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Africa loses its protean, experimental poet John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo

​Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that featured in the Business Day on 18 October 2020.

John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, the Nigerian poet and playwright and a pioneering post-independence writer, died last week at the age of 85. He published 10 collections of poems, seven plays, one book of essays, and a travelogue. Born on 6 April 1935 in the oil-producing Niger Delta during British colonial rule, Clark attended Native administration schools: experiences that later shaped his anti-colonial outlook. A brilliant student and voracious reader, he attended 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 contemporaries like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Christopher Okigbo.

After graduating in 1960 – the year of Nigeria’s independence – Clark wrote poetry that was heavily influenced by Greek mythology and poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, and Tennyson. He believed that his dual African and Western heritage enriched his work, seeing himself as an alienated “cultural mulatto” due to his Western education. Many poems such as “Night Rain,” “Fulani Cattle,” and “Ibadan Dawn” are full of nostalgia for his ancestral homeland and his university experiences.

Clark’s poetry was ironically 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. On his return home, he joined the University of Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies. In 1966, Clark 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. His first one, Song of A Goat, borrowed from traditional legends to depict a tragedy – in the epic Greek tradition – 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 which darkened Clark’s outlook on Nigeria. His Casualties: Poems 1966-68 was a meditative lament on the dismal decade of the 1960s. He wrote in parables, bitingly satirising the political figures of this volatile epoch.

After the war, Clark published the 1970 collection of essays The Example of Shakespeare. He left UNILAG in 1980 to form the PEC Repertory Theatre which performed many of his own plays. 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. He consistently condemned the corruption of military brass hats, mandarins, politicians, and professors, describing Nigeria not as a nation, but as “an amalgamation…all spread between sea and desert.” In 1988, he published Mandela and other Poems which meditated on old age. His 2007 documentary, Oil at the Bottom, exposed the role of the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies 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. An indefatigable writer, his last collection of poems, Remains of A Tide, was published in 2018. 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;” while Nigerian Professor, Biodun Jeyifo, described him as “one of the finest literary artists our continent has produced.”

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

 

prof adekeye adebajo
Professor Adekeye Adebajo
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