From the moment John Pepper Clark, popularly known as JP Clark, was first published in Horn magazine, edited by Chris Okigbo, at the then University College, Ibadan, in the 1950s, it was just a matter of time before he was lionised as one of Nigeria and Africa’s foremost writers, in a career spanning over six decades, with noticeable fecundity in drama, poetry and literary scholarship.
On Tuesday, October 13, 2020, JP Clark-Bekederemo bypassed the reeds in a Delta tide on his way to meet his ancestors. Wikipedia puts his official age at 85, born on April 6, 1935, but Dr Ebi Yeibo, a scholar from Niger Delta State University, Amassoma, Bayelsa, said he was actually born in December 1933, according to JP Clark himself during several encounters with him.
The writings of JP Clark
JP Clark belongs to a distinguished cast of odogwus of Nigerian letters, of which Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Chris Okigbo are bedfellows. They were a group of writers, fresh from the University College, Ibadan, who upped the ante of Nigerian published literature from the modest pioneering efforts of Amos Tutuola with The Palm-wine Drinkard and Cyprian Ekwensi with People of the City, whose works were mainly steeped in myths and the flux of urban life, respectively.
In the 1960s, JP Clark quickly established himself as an all-round man of letters: a poet, dramatis, critic and translator. His early plays, The Song of a Goat and Ozidi, made him a playwright of prodigious talent, even with his scanty knowledge in the rudiments of production and stagecraft at that stage. By 1964, when he released America, Their America, he demonstrated an iconoclastic zeal with the nonfiction, which, however, took a toll on his reputation, especially from western antagonists.
In his early poetry, he shows a gift for recreating the local environment in his verses and a deep interest in oral tradition. This stemmed from his realisation that Nigerians did not know much about their oral traditions as they did about European mythologies taught in schools.
The pioneer poets of the first generation, like Aig Imoukhuede and Dennis Osadebay, lacked emotional depth in symbolism and ideas. JP Clark wormed himself into the hearts of the literary establishment with a simple idiom, unobtrusive metrics and medium synthesis. His “Streamside Exchange” comes to mind. Also, in “Ibadan”, his description of the city’s landscape is uncluttered. The same goes for “Night Rain” where he deploys direct and unelaborated images, unlike those found in Okigbo and Soyinka’s poetry of corresponding era.
Besides, Clark’s most quoted collection of poems — Poems (published by Mbari Publications) and A Reed in the Tide — reveal him as a derivative poet whose metric style is hugely indebted to Hopkins and Eliot, with run-on stressed lines and stylised repetitions.
But, in Ozidi, Clark achieves an awesome epiphany as a playwright. In literary scholarship, Ozidi is regarded as his most ambitious play and the best of all. Moving away from the Greek classical model explored in Song of a Goat, Clark goes for a romantic style in the latter, laced with dance and music. The themes of the epic “on the Ijaw saga of Ozidi, told in seven days to dance, music and mime” are universally concerned with fortunes and reverses, revenge and a test of human will. The playwright deftly mixes a fairy-tale legend and the social convulsion of a modern African society, using free verse as a vehicle.
Clark’s major works include but not limited to the plays: The Raft (1964), Ozidi (1966), The Boat (1968), and the poetry volumes: A Reed in the Tide (1965), and Casualties (1966-68).
JP Clark and critics
Criticism shades more light on the works of a writer regarding his intentions and to what extent he is successful or otherwise in the execution. JP Clark has a fair share of positive and negative assessments of his works by critics.
Ulli Beier, the German culture aficionado, one of his first critics and who discovered his talent, observes that Clark’s early poetry was handicapped by the dearth of African literary models, thereby making a genuine national verse tradition difficult for his generation of poets. Likewise, critics who pick holes in his early plays, like Dan Izevbaye and Abiodun Adetugbo, have criticised his inexperience in stage production, which has rendered portions of his plays difficult to adapt on stage, as well as his fragmented vision.
Writing on “Form and Style” in Introduction to Nigerian Literature, edited by Bruce King (1972: Africana Publication Corporation, New York), Adetugbo praises Clark’s Ozidi as a masterpiece but one with a staggering weakness in its complexity in scene shifting (p.189) and a play with a large crowd capable of taxing all the resources of a stage and a play director. He is also unsatisfied with the failure of Clark to stick to the Greek dramatic model used in Song of a Goat, which sees him deviating from stylised free verse with characters speaking out of character. Adetugbo also observes that the themes in Song of a Goat and The Masquerade are not treated convincingly as the subject of epic tragedies.
When the Nigerian Civil War broke out in 1967, Clark did his reputation a disservice by standing on the fence. However, Soyinka, a Yoruba, far from the theatre of the war, was a stringent voice, disparaging the Gowon-led federal government for its war policies and calling for truce. Achebe, Chris Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, to mention a few, were all involved in the war. When Clark tried to bounce back, literarily, with “Casualties”, critics were quick to point out that “we are not all casualties”, for the real casualties were the dead, maimed, silenced and those turned to second class citizens in a free country.
Long before Odia Ofeimun pilloried him in The Poet Lied, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike had lampooned Clark’s poetry in the first volume of the controversial book, Toward the Decolonisation of African Literature (1980: Fourth Dimension Publishing, Enugu). Considered as one of the most dismissive criticisms on the works of Wole Soyinka, JP Clark and Chris Okigbo, the troika declares:
“There is a failure of craft in the works of the euromodernist Ibadan-Nsukka school of Nigerian poetry. Despite the high praise heaped upon it from all sides, most of its practitioners display glaring faults, e.g., old-fashioned, craggy, unmusical language; obscure and inaccessible diction; a plethora of imported imagery; a divorce from African oral poetic traditions, tempered only by lifeless attempts at revivalism.”
The above, however, doesn’t distract from the impressive artistic merits of Clark, which has seen his writings become the favourites of African students and researchers and the global literary cognoscenti, leading to his canonisation.
Perhaps the greatest injustice done to Clark’ s craft, however, was in not being garlanded in terms of International awards and getting a national honour. But that perhaps could be explained by the archetypes operating like reeds in the wind.