Good­night J. P. Clark: The as­tute lit­er­ary icones

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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.

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