Thursday, May 13, 2010

Okigbo: hard poet, simple poetry?

The Independent/Uganda Team

Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo’s poetry must, of course, pose particular problems for readers who are not familiar with the sources and allusions and are unwilling to take them into account, and is, indeed, difficult when the sources are known and understood. Yet it is accessible to the reader who is open to its distinctive mode.

This is true even with other scholars such as J.P. Clark, Chinua Achebe and Timothy Wangusa who have recognised Okgibo as “one of the most gifted and difficult African poets to date. Those are some of Christopher Kirunda’s assertions in his book Hybridity and Christopher Okigbo’s Poetry.

Okgibo’s poetry is the focus of the very insightful and searching analysis of this book which argues for “a multi faceted approach” to its appreciation. It explores a distinctiveness of mode that was born at the time when “the first generation of African writers had to contend with the difficulties of retaining their distinctive voices and concerns in the face of a predominantly non-African readership that sadly, wanted everything foreign domesticated”.

Okigbo responded to this challenge by “exploiting the resources at his disposal from a variety of cultures” while he “retained a distinctively African voice.”

Kirunda asserts that the distinctive voice given to what is considered difficult poetry “is a function of hybridity”. He challenges the reader to explore the interplay of Okigbo’s allusions to literary, mythological, and religious sources in conscious relation to the socio-political and cultural realities of his time and place.

Is this informed liberalism? Kirunda disagrees: “This combined sensibility and inter-cultural voice are not evidence of a tolerant liberalism, but rather serve a powerful poetic purpose…the integrity of its engagement with a specific time and circumstances”— something the author calls “interpretative communities” of Okigbo’s critics; his admirers, those who appreciate the “originality, eclecticism and technical excellence” of his poetry.

Other readers who associate Okigbo’s poetry with “Euro-modernism and derivativeness” and those who are of the persuasion that his poetry is “abstruse and inaccessible” and those who view his poetry as a “record of Nigerian history, but also as a manifestation of nationalism and defence of Igbo culture” fall in the category the author has termed “interpretive communities.”

Many readers have argued that Okgibo’s poetry is complex: is the complexity due to classical scholarship, the influence of other, probably non-African poets, or as Catherine Acholonu would argue, due to his being ‘a priest of a water goddess’ and as such having ‘a lot of spiritual insight sometimes too complex for the ordinary reader’?

Kirunda takes on the task of analysing Okigbo’s poetry especially that published in the posthumous anthology Labyrinths in the five movements: “Heavensgate”, “Limits”, “Silences”, “Distances” and “Path of Thunder”. It is a strenuous assignment that brings to the fore the wide array of influences that inform Okigbo’s craft: From T.S Eliot, Gerald Manley Hopkins, the Bible, Igbo mythology, tales of the Holy Grail, the White Goddess, to Homer, Virgil, Dante; the list is endless.

Yet also, the analysis is clearly aware of opposing views and has a striking clarity not just of purpose but of structure. Following the development of themes and voices and the fusion of influences with commendable fluidity, it makes one wonder why Okigbo’s poetry was ever considered difficult.

All the while, this work does so much to maintain the distinguishing power of Okigbo’s orality of his work. It attempts to draw parallels with other African epics such as Sundiata, Emperor Shaka the Great, and Anthem of the Decades without smothering his uniqueness. Much like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Okigbo’s Labyrinths has a prayer at its outset and employs “lofty and hyperbolical” language and is “not obviously presented as a narrative”.

Perhaps one of the more important and yet not overtly stated aspects dwelt on is Okigbo’s awareness of the times in which he lived. Kirunda reminds us of his confrontation with social evils and a relentless attack on wicked politics: “parliament has gone on leave/the members are now on bail/ parliament is now on sale/the voters are lying in wait”, he mourns Patrice Lumumba in Silences “They struck him in the ear they struck him in the eye”.

On this, the professor writes; the richness of the poetry and its capacity for opening up new perspectives on the distinctively African concerns it develops arise from Okigbo’s espousal of hybridity as an inescapable fact of modern African life. The difficulties then are not an evasion of reality, but the consequence of facing it.

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