Foremost Nigerian literary icon and university teacher, Prof. John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, passed on recently after a brief illness. The writer, popularly known as J.P. Clark, was one of the pioneers of Nigerian Literature. Other members of this club of eminent writers include Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo. Together, they put Nigerian and African Literature on the global map. Clark used his poems to mirror life in his riverine environment as well as capture the social and political developments in the country.
The playwright, poet and essayist made enormous contributions to the development of Nigerian literature, especially in poetry and drama. Although influenced by Western canons, Clark’s poetry is rooted in African cultural aesthetics and sensibilities, especially the Niger Delta coastal environment. With diverse themes, his poetry is regarded as one of the finest in Africa. His published volumes of poetry include A Reed in the Tide, Casualties, A Decade of Tongues, State of the Union and Mandela and other poems. His plays include Song of a Goat, Masquerade, The Raft, The Wives Revolt and The Bikora Plays. His other works include America Their America, The Example of Shakespeare, a collection of critical studies.
J.P. Clark poetry is known for its imagery and lyricism. The deceased can be regarded as one of the most lyrical poets Nigeria has produced. Clark also did extensive research into traditional Ijaw myths and legends and wrote essays on African poetry. Some of his most anthologised poems include “Ibadan”, “Streamside Exchange,” “Night Rain,” “Fulani Cattle,” “Abiku,” and “The Casualties”
Born Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekerederemo in Kiagbodo on April 6, 1935, he was the son of an Ijaw chief and Urhobo mother. He attended Government College Ughelli. He studied English at the University of Ibadan, where he founded and edited various magazines, including The Beacon and The Horn. Upon graduation in 1960, he worked as an Information Officer in the Ministry of Information, in the old Western Region of Nigeria.
He was also the Features Editor of the Daily Express, and later a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. He taught at the University of Lagos and co-edited the literary magazine, the Black Orpheus. He retired as a professor in 1980. He later founded the PEC Repertory Theatre in Lagos, together with his wife, Ebun Odutola, a professor and former Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos.
After his retirement from the University of Lagos, he took up visiting professorial positions at several institutions abroad, including Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States. His earlier plays have been criticised for leaning too much on the Greek mythology, thinness of structure and unrealistic stage devices. However, some critics have argued that they challenge and engage the audience with their poetic quality and their fusion of the foreign and the local through graphic imagery.
Until his death, he was one of Africa’s eminent and distinguished writers and role models. For his prodigious literary achievements, Clark was a recipient of the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award in 1991, among others. Interestingly, the University of Lagos named a centre in his honour some years ago. The Howard University published two of his definitive volumes, The Ozidi Saga and Collected Plays and Poems, 1958-1988. In 2015, the Society of Young Nigerian Writers founded the J.P. Clark Literary Society, aimed at promoting and reading Clark’s works.
He was a mentor, versatile thinker and statesman. His poems influenced new generation of poets in Nigeria. It is commendable that President Muhammad Buhari, some state governors and other Nigerians have paid glowing tributes to the late writer. However, we urge the government to go beyond the tributes and name a monument after him.
Although the great bard is dead, he will continue to live in his literary works. Let the government also revamp the education sector in honour of the deceased prolific author. We commiserate with his family, the literary community, the government and his numerous admirers on the irreparable loss. May his great soul rest in peace.