Nigeria’s iconic poet, author and journalist, Ikeogu Oke, recently passed on at the age of 51 at the National Hospital, Abuja. His first collection of poetry, The Heresiad, won the 2017 NLNG Prize for Literature. Without doubt, the literary community has lost a committed poet and social commentator in the death of the consummate poet.
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The poet laureate had an M.A. in Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a B.A degree in English and literary Studies, University of Calabar. As a journalist, he wrote articles for a number of national dailies. His poems and other writings have appeared in journals and anthologies and other publications worldwide. He had performed his poems at various fora in Nigeria, South Africa and the United States including as a special performance-poet guest of Brown University during the 2014 Chinua Achebe Colloquium.
Apart from The Heresiad (2017), a book of epic poetry, his other works include In the Wings of Waiting (2012), Salutes without Guns (2009), Where I was Born (2002), The Lion and the Monkey (2014) and The Tortoise and the Princess (2015).
Oke’s passage has attracted eulogies from prominent Nigerians and members of the literary community. In his tribute, President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledged that “as an author, journalist and poet, Oke exuded vibrancy, intelligence and innovation in his works as a social commentator, constantly in search of plausible answers and solutions to contemporary issues bedeviling the society.”
The President also remarked that “through his poetry, Oke enriched Nigeria’s literary genre and his legacy will live on in his works, which he was incredibly proud of and committed to, as he wrote his epic epitaph: Here lies a man who loved virtue and art, And gave to both his fortunes and his heart….”
Also, to the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Mallam Denja Abdullahi, “Oke was a consummate artist. He lived and breathed poetry. He was one of the few writers who lived on his writing. The Nigeria Prize for Literature, which he won in 2017, was a deserved reward for his lifelong commitment to poetry.” However, Abdullahi observed that “unfortunately, he did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labour as a poet.” Similarly, Hyacinth Obunseh an ANA chieftain, said, “Oke left indelible footprints on the sands of time. He also left behind a vacuum that will be difficult to fill.” The deceased came to national limelight when he won the NLNG Prize in 2017 with his Operatic Poetry, The Heresiad. Oke described poetry as “healthy narcotics” in his acceptance speech. He also remarked, “I am happy to be addicted to it as shown by my refusal to be swayed by such concerns. I have invoked the poem here hopefully to arouse the contemplation of how one’s resolve to pursue ones’ dreams in spite of such concerns is the best decision that can lead to a fulfilled life.”
The award-winning collection has been described as “a work that speaks to an intense commitment to innovation, tenacity, joyful experimentation and social commentary in a way that provokes delight and engagement.” The NLNG judges described the book as “a bold and wonderful experiment whose great strength also could have been its greatest weakness.”
While Chinua Achebe described Oke as “a very fine poet”, the South African Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, said of him, “no end to the wide illumination in the protean gifts of this man…Here is a writer who finds the metaphor for what has happened and continues…as perhaps only a poet can.”
To Helon Habila, “In The Heresiad Ikeogu Oke has set himself a lofty task: a defence of literature against cant and its attendant forces that daily seek to limit the sphere of what is beautiful and possible. He achieves this beautifully in what he describes as operatic poetry, a bold mixture of verse and song and drama, contained within a disciplined lyrical pentametric form.”
According to Don Burness, “reading Ikeogu Oke one is made aware that the map of literature knows no boundaries. The Heresiad with its Biblical cadences sings with prophecy, wisdom and lament. The poet explores varied themes including censorship, the single-minded madness of extreme religious fundamentalism and the very nature of skepticism and independent thought.”
There is no doubt that Oke was a committed poet and a patriot. Ikeogu was inspired by Shelly, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Yeats, Eliot and other renowned poets. The Federal Government should immortalise him. We commiserate with his family, the literary community and friends for the great loss. May God grant his creative soul eternal rest.