120. Farewell to a Pioneering African Bard

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 20 October 2020
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: RobVanDerMeijden via Pixabay

John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, the Nigerian poet and playwright and a pioneering post-independence writer, died on 13 October at the age of 85. He published 10 collections of poems, seven plays, one book of essays, a travelogue, and a translation of an epic tale. Born on 6 April 1935  in the oil-producing Niger Delta to Ijaw parents during the era of British colonial rule, Clark attended Native administration schools: experiences that later shaped his anti-colonial outlook. A brilliant student and voracious reader, he won scholarships to attend his local Government College in Ughelli and Nigeria’s premier University of Ibadan where he studied English. Clark became the first editor of the university’s poetry journal, The Horn, which published many of his contemporaries who would go on to become some of Nigeria’s greatest writers: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Christopher Okigbo.

After graduation in 1960 – the year of Nigeria’s independence – Clark worked briefly for the Ministry of Information in Nigeria’s Western region, before joining the Daily Express newspaper in Lagos as a features editor. He launched his literary career, writing poetry that was heavily influenced by Greek mythology and the Western canon: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Yeats, Blake, and Tennyson. He fervently believed that his dual African and Western heritage enriched his work, seeing himself as a “cultural mulatto” who was somewhat alienated from his own traditions as a result of his Western education. In “Agbor Dance,” he laments no longer being able to do the traditional dance. Many poems such as “Night Rain,” “Fulani Cattle,” “Abiku,” and “Ibadan Dawn” are full of nostalgia for his ancestral homeland, as well as his childhood and university experiences. 

Though considered somewhat apolitical at the beginning of his career, Clark’s poetry ironically became more political than his plays. His poem “Ivibie: A Song of Wrong” railed against the evils of slavery and colonialism. A fellowship at America’s Princeton University in 1963-1964 resulted in an embittered, scathing  travelogue America, their America in which Clark criticised what he regarded as the country’s technology-obsessed, dehumanised society. Poems like “Service” “Boeing Crossing”, and “Cave Call” reinforced his strong feelings on this issue. On his return home, he joined the University of Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies under Kenneth Dike, a pioneer of the “Ibadan School of History” which advocated the use of oral history to narrate colonial history from an African perspective. Clark did the same using poetry and legends. In 1966, he translated into English The Ozidi Saga, an Ijaw epic of ritual, song, and dance, moving to the University of Lagos (UNILAG) during this period, where he eventually became a full Professor.

All of Clark’s plays were set in the Niger Delta as an ode to his ancestral traditions. His first one, Song of A Goat, borrowed from traditional legends to depict a tragedy – in the epic Greek style – of an impotent man whose virile brother has a son with his frustrated sister-in-law.  Its sequel, The Masquerade, continues the story of the family curse. The Raft followed, which some regarded as having predicted the attempted secession of the country’s Eastern region. This incident precipitated the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970 in which one million mostly Igbos died. 

The Biafra War darkened Clark’s outlook on Nigeria. His 1970 Casualties: Poems 1966-68 was a lyrical, meditative cri de coeur to the dismal decade of the 1960s. In an environment of civil war and military rule, he wrote in parables, bitingly satirising the political figures of this volatile epoch with terms like “His Excellency the Masquerade,” and using animal descriptions for them such as “crocodile,” “alligator,” “cockerel,” and “rat.” Poems like “Seasons of Omens,” “Exodus”, and “Dirge” were evocative of this melancholic decade of troubles. Sierra Leonean poet, Syl Cheney-Coker, described the collection as a “sombre lament, at once sad, yet hopeful.”   

In 1970, Clark published a collection of essays, The Example of Shakespeare. After leaving UNILAG in 1980, he formed the PEC Repertory Theatre with his devoted wife, Ebun Odutola, who was also a professor at UNILAG and with whom he had three children. His Bikora Plays were performed in his theatre, as was the comedy, The Wives’ Revolt. By the time Clark published the collection of poems, State of the Union, in 1985, he was totally disenchanted with Nigeria’s drift into military autocracy following the collapse of the Second Republic. He consistently condemned the corruption of military brass hats and mandarins, as well as politicians and professors. Clark also excoriated pastors whom he felt exploited the gullibility of their followers in order to enrich themselves. In the poem, “The Sovereign,” he describes Nigeria not as a nation, but as “an amalgamation…all spread between sea and desert.” 

In 1986, Clark led Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe to visit military autocrat, General Ibrahim Babangida, on an unsuccessful mission to plead for clemency for alleged military coup-plotters, who included the poet-soldier, General Mamman Vatsa. Two years later, he published Mandela and other Poems which meditated on old age and the inevitability of death. His 1999 A Lot from Paradise was drenched with nostalgia for the narrow creeks of his riverine native homeland of Kiagbodo. His 2007 documentary, Oil at the Bottom, underlined his commitment to exposing the role of the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies like Shell in despoiling the environment and ruining the livelihoods of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta. 

Clark was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award in 2001. UNILAG named an endowed centre after him in 2014, and awarded him an honorary doctorate three years later. Young Nigerian writers founded the JP Clark Literary Society in 2015. An indefatigable writer, Clark’s last collection of poems, Remains of A Tide, was published just two years ago. His verse has been widely translated into German, French, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, and Hindi. His Nigerian biographer and fellow poet, Femi Osofisan, noted that “of all his contemporaries, JP [Clark] has arguably been the most protean, the most self-regenerating, and the most continuously experimental;” his American biographer, Robert Wren, described Clark as “a poet and playwright of the first rank in both originality and expressive power;” while Nigerian Professor, Biodun Jeyifo, described him as “one of the finest literary artists our continent has produced… the Balogun Otolorin of African Literature.” 

As Nigeria continues to reel from multiple conflicts, it is worth recalling John Pepper Clark’s words:

O let us light the funeral pile

But let us not become its faggot

O let us charcoal the mad cutters of teak

But let us not cut down the clan.”

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.