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Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

versión On-line ISSN 2309-9070
versión impresa ISSN 0041-476X

Tydskr. letterkd. vol.48 no.1 Pretoria ene. 2011


Living the myth: revisiting okigbo's art and commitment



Dan Izevbaye




This is a study of the nature and sources of the persona's quest in Christopher Okigbo's poetry. The protagonist in Okigbo's writing explores the fluid borders between aesthetic and spiritual states, with language and social action as instruments of the self's aspiration towards spiritual and aesthetic fulfillment. Although Okigbo's narration is presented in the form of dramatic ritual, the distance or severance of the material from the poet's own spiritual history is not total, for the historical content eventually intrudes into the writing and reestablishes the authentic autobiography of the poetic self. The historical context, the 1960s, is an age of transition. Okigbo's characterisation of his persona as an actor in a state of personal transition reflects the poet's sensitive immersion in the spirit of his times and establishes Okigbo the poet as perhaps its ideal representative. One of the issues raised in this study is that in spite of the protagonist's recurrent return to the point of passage, there is a relentless drive towards death seen ambiguously as the ultimate goal and state of perfection as well as the perfect form of transition. The central question explored in this study is the roles of poetic diction, the tense politics of the 1960s and the poet's own intense temperament in determining his peculiar choice of resolution to the dilemma at the centre of his poetry.

Key words: Aesthetic, myth, Nigerian poetry, ritual, Christopher Okigbo.




Christopher Okigbo created and lived his myth. As Uzoma Esonwanne (2000: 1-2) argues, the meagerness of biographical sources can generate myths about a poet like Okigbo. But such myths can also be influenced by the poet's own attitudes. Chinua Achebe ends his preface to Don't Let Him Die (1978), a collection that asserts the triumph of poetry over death, with the rather curious statement that "Okigbo had taken care to ensure that he will not die" (1978: ix) - a figurative reference to posthumous memory and reputation as a response to the depth of the poet's friendships and literary achievement. It is, of course, an ironical statement to make about one who seems to have consciously courted death in literature and in life - that is, in poetic image and theme as well as in the decision to fight at the war front.1 What is curious here is the idea that Okigbo consciously cultivated his posthumous reputation. It is possible to produce evidence in support of this statement; for example, that Okigbo was conscious of the importance of his poetry because he probably felt, like Keats, that he would be umbered among the poets of his race. Unlike most African poets, he recorded the dates of composition for virtually all his published poems, thus inviting posterity to pay attention to the historical phases of his work. The attention that he paid to the style and structure of his poems has been much studied and imitated. Achebe and Okafor's 1978 collection probably contains many more instances of the replication of phrases, images and other elements of his poetry than tributes to any other African writer.2



Okigbo was a poet of the 1960s in Nigeria. Although his early poems show a deliberate paring away of the source materials of the poetry, it would be useful to place his life and works in the historical context of their composition. Of especial importance in this context is the question of the isolation of the artist, a question that is foregrounded by the allusiveness and not-always accessible symbolism of the poetry.

The end of colonial rule and the early years of independence had two fundamental effects on Nigerian society. The first of these, which had significant consequences for the country's future, was the amalgam of peoples who were separate before colonial rule. The second was the rise of the western-educated elite. The two factors are linked in unexpected ways. The colonial creation of a multicultural nation gave the English language a key cultural and political status as a unifying tool that contributed to the rise of a privileged middle class who were in the vanguard position in the development of a national consciousness and relied on English, the official national language, for the expression of their nationalist aspirations. The centrality of these two factors during the early years of independence meant that the political atmosphere would be intensely charged, and it would be difficult for thinking individuals not to evolve a full social consciousness in response to the events of the period.

The new elite had to be defined not only by their training and class privilege, but also by their consciousness of their responsibility for the cultural and political future of the country, a theme that became dominant in the novels of the 1960s. One could summarise the cultural and psychological attributes shared by the members of this new elite, although the class was made up of individuals and groups that were differentiated by the degree to which they were conscious of these attributes. They shared a common awareness of their national responsibility as makers of a new culture and the need for a cultural resurgence. They implicitly accepted the important contribution of the European language to this syncretism, although they were generally conscious of the threat inherent in English as a politically privileged culture bearer. It is now commonplace for writers of the period to be considered the representatives of their age and its mouthpiece. This middle class culture was serious minded and utilitarian, and its discourses were concerned with the cultural and political direction that it envisaged for the newly independent state. This concern was reflected in the forms of entertainment that it favoured. Perhaps this seriousness was because the middle class culture of the sixties was university based. The cultural organs of this middle class were university centred: the major cultural events did not reflect the lifestyle, daily rituals or cultural festivals of that class, nor was the curriculum designed to encourage university students' appreciation of their indigenous arts. Members of the new middle class were drawn by their sense of responsibility to the traditional festivals that were organic to traditional society, just as Yeats was attracted to the arts that could still remind him of their origins among the common people.

African indigenous cultural events and material products were brought to the university or its centres as cultural exhibits or processed for assimilation into the new cultural direction that was being shaped through the discourse of this new middle class. Even when there was a deliberate attempt to break the influence of the university on the new middle class, as in the creation of the Mbari Society of writers and artists at Ibadan, the influence of the university was still present, at least in the background of members and the nature of its discourses. There seems to be a strong penitential element in much of these gestures towards the study, appropriation and assimilation of traditional arts into the culture of the new middle class. The psychological character of these gestures towards indigenous culture is highlighted in the guilt-ridden return of Okigbo's prodigal at the beginning of Heavensgate, presented as a drama of a poet who had abandoned the priesthood of Idoto for modern western education and the vocation of writing. The sense of responsibility to the development of African culture is the price for the new culture. There were major cultural gains from this sense of responsibility, not only in the efflorescence of the literature, but in the emergence of new forms of visual arts, notably the sculptures and architectural designs of Ben Enwonwu, Felix Idubor and Demas Nwoko, Okigbo's illustrator. At that time the visual arts did not seem to have the kind of currency and immediate impact on social and communal life that verbal forms have, given that language is the medium of everyday communication. That is why Ulli Beier (1960: 9) argued that in 1960 "[t]he new Nigerian middle class [was] not particularly interested in the arts at the moment [...] In other words the artist [was] no longer considered to be an essential member of the community as he used to be in traditional African society." Although many writers at the time did not think so, the theme of the writer straining for an audience was a central motif in Okigbo's early poetry. For Okigbo and his contemporaries it is through language that a poet expresses his responsibility to his society.



One of the literary consequences of this social awareness and feeling of responsibility is the foregrounding of the public function of language, such that the more private forms of poetry were not only unpopular for not being readily accessible, they later came under attack for more ideological reasons. A case of obscurantism has even been made against many of the major Nigerian poets of the sixties on the simplistic assumption that the best of African traditional poetry is plain and straightforward, and that the poetry of cultural independence should draw on that model, whereas there is a lot of esoteric poetry and poetry of restricted reference in the oral tradition.

Okigbo was caught up in this debate and was often its main target. It is ironical that although he is one of the representative literary figures of this period, he emerges in some of the criticism as an outsider to the culture of the sixties not only because the diction of his early poems is not reader-friendly, but also because of his careful cultivation of the image of the poet as outsider. There is indeed a difference between the ego-driven quest of the dramatic early poems and the greater social orientation of the later poems whose point of view became even more lyrical than the earlier poems. The named protagonist of the later poems, "I, Okigbo," stands in sharp contrast to the complete anonymity of the earlier hero. But the two sequences are connected by a consistency of commitment and a continuity of purpose, if not of theme. Okigbo's literary reputation was secure by the time he wrote the last poem in the Labyrinths sequence, but two issues are likely to remain at the centre of the discussion of Okigbo's poetry: the diction of the poetry and the autobiographical element.

Language is by its nature a social product. Although words are generated by individuals and sometimes in private during the act of communication, they have to be socially acceptable and sanctioned before they can become a meaningful part of language. For that reason, no individual has his meaning to himself, except he or she is not engaged in the act of communication. The rules of language are social; they rein in the individual's experiment with utterances that are not socially viable. This means that when we intend to communicate our utterances are affected by three factors: their meaning is social; their syntax imposes limits on the private elements of utterance; the psychological context in which experience is fashioned into words, as D. W. Harding puts it, makes creativity possible by loosening the close relationship between language and reality. The creative freedom which this psychological element guarantees makes it possible for a poet to imagine a world that is not necessarily a faithful reflection of his experience or a logical account of the reality that he knows, although that freedom is limited by the elements that make communication possible. This means that except in the most consciously autobiographical forms of poetry, there is only a tenuous relation between the source experience - which we call the inspiration for the poem - and the imaginative product. But the utterance remains social even at this private level, except perhaps in a madman's utterance and the nonsensical lines in nursery chants. For example, Okigbo's presentation of a child's oral transcription of a nursery rhyme (etru bo pi a lo a she) and the singing of Jadum the madman accompanied by an imaginary drum in Heavensgate are both poetic accounts of nonsense utterances. They both remain non-social and private to us as readers, but only for as long as we do not recognise in them a different form of language or dialect or creole from our own.3 If we do accept them as meaningful statements, they no longer remain nonsensical or private utterances but statements in an idiom different from our own. And if we recognise them as translations of utterances that already exist in our own language, our verbal experience is enriched by this knowledge of the possibilities of the renewal of experience through poetry. Publication is the other additional step in the socialization of poetry.

Publication is the final stage of that process. Published private poetry cannot but be social and available as long as it finds an audience. Even at its most private, the critical task of elucidation and evaluation makes such private poetry socially available by working towards its assimilation into the language of its audience. The point is that genuinely esoteric poetry meant for a restricted audience should be recognized as such and not judged by the standards of public poetry, although such poems would not be published for the general audience in the first place. Critics of Okigbo's early poetic diction do not always recall that his poetic insists on the search for an audience as an essential stage in the making of poetry. The effects of abstract poetry and obscure diction arise mainly when the reading of the poems is restricted by the kind of symbolist theory set out in Paul Valery's "Poetry and abstract thought".

I now wish to turn to a point that I raised earlier about poetry as a restructuring of autobiographical elements, and the extent to which such poetry should be read biographically. This point has a bearing on the social nature of poetry in general and on Okigbo's poetry in particular, and it may help to define the nature of the privacy of his poetry. Two of Okigbo's major poetic techniques are relevant to this question. The first is that his language is figurative to the point of symbolism - that is, it creates its own autonomous meaning in the sense that the poem is designed not so much as an expression of the poet's emotion as a verbal structure aimed at eliciting an emotional response from the reader. The second is the function of transition as a theme and as a basic structural instrument, and its relevance to the social and autobiographical contexts of the poems.

The verbal and structural design of "Distances" plays down the historical element in the poem. The historical residues in the poem are those of the poem's hero, not those of the poet. Okigbo himself provides the immediate autobiographical source for the poem - surgery under anaesthesia; but he immediately pre-empts autobiographical readings by foregrounding the translation of this source into aesthetic and spiritual values and hedging these round with allusions to mythological and literary sources (Okigbo 1972: 154-55). There is thus a transmutation of the sources into an independent literary drama that criticism cannot nail to a specific biographical meaning, especially because of the symbolic character of the drama. Its symbolic intention is clear from the anonymity of the protagonist, for this discourages his identification with any of the literary and mythological heroes who are evoked only as aspects of his character. Sunday O. Anozie's structuralist study of Okigbo, Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric (1972), analyses these literary and historical sources, traces the various allusions and references and comprehensively documents the sources of the quest form that shapes the poems. But much of the poem's meaning relies on an underlying metaphor of sexual fulfillment with its constant invocation of goddess and siren, as well as a collocation of related similes: the dream as vision and memory, sleep as the transition between memory and amnesia, death as the ultimate amnesia. It is because of the search for consciousness and its loss that poets throughout the ages have appropriated the image of sleep, which Samuel Daniel calls "brother to death," and which recurs in many African dirges where death is the semblance of sleep (see Daniel's "Care-Charmer Sleep," and also Shakespeare's "Orpheus," in Peacock 1963: 320, 414).4 Okigbo extends the simile by turning it into a symbol in "Distances". It begins when the surgeon, presiding over the patient's ether-induced unconsciousness, metamorphoses into Death herself, then evolves into a trope for the artist's impersonal creativity, described by Okigbo as a state of aesthetic grace. But there are further extensions of meaning, as in the verbal associations and sexual overtones of images like island, feverish shores, maidenhead and dream. For death and sex are often linked in poetic evocations of unconscious states. This passage makes sleep and death kin to sexual experience. For Death, whose gender is feminine in this poem, is at once the goddess of the first movement of "Distances" and the maiden of the final movement. The purpose of this image complex (death-sleep-dream-sex) is described by Okigbo as a "sensual anaesthesia" resulting in "a state of aesthetic grace," a verbal play that implies both a formalist poetic and an other-worldly theology.5

What is the significance of this formalist play with poetic language and form in an age of transition, this apparent indulgence in art for art's sake in an age of political commitment? The first point is that in this context homecoming does not necessarily imply the arrival at a destination. The tropes of sleep, sexual fulfillment and even death, only indicate a stopping point and preparation for a new beginning. "Home" itself becomes ambiguous in the context of the associated images of dream, sleep, sex and death as stages rather than terminals in the hero's progress. Homecoming is only the fulfillment of one more stage in the hero's growth - a recurrent stage anticipated - or attained twice in "Siren Limits" with its "low growth among the forest" turning into "A green cloud above the forest".

Then he turns to the next stage of the unending quest as the sequence ends on yet another note of incompleteness and anticipation with the hero as a chloroformed patient near an altar for the stitching of his wound. Passage, with its various tropes is the defining theme of Okigbo's art and commitment. The social context in which he operated was itself in transition, its emergent middle class culture was in a state of flux and, as his 1966 elegies suggest, the state was in transition, its politics in a state of chaos.

I take as the focus of discussion a central attitude in Okigbo's poetry, a stance so important that it becomes the image by which nearly all his major themes are defined - that of transition, recurring in the form of the hero at the passage. The true nature of this attitude or image is perhaps best seen in "Distances", in which the poet attempts some form of conclusion to an experience or an image that by nature does not admit of a closure. In earlier sequences, that attitude takes the form of a static image. The attitude or image remains static even where there is movement, for movement - when it occurs - is only circular: the eternal supplication; standing before Idoto; waiting at heavensgate or for the mortar to get dry; the still fennel on an empty sarcophagus,6 even the brief gesture towards a breakthrough in the sudden talkativeness of the weaverbird poet in "Siren Limits," and the optimism of the low growth in the forest, are soon halted by the image of creaticide in Guerni