Chiedu Uche Okoye
Literature emanates from the Latin word “litera,” which means printed matter. So, everything that is documented and preserved in black and white is literature. But, here, we are concerned with literature that is broadly divided into two, namely: written literature and oral literature. Oral literature has got to do with songs, dances, folktales, proverbs, and others.
And, we have the written literature, which is divided into three genres. They are poetry, prose, and drama. When the British imperialists brought western education to us, many Nigerians enrolled their children in schools, where they received western education. Some of them went to universities and majored in English language and literature, and took degrees in English literature, classics, and in other arts courses.
And, after they had completed their education programmes, those scholar-writers started producing literary works like fiction, drama, and poetry based on western literary models. Although they wrote their works in English and French, their familiarity with the traditions and oral literature of their people rubbed off on their works. Some examples will suffice. Okot p’ Bitek’s ‘’Songs of Lawino’’ was based on the indigenous literary model of his Ocoli people in Ugandan. And it was a success. Again, Chinua Achebe, the raconteur par excellence, made use of oral literary traditions in writing his magnum opus and classic, Things fall Apart.
However, after Nigeria had become a sovereign country in 1960, the quartet of Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clark, Chris Okigbo, and Wole Soyinka laid the foundation for the growth of the Nigerian literature with their high quality literary outputs. Wole Soyinka’s plays won him global acclaim, and contributed greatly to his winning the noble prize for literature in 1986. And, Chinua Achebe is/was revered for his inimitable writing prowess in the genre of prose fiction. Although Chris Okigbo produced a slim poetry volume before his death, his poems are widely read, today, and he is regarded as the best poet to have come out of Africa. More so, Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo could hold his own in the fields of literary scholarship and writing. He produced many literature works spanning the genres of literature, which have become canonical. The lyrical grace and cadence of his poems, and the imageries woven into them wow readers to no end
A poet and playwright, J.P. Clark’s oeuvre teems with works covering such genres of literature as poetry, drama, and travelogue. He wrote his journalistic work cum travelogue, “America, their America“ after his stay in America. We should remember that J.P. Clark was a Parvin fellow at Princeton University, United States of America.
In addition to writing that travelogue, he was a prolific dramatist and playwright. His works in drama attest to that. He had written these plays over the years: Ozidi, an epic drama, Song of a Goat, The wives’ Revolt, Masquerade, The Raft, The Bikora plays, which include the Boat, and others.
And, in the genre of poetry, which arguably is his forth, he made mark with the poetry volumes he produced. They include these: A Reed in the Tide, Casualties, A Decade of Tongue, State of the Union, Mandela and other poems, and others. The lyrical and epigrammatic stamp of his poetry is amply demonstrated in these two poems of his: “Ibadan” and “Streamside Exchanges”. While “Ibadan” with imageries artistically woven into it is an apt and vivid description of Ibadan, an ancient city, “Streamside Exchanges’’ is a poem whose thematic concerns are loneliness, anxiety, fugacity, and the uncertainty of life. It is a poetic philosophical treatise, the messages of which resonate with us.
In his lyrical poem, “The Casualties”, he posits that both the victors and the vanquished in the fratricidal Nigeria-Biafra civil war were casualties. Not a few people differ with Clark on the thematic stance of the poem on the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. That notwithstanding, the poem has lyrical grace and simplicity, which are quintessentially and characteristically J.P. Clark. And, while Soyinka’s poem called Abiku is recondite and impenetrable, Clark’s own is easy to read, and not dense. And it can be argued that it is on his poetry works that his renown rests.
During his student days at the University of Ibadan, he was the founding editor of The Horn, a student poetry magazine. Before he proceeded to Ibadan to acquire university education, he attended Government College, Ughelli. And he taught at the University of Lagos, the school at which he rose to become a Professor of Literature. After his voluntary retirement from teaching at the University of Lagos in 1980, he established the PEC Repertory Theatre. An outstanding man of letters, who possessed literary erudition and writing prowess, he edited the Black Orpheus journal, which published many of his poems.
Like Gabriel Okara, his Niger-delta compatriot, he worked as an Information Officer in the western Region. Clark worked as a journalist in the years preceding his travel to America, too. Besides being a writer, university don, and scholar par excellence, JP Clark demonstrated his patriotism, when he, Chinua Achebe, and Wole Soyinka visited Gen. Ibrahim Babangida in the 1980s and asked him for reprieve for Mamman Vatsa, who was alleged to be involved in a botched coup to oust Babaginda from office. Vatsa, we all know, was a poet of note until his death.
Although his cap was not filled with feathers of national and international literary honors during his sojourn on this side, many of today’s writers of note from Nigeria cut their literary teeth in writing by studying his works. And they committed his poems to heart while studying for their degree programmes in English Literature. Till now, his works covering the genres of poetry and drama are studied by students in secondary schools and tertiary institutions. Now, nobody can controvert the stark fact that his literary works have immortalized him.
Born in 1935 to an Ijaw father, and an Urhobo mother, he hailed from Kiagbodo, Delta state. His immersion in the traditions of his people reflected profusely in his works. Being a mortal, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo answered the inevitable and irreversible call on October 13, 2020.
He has become one of our ancestors; and he now hovers above us ethereally in the company of other Nigerian literary greats like Chukwuemeka Ike, Cyprian Ekwensi, Gabriel Okara, Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutola, and others. Adieu, Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekeredemo, the iconic lyrical poet and revered playwright.
Okoye writes from Obosi,Anambra State