Sunday, May 14, 2006

unchained melodies - akeh on okigbo

In the current edition of Sentinel Poetry Online, poet Afam Akeh remembers his introduction to Christopher Okigbo, the poet who died fighting for Biafra. In I return to Okigbo, Akeh writes about that first, life-changing encounter with Okigbo, then goes on to discuss how the latter has influenced, not just his own poetry, but the generations of African poets that followed. Possible reasons for Okigbo's enduring appeal are examined. There are also interesting ideas about the quality of current poetry production and publication by Nigerian/African writers; more is not necessarily 'more', is Akeh's argument, I think. Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, what is 'not' poetry and the anti-poem also get a look-in. It's a longish but engaging piece.


Akeh on 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."

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.

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.

Akeh on current African poetry
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.

Read I Return to Okigbo in full here.

Oh, and here's and excerpt from a recent piece - also on Okigbo - by Patrick T. Oguejiofor

And who is Christopher Okigbo? There is no gainsaying the fact that Christopher Ifeanyichukwu Ifekandu Okigbo was unquestionably and by far, the greatest poet to emerge from the African continent of the twentieth century and indeed, in the words of Heinemann (Okigbo’s London publishers), one of the most remarkable poets of the present day. Okigbo’s claim to greatness as a poet rests on five main factors according to the conference conveners, namely: “his all-inclusive multicultural sensibility; his mythopoeic imagination; his infusion of ritual seriousness into praxis of poetry; his masterly fusion of a wide diversity of poetic modes from traditions across the world; and above all, his all-encompassing vision of reality.”

Read the article here.

And whilst we're on Okigbo, here's an excerpt from something I wrote in 2004 - below:

When I first discovered Okigbo's poetry, my 1982 edition of West African Verse referred to him in the present tense. To learn years later that he had died in the war! And how I longed to breach the impenetrable mists of time to touch Christopher Okigbo… And then, for half a page or so, he comes alive in The Man Died, lovingly preserved by his friend Soyinka.

"Christopher rushing in his whirlwind manner into the office in Enugu… Hot and breathless he delivers the instructions… from the front." And seeing his friend, "Christopher's eyes pop out of his head, then he breaks into that singular Cherokee yell-and-jig which has raised squirms of unease among a host of self-conscious acquaintances in every corner of the globe." He had sat for hours with Soyinka as the latter awaited trial in a police cell in 1965, "discussing poetry…"

At their last parting, Okigbo said: "You know I'm not a violent man. I'm not like you. But this thing, I am going to stay with it till the end." And off he went for his rendezvous with death… It is a joyous celebration of Okigbo's life, yet painful to read. My only consolation lies in words by Wilfred Owen, another poet who perished in war: "The poetry is in the pity."


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