“the errors of the rendering”
Ali Mazrui’s vision of a pan-African afterlife, with football tourneys, banter across generations and prior geographies, and unabashed orgies is an alluring and sensual prospect. You walk up to your ancestors, converse in a language of your choosing while dressed in loin cloth. Your muscles, if you had any in the “herebefore,” glisten under the lights of “After-Africa.” Also, in a drastic removal from western and eastern versions of a possible afterlife, After-Africa is hyper-democratic. There are trials, debates and unhindered access to information. But Mazrui’s construction is not to lure away from the widespread longing for celestial autocracy, it is merely a stage for the The Trial of Christopher Okigbo1. In the 1971 novel, Okigbo, newly entering the afterlife, is charged with the crime of putting politics and the exigencies of his surrounding period–which pass away–over the continued production of art which has a capacity for immortality. Hamisi, a fictitious recently deceased Kenyan journalist is selected to be “Counsel for Salvation” while Apolo-Gyamfi, an equally fictitious Ghanaian intellectual takes the role of “Counsel for Damnation.”
They make their arguments before a stadium full of ancestors and a jury of nine elders, going back and forth, calling on several other ghosts to testify, including that of Lord Byron, who also died young, fighting in the Greek War of Independence. Okigbo himself is not directly questioned because of procedural norms in After-Africa but passages from his poetry periodically ring out, augmenting Hamisi’s arguments. Among the myriad of arguments offered over the two-day trial, Apolo-Gyamfi’s early argument about Okigbo’s “contract” interested me the most. “Art is a compact between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” he begins, going further to state that by dying in a civil war, Okigbo had “put the politics of the nation before the power of the eternal” and “broken his contract with the living and with those who are to be born.” It brings up the question of whether Okigbo, drawing inspiration from European modernism as against an Igbo oral poetics, promising his poetry was for only other poets as opposed to the broad umbrella of “the living,” and who has since been carefully and respectfully shelved by contemporary readers, had any such contract to begin with.
Away from the invented Apolo-Gyamfi––a vessel for the philosophical arguments of his inventor––heavier accusations can be levelled against the poet. In his seminal work, Creative Rhetoric, on the poetry of Okigbo, Sunday Anozie2 describes the moments of inauthenticity in Okigbo’s early poetry as “unoriginal… vacillating between different, often conflicting traditions and adapting whichever poetic forms and diction may have appealed to his curious and impressionable mind” stopping short of using the single more economical word–plagiarism. The critic Donatus Nwoga3 takes this assessment to task, presenting the reader with the passage from Miguel Hernandez’s amor ascendia entre nosotros that Anozie claims inspired the final stanza of Okigbo’s Lament of the Lavender Mist and leaving it up to one to decide whether the handshake extends beyond the elbow of inspiration. He also addresses Anozie’s suggestion that Okigbo outgrew this phase noting that Okigbo’s “last testament,” Elegy for Alto contains, with minor modifications, the second verse of Alberto Quintero Alvarez’s Ante el Mar. Eerily, both poems, by Spanish authors, feature in an anthology of Spanish verse4. Did he own the book and, from time to time, leaf through the pages for “inspiration”? But after Nwoga goes further to itemize other instances featuring Okigbo’s borrowings from Yoruba praise poetry and J.P Clark’s Ivbie, he theorizes an out: the communal ownership of African traditional literature in which “originality was a function of manner rather than matter.”
It is ironic that the justification Nwoga manages to carve is rooted in the traditional African oral framework (where attributions are not only unnecessary but, in many cases, impossible) when Okigbo himself was strongly opposed to being limited by that affiliation. His universalist aspirations were the subject of criticism of the bolekaja critics5. Bundled together with Soyinka, Clark and other members of what they classed the Ibadan-Nsukka school of Nigerian poetry, Okigbo is accused of a failure in craft in his early work. This failure, they argued, was in his adoption of obscurity for the sake of obscurity amplified by the importation of imagery, flashes of syncretism from failed attempts at cross breeding the European and the traditional and a general denialism of contemporary language. Of a passage in Distances, they comment “What does this mean? Is this a joke?” They go further to suggest the English poets the Ibadan-Nsukka school sought to ape and, settling on Gerard Hopkins among others, set out diagnostic criteria for what they christened the “Hopkins’ disease.” The central thread of their argument seemed to be that African poetics has no place for the deliberately obscure as “Poetry is not a puzzle.”
“And I who am here abandoned”
At the point of beginning this essay, the poetry of Okigbo was, indeed, a puzzle. So that writing this essay is, in fact, a search for comprehension and a stretching out of my hand for whatever I am entitled as a legatee to that contentious “contract… with those who are to be born.” I remember walking into an Ibadan bookshop and pulling the only copy of Labyrinths off their shelf. It looked old, used and a few pages were not going to stay together for much longer, but I thought that only added to the value. Who formerly owned this? Were any annotations within it left, over decades, for me? But the book was totally unmarked. I returned to Kuti Hall that evening and settled in to read. I looked over the acknowledgements and raced through the introduction. The first poem, in which the poet-speaker stands naked before Mother Idoto is familiar and is, perhaps, the most recited of Okigbo’s oeuvre. The nakedness involved made it all the more exhilarating but, with subsequent pages, it seemed the supplicant progressively put back on his clothes. Okigbo was closed to me, and no number of restarts from the familiar nakedness before Mother Idoto could pry the work open. Years later, visiting Ibadan briefly, I walked through the University Bookstore and came upon a new, commemorative publication of the collected works of Okigbo, Moonglow and Other Poems. I paged through the numerous forewords and introductions and at the other end found Okigbo the same: unyielding. The years had not done anything to equip me to pry the work open. I now wonder if the former owner of my copy of Labyrinths had not left any markings because Okigbo was closed to him as well. I, of course, favour this theory–it is more romantic than the idea that the book was just old and previously unowned.
Okigbo famously proclaimed at the infamous Uganda Writers Conference that he wrote his poetry only for poets and this proclamation has since become a bastion for other poets with obscurantist tendencies. There even appears to have evolved a more conceited version: those who write their poetry for themselves alone. This exclusivity of poetry is, to be sure, a foreign import. A cursory glance at the history of English poetry reveals the centrality of the court and the language of the court to its development. The proximity to the court of English poets is therefore not surprising. However, when the African poet decides to don that same aristocratic garb, it reveals a lack of knowledge of the place of poetry within African society. In the Yoruba tradition for instance, poetry was ubiquitous–beginning from the poems and songs that welcome the child into the world, he learns he has inherited some lines of poetry by the circumstances of his birth; moral instruction is passed onto him through poems and when he decides to become say a hunter, he learns a new set of poems with which he braves the forest. The observable change of the fortunes of poetry–from ubiquity to a virtual disappearance from the public scene–often interpreted as a lack of sophistication among the reading populace is, in fact, as a result of the exclusivist language often adopted by the modern poet. The time to write the poem arrives and the poet relieves himself of the contemporary tongue, opting instead for tongues contemporary elsewhere.
Okigbo’s approach to poetry in English stands in stark contrast to how his contemporaries – Achebe and Soyinka – treated the early evolution of Nigerian literature in English. Achebe took the language and promised to do “unheard of things with it,” furnishing a familiar rhythm with a foreign language. Soyinka, before settling to the task of laying foundations for Nigerian drama in English, went on a nationwide pilgrimage in his Land Rover, researching elements of indigenous drama across Nigeria and in other parts of West Africa. For Okigbo, while there is evidence of a latter appreciation of indigenous poetics, the soul of his poetry was virtually set in the Euromodernist mould, his imagination already firmly held by his education in the classics. And are the results of these three archetypal approaches not far-reaching?
While today’s reading public looks at the great Nigerian novel and immediately recognizes the fluidity of narration and the implications of the crises with which the equally recognizable protagonist is faced, attends a staging of the great Nigerian play and is invigorated by the vibrancy of colours, song, ritual and dance and the acute engagement with political issues it is all too familiar with, it looks to most of the poetry that has been christened “serious” and does not recognize it (excepting, perhaps, the occasional name-dropping of local deities). Even when the poems shift away from the sprawling internal landscapes of the poets and seek to engage public issues, the poems still remain unnecessarily enigmatic driven by erroneous ideas of what it means to elevate language. Elevation, vertical, is forgone for the logarithmic spiral and, in some cases, for outright abscondment. The thriving genres show that what may be required is not simply a nostalgia for rustic modes but a recognition of the need for the modern to arise. A mistrust of simple transplantations.
In the presence of the interpreters, however, the labyrinths are made somewhat less daunting. The consensus seems to be that Heavensgate is to be read as the beginning of a ritual. This is hard to argue against considering Okigbo, in his introduction to Labyrinths, intimates that “the various sections of the poem, therefore, present this celebrant at various stations of his cross.” Biographical details pertaining to Okigbo being viewed as a reincarnation of his maternal grandfather–a priest of Idoto–is cited in defence of this key. The critics hop from the “rainbow on far side” to the “festivity in black,” inform us of the identity of “Anna at the knobs of the panel oblong,” speculate about the centrality of Kepkanly to the initiation of the poet-speaker. But something rings false about the consensus. The box of ritual is preconstructed and fragments that fit the interpretation are expounded upon without regard for the intervening text. Each poem is discussed long enough to yield a fragment that can be used to keep the ritual going. Perhaps it is the nature of literary criticism – first the general answer, then the fragments of evidence. Heavensgate – and indeed, for some, the whole of Labyrinths – is, to be read as a singular poem held together by this theme of ritual and even while the consecutive strophes do not internally cohere, it is these fragments of evidence that can be strung together to make pronouncements about the general idea. In the presence of the interpreters, the autocracy of obscurity slowly gives way for the autocracy of interpretation.
Nwoga6, recognizing the problem of fitting “elements of problems into preconceived theories” of Okigbo in other critics, decided to take an alternate approach to Limits. Taking each of the poems making up the subsections – Siren Limits and Fragments out of the Deluge, he renders exegeses that largely stay within the bounds of the poem. I realize, in the presence of this interpreter, the internal coherence and lucidity of Limits II in which the subject goes from “a shrub among the poplars” who is “thirsting for sunlight” to a “a green cloud above the forest.” The more obscure works, Nwoga christens “vivid images” taking care to note that Okigbo sought to evoke experience rather than meaning. This idea of evoking feeling within an audience without any basal meaning is more familiar within other fields of art. Anozie, for instance, records2 a certain occasion where Okigbo cried while listening to Debussy’s Nocturnes. Perhaps, this type of effect, by providing a vague canvas upon which a reader can project or recognize certain feelings or experiences is what Okigbo sought to achieve. Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky is an example of such an achievement – the poem, rife with the unfamiliar, is not depleted of recognizable significance.
But jumping behind paywalls, pencil at hand, is hardly a way to enjoy poetry. My incursion into the critical production on Okigbo is after all, rather than academic, legal – in the Apolo-Gyamfic sense. It is in a colloquial sense, an “Okigbo, anything for your boys?” with two hands up. There was also something undemocratic about the experience; Anozie was in correspondence with Okigbo and was doubly a friend and critic, drawing even from knowledge of initial manuscripts in his interpretations. In his review of Lament of the Silent Sisters, Nwoga7 describes Okigbo giving the early draft and asking for his opinion on the work. Without all the extra-textual knowledge available to the interpreters about the poet, would any appreciation of the work be possible? If Okigbo was writing whilst socially removed from the literary community, would the work hold any significance? In his analysis of Heavensgate, Anozie2 remarks that the poetry “is still too self-centered, too personal … to permit of a clear penetration by any reader.” This surely holds true beyond Heavensgate. Must Okigbo, then, be read only with manuals and companions?
Path of Thunder is widely regarded as Okigbo at his finest and most promising. Contrasting the poet’s approach in Heavensgate and Path of Thunder, Chinweizu8 notes that while the former is merely a “modern European poem made exotic” the latter represents a “poem which, though written in English, owes nothing to modern European sensibility.” For Chinweizu, the two poems represent, respectively, archetypes of “Modern Poetry in Africa” and “Modern African Poetry” and the turn of Okigbo to a contemporary idiom marked the return of a prodigal, of a “cultural exile” who after using African images as props for a Euromodernist sensibility, has now come to embrace fully his oral roots. For Path of Thunder, interpreters are not required. Once the socio-political circumstances under which the poems are written – in the aftermath of the January 1966 coup – is known, the poems yield their bounty. The poems are intensely political, and reading them, one gets the image of a bare-foot Pentecostal warning of celestial repercussions. In Hurrah for Thunder, the poet-speaker celebrates the fall of the “elephant” and as the hunters gather round the fallen elephant, warns: “If they share the meat let them remember thunder.” Okigbo, in a self-cautioning manoeuvre common to any adept gossip, remarks: “If I don’t learn to shut my mouth I’ll soon go to hell/ I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron-bell.”
The indigenous idiom that pervades Path of Thunder while democratizing it, does not render it simplistic. The critics can still gather, render alternate layers of meaning in a way that further enriches the experience of the poem, and wonder aloud what extra wonders Okigbo of the iron bell could have wrought if he had lived.
“O mother mother earth, unbind me”
The more challenging the riddle, the more fragile. Once the critics, with their privileged tools of personal conversations and knowledge of the poet’s reading list, hack sufficiently at the riddle, the puzzlement it previously inspired erodes. The overly transparent might bring to mind Kaur and the Instagram poets to whom readers return to for the familiarity and clarity. The translucent which when we, to borrow a line from the poet Gachagua9, “hold them against the light/ [and they] change colour” yield the much-desired levels of meaning to which the one can return to, occasionally stumbling on new ways to read. But the opaque and hard-shelled that presents nothing asides its bald riddle invites cracking and cannot subsequently be put together again. The returning reader, rather than experience a poem after help from the interpreters, can only recognize the fragments that fuelled the interpretations.
Railing Against Interpretation, Sontag10 articulates this thus: “the modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.” In an interview11 with the Ugandan playwright Robert Serumaga, the playwright avers that there is feature of Okigbo’s poetry–particularly his “choral poetry”–that makes it “very difficult perhaps to understand using the intellect only, but when one reads it, one responds to it” and calls on Okigbo to comment. Okigbo appears to take a stance on interpretation, explaining that intellectual analysis towards meaning is not necessary to arrive at a response to his poetry and that he has, in fact, never “set out to communicate a meaning.”
Later in the conversation, he says of Heavensgate and Limits – “I didn’t have any particular message in mind when I created the two of them.” In an earlier interview12 with Lewis Nkosi, he had credited music composers as having a greater influence on him than poets, saying of the creation of Heavensgate “I was working under the spell of the impressionist composers Debussy, Caesar Frank, Ravel, and I think that, as in the music of these composers … there isn’t any clearly defined outline in my work.” These assertions that seem to prioritize sensory feeling over intellectual analysis are, however, negated by his last statement in that 1962 interview: “What I need most is a more intelligent audience.” While Okigbo believed that once “a word is committed to print it develops legs, wings even, and goes anywhere it wants to go,”6 his introduction to Labyrinths, which asserted the deliberateness of the creative process and its significance, and was definitely addressed to that “intelligent audience” set the dimensions of a metal cage that critics have subsequently simply reinforced.
Any opening of this cage will require a radically different approach to reading Okigbo. More precisely, a move away from reading Labyrinths as fragmentary units tied together by the string of ritual and mythmaking towards reading it as a collection of loose fragments with near-aphoristic value. Since the work is largely autobiographical, these loose fragments are thus shards of memory, of experience, that occasionally jut out of the two-dimensionality of the page. These fragments jut out because human experiences are not unique in the sense in which fingerprints are. By giving language to his own lived experience, the poet offers readers a means to articulate their own experiences and suggest that they are not alone. We are, after all, all in the ritual processions of our lives and look to those who constantly skirmish with language to give us the incantations for the passage. And while all works of literature must go through the cycle of being read, discarded, rediscovered, and re-abandoned, this approach by prioritizing the unit-by-unit consideration of fragments out of the Okigbean deluge offers a new and democratic entry into his oeuvre.
In this sense, the fragment “Before you, mother Idoto/ Naked I stand” becomes not just the beginning of Okigbo’s ritual procession but open to adoption by a lover exploring vulnerability. “So comes John the Baptist/ with bowl of salt water/ preaching the gambit:/ life without sin, without/ life-” becomes the challenge to an evangelical University hostel preacher, the response to his sharpened and practiced lyricism. “And I who am here abandoned” becomes the Instagram caption of the stood-up prospective and “Let them remember thunder” becomes words scribbled upon placards. In Initiations, Okigbo considers, among others, Kepkanly – a prominent figure in his primary education, and in a fragment filled with feeling writes: “but the solitude within me remembers Kepkanly.” Removed from the unified significance theory that just leads us to read this as showing the centrality of Kepkanly to the “initiations,” this, singly considered, prompts us to ask: “What does the solitude in me remember?” And what is poetry, if not time-portal?
- Mazrui, Ali AlʼAmin. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. Third Press, 1971.
- Anozie, Sunday O. Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric. Africana Pub. Corp., 1972.
- Nwoga, Donatus I. “Plagiarism and Authentic Creativity in West Africa.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 6, no. 1, 1975, pp. 32–39.
- Cohen, et al. The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse. Penguin Books, 1956.
- Jemie, Onwuchekwa, et al. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature. Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980.
- Nwoga, Donatus. “Okigbo’s Limits: An Approach to Meaning.” Nwoga, and Nwoga, Donatus Ibe. Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo. Three Continents Press, 1984.
- Nwoga, Donatus. “Okigbo’s Lament of the Silent Sisters” Nwoga, and Nwoga, Donatus Ibe. Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo. Three Continents Press, 1984.
- Chinweizu, “Prodigals Come Home” Nwoga, and Nwoga, Donatus Ibe. Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo. Three Continents Press, 1984.
- Gachagua, Clifton. Madman at Kilifi. University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
- Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.
- “Okigbo Interview with Robert Serumaga” Nwoga, and Nwoga, Donatus Ibe. Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo. Three Continents Press, 1984.
- “Okigbo Interview with Lewis Nkosi” Nwoga, and Nwoga, Donatus Ibe. Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo. Three Continents Press, 1984.