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Afam Akeh

Afam Akeh

Akeh, author of Stolen Moments (1988) and the forthcoming collection of poems Letter Home, is the editor of African Writing.

 I return to Okigbo

It was one of those tropical noons – the sun up there and all that passed for normal in the world on parade below. But this world, my world, was about to change. Father, a publisher, had returned from a promotional trip. Nothing unusual there. He was often away and just as often returned – a coming and going that was much felt because when he was there he was powerfully there. This time he had returned with a present for me. A book. It was a gift but also a sign I had been waiting to see. For some days before he travelled there had been no communication between us. We were officially in disagreement. In our peculiar domestic arrangement – unspoken but understood – a book gift was welcome evidence that this latest of our father-son conflicts was finally over. That fine noon when he made his book offering, it should have been just another gesture in the long history of signs and symbols by which we frequently renewed our much tested relationship. But the book he offered that day would affect my life and choices in a way he could never have totally planned or approved. The book in his hand that memorable noon was Labyrinths, that singular achievement of the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo.

I was at the time reading and writing a lot of poetry but not exactly ready for the encounter with Christopher Okigbo and Labyrinths, his posthumous 1971 collection from the Heinemann African Writers Series. It was, perhaps, this fact of my poor preparation that ensured I would be so totally taken by him. I think I died to the life around me when I began to read that book. Many pages later, when I looked up, I was a changed person. I had become acutely aware of the poverty all around me. So I buried myself again in the majesty of those words. Father had primed me for a first literary tryst and I had fallen heavily for the lyricism of Okigbo. I still don’t think there is a poet, living or dead, with a keener sensitivity to tone and rhythm or the lineal representation of experience in its multiple associations and significations. And I have read a few hundred poets from different times and traditions since that first encounter with Okigbo – read them, heard them, seen them, appreciated them all, differently.

I have deliberately described my first encounter with the poetry of Okigbo in religious and romantic terms. This is because I am also interested here in noting some similarities in the redemptive roles of art, faith and romance. Okigbo, or poetry, was a stabilising influence at a highly combustible period of my youth. Poetry was however, the reason I also walked out of a university law programme after three study years determined to win for myself a life in writing. But more on that first encounter with Okigbo. For the first time I was reading poetry without labour, with a pleasure uniquely its own. I had discovered poetry! I was like a blind man with eyes suddenly open, like a child offered the freedom of the land of sweets. I was greedy for light. I was greedy for life. I was bathed in this sudden sweetness of light and life. Now I knew: Poetry was not only to be consumed in solitude and then regurgitated with much rumination … Poetry was the very song of life. And in Okigbo, poetry was markedly African like me. It jigged to its very own unchained melodies. Poetry, I had now discovered, could have feelings, sometimes fart, and rage, and also pray. And it could be a dirge so uplifting it felt like a ballad. Or a hymn. No, poetry was not lawless. But it could also fly. You couldn’t clip its wings with rules. This engaging poetry I was being introduced to was an energetic art. In Okigbo it leapt out of the limitations of its pages - at you.

I had discovered freedom, and what an elating time that first week with the master was. I was laughing in the bath just thinking of Okigbo’s lines. I took the book everywhere. In those early days I could fire Okigbo at every problem and come through victorious. I must have read or loved Labyrinths fifteen times, cover to cover, in that first week, not counting the stolen glances or kisses. I read every full stop, every semi-colon. I learned to treasure punctuations by reading Okigbo. My encounter with Labyrinths was like the Nigerian way with the cow. Nothing of that precious animal is wasted or considered useless. Not the hide or the horns. Not even the dark, malodorous shit. A cow slaughtered for festive Nigerian cooking will be fully consumed from head to hooves, its innards and rubbery skin not excluded. Yes, the hooves too. They are apparently medicinal, curing everything from the common cold to cancer – according to the authority of those traditional healers who trade in them. I think that when some Nigerians see the cow they think of pepper-soup rather than milk. I confess that I had that pepper-soup mentality towards Labyrinths in my first week. I consumed the poems greedily, no thoughts for the future. No word was left unchewed. Even a cover quote “The versions here … are final” became pure poetry for me. That simple excuse by which Okigbo had sought to placate critics who playfully scolded him for serially revising even his published poems became for me a mantra of inimitable excellence. I kept repeating it to myself. The versions here are final! The versions here are final! How exquisite, I thought. How so like Okigbo to come up with the precise and desired words.

Even now it is easy to see why Labyrinths had such a hold on me and is still much fancied by many aspiring Nigerian poets who encounter it in their youth. It is a book of poems with unusually gripping lines. In the biographical notes to their Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry [1998], the editors Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier observe: “Okigbo’s fastidiousness as a poet and the urgency of his lyrical voice have exercised a great – perhaps too great an – influence on some younger Nigerian poets, who find it difficult to escape from his shadow.” Well, it isn’t progress to spend a lifetime imitating Okigbo but who can blame a young African poet for falling for such physically engaging, almost tangible lines like these I have randomly selected from the pithy poems of Labyrinths:


And the horn may now paw the air howling goodbye …
The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon …
Silences are melodies / Heard in retrospect …

Or these lines in which Okigbo the consummate artist playfully winks at his reader:


If I don’t learn to shut up my mouth I’ll soon go to hell,
I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.

Or, finally, these, with the poet prophetic and painfully concluded:


An old star departs, leaves us here on the shore
Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;
The new star appears, foreshadows its going
Before a going and coming that goes on forever…

Like Wilfred Owen, the poster poet of the British sense of loss at the First World War, Christopher Okigbo would also die young, at the flowering of his creative abilities and career possibilities – killed in combat early in the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970.

The nature of his sacrificial death may account for some of the nostalgic and emotive responses to his poetry and person. But, even more than the negritude movement’s Leopold Senghor, Okigbo has been the most influential African poet, providing inspiration for generations of African poets and other writers, including his peers.

As noted by Moore and Beier, he continues to have a cult following in his native Nigeria. There have been prizes named after him. Literary events, groups and publications have been established in his memory. But Okigbo’s influence goes beyond Nigeria. His voice echoes as a presiding spirit in Tides of Time (1996), the selected poems of Kenyan poet, Jared Angira. From his UK base, the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson would offer respectful reference to Okigbo in ‘If I Woz A Tap Natch Poet’, a poetic manifesto included in his collection My Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems (Penguin, 2002). There are also memorable lines for Okigbo in the Collected Poems of Chinua Achebe (Anchor Books, 2004), in the poem ‘A Wake for Okigbo’. The scholar Ali Mazrui’s imaginative work, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, was an early instigator of a dialogue, which has continued, about what to make of Okigbo’s decision to fight in the Nigerian Civil War. Is the writer who takes up arms lost to art? Is it a case of betrayal? Which is the greater cause – art or one’s people? Is that level of political commitment not a waste of the writer’s creative talent or genius? And does that kind of intervention really make a difference, resulting in lasting change?

Decades after Okigbo’s death, incidents in the experiences of some African admirers of his work still refer to his life and work. One of such Okigbo-related incidents is narrated by Robert Fraser in Ben Okri: Towards the Invisible City, his introduction to the work of the novelist. Okri’s respect for the work and memory of Okigbo was a precipitate factor in that minor 1991 incident at Cambridge University. Indeed Okigbo’s influence is significantly evident in Okri’s first collection of poems, An African Elegy (1992). I believe it is fair to observe that though Leopold Sedar Senghor was identified as the early champion of the African way of modern poetry, it was actually Chris Okigbo and Okot p’Bitek who provided the great poems of that poetic. But Okigbo the internationalist might have denied that dubious honour. Not that p’Bitek and Okigbo were the only capable African practitioners, or that other attempts at styling modern African poetry are inauthentic, but that in ‘Song of Lawino’, ‘Song of Ocol’ [Okot p’Bitek] and ‘Paths of Thunder’ [Chris Okigbo], the modern poetry of Africa found its earliest authentic masterpieces, its great show poems, or “anthem poems” as Nigerian critic Pius Adesanmi might call them.

From Okigbo to the other legendary voices of African poetry is actually more travel than might be expected by the initiate. Wole Soyinka, Augustinho Neto, Dennis Brutus, Tchicaya U Tam’si, Jean-Baptiste Tati-Loutard, Lenrie Peters, Kwesi Brew. Gabriel Okara, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, David Rubadiri, Mazisi Kunene Kofi Awoonor, Clark-Bekederemo, Birago Diop, David Diop, Arthur Nortje, Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote, Jack Mapanje and even younger pathfinders like Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Dambudzo Marachera, Tanure Ojaide, Syl Cheney-Coker and Kofi Anyidoho are all of the same African tradition of poetry as Okigbo. But they also offer other exciting interpretations or possibilities of that variable poetic. This is an incomplete list, of course, not including some other significant Africans who have also written poetry, sometimes winning awards for it – writers like Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah and Micere Mugo, who have been better received and honoured as novelists or playwrights. Other things can be observed about the list. It is unconsciously patriarchal. Recent poetry from continental Africa has moved to include, publish and appreciate more of the practice from women. From the Molara Ogundipes to the Kola Boofs, Toyin Adewale-Gabriels, Lebo Mashiles and Gabeba Baderoons, and the many others playing overseas venues principally as performance poets, poetry from African women is becoming just as varied and empowered as the poetry from African male writers.

There remain serious performance, translation, literacy and economic challenges to the production and appreciation of African poetry but the poet of Labyrinths, accused of elitism in his time, might be pleasantly surprised today at how varied and inclusive, if not quite populist, his favoured art has become. In rediscovering or recovering poetry through Okigbo, it is important to remember that he loved and lived his art. He often revised his work, hunting that moment of mastery which might have eluded his resolve at earlier attempts. Older Nigerian writers and other intellectuals who were associated with Okigbo in his lifetime agree that he was in love with his poetry. This might seem unsurprising. All poets love their art, don’t they? Well, not quite. You commit to nurturing what you love. You will hone it to brilliance. You would never think of poorly presenting or representing that thing you love in the public domain. But it is the case, these days, because of the ease of publication, multiplicity of media and the greater exposure of everything and everyone to everything and everyone else, that a greater temptation now exists for would-be poets to focus not on the perfection of their craft but on its placement, on playing the system. There are opportunity providers outside Africa, who are sometimes inundated with unsatisfactory material from young African writers and left with no option but to help and allow passage to whatever is seeking passage or approval. But marking up Africans or African initiatives because the material is out of Africa is just as bad as marking down Africans for the same reason. It is not on record that Okigbo’s poetry won many prizes and was thus dependant on that kind of validation. For him, there were no unmerited media appearances and references for work or an oeuvre still evidently at an inchoate stage of development. His work recommended itself and it continues to be studied, revisited, emulated, reviewed and honoured many years after his death, by his peers and by the generations after them.

Some degree of self-packaging and promotion is unavoidable in the writing trade. But more important to Okigbo was his commitment to excellence and the craft. It is never quite possible to wholly recapture that early flush of excitement with which a romantic liaison begins. But none of those I know who encountered Okigbo in their youth, and were smitten in much the same manner as I was, has become bitter and bored with the relationship. Some of the excitement may wear off with the years, but a lot of respect for Okigbo is still leftover is what I generally find. You can, as I did, outgrow Labyrinths. In my case, I went on to have other equally satisfying but less intense affairs with the poets Derek Walcott, Pablo Neruda and T. S. Eliot. But the power of outstanding poetry is that it also marks your choices in poetry criticism, so that whichever side you sway you are never really indifferent to the conditioning of those defining marks. I think that my interest in poetry criticism was actually kindled when I stumbled on an amusing but quite ruthless essay by the poet-polemicist Karl Shapiro. That essay ‘What Is Not Poetry?’ was part of a work, In Defence of Ignorance (1960), and Shapiro’s rage in the essay is directed against restrictive academic poetry criticism, which he referred repeatedly to as “modern criticism”. Shapiro, writing outside the discourse modes and constructs of recent theory, was deliberately provocative, opinionated and maddeningly illogical sometimes in his essay. A poet, he wrote, “ recognises the limitations of human language and is always slightly outside language.”

Shapiro was focusing on somewhat different matters but his words instructed me on what makes good poetry great. I understood then what made Okigbo’s poetry so special. Labyrinths was more than just pages of language. Beyond all that excellence in expression, in the celebration of language, the real creative power of the poet of Labyrinths, as might also be observed of Shakespeare, lay in his affecting and successful realisation of the very life from which he sourced his work. His lines came alive as you encountered them, filling you, making you, moving you, not letting you get away without feeling their tangible presence. You felt the love. You lived the rage. You saw the beauty. You did not merely read words. Those lines of his poems had character, emotion, attitude, intelligence. They possessed you as you read them. They were awe-inspiring in parts, filling you with their sounds and smells and errors and arguments, with all the worlds of experience represented in and by them. If you managed to pull yourself away from those words they still wanted to follow you wherever else you wanted to go for the rest of your life. Like devotional literature, great literature affects and stays with the reader as a living companion.

Recognising that real poetry is richer than the words by which it is often expressed, that indeed the poetic experience is inclusive of language but not exclusive to it, meant that I was trained early to engage without fear such representations and elements of the poetic some may consider marginal, underground, ‘too experimental’ or ‘not poetry’. I have known poetry written, spoken, made and demonstrated in various media and through even more varied instruments, not all of them human. I have learned to engage with all, loving some, grading them differently according to their kind. The following is also poetry - these words tattooed on the naked back of a woman, who, in an accompanying photograph to the poem, was doing exactly what the poem said she was doing:

She is / riding me, facing / away, and I am / deep inside her. / The moles / and freckles / on her back / are an unknown / constellation. / On the other side, / too far away / and far / too dark to see /
there are / her perfect breasts / her face / her closed eyes.
‘The Balcony’, David Brooks, Poetry Salzburg Review No. 7

But this poetry is not the poetry of ‘Burnt Norton’ (Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot), or of The Heights of Macchu Picchu (Pablo Neruda). It is not the poetry that made Rabindranath Tagore at least an equal Indian in historical importance with his compatriot and great contemporary, Mahatma Gandhi. ‘The Balcony’, or just the third part of it quoted above, is a different poetry, but poetry still. It is of, and speaking to, a differently valid and valuated experience of the human from that which is the source of the great Psalms of the Christian Bible. This later devotional experience, allowing for the significant differences in faith, is also the ruling experience of the ‘Hymns of Homer’, “a group of thirty-three songs composed to honour the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greek pantheon,” and attributed to the poet of the Iliad and Odyssey (The Homeric Hymns, Jules Cashford and Nicholas Richardson, Penguin Classics, 2003). That homage to Sappho above isn’t momentous poetry. It is a poetry of the moment. It isn’t about the past, present and future. It is about the now and nothing else. It has to be said that ‘The Balcony’ is a five-part poem that actually reveals David Brooks (Walking to Point Clear, 2004) as a more accomplished and involving poet than would be evident in the part quoted above. For a real encounter with the kind of trench or underground poetry merely indicated in ‘The Balcony’, my education has depended on other more fully visceral sources – like a collection of phone poetry that goes by the promising name Verses that Hurt: Pleasure and Pain from the Poemfone Poets (Jordan and Amy Trachtenberg, eds, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1996).

There is enough experimentation with the form of poetry to last poetry all its lifetime and beyond. In the years 1978-1981, Charles Bernstein and his close associates at the long defunct journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E unleashed a way of seeing that in more recent years have led to the uncertain poetics that informed The Best American Poetry 2004 (David Lehman, Series Editor). What is the worst nightmare of an Okigbo-loving reader of postmodern poetry? Incoherence elevated as intelligence, non-sense becoming the new sense, every kind of representation and utterance not at all needing to mean anything or be accomplished in any way, all of that becoming accepted as poetry, the more denatured the better for its claim as the new poetry. It is no longer a spelling mistake if we say it is poetry, not a learning deficiency once we have anthologised its disassociated meanings as poetry. It is no longer just enough to write prose poems, and recognise poetry in prose. It is the new reality, at least in the extended illogic of some that poetry is prose and prose also poetry. Not ‘can be’ but ‘is’. Any kind of prose, intended or rendered as such, however colourless and ineloquent the language, may in this thinking now also be accepted as poetry. No difference. The treasure is in the interpretation, the representation being now of less consequence.

This, no doubt, is a long way from Okigbo. Or Eliot. Or Neruda. Or Walcott. But mere rage is an inadequate response to the reasoned otherness of an alienating poetic. It is more effective to engage each innovative way of seeing on its own terms, according to its chosen differentials. Rooted in Okigbo, who was not only African but also cosmopolitan in many of his aesthetic choices, what has been my response to the more extreme representations of postmodern poetry? First it was important to listen to the thought itself, to engage representative variants of its authorising poetic. There is an implied insensitivity towards questions of value and vision that is soon evident in the following much discoursed Bersteinian ‘prayer’ for the absolute freedom of form from meaning and judgement, especially in its privileging of interpretation and indeterminacy: The poetry for which I correspond represents less a unified alternative poetics than a series of sometimes contentiously related tendencies, or proclivities, and, especially, shared negatives (concerted rejections) of American official verse culture. For truly these projects-in-language are not restrictive or exclusive; there is no limit to those who can, or have, or will participate in this work, which is open-ended and without prescriptions: not a matter of Proper Names but of Works, and perhaps not even a matter of works but of how readers read them. My Way: Speeches and Poems, 1999. I am in favour of experimentation in poetry.

I am a great admirer of the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, whose idea of Social Sculpture is supported by the belief that there is a universal aesthetic of life, that art is present or possible and valuable in all things. For ‘Art’, I tend to read ‘Poetry’. I am interested in the possibilities for artistic collaboration in poetic representation and performance along public art lines. Clearly defined as such poetry is still identifiable, still valuable as itself. But to say that poetry or art is possible in anything is not the same thing as suggesting that anything is art or poetry. Imaginaries of the poetic, which construct indeterminacies of meaning and representation, so that judgement becomes either impossible or differently invented for each reading and each reader, edge poetry practice into a negativism in which all kinds of possibilities for the anti-poem exist. A radical poetic that would celebrate even the anti-poem should be vigorously interrogated especially in poetry economies with severe limitations in the public funding and appreciation of poetry. If Poetry should actually accept that it is as bereft of recognisable meaning and standard or any homogeneous or harmonising features as the more radical ‘new’ poets suggested it is, it would not only be incapable of judgement but also too deprived of its unities to even exist as an identifiable program by which to engage, explain and possibly honour the poetry and poets of postmodernism. If poetry is just anything, those who say it is can expect to receive, or be received by, just anything when they introduce themselves as poets or say that what they offer is poetry.

But a poet with roots in Okigbo must not panic at the more extreme representations of postmodern era poetry. The avant-garde exists to challenge accepted values and standards. These challenges are part of the constant review of human progress. They are necessarily suspicious of conformity but they are also open to and often moderated by dialogue. It has been a long journey from that teenage encounter with the poet Okigbo, but even now one cannot read a line of his verse without the heart skipping. One returns to Okigbo as one returns to water after many sugary fluids. There is a thirst only water can quench, and, as in the work of Okigbo, the pure spring of poetry is universally available for all poets and poetry lovers who still thirst after the real drink.

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