How does one respond to the loss of an icon such as JP and more so one as close? After I received the dawn call from Nigeria, I wrote
Dawn has brought chilling news—
what the tide did at night has come to light.
The tide takes away what it has brought ashore—
the boat of ancestors came to take away a worthy one
who could not resist the ferry to the other world.
A chorus of wailers and celebrants escort him away
and we are bereft of the scribe that sold our name
to the nation and beyond for us to be respected.
Dawn has brought chilling news—
what the tide did at night has come to light
and we are left without the chief scribe.
The news of JP’s passing came as a jolt because the last time I saw him at Abuja, he looked very fine for his age. He had said while 80 that age was a disease in his deft way of borrowing a traditional Urhobo saying—oghwo emiavwe! But this is 2020 when the unexpected happens. I related with him like a sort of senior brother. Whenever we met, he always queried me why I had not sent him my latest collection of poems. Once I visited him in Lagos and when we came to the discussion of Udje, the Urhobo oral poetic performance genre, his face lit up. Knowing I was interested in udje, he directed me to visit Erhuwaren, his mother’s village, to collect songs. Years later, he wondered what I made of that visit and the songs. I went there but the older residents had forgotten the songs and could only remember fragments. JP was very amiable to me. He cast jokes and laughed. JP meant and still means a lot to me. He was a man of self-worth and exhibited confidence in his carriage.
JP and his mates, Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, created the path of modern African poetry for me and my coevals such as Niyi Osundare, Funso Aiyejina, Odia Ofeimun, and Chimalum Nwankwo. My first contact with JP Clark was during my undergraduate years at Ibadan. That “meeting” could not be earlier as in our time there was no African literature in high school and the Higher School Certificate program. My group was the first to start studying African literature at Ibadan in 1968. I easily embraced his poetry. I could relate to “Night Rain,” “Streamside Exchange,” “Agbor Dancer,” and “Abiku,” among many poems. With images of water, tide, creeks, I felt at home in the landscape of his poetry. Dan Izevbaye and Theo Vincent taught us with enthusiasm that we imbibed.
Let me start from a beginning many of JP’s readers and scholars of his poetry or plays may not know. For his stubborn independence and telling things as he saw them, he suffered the consequences of his actions. About 1962 he received an American Foundation fellowship to study at Princeton University. He did not allow himself to be shepherded in the program meant to impress bright young Third World men and women at the time of the Cold War. It was a charm offensive he disrupted and was quickly packaged home. His America Their America (1964) speaks of his disaffection with the fellowship as he wanted not to be boxed but free to see things for himself. Given the circumstances of his fellowship, his abrupt return to Nigeria, and the critical thrust of his book, it is reasonable to expect that there was no love lost between JP and the US authorities at the time. One can only guess what that might have done to JP’s career as a writer.
JP was a scholar-writer. He was a university professor for decades and wrote The Example of Shakespeare. He was a reluctant African modernist. True, he was taught at University College, Ibadan, by English professors steeped in modernist literature and he might have imbibed some of the features. I could see a tug of war between traditional poetry and modernist poetry struggling to take possession of him. If the poetry of the modernists was fragmented, highly allusive, learned, and obscure, JP Clark’s poetry is not quite like that of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or others of their group. Nor was his poetry like that of his contemporaries like Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka at the time. As a Nigerian and African, I could relate to his poems. For me as a Niger Delta person, there is empathy reading “Night Rain,” “Streamside Exchange,” and many poems in A Reed in the Tide. The poems are simple and aimed at communicating meaning. Even the imagistic “Ibadan” and “Agbor Dancer” enthrall with simple and highly descriptive diction. I can venture to say that JP’s interest in udje songs might have influenced him too in his pursuit of meaning. His “Poetry of the Urhobo Dance Udje” was published in Nigeria Magazine (no. 87, 1965). Of course, he taped and translated the Ozidi Saga. He took advantage of the “two hands a man has.” The research into indigenous cultural productions would have undoubtedly diluted the modernist influence of his Western education. I also dare say that the indigenous impulse of JP might have partly spurred the “Alter/Native” side of the generation that followed him.
JP’s poetry and plays set on the Niger Delta landscape made him a writer of wide influence. The rootedness in place is what would give rise to Niger Delta literature. He made you feel the Niger Delta landscape in his poetry and plays. He was in creative writing to the Niger Delta what Isaac Adaka Jasper Boro to the politics of the region. So, while a sub-national literature has emerged in Nigeria, it is because of JP’s physical, cultural, and experiential connection that his creative works fashioned out of the living realities of the people and place. Song of a Goat and The Raft as well as A Reed in the Tide and A Decade of Tongues explore the perennial Niger Delta experience of the poet’s people. Similarly, his attention to nature and the environment would lead to a spate of environmental writings associated with Niyi Osundare, Ogaga Ifowodo, Nnimmo Bassey, Ebi Yeibo, and myself, among others.
JP was a writer who captured the history and zeitgeist of the Niger Delta and Nigeria. One can see these in his early plays set in the Niger Delta that have to do with the culture and environment. His middle stage, the Bikoroa plays, gave way to the contemporary issues that both All for Oil and The Wives’ Revolt deal with. Like his culture and society, he was dynamic. There is a transformation to current issues that have local and universal resonance in those plays and later poems.
JP was misunderstood and unacknowledged in his greatness. His position during the Nigerian Civil War was misunderstood by those outside the Niger Delta. Belonging to the region that the secessionist Biafran and the Federal sides were fighting to retain as theirs because of the oil and gas reserves, he spoke from his minority position. This perspective through his poetry in the title poem of his Civil War poetry collection, Casualties, is that “we are all casualties” of the war. The Civil War like later national happenings must have affected him deeply and one can see the psychological anguish at the devastation that took place. JP went with Soyinka and Achebe to meet Ibrahim Babangida to spare the life of Mamman J. Vassa. He was in the forefront of those who campaigned for Sani Abacha to free Ken Saro Wiwa but failed. His political activism is unacknowledged. He lived and wrote against neocolonialism and refused to have a romance with those who practiced slave trade, colonialism, and neocolonialism. His Mandela poems show his Pan-African interest.
JP Clark stands very tall among the now thinning generation of African writers that came before us. There are testimonies from those who studied his poetry reciting from memory “Ibadan” and other poems from different parts of Africa. Over fifty years since I first read those poems, I can still recite “Ibadan,” much of “Night Rain,” and all of “Streamside Exchange.” His type is an endangered species. He has left but he remains with us. When his raft arrives in the other world, he should be welcomed as a very worthy ancestor. For us he left, we will sorely miss his sagely and lively company.
Tanure Ojaide, NNOM, FNAL, is a Frank Porter Graham Professor of Africana Studies, University of North Carolina at Charlotte