the symbolist character of his poetry. It is therefore all the more striking that Okigbo remains important to the reading public. His reputation would outlive the censure of a minority of his critics who hold a view of poetry different from his own.

A look at Okigbo’s early poems will answer most of these objections. The earliest poems, lyrics in The Horn and Black Orpheus published between 1958 and 1961, are modeled mainly on Igbo musical forms, as well as elements of Latin and Italian poetry. The poetry only shows that Okigbo is not deracinated but cosmopolitan, and also firmly rooted in his culture of origin. It also shows the central role of music in his composition. His poetry is often a representation of musical forms in verbal images or medium, not a unusual technique for a poet who was a music composer before he started writing poetry. As every reader knows, music is basically ineffable or, as Okigbo’s poetry, it is “a cadenced cry.” It means that to begin by looking for meaning that can be paraphrased is to start on a wrong path. Why, for example, would a reader need to paraphrase the following lines before being able to respond spontaneously to its explicit images and their obvious associations?

But what does my divine rejoicing hold?
A bowl of incense, a nest of fireflies?

I was the sole witness to my homecoming.

This is not, of course a denial of the significance of meaning in helping the reader to arrive at the value of the poem to his political views or his emotional needs. Okigbo was aware that readers would legitimately seek for meaning and relevance in his poetry. But he insists that this may have nothing to do with the poet’s intention which, in this case, is a neutral template from which readers may interpret meanings that are relevant to their needs. On the face of it, this liberal poetics allows the reader’s imagination free play in in its quest for meaning, as musical compositions generally do. In reality, the design of Okigbo’s poems has built in the constraints of structure, imagery and allusions beyond which the reader’s interpretation could be wrong.

The second major criticism of the poet was based on the symbolist nature of the early poetry and the poet’s own poetics, which was often read is if the poet remained aloof from the postcolonial movement that distanced itself from European culture, as well as the political tension that was building up in the 1950s and 60s. To take that view is to read the poems superficially and in fragments. The starting point is to consider the body of poems as an organic whole, like Okigbo’s own conception of the Heavensgate cycle. Reading the whole corpus this way would mean following the poet’s progress through the various stations of his cross, like the persona’s pilgrimage in Labyrinths. But, as I mean to suggest later, in the last poems the persona dissolves into the poet. What emerges from this reading is that these poems are real experiences from the past that the poet has distilled into verbal correlatives of his musical response. But these are not abstract images although they are distanced from their autobiographical source by the ventriloquist art of drama, ritual and their instrument, the mask. What is remarkable for the reader in a post-colonial world, is Okigbo’s approach to making sense of his place in our multicultural world. He turns its complexities into dramatic poetry and thus distances the personal element from the art of poetry without losing sight of its social and psychological sources. For example, Heavensgate, is modernist in idiom because of its musical structure and imagery; but it reassembles memories of his childhood, with Catholic ritual providing the structure. The motif of the returning prodigal provides the link between his Euro-modern experience and his responsibilities to his origins. It is Okigbo’s eclectic approach to an inclusiveness which embraces the traditional and the modernist, indigenous religion and the Catholic mass that distinguishes this representation of the new African elite’s experience of the modern world, from other representation which reflect the uncritical mimicry of the world created by the colonial enterprise.

It is important at this point to recognize the importance of the milieu that conditioned the productions of the 1950s and ‘60s.Okigbo’s poetry and poetics were shaped by historical necessity in the form of the cultural encounters that produced the translation of African cultures into their modern forms. From the earliest contact of Africans with Europeans to the age of imperialism, the communication between the two races had developed from the linguistic translations necessary for the effective interaction of different peoples into the imposition of European cultures and ideas on the people they colonized. With the approach of independence in the 1950s and ‘60s, the new African elite had a choice – to continue from a colonial to a neocolonial status, or to seek a distinct identity by reexamining the cultures in which they function and the institutions that regulated their lives. The translation of their European experience into new forms of identities and institutions was the necessary solution to the alternatives of a subaltern status for colonized cultures, which included their imperfect control of the vehicles of communication between the cultures of the colonized and the colonizer, with particular regard to language, worldview, institutions and lifestyles.

This activity of adapting the two sets of inherited forms and institutions into new ones was evident, not only in the language and world view of the emergent African language literature by the generation of Okigbo, Achebe, Clark and Soyinka, but also in the enabling cultural and institutional contexts of the literature. This context includes the formation of new forms of knowledge that were similar in composition to the syncretism of African Christianity. The most obvious examples included the work that was being done in the Religious Studies Department of the University College, Ibadan – especially the scholarship of Geoffrey Parrinder and Bolaji Idowu, medical practice and research at the University College Hospital – especially the experiment in psychiatric care at Lambo’s clinic and Una Maclean’s studies, and the sociological research of Peter Lloyd and Francis Okediji.

Okigbo’s poetic form and idiom was part of this cultural response which was itself part of a wider cultural ferment in other parts of Africa that has been justifiably described as a renaissance. Okigbo’s religious assumption, which combines both Catholic faith and Igbo traditional religion, is similar in its broad outline to Bolaji Idowu’s conception of the nature of the Yoruba God in a Christian context (Whitelaw interview). His retreat from colonial identity does not preclude the poetic appropriation of the myths and symbols of cultures from other times and places. He was engaged in widening his sources beyond his upbringing – the Classics and the Catholic rituals so prominent in his early writing. It is a culturally accommodating response.

The form of his poetry is distinct from those of the contemporaries with whom he shares many features of this mixing of the modernist and traditional, only because the process of translating his sources into the final product is more explicit than usual. The generation and incubation of his creative forms, an early stage of the creative process, is stamped on the final product for the reader to see. For instance, in the fifth movement of Limits he displays two ancient cultures from the Middle East: first, Pharaonic Egypt in “A branch of fennel on /an empty sarcophagus,” then the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh in “You might as well see the new branch in Enkidu”. This is not meant to draw attention to these cultures, but to appropriate from their cultural artefacts and myth sthe symbols that he considers to common to all cultures. Thus, although cultural translation involves seeking the equivalents and correlatives of the experience of the new African, it has taken Okigbo farther afield beyond English idioms and familiar African phenomena and traditions giving the effect of a hybridized poetic dictionto borrowing its images and symbols from ancient and modern cultural sources. And it must not be forgotten that there was a similar interest in sources like ancient Egyptian culture in the historical and cultural scholarship of his time. But Okigbo had access to other sources. Some of the key inspirational sources for the material that goes into this diction were obviously the three institutions with which the poet was intimately involved, namely, universities with their revelation of the world of learning, publishing houses with their opening up of ancient and modern cultures, and libraries .as storehouses of information.

Okigbo had access to other organs of creativity outside these formal institutions of knowledge and information. It was both The Horn, the student creative writing magazine of the English Department edited by Clark where the early poems where first published, and Black Orpheus, an organ of black cultural awareness and creativity edited by Beier, Soyinka and Mphahlele, that brought his poems out of their privacy to the knowledge of an audience that was being weaned from the literary culture of the West. What Okigbo found in these two organs and in Mbari, that spring of enlightenment and cultural purpose, was a writers’ community which he went on to enlarge in Kampala by cultivating the friendship of writers and artists from other parts of Africa and the Black Diaspora, . While to some other writers this network would have been the foundation for an alternative cultural movement to the cultural hegemony of the West, it only reinforced his cosmopolitan outlook. Heinemann was the other important publishing resource for Okigbo’s poetry. It fulfilled his wish for a select international audience [Nkosi, interview] by extending the audience base of poets, scholars, students and a discriminating reading public already established by The Horn, Black Orpheus and later, Transition (in which his poems appeared between 1961 and 1965).

The poetry cycle that Okigbo put together for publication as Labyrinthis about a spiritual and cultural pilgrimage that begins in Heavensgate and reaches its last station when, after the fulfilment of his dream of waking near the altar in Siren Limits, he enters the bridal chamber and achieves his homecoming in Distances. All that cycle is one organic movement, according to Okigbo, for whom this sequence was a personal sacrifice to his household gods.

Although the Heinemann’s inclusion of “Path of Thunder” from Black Orpheus in the Labyrinth collection may not be part of Okigbo’s integrated cycle, it is not inconsistent with the larger structure of the poet’s pilgrimage. Commentators have often pointed out the shift in poetic idiom from the symbolist obscurity of the earlier poems to the folktale clarity of the last poems. In the earlier poetry, the sources that could be identified and interpreted are the more accessible part of the poetry. It is the symbolist aspect of the poetry that keeps the casual reader at arms-length or makes him an eavesdropper. The compensation is that the fascination of musical effect and the visual image binds the reader to the poetry, while keeping the explicator at a distance. What is required for the appreciation of these early poems is quite often not more than the ability to feel, like the upsurge of energy at the point of creation in the following images:

Suddenly becoming talkative like a weaverbird
Summoned at offside of dream remembered”;
or to respond to the invocation the produced the eruption of sound in the “Lament of the Drums.”

On the other hand, the idiom of the later poetry adapts imagery from indigenous folktale and myth, and the recourse to foreign myths is rare. And such an image is familiar when it does occur, as in “Elegy of the Wind”, which draws its key imagery from indigenous initiation rituals, but opens with imagery from instrumental music, astronomy and biological science and closes with the familiar image of the winged serpent of Isaiah’s prophetic utterance. But that is not the only shift. The early lyric poems gave way to dramatic poetry and religious allegory. Although a hero is always at the centre of the movement of these poems, the heroic temper remains muted. That is because post-independence Nigeria was far from being the heroic age that could nurture heroic and epic poetry. In the last poems there is a generic shift to prophetic utterance as well as satire, lament and elegy to reflect the tragic political events of that troubled period.

In “Path of Thunder” the poet responds to a new responsibility by taking on a prophetic role for a political cause. There is no need here to examine the interpretation of Okigbo’s involvement as a foreknowledge of the planning of the initial military coup that led to the civil war, as one political commentator tried to argue at a seminar to mark the publication of Path of Thunder in Black Orpheus. That is part of the wider debate about whether Achebe’s A Man of the People was also truly prophetic. That debate is irrelevant in this context. It should be remembered that the period of political time leading to the Civil War was a period of heightened political awareness and discussion in nearly all parts of the country. From the literary point of view, the collection represents a new station in the poet’s pilgrimage, specifically because the poet now has to take off the mask and allow the persona to merge with author, Okigbo the town crier with an iron bell. However, the prophetic utterances in these poems did not change anything in the real world of Nigerian politics. This is because the world of politics, a new situation confronting the poet, could not be met by naked poetic expression. The reality of political events forces the poet, who had all along lived by his own myth, to confront his destiny in his own flesh and blood. So he prepares to confront the world of action and weapons. That urgency of the preparation to enter the field of conflict is implied in the type of genres that dominate the poems.

Okigbo’s entry into the field of conflict was an act of heroism. But a modern battlefield is more often a field of slaughter and sacrifice than a field for heroes. Sadly, modern warfare and weapons of war cannot differentiate between the poet and the ordinary soldier. The response by the literary community to Okigbo’s death ranged from unbelief and grief culminating in the tributes collected by Achebe in Don’t Let Him Die, to the now infamous fictional trial of the victim set up by Ali Mazrui. Mazrui was not, of course, the only dissenter to Okigbo’s choice. Heinemann’s James Currey, who understandably had a corporate interest in the matter, described Okigbo as a Biafran major who “went off and got himself killed in Byronic style, at a road junction.”

If we ignore death-wish theories, we are left with two possible explanations of Okigbo’s action. The first is offered in Pius Okigbo’s defence of Christopher against Mazrui, that the poet could not stand apart in the face of the injustice that threatened to destroy a whole people. This explanation fits neatly into the final part of the poet’s progress. Whatever the practical value of poetry, it is limited to vision and utterance. It could condition a world view and influence action, but it is not itself action because it does not belong to the physical world. When Okigbo’s persona in the form of pilgrim or quester eventually arrives as town crier to make his prophetic utterance, he can only go so far and no further than this terminus of the poet’s pilgrimage. The mask dissolves into the poet in preparation for the seventh and final stage of his pilgrimage. With the mask off, the pilgrimage takes on a political and physical character while retaining its spiritual significance. My explanation for this is allied to Odumegwu Ojukwu’s defence of his martial leadership in the civil war in his book, Because I Am Involved, whose title appropriates John Donne’s theory of an organic humanity. Okigbo could not stand back from the war because he implicitly subscribed to this view in his quest for an audience as next stage after his quest for the inner self. The involvement in humanity of Ojukwu’s title does not leave room for fence sitting. But given that ties of blood and kinship that fuelled the divisions and ethnic loyalties of the Civil War still surface in our present political discourse, it is important to point out the important distinctions in Ojukwu’s argument: “Until we are prepared to modify, sometimes to abandon, our primordial attachments in favour of a new Nigerian relationship, we cannot unite.”

The other possible reason for Okigbo’s choice is that this very organic community, this involvement in mankind, is the basis of all human striving and all human achievements in the first place. Its destruction leaves no room for a poet to stand, for poetry is only part of the superstructure made possible by the existence of humanity in the first place.

In conclusion, Okigbo’s poetic development was a progression from the personal exploration of the self in the early poems, to a re-connection with his community in form of the religious sacrifice to his domestic gods, followed by a concern with the fate of suffering heroes like Awolowo and Lumumba in the laments, ending with his political engagement in the last poems preparing him for his heroic sacrifice. The poetry finally incorporates the heroic element that had not been prominent in the earlier poems because it was the product of an age where the heroic ethos was lacking, bringing out the satirical element in the last poems. In the period before the Civil War, Okigbo would not hear any talk of political commitment. But political commitment, which is clearly in evidence in “Path of Thunder,” is the foundation of such heroic gesture as Okigbo made in his last years. The evolution of the heroic temper is arguably implicit in the religious allegory that evolved from his early lyric form. The removal of the mask enabled the author to act out the last scene of the drama that he had hitherto entrusted to a persona. But it was at the cost of the sacrifice of the real self for which, as the last poems prophesied, the poetic persona of the early poetry was only the template.

• Professor Izevbaye is a distinguished Nigerian literary critic.