Christopher (Ifenayichukwu) Okigbo 1932–1967
Critics consider Okigbo an important transitional poet in contemporary African literature. His studies in the classics enabled him to integrate within his work traditional elements of African culture with non-African influences such as Christianity and Western poetic techniques. His poetry is complex, partly because of obscure allusions, but critics nevertheless praise his work for its vivid imagery and rhythmic beauty.
Heavensgate and Limits are works inspired by Okigbo's search for identity through an examination of his country's divided heritage. A later poem, Path of Thunder, reveals the impact of the Nigerian civil war upon him. He was killed during that conflict while fighting for the Biafran cause.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
[The] process of transformation is the key to all of Okigbo's verse—how can human beings grow again into gods, how are they to regain their pristine state of spiritual innocence and yet retain their own sensuality? In order to deal with this problem Okigbo has forsaken the commonplace world and has chosen instead to reenact the entire cycle of birth, initiation and death. Because of the nature of his quest, his images tend to dwell on the disparity that exists between man's ambition and his puny attempts at becoming God.
Okigbo's verse shows man in the process of striving towards a god. The poet does not speak with an individual voice but with choral utterance, insisting on the infallibility of the statement and its divine nature. The five sections of Heavensgate demonstrate the technique. If Okigbo's poems are about anything, then Heavensgate attempts to work out the initiation into and the evolution of a religion. (pp. 82-3)
The five sections into which Heavensgate is divided clearly emphasize a striving—PASSAGE, INITIATION, WATERMAID, LUSTRA and NEWCOMER…. PASSAGE takes the reader to the childhood of the world and of the protagonist; it is both a time of 'dark waters of the beginning' and 'when we were great boys'…. The next section, INITIATION, rescues this vision of chaos 'in a symbolic interplay of geometric figures'. Here the angle, orthocentre, fourth angle, square, rhombus and quadrangle all suggest that a certain kind of order has been imposed; they form the series of intimations which the protagonist has had towards a complete harmony with himself and his world. The next section, WATERMAID, introduces the intercessor—a figure who is a mixture of a classical muse, the Virgin Mary, and a local priestess. She is described both as 'maid of the salt-emptiness, sophisticreamy, native' and as 'wearing white light about her'. At the end of this section the protagonist finds himself in a state of cosmic aloneness; he is completely alienated from everything he knows…. (p. 83)
LUSTRA suggests with appropriate Christian as well as African pagan imagery that there is hope which comes through a redeemer who is neither Christian nor pagan…. But the dra-matic quality of the poem is spoilt by the last four pieces called NEWCOMER which are irrelevant and do little for the continuity of the piece. They are verses for the poet's teacherfriend and his niece, and were all written in a single afternoon. They betray a weak side in Okigbo, his tendency at times to be so very personal that there seems little room for any universal message.
The method of Heavensgate is to combine traditional African and modern modes and to fuse them into a synthesized whole. Both traditional oral and western forms of verse are used. In addition the poet deploys imagery so that African and non-African elements build up into a whole. The result is the invention of a personal style and creed, personal because it is intensely subjective, although meaning accumulates from various references that belong to the common store of all...
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[Critics have] hinted that Christopher Okigbo … widely accepted as the greatest of modern African poets, was influenced by Ezra Pound…. [It is in the] technical aspects of style that Pound's influence on Okigbo can be fruitfully and meaningfully established.
What has often bothered me is the fact that Okigbo has always, whether deliberately or not, omitted Pound's name from the list of those who have influenced him; and yet Pound's influence on him is enormous…. It is because of the fact that Okigbo might, very likely, have deliberately kept silent about Pound and the fact that Pound's influence is vast and has, it seems to me, helped to make his poetry difficult that I consider this topic worth investigating. (pp. 144-45)
While Okigbo shows the same kind of tendency toward "imagemaking" and "melody-making" that Pound does, it cannot be argued that the former must necessarily have inherited this trait from the latter; for in the final analysis, imagery and sound are indispensable elements of good poetry. (p. 145)
The influence of Pound on Okigbo is more direct and obvious in other ways. First, both poets share the technique of having a descriptive or lyrical passage followed by a vivid image, which epitomizes and clinches the passage or resolves the mystery therein. It has been remarked that "Earl Miner, the closest student of Japanese influences on Pound, calls this the 'super pository method.'" (p. 146)
This method is used many times in Okigbo's work. The poem "Passage I" demonstrates it…. The last line of this poem is a vivid image demonstrating not only the solitude of the poet mourning a lost "mother," or goddess (which is partially what the poem is about), but also the uncertainty that shrouds him as he is immersed in the "dark waters of the beginning." Although the theme of Okigbo's poem differs from those of Pound's, yet there is a similar atmosphere of solitude in both cases.
The poem "Watermaid 1," which deals with the secrecy of love and the loneliness of a boy waiting in vain for the arrival of his girl friend, also employs the "super pository" style…. Okigbo's extraordinary power of image making can hardly be better illustrated by any other of his poems. All through the poem one gets the impression that the poet is in a secret, hollow, fragile situation…. It should be warned here that the peculiarity of...
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There is no question about it: Okigbo is an obscure poet, possibly the most difficult poet in Africa. There are two ways of approaching him; one is to look at his poems, the other is to listen to his music.
By 'looking' I mean examining each word he uses, each echo from another poet (for there are many echoes; he was an extremely well-read person). To do this one would have to make a long list which would include such strange words as kepkanly, anagnorisis, Yunice, Upandru, enki. Flannagan and perhaps a hundred others. The meaning of these words would have to be found, and then it would be necessary to fit this meaning into the line, ignoring the word for the time being.
I tried this once and I was fortunate in having Okigbo a few feet away to correct my mistakes in interpretation. I was especially disturbed by 'Flannagan'; I could not find a reference to it. I asked Okigbo to tell me what it meant.
'Flannagan,' said Okigbo, 'was a priest that used to teach me in Primary School. He ran the Mission near my village.' (p. 135)
Many people have criticized Okigbo for writing as he did, and some of this criticism is well-founded. How can the average reader know that Flannagan is a priest?… A poet may present us with a mysterious little poem and teachers and critics may make a name for themselves by unravelling the mystery and showing us what exactly the poet meant to say or what he was getting at. It is possible that, in this exercise of interpretation, the critic may find more in the poem than the writer put in. This happens all the time, and it happens with Okigbo's critics more than others because there is often a smokescreen of obscurity thrown up which hides the meaning of the poem....
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Interpretations of Okigbo's Limits have varied widely from the mystical, through the political, to the personal. All the divergence of opinion unfortunately cannot be attributed to the customary range of reactions which any poem of some complexity normally attracts. The root problem appears to me to have been that of technique: that there has been a tendency to circumvent the complexity by attaching interpretations to those elements of the poems which have fitted into preconceived theories and, therefore, move to conclusions without analysis and elucidation of the images of the poems and the total logic of those images. (p. 92)
I see the process of achieving meaning from the Limits, as...
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The four poems which Okigbo called Canzones and published in the journal Black Orpheus, No. 11, outline his earliest creative itinerary between 1957 and 1961. Considered as representative of the poet's juvenilia, two interesting observations can be made about Four Canzones. Firstly, these poems clearly indicate Okigbo's major physical displacements, all within the old Federation of Nigeria, since graduating from Ibadan University in 1956. Secondly, each of these physical displacements in time and space marks a new stage in Okigbo's poetic development and influence. (p. 24)
The central theme in Okigbo's Four Canzones is nostalgia. This is the result of successive...
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"The Lament of the Masks", one of Okigbo's last poems, was written in commemoration of the W. B. Yeats centenary….
It was appropriate that Okigbo should write a poem to celebrate Yeats and his influence on other poets since contemporary African writers coming up then had been much influenced by the tradition of modern verse represented by Hopkins and Yeats, Eliot and Pound. Interestingly though, Okigbo does not use a modern English style in this poem; rather, he sings Yeats in the style of the traditional Yoruba praise song in which the attributes of a hero, ancestor or aristocrat are hailed in animal imagery and analogy from nature…. Section III of the Lament combines the direct address and the...
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One of the worst effects of colonialism and colonial evangelization in West Africa has been the degradation of the indigenous West African culture in general and the indigenous religious worship in particular. The efforts of the early Christian missionaries were directed at estranging the natives from their indigenous religion and "planting" in them the imported Christian religion. Christopher Okigbo sees himself as a prodigal who has left this home religion for the foreign one. And, at a moment of mature realization, he returns to his original religion to revive and preserve the indigenous system of worship. This accounts for the satirical attitude to Christianity in his poetry.
Thus in Okigbo's...
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