JP Clark: A Real Casualty Of Ijaw
The news that foremost poet and literatry giant, John Pepper Clark has passed on has come as a rude shock to the world of scholarship and the Ijaws as they have lost a rare Jem.
On March 21, 2013 when Prof. Chinua Achebe passed on, J.P Clark and Wole Soyinka wrote: “Of the “pioneer quartet” of contemporary Nigerian literature, two voices have been silenced – one, of the poet Christopher Okigbo, and now, the novelist Chinua Achebe.
A quartet is made up of four. If Professors J.P Clark and Wole Soyinka had recognized Achebe and Okigbo as two of the “pioneer quartet”, it is only obvious who the other two are – Soyinka and J.P Clark. Now, only Soyinka remains! J.P Clark was born in Kiagbodo town, Delta State of Nigeria.
. His education commenced at the Native Authority School, Okrika in Burutu Local Government Area before he proceeded to the prestigious Government College in Ughelli. He later went to the University of Ibadan from where he bagged a Bachelors of Arts degree in English in 1960. His literary career began at the University of Ibadan where he edited a number of campus magazines including The Beacon and The Horn.
After he left Ibadan, Clark worked as an information officer in the Ministry of Information, old Western Region of Nigeria; as features editor of Daily Express, and later as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. For several years he worked as a professor of English at the University of Lagos where he co-edited the Black Orpheus magazine until he retired from the university in 1980.
Selected Works Among his poetic works are “Mbari” (1961) made up of a group of 40 lyrics that treat heterogeneous themes; “A Reed in the Tide” (Longmans, 1965), occasional poems that focus on the Clark’s indigenous African background and his travel experience in America and other places and “Casualties: Poems 1966–68” (USA: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1970), which illustrate the horrendous events of the Nigeria-Biafra war.
His other works are “A Decade of Tongues (Longmans, Drumbeat series, 1981), a collection of 74 poems; “State of the Union” (1981), which highlights Clark’s apprehension concerning the sociopolitical events in Nigeria as a developing nation; “Mandela and Other Poems” (1988), which deals with the perennial problem of aging and death.
J.P Clark did quite a number of dramatic works which include, “Song of a Goat” premiered at the Mbari Club in 1961. It is a tragedy cast in the Greek classical mode; a sequel to “Song of a Goat”, “The Masquerade (1964), in which Dibiri’s rage culminates in the death of his suitor Tufa; “The Raft” (1964), in which four men drift helplessly down the Niger aboard a log raft; “Ozidi” (1966), a transcription of a performance of an epic drama of the Ijaw people; and “The Boat” (1981), a prose drama that documents Ngbilebiri history and other works.
In 1991, he received the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award for literary excellence. On 6 December 2011, to honour him, a celebration was held at Lagos Motor Boat Club, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, for the publication of “J. P. Clark: A Voyage, the definitive biography of the main animating force of African poetry” written by playwright Femi Osofisan. The launch was attended by literary giants including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. In 2015 the Society of Young Nigerian Writers under the leadership of Wole Adedoyin founded the JP Clark Literary Society aimed at promoting and reading his works
Perhaps the most controversial of all his works was “Casualties: Poems 1966–68” (USA: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1970), his 28 war poems collected in 1970. Casualties which addressed the Nigerian civil war from various angles.
In the “Casualties” J.P Clark writes: “The casualties are many, and a good number well/Outside the scene of ravage and wreck;/They are the emissaries of rift,/So smug in smoke-room they haunt abroad,/They are wandering minstrels who, beating on/The drum of human heart, draw the world/Into a dance with rites it does not know The “Casualties” and another controversial work, “America, their America” must have drawn the ire of Western powers who felt that J.P Clark was criticizing them.
Reacting to his death, the immediate past President of Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Denja Abdullahi, said “J. P. Clark will be remembered as the most sterling of our first-generation Nigerian modernist poets. He was in a class of his own with quite a number of totemic poems that vividly describe the environment in which he was formed or which he encountered in his life. He gave the world the African Epic narrative of the Ozidi Saga which will remain an unequalled literary achievement of his productivity as a writer and researcher.
“J.P was also a compelling enigmatic dramatist whose canvas was the vibrant creek of the Niger Delta with all its beauties and despoliations,” said the former ANA president. “His contributions to Nigerian, African and world literature in the genres of poetry, drama and the epic narrative will remain evergreen. He would also go down in people’s memories as the taciturn, quietly fiery and most misunderstood writer who may have departed with some unshed knowledge about some dark periods of Nigerian history.”
Prof Olu Obafemi, former ANA President and 2019 recipient of Nigerian National Merit Award said, “The very sad news of the passing of one of Africa’s few remaining literary patriarchs and great men and women of Letter’s, Professor Emeritus John Pepper Bekederemo-Ckark is both painful and devastating.