The Okigbo mystique
Sometime in 2015, some young poets undertook a pilgrimage to River Idoto, a muddy-colored river in Ojoto in Anambra State, Southeastern Nigeria. Among them were Chuma Nwokolo, Uche Peter Umez, Iquo DianaAbasi, James Eze, Henry Akubiro, and a host of others. The aim was to immortalize the lines written by Christopher Okigbo of Blessed Memory. During the trip, lines from his poem “Dark waters of the beginning” were read. But the highlight of the occasion was when Okigbo’s daughter played from her laptop reading some of his poems. As James Eze, Poet and currently the spokesperson of the Anambra state governor (I am told he was one of the facilitators of the trip) put it: “Idoto flowed gently, hugging the feet of the poets as they read. It was a sacred act of love”. (from Facebook Wall of James Eze).
This gives an inkling of how one of the pioneers of African poetry, Christopher Okigbo, is regarded within the small elite circle of poets driving the cultural renaissance of African negritude literature today. Since the Nigerian civil war era, Christopher okigbo has kept his place among the foundation voices of African literature and has become an inspiration to new entrants into the crypt of unpopular poetry. Unpopular because it goes beyond the general nuances of post-modernism, which this writer believes does little credit to poetic evolution in African literature. If Okigbo were to be alive today, he would have fought the use of the word Negritude to remotely describe his awakening. In fact, in an interview in 1965, granted to Marjory Whitelaw, Okigbo distanced himself from the Negritude movement. “I think I am just a Poet”, he said in answer to a question on his poetry, “a Poet writes Poetry and once the work is published it becomes public property. It is left to whoever reads to decide whether it is African Poetry or English. There isn’t any such thing as a poet trying to express Africanness. Such a thing doesn’t exist. A poet expresses himself”. (Interview with Christopher Okigbo, 1965, [Marjory Whitelaw], The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. First Published 1970).
Thus, Okigbo believes that a poet commitment to his society comes secondary. The poet just gives. It Is the duty of the reader of the poems to decide what it means for them. This position he has reiterated through all his various interviews. Examples are the ones he gave to other great minds (Nkosi, 1962; Duerden, 1963; Serumaga, 1965; Whitelaw, 1965; and Van Sertima, 1965.), “He has been remarkably consistent and insistent in depicting himself, not as an “African poet” but simply as a poet. In 1965, this globalist conception of his creative self led to his sensational rejection of the first prize in poetry which was awarded to him at the first Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, a competition in which Nobel Prize Winner, Derek Walcott, took the second position (seeThe Guardian, London, April 4, 1966)” (Chukwuma azuonye, 2007. “Christopher Okigbo at work”. Towards a pilot study and critical edition in his previously unpublished poems, 1957-1967).
With this, Okigbo has given a carte blanche to the literary critics to decide what his work means to them. Art is deep, and while the artist draws from the fountain of knowledge, the Agwu needs a Dibia (Okara Mmadu Okara Mmuo, so to say) to interpret the literary incantations occasioned by the awakening of such a poet.
Okigbo’s awakening has been an issue of serious conjecture by literary critics. True, every man awakens on his own terms and most times have no impute in the matter. For when the muse-I believe he will easily substitute the word muse with another, more potent and relevant, Agwu-when the muse takes over him, he only looks for avenues to let out the bubbling stream of inspiration that leaves him no peace until it is consummated. And the Agwu drags its self-definition into the silence of verbitude.
It is clear that most of Okigbo’s later work was inspired by the raging Civil War that he tried to chronicle as it builds up. Unlike Obu Udeozo, a more modern poet whose works I will discuss later on in this article who witnessed the Nigerian civil war as a child that was fleeing with the mother and siblings, Okigbo was a full-grown adult who fought on the side of Biafra and paid the supreme prize.
The question had arisen on why a universal artist would sacrifice his life for an idealism he could have lived for and given the world a more befitting insider account in his poetry. This was the point that professor Ali Mazrui attempted to allegorically deal with in his trial of Christopher Okigbo, where he presented a situation where Okigbo had to face his ancestors after his death who wanted to find out why he should allow himself to be killed in defense of his nation.
Okigbo’s poetic vision is legendary and borders on the sybiline. Reading through the following tends to give the impression he envisaged his end;
BEYOND the iron path careering along the same beaten track
THE GLIMPSE of a dream lies smoldering in a cave,
together with the mortally wounded birds.
-Christopher Okigbo, “Elegy for Alto” (Path of Thunder). (4)
Okigbo’s place in post-modernist poetic history
That Okigbo commanded-and still commands-international acclaim as the greatest postcolonial modernist is perhaps not in doubt, though many argue against that chieftaincy title for several reasons that are varied and far-flung. Many argue that the time of his reign was so short that it is wrong to use that as a yardstick to offer him such a crown. There are also those who feel he betrayed the African cause by vehemently insisting on the global platform for his art. Such critics, led-in my opinion-by Chinweizu, have been vociferous in their angst. (Chinweizu himself embraced the Greeks in his choice of the appellation: He chose a single name without a surname, just like the classical philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the like.) But others, led by Chukwuma Azuonye, insists he deserves pride of place in the African Pathenon, and Azuonye went further to, In 2007, make sure that Okigbo papers became the first corpus of unpublished works to be nominated and accepted into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. (Azuonye 2007). Interestingly, it appears that the prophetic tong etched above on the marble of time was uttered with a split tongue. What was noticeable, though, is that the smoldering dream is currently resurrected by his poetic reincarnate, Obu Udeozo.
Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo was born August 16, 1930, in Ojoto, a town in Anambra state. That name is to later feature prominently in his backgrounding, particularly as it is the setting for the River idoto, sacred to him and his poetic marriage of Easter homily with cultural invocations. He later attended Government College Umuahia, that cauldron were most prominent Nigerians of literary extraction schooled-particularly those from the lower Niger, as the colonial intelligentsia would decide to call it. He later studied Classics at the University of Ibadan, where his muse was incubated. His knowledge of classics was only equaled by his zeal for pan-Africanism and neo-modernism, the zeal that was born in prose, poetry, and bubbling Nationalism. In the late 1950s, he was obsessed with the translation of classic poems from Latin to English. And this was the turning point in his career. His efforts made possible his first romance with his own brand of poetry with the conclusion of his first anthology, Song of the Forest. Later, other works followed suit, and most of the works were collected in an anthology named Labyrinths.
Okigbo has been identified by critics to have been highly influenced by western poets and writers in his poetry. Besides his overwhelming influence in his earlier quest for music by Debussy is well known and deserves only a fleeting mention. (He personally made this acknowledgment himself when he told Lewis Nkosi in an interview: “… when I was working on Heavensgate, I was working under the spell of the impressionist composers Debussy, Caesar Franck, Ravel …”) After all, even though he later fell in love with poetry as a means of creative outlet, he still maintained his connection with music and the arts. Thus, when he made his debut on the pan-African and international literary scene through his participation in the first conference of African and transatlantic black writers organized at Kampala, Uganda, by the newly-founded Mbari Writers and ArtistsClub, Ibadan (Chukwuma Azuonye 2007), was already established as a universal poet of African descent. Romanus Egudu has insisted that his poetry has a whole lot of giftings from Ezra Pound, which to this writer is only part of the story and a fleeting part for that matter. It is doubtful that lovers of Okigbo poetry fell in love with it because they saw radiations from Pound’s muse on his work. What is universally accepted is that Okigbo’s poems are simply a melting pot for classical allusions. From the Gilgamesh epic to the Oddysey, we see his flight hovering from classical Greek, Rome, Sumeria and even the Vatican Catholicism, gathering effigies to bring home to Ojoto in an Easter celebration of the sacred feminine of his beginnings, as he tried to show readers in dark waters of the beginning. And it has been a literary battle of genius to fuse these divergent concepts backgrounded in iron-cast resolve to tell his own story using the traditional Igbo didacticism fathomed beneath riddles and enigma. Like all mortals, he does not always succeed: “And there are here/the errors of the rendering …”, he wrote in Labyrinths.
This is summed up thus: “Okigbos claim to greatness rests on five main factors, namely: his all-inclusive multicultural sensibility; his mythopoeic imagination; his infusion of ritual seriousness into the praxis of his poetry; his masterly fusion of a wide diversity of poetic modes from traditions across the world; and, above all, his all-encompassing vision of reality the phenomenal and the imaginative in the fortunes of his poet-hero, the Prodigal, through whose burden and journey of several centuries he has constructed a complex fable of man’s perennial quest for fulfillment, in cycles of poems which, though written and published separately are organically related”. (Christopher Okigbo at Work: Towards a Pilot Study and Critical Edition of His Previously Unpublished Poems, 1957-1967). Azuonye continues:
“My purpose is to investigate certain spoken arts of Ibos, their epigrams, funeral dirges, oracular responses, panegyrics, lyrics, masquerade songs, and various other chants connected with divine worship and with vegetation and fertility rites. Both inner and outer characteristics will be studied historically and critically. The aim throughout will be to ascertain whether these art-forms attain a condition of poetry, and to establish their status and significance within their culture context….” (2)
“His Igbo poems bear witness to a sensitive immersion into the poetics and social praxis of Igbo oral verse-making, and there is evidence in these poems that he was set on a path to transforming himself into an Igbo language minstrel of the written tradition.” In conclusion, he asserts: “this small repertoire of poems and poetical sketches rendered in the poet’s mother-tongue, Igbo, and experiment that puts paid to the ill-informed suspicions and accusations of his critics, especially the troika of the poetics of decolonization, Chinweizu, Jemie and Madubuike (1980), who accuse him of abandoning his African heritage and pandering toEuro-American modernism. There is indeed clear evidence that, in their combination of the praxis of Igbo oral poetics and the compact suggestiveness of Japanese Haiku-verse, these poems will revolutionize the canons of written poetry in Igbo and, through translation, other African and world languages” (introduction to Elegy to Twilight and Other New Poems by Christopher Okigbo, a collection in progress, from the present documents).
Okigbo’s poetry was undoubtedly influenced by his love for classics. His initial passion was music-classical music, which brought him into contact with the maestro Claude Debussy, who appeared to have inspired him to take up violin and piano lessons. These classical musicians held him in awe, and are part of his major influence in his writings. He dwelled more on transposing the classical allusions from across cultures to the Igbo pan-theology to create his unique brand of poetry.
Okigbo’s legacy and contemporary poets
Expectedly, though his literary life was short-lived, Okigbo has made such indelible marks on the world horizon that the history of African poetry cannot be complete without him. Besides, as he has been labeled, he was the Ezra Pound of African poetry. On the world stage, he was and still is an Icon, a beacon, and a literary obelisk. So many contemporary poets see him as the source of their poetic muse. His home town has become a pilgrimage center for budding poets, as has already been stated.
But serious poets are the only ones that can really imitate okigbo. His wide readings of classics, both in music and literature, are unparalleled. For example, his main collection, Labyrinths, draws from diverse works like the Bible, Debussy, Hopkin, Melville, Elliot, and a host of others. His modern disciples may be said to include Maik Nwosu, Nduka Otiono, and, of course, the most prolific of them all, Obu Udeozo. Prolific not in the sense of the number of work written, but in the quality of topical allusions that are involved. This places them together at the world stage, beyond the Negritude Banner.
There is hardly any modern African poet of repute that does not draw inspiration from his muse. But out of the whole lot, Obu Udeozo seems to be a poetic reincarnate of the sage. But there is more.
Udeozo uses symbolism as a direct descendant of both Romanticism and esoteric verbism. He uses romanticism as a tool to gauge the mode of feeling- a usurpation of the rigors of intimacy, spirituality, and – in more ways than one – perspiration towards the infinite. “In my next anthology, I intend to title it GOD”, udeozo says. This is the theme that runs through the fabric of his agwu, a driving leitmotif for his muse.
Udeozo makes efforts to redefine poetry, to create a visualization in his own image. The Wordsworthian definition of poetry, recalling in tranquility what should have been deep-rooted emotions, is undergoing constant re-sculpturing by kneading the expressive of what is naturally fluid ideas into rigid poetic canvassization. His poems are a manifestation of a conscious program in his own paintings.
In this, he shares much with Okigbo. Okigbo had a choice of the different art genres, including verbal art. His universality was mirrored in Udeozo’s outlook and universal appeal. While okigbo outlets his agwu in poetry, udeozo has experimented with all-prose, poetry, sculpture, music, paintings, and scientific abstractions. He unconsciously sifts a subject to decide which can be best in what milieu. Most themes he touches on are based on his spiritual convictions, which have scientific and cultural backings. For example, what, Rembrandt would depict in oil on panel, “Christ on Emmaus”, Udeozo could have written a poem on it, accompanied by a painting of a black hole depicting the last Judgement. His approach is more of a new age Pentecostal format of Pseudo artistic science, an artistic transfiguration of noetic science.
Udeozo loves portraits, either in canvass or verse. His terse and austere life uncoils the lotus at the base of his creative instinct, and what he does not express physically he paints or writes on. Okigbo, it was no secret, loved his women, and therefore made no specifics in his adulation of the softer essence. Udeozo, whose Christian beliefs borders on the ancient quaker theology transfused into an incarnation of neo-classical Catholicism into faith-based Pentecostalism, dares not tow the okigbo path. He, therefore, expresses in poetry what he will not, in fact, accomplish physically. It will be difficult to imagine a realistic painting of thighs and the sensual hunger he expresses in Adaora, for example.
He should not be interpreted as the reincarnation of the PRUFROCK Persona-no. The urge to admire in context-mostly in professional romanticism creates an intensity of poetic quiver, from the semi-demi gods of individual callings to the braves and semi-braves of futuristic discoveries.
Where Okigbo emerges from the dark waters of the beginning string prayer beads from sacred seeds of Ani, Udeozo plucks the Miltonian ose uziza:
“What in me is dark, Illumine, /
what is low, raise and support/
That to the height of this great argument/
I may assert eternal Providence/ and Justify the way of God to Men”.
Where Udeozo may be striking a civilian compromise in his futuristic proclamations against the state, Okigbo was already touched by scattered limbs and bodies around him during the war that took his life in “condolences” and aftermath.
Udeozo actually acknowledges the influence of Okigbo work on him, particularly in his formative years. Both were old boys of government college Umuahia in Southeastern Nigeria.
‘I drank your Poems/
To engineer a church/
Upon your style”
This is an echo of the Biblical injunction:
“Upon this rock, I shall build my church”.
Though the Jesus-Peter allegory ran through almost all Udeozo’s anthology, many are already extrapolating that the spread of the gospel in the Literary Roman empire is more than fulfilled: Udeozo has expanded the gospel according to Okigbo. Beyond that, he has created a new niche for himself.
Udeozo and the challenges of Noetic Poetry
Christopher Obu Udeozo is known to be a poet, but there is a part of his poetry that has not been explored. This is his penchant for what I call Noetic poetry – the art of merging poetic views through scientific eyes. This is poignant in the sense that he views his science through the prism of religious convictions, trying to prove the Einsteinian theory of the big bang through the Jeromian pulpit. He seeks to merge the concept of Physics and metaphysics. It appears contradictory that he who so much extols the art of relativity will be at home with the science of rapture. Perhaps he will completely disagree with James Smith, who insists that “Art must ultimately be explained in terms of art, not Art terms. The description of Visual forms, the definition of stylistic categories, and the decoding of ancient myths and symbols while fascinating pursuits in their own rights are of greatest value when they are mastered with the aim of comprehending the unique expressive power of individual works of Art”.(James Smith Pierce, “From Abacus to Zeus”, a handbook of Art history).
Udeozo himself affirmed this when he stated that “Date from Post Relativity Science especially quantum mechanics comes to the aid of literature in order to lend full play to experiences in our current material and the noumenal world”.
Udeozo’s romance with the Noetic poetry can be illustrated by his fascination with Da Vinci’s knowledge, including esoteric knowledge. It is not clear how much Udeozo subscribes to the conspiracy of Da Vinci being in secret esoteric orders-the sine qua non in those days for being a Universal artist-and artist that turns the axiom, “Physics, beware of metaphysics” on its headBut Udeozo sees him as an interpreter of Deism in the mold of Pentecostal Quakers. Thus his work was described as a Universal Religion across globes-religion, in his own defining terms, being a merger of rapture –believing evangelicals to esoteric and mystic symmetry of The Vetruvian Man. Thus he celebrates the paintings of the Artistic in his interpretations of Biblical ripples across the sea of existential realism-
“his stroboscopic mindset
Over ocean waves, unfurling
Flowers and curlicues of lightening”
Which he believes
“rival electron microscopy…
Da Vinci’s maestro foreshadows exploits
In nanotechnology and Nobel prize in chemistry”.
Udeozo belongs to the rare group of poets who were/are also scientists. A cursory roll call will suffice: Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron), Humphry Davies (who discovered the element sodium), Rebbecca Elson (of Hubble Telescope fame). In fact, John Keats aired the general sentiments among Noetic poets-that
“Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line…”
Udeozo, in his own words, insisted that “any brush stroke is a dual battle between Sunrise and rapture”. Talking of Da Vinci, he said:
“Your strides in astronomy
Is like a covering among stars; and playmates
Of andromeda the constellations and Big Dipper…”
Udeozo’s uncompromising stance on creationism through the prism of Christian theology and new age Quakerism (remember the American religious movement that heavily influenced the declaration of independence). His zeal to match the Judaic religion with parallelism with traditional Igbo moral totemism can only be equated with the Okigbo reinvention of Christianity through the coral beads worn by the river godess, Idoto. But Udeozo pushes further, creating an the emergence of the tripod-Christianity, Igbo spiritual world view, and Scientific probity. Thus he merges these three into a new noetic religion that is difficult to build, even for himself. In fact, he becomes at with the inevitable obstacle thereto-the fact that capturing fluid ideas floating in ether into still images created by poetic words can be very daunting. Hence, where he could not achieve this poetically, to broach the dividing screen between physics and metaphysics, he resorts to the silence of canvas and-wait for it- sometimes sculpture. In Cyclone, he tried to announce this dilemma:
“We are cruising
the logic of freefall
and our molecules
sprinkle fear upon radiations and void”-
An evocation of the bedrock of noetic science, the Electron super collider, which
in a twirling, swooshing cauldron
of light and sound
we vanish into the womb of
(note that the ellipses are mine).
The ellipses is sucked into a black hole, which is best captured in the impossibility of a mobile canvass that spells the ultimate disintegration, not in poetic sound capture.
Okigbo and the Emergence of African Metaphysical Poetry
John Donne, one of the major names associated with Metaphysical Poetry, worked from the backdrop of his Judeo-Christian background. He and John Milton were champions of justifications of the way of God to Man. Thus, they are horrified by such positions taken by the Arabian poet, Omar Khayyam of Naishipur, in his Rubiyyat, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald. The flippant Epicurian world view of the astronomer poet-
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!-
Is countered by Robert Browning in Rabbi Ben Ezra:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
But Okigbo’s worldview differs from these. His kaleidoscopic birdview of the classic world served only to redirect him back to his roots: The Igbo spiritual cosmological worldview. And the foundation of Igbo cosmology is centered on one fact: reincarnation. The belief of duality in nature, which includes human beings. Thus, we have ancestral spirits, comprising those that died and not yet reincarnated, and those that died and were able to come back to life through another incarnation. Okigbo was said to have been able to identify some people around him and who they were in the past.
This has been largely reflected in his poetry. In fact, Okigbo had a firm belief that he will reincarnate after his death. Thus, his so-called poetic death wish was reflected in his poem “Elegy to alto”:
Earth, unbind me; let me be the prodigal; let this be
the ram’s ultimate prayer to the tether…
AN OLD STAR departs, leaves us here on the shore
Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;
The new star appears, foreshadows its going
Before a going and coming that goes on forever
Indicating that he believes in the concept of reincarnation ad infinitum. In contrast, udeozo seem to be more comfortable with John Donne in Death, be not proud:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
Deat shall be no more, death, thou shall die”.
Udeozo himself was unambiguous in his own “error of the rendering’ (apologies Okigbo) in his poem Perfect from Cyclone:
I am consoled by the Word’s
assurance of life to come
when this crippled world
will be cured by our
Perfect, lovely, Visible-Invisible LORD.
For him, Omar Khayyam is delusional to think that death ends with just “turning up” an “empty glass.”
Okigbo portrays even more. He carefully explains his expectations on arrival into the beyond, and what he believes will be a lonely journey to the beyond:
“FROM FLESH into phantom on the horizontal stone I was the sole witness to my homecoming…
Serene lights on the other balcony: redolent fountains bristling with signs –
But what does my divine rejoicing hold? A bowl of incense, a nest of fireflies?
I was the sole witness to my homecoming…
For in the inflorescence of the white chamber, a voice, from very far away, chanted, and the chamber descanted, the birthday of the earth, paddled me home through some dark labyrinth, from laughter to the dream.
Miner into my solitude, incarnate voice of the dream, you will go, with me as your chief acolyte, again into the ant-hill…
I was the sole witness to my homecoming…” (Okigbo: Distances)