Goodnight J. P. Clark: The astute literary icones
On October 13, 2020, the Nigerian literary community was greeted with the sad news of the demise of John Pepper Clark-bekederemo. Popularly known as J. P. Clark, the foremost poet, playwright and professor, is one of the last standing literary giants in Africa.
He is notable for his outstanding works across different literary genres, while some of his works are viewed controversial, especially by the West.
The uniqueness of the late literary icon is that he dealt with the topical issues through interweaving of indigenous African imagery and the Western literary tradition.
However, his works featured topical themes such as violence and protest, as in Casualties; institutional corruption, as in State of the Union; the beauty of nature and the landscape, as in A Reed in the Tide; and European colonialism as in Ivbie in the poems collection.
As well, inhumanity of the human race was the central focus in Mandela and Other Poems.
Clark was most noted for his poetry, including poems such as: (Mbari, 1961), a group of 40 lyrics that treat heterogeneous themes; A Reed in the Tide (Longmans, 1965), occasional poems that focus on the Clark’s indigenous African background and his travel experience in America and other places; Casualties: Poems 1966–68 (USA: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1970), which illustrate the horrendous events of the Nigeria-biafra war; and A Decade of Tongues (Longmans, Drumbeat series, 1981), a collection of 74 poems, all of which apart from “Epilogue to Casualties” (dedicated to Michael Echeruo) were previously published in earlier volumes.
Clark’s other poetry works include;
State of the Union (1981), which highlights Clark’s apprehension concerning the sociopolitical events in Nigeria as a developing nation; Mandela and Other Poems (1988), which deals with the perennial problem of aging and death.
Clark also excelled in the drama genre. His dramatic works includes; Song of a Goat – a tragedy cast in the Greek classical mode, which premiered at the Mbari Club in 1961; The Masquerade (1964), a sequel in which Dibiri’s rage culminates in the death of his suitor Tufa; The Raft (1964); Ozidi (1966); The Boat (1981) and The wives revolt (1991).
He translated Ozidi Saga (1977), an oral literary epic of the Ijaw that in its local setting would normally take seven days to perform; and also published a critical study je titled The Example of Shakespeare (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), in which he articulates his aesthetic views about poetry and drama. His journalistic essays were published in the Daily Express, Daily Times, and other newspapers. He is also the author of the controversial America, Their America (Deutsch, 1964; Heinemann African Writers Series No. 50, 1969), a travelogue in which he criticizes American society and its values.
While the uproars generated by the book, as well as, Casualties, his other book, catapulted him into the international literary limelight, but not without damage. In his defence, Clark maintained that he merely portrayed events as he saw them.
Meanwhile, critics of his works grade his poetic career in three stages: the apprenticeship stage exemplified by simple works such as “Darkness and Light” and “Iddo Bridge”; the imitative stage, where he appropriated Western poetic conventions such as the couplet measure and the sonnet sequence, exemplified in lyrics like “To a Fallen Soldier” and “Of Faith”; and the individualized stage, in which he attains the maturity and originality of form of such poems as “Night Rain”, “Out of the Tower”, and “Song”.
Moreover, Clark’s literary career was dotted with honours and recognitions too. In 1991, he received the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award for literary excellence and saw publication, by Howard University, of his two definitive volumes, The Ozidi Saga and Collected Plays and Poems 1958-1988.
To honour the life and career of Professor John Pepper Clark-bekederemo, on December 6, 2011, a celebration was held at Lagos Motor Boat Club, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, for the publication of J. P. Clark: A Voyage, The definitive biography of the main animating force of African poetry, written by playwright Femi Osofisan. The launch was attended by the ‘ who is who’ in the literary community, including Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate.
In 2015 the Society of Young Nigerian Writers under the leadership of Wole Adedoyin founded the JP Clark Literary Society, aimed at promoting and reading Clark’s works.
Born on April 6,1935 in Kiagbodo, to an Ijaw father and Urhobo mother, Clark received his early education at the Native Authority School, Okrika (Ofinibenya-ama), in Burutu LGA (then Western Ijaw) and the prestigious Government College in Ughelli, and his BA degree in English at the University of Ibadan, where he edited various magazines, including the Beacon and The Horn. Upon graduation from Ibadan in 1960, he worked as an information officer in the Ministry of Information, in the old Western Region of Nigeria, as features editor of the Daily Express, and as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. He served for several years as a professor of English at the University of Lagos, a position from which he retired in 1980. While at the University of Lagos he was co-editor of the literary magazine Black Orpheus.
In 1982, along with his wife Ebun Odutola (a professor and former director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos), he founded the PEC Repertory Theatre in Lagos.
A widely travelled man, Clark held visiting professorial appointments at several institutions of higher learning, including Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States.