Christopher Okigbo 1932–1967
(Full name Christopher Ifenayichukwu Okigbo) Nigerian poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Okigbo's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.
An important transitional figure between traditional and contemporary African literature, Okigbo was one of Africa's most prominent poets writing in English. Chinua Achebe stated: "While other poets wrote good poems, Okigbo conjured up for us an amazing, haunting poetic firmament of a wild and violent beauty." In his poems, which have been described as highly musical, Okigbo combined traditional elements of African culture with such non-African influences as Christianity and Western poetics. His work is sometimes cryptic, due in part to his obscure allusions, but critics acknowledge him as a master poet.
Born in Ojoto, Nigeria, Okigbo graduated from the University of Ibadan and worked as a teacher and librarian before beginning a literary career. Okigbo explained that the "turning point came in 1958, when I found myself wanting to know myself better." For Okigbo, poetry would always remain a highly personal endeavor. Thus, his interest in social and political change in Nigeria, which is an integral part of many of his works, derived from his belief that it is impossible for the artist to examine his or her own identity in isolation. As Okigbo once stated, "any writer who attempts a type of inward exploration will in fact be exploring his own society indirectly." His concern for social justice was perhaps best expressed in his commitment to the Biafran secession. In July 1967, at the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, he enlisted in the Biafran Army. He was killed in action in August 1967.
During his lifetime Okigbo published only two collections of poetry: Heavensgate (1962) and Limits (1962). His posthumous publications include the collection Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder (1971). Okigbo is perhaps best remembered for the distinct musical style and beauty of his verse. Paul Theroux advised readers to listen to Okigbo's poetry in order to appreciate it fully, asserting that "looking is confusion: what we see in the poem may be an impenetrable mystery, and there are words and phrases in Okigbo's poetry that are nearly impossible to figure out. Listening is simpler and more rewarding; there is music in [his] poetry." Okigbo's practice of infusing poetry with rhythm and song has been imitated by subsequent African writers. Sunday O. Anozie observed: "Nothing can be more tragic to the world of African poetry in English than the death of Christopher Okigbo, especially at a time when he was beginning to show maturity and coherence in his vision of art, life and society, and greater sophistication in poetic form and phraseology. Nevertheless his output, so rich and severe within so short a life, is sure to place him among the best and the greatest of our time."
Because Okigbo used myth, ritual, and dense symbolism, critics were initially divided in their reactions to his work. Some argued that Okigbo's poems evoke humanity's quest for divinity; others viewed them as an attack on Christianity; and a few regarded them as testimonies of Okigbo's social and political views, especially those poems concerning the cultural and religious alienation of Nigeria during the colonial period. Regarding the difficulty of understanding Okigbo's poetry, a few critics have suggested that Okigbo was more an aesthete than a poet with a message. Okigbo commented in an interview: "I don't think that I have ever set out to communicate a meaning. It is enough that I try to communicate experience which I consider significant."
Heavensgate (poetry) 1962
∗Limits (poetry) 1962; published in the periodical Transition
†Poems: Four Canzones (poetry) 1968; published in the periodical Black Orpheus
Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder (poetry) 1971
Collected Poems (poetry) 1986
∗This work was published as a volume in 1964.
†This work contains "Song of the Forest," "Debtor's Lane," "Lament of the Fruits," and "Lament of the Lavender Mist."
(The entire section is 54 words.)
SOURCE: An interview in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 9, July, 1970, pp. 28-37.
[In the following excerpted interview, which originally took place in March, 1965, Okigbo discusses such topics as négritude, religion, African culture, and his own poetry.]
[Whitelaw]: Christopher, do you think of yourself as an African poet?
[Okigbo]: I think I am just a poet. A poet writes poetry and once the work is published it becomes public property. It's left to whoever reads it to decide whether it's African poetry or English. There isn't any such thing as a poet trying to express African-ness. Such a thing doesn't exist. A poet expresses himself.
What about poets who express négritude?
Yes, but that is different because it is a particular type of poetry. It is platform poetry. It is platform writing. It is just like being invited to deliver a lecture on a particular subject. But it is valid as poetry when it is good, because we do in fact have this sort of thing in our own poetry in the oral tradition. The poetry of praise, for instance. Platform poetry. You go to a king's palace to praise him, and you build up images in praise of him. That sort of poetry is valid provided it is good.
In other forms of poetry … the most regular form that is written by young African poets, writing in the English language,...
(The entire section is 2948 words.)
SOURCE: "Christopher Okigbo," in Transition, Vol. 5, No. 22, 1965, pp. 18-20.
[Theroux is an expatriate American novelist, critic, and travel writer who has extensive knowledge of Africa and has set several of his works in Kenya and Malawi. In the following essay, he analyzes the theme of movement in Okigbo's poetry.]
Ordeal. Ending on the edge of new agonies. Beginning again. And the poet wrapped only in nakedness goes on, deliberately, mostly conscious because he is half-carried by the nightmare winds, half-carries himself with his own home-made, wild, tangled-wood tales.
'Logistics,' says Okigbo in the 'Initiation' section of Heavensgate, 'which is what poetry is.' The art of movement, says the dictionary. And here is the key—Okigbo's art is in moving, movement, being moved, a lived-through victimisation full of symbol and logic and accident and the poet's own plots. It is pure motion because he does not presume and force himself over the ordeal, but suffers it and summons at the end all his energy to resume and carry us all on to continuous illuminations all along the way to death.
At the beginning Okigbo finds himself before the 'watery presence' of Idoto. He is naked, a supplicant, offering himself as a sacrifice to his own poetic impulse; he is prepared to suffer creation.
And again, in 'Passage,' there are the classical 'Dark...
(The entire section is 2217 words.)
SOURCE: "Epitaph to Christopher Okigbo," in Africa Today, Vol. 14, No. 6, December, 1967, pp. 22-3.
[Povey is an English educator, critic, and the editor of African Arts. In the following excerpt, he surveys Okigbo's works, highlighting the poet's lyricism and praising his wide emotional range and subject matter.]
Okigbo was a far-ranging writer, eclectic, with a poetic strength which moulded the apparently piecemeal sources of his inspiration into a personal and sensitive vision. He is acknowledged as an intellectual poet, making the fullest statement through rigidly cerebral images that recall inevitably that old imagist master, Ezra Pound. Yet this assertion may exaggerate Okigbo's difficulty and make us underrate the tenderness that flecks his work and that directness of vision which takes beauty as its aim. There is an immediate loveliness in the half jocular spring image of:
when the draper of May
has sold out fine green
garments; and the hillsides
have made up their faces….
The following lines, though both verbally and intellectually compressed, have that same directness of the emotively visual:
salt-white surf on the stones and me,
(The entire section is 1148 words.)
SOURCE: "Belief and Man's Faith," in his Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa, 1969. Reprint by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1971, pp. 315-84.
[Cartey was a West Indian critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he examines Christian imagery in Okigbo's poems.]
The reality of Christopher Okigbo's Heavensgate is not within the realm of nature, but moves through and modifies many Christian ordinances, soaring into the realm of belief and of spirit. The prodigal poet stands a naked supplicant, seeking to elucidate the mystery of the genesis, of his initiation, of his purification. Time is not only a linear chronological progression from innocence to spiritual awareness, but also a structurally lyrical moment in which the poem arcs from the dark waters of the beginning across the waters of noon to the fountain of lustration, to its final descent as the moon goes under the sea, bringing the song's ending. Yet, before the end, the eyes of the prodigal open:
Eyes open on the sea,
eyes open, of the prodigal;
upward to heaven shoot
where stars will fall from.
His spirit is in the ascent and with the returning cycle of nature's rebirth, a newcomer is born:
(The entire section is 964 words.)
SOURCE: "Okigbo's Portrait of the Artist as a Sunbird: A Reading of Heavensgate (1962)," in African Literature Today, No. 6, 1973, pp. 1-14.
[In the excerpt below, Izevbaye delineates the interplay of sources Okigbo employs in Heavensgate and Limits.]
The year 1971 saw the publication by Heinemann Educational Books of Labyrinths with Path of Thunder, a collection which is in one respect the final edition of Okigbo's work although, because of the omission of the Canzones and at least two of the later poems, its finality consists not in completeness but in saving editors of Okigbo's poems the trouble of having to decide what the poet actually wrote or intended to write. An additional value of this collection is the poet's introductory interpretation or, as interpretations are never known to be final, a description of the design of the poems which should become the basis of future interpretations. By thus providing the reader with an outline map of Labyrinths, Okigbo has cleared some of the paths to his poetic experience and has probably helped to arrest the growing tendency to regard the experience as something that is not available to the reader. This view of the poems as an impenetrable territory has been encouraged by reports of Okigbo's early view of poetry as a type of cult from which the uninitiated is excluded and by the cautious critical explications—often necessarily...
(The entire section is 4849 words.)
SOURCE: "Plagiarism and Authentic Creativity in West Africa," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 32-9.
[A Nigerian educator and critic, Nwoga edited and compiled Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo (1984). In the following excerpt, he addresses the issue of plagiarism in Okigbo's poetry, comparing Okigbo's works with those of other poets.]
Perhaps I should start in the matter of "plagiarism" with our authentic poet, Christopher Okigbo. Sunday Anozie, in his book, Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric, writing of Okigbo's earliest poems, the "Four Canzones," talks of the four-movement division in each of the Canzones, which continues in the 4th Canzone, "each movement introducing a new variation upon the central theme, and all rounding off in that last ritual exorcism inspired by Miguel Hernandez," the Spanish author of "El amor ascendia entre nosotros …" "Inspired," writes Anozie, but look at the similarities:
"Lament of the Lavender Mist"
The moon has ascended between us—
Between two pines
That bow to each other;
Love with the moon has ascended,
Has fed on...
(The entire section is 1557 words.)
SOURCE: "Poet as Martyr: West Africa's Christopher Okigbo, and His Labyrinths: With Path of Thunder," in Studies in Black Literature, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 10-14.
[In the following excerpt, Stanton describes how events in Okigbo's life seem to have informed his poetry and influenced his poetic style.]
Okigbo claims the following:
I don't think that I have ever set out to communicate a meaning. It is enough that I try to communicate experience which I consider significant. [African Writers Talking, 1972]
This rejection of giving "meaning" to his poetry denies us the use of logical analysis to interpret his work. He is known to be influenced by the French Symbolists, especially by Mallarme who also wrote poetry without regard to logical meaning. Symbolic poetry is a poetry which strives to create a mood. Such poetry is a presentation of a particular state of mind.
Another possible influence upon the direction of Okigbo's work is the work of abstract artists. This was first pointed out by Ali A. Mazrui. Abstract art had reached its height during the time within which Okigbo wrote poetry. Abstract art also is not meant to be "meaningful." It appeals to the emotions and deep inner experiences of mankind. If an abstract painting is "seen" correctly it will evoke an emotional reaction which is...
(The entire section is 4924 words.)
SOURCE: "The Poet and His Inner World: Subjective Experience in the Poetry of Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka," in UFAHAMU, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1979–80, pp. 23-41.
[In the following excerpt, Maduakor examines the retrospective quality of Okigbo's poetry and comments on its significance in relation to modern African poetry.]
In an interview with Marjory Whitelaw published in 1965, the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo made a distinction between what he called "platform poetry," and the lyric mode he referred to as the poetry of "inward exploration." Platform poetry, he felt, is declamatory and rhetorical; but it deserves, nevertheless, the labour of the poets who write it. Still, it is a less difficult kind of poetry to write than the poetry of inward exploration:
Much more difficult … of course is inward exploration. I hope that ultimately people will start doing that sort of thing in Africa. They haven't started doing it yet. [Journal of Commonwealth Literature, July, 1970]
Okigbo believed, on the other hand, that his poetic career began with a poetry that is inwardly oriented. As he says, "the turning point came in 1958, when I found myself wanting to know myself better, and I had to turn around and look at myself from inside." Without doubt, Okigbo has the question of his own identity as an African poet in mind in this...
(The entire section is 3455 words.)
SOURCE: "Death and the Artist: An Appreciation of Okigbo's Poetry," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 44-52.
[In the essay below, Izevbaye examines the ways in which the theme of death influences the form of Okigbo's poetry.]
The attempt to understand death and the need to master its sorrow have given birth to various African forms of artistic expression, whether these occur as "the ambivalence, often found in funeral songs, [which] helps to adjust the shock and grief which death brings to the living" [Gerald Moore, Africa, Vol. 38, 1968], or as a representation of the language of the dead in the speech of mmonwu, the masquerade. Such a representation is logical in the context of Uche Okeke's view [Tales of the Land of Death, 1971] that the basis for the representational art of the mask makers may be found in the Igbo world view that the land of the dead corresponds in pattern to the land of the living, having "its own kind of activities and things similar to these that exist in the land of the living." Furthermore, the dead could not possibly have gone into oblivion, and their land is the eventual home for the living.
The two kinds of response to death—the probing of its nature and the attempt to master the grief of death—influence the imagery and the form of Okigbo's poetry. The subject of death produces two basic forms in...
(The entire section is 2761 words.)
SOURCE: "From the Labyrinth to the Temple: The Structure of Okigbo's Religious Experience," in Okike: An African Journal of New Writing, No. 24, June, 1983, pp. 57-69.
[In the following essay, Ogundele argues that Okigbo's religious views, as expressed in his works, were much broader and more autobiographical than critics have considered them to be.]
The exact place and function of 'religion' in Christopher Okigbo's poetry has been until lately, generally misrepresented. The misrepresentation of course stemmed from what critics and some writers held, in the last two or so decades, to be one of the imperatives of the then nascent neo-African literature: cultural assertion. Even when the writers themselves, Okigbo inclusive, insisted to the contrary, their views were either derided, denounced with anger or pity, or simply judged to be of no account in the whole business of discovering relevances and functions.
This theoretical distortion led to two types of Okigbo criticism. First are those critics who represent Okigbo as rejecting one religion for another; second are those others who pitch meaning against imagery in the poems—most notable in this group are Ali A. Mazrui and the Chinweizu troika [in Zuka, September, 1967, and Transition, Vol. IX, 1975]. For the purpose of its arguments the first group chooses to define and understand 'religion' in a narrow sense, thereby...
(The entire section is 4127 words.)
SOURCE: "Beginning: Christopher Okigbo's 'Four Canzones,'" in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 315-27.
[In the following essay, Wieland examines Okigbo's early poetry, arguing that the "Four Canzones" contains the essential elements of all his works.]
It is unfortunate that Christopher Okigbo's first serious poems, "Four Canzones (1957–1961)," have become separated from the rest of his poetry, for they are contiguous with it, providing a fine prelude to the more substantial poetry of Labyrinths and Path of Thunder. It is apprentice work but it is important, offering an introduction both to the metaphysics that underpins his work and to his thematic and formal preoccupations.
The brutal directness of the Path of Thunder poems—"Politicians are back in giant hidden steps of howitzers, of detonators"—appears a less radical departure from his main body of work when read in the context of a poem like "Debtors' Lane":
This is debtors' lane, this is
the new haven, where wrinkled faces
watch the wall clock strike each hour
in a dry cellar.
Similarly, the language, imagery, private symbolism and structural organization of "Lament of the Flutes" and "Lament of the Lavender Mist"...
(The entire section is 4200 words.)
SOURCE: "Okigbo's Technique in 'Distances I,'" in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 73-84.
[In the essay below, Haynes analyzes Okigbo's poem "Distances I," offering a line-by-line account of its meanings and techniques.]
The following commentary deals with "Distances I" from the point of view of Christopher Okigbo's handling of reference, allusion, textual unity, and speech acts. But I begin with some preliminary remarks by way of justification, since Okigbo's work has been the subject of much polemic. He is said to be obscure, un-African, and elitist and to rely too heavily on an unassimilated modernism derived from the American poets, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. The last charge, when directed at the earlier books of Labyrinths, is well founded, but in the "middle" work which includes "Distances," Okigbo transcends his earlier imitativeness and writes some of his best pieces. Unlike Goodwin (Understanding African Poetry, 1982), I find "Distances" successful. Also, it provides the philosophical center to Okigbo's quest. The other charges—obscurity, un-Africanness, elitism—seem to me to be somewhat confused in conception.
Okigbo's central philosophical idea deeply involves modernity and its mixture of clash and mesh with his traditions. Okigbo adopts a modernist technique as his way of articulating that radical undercutting of older...
(The entire section is 3995 words.)
SOURCE: "Christopher Okigbo and the Growth of Poetry," in European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Vol. 2, edited by Albert S. Gerard, Akademiai Kiado, 1986, pp. 750-54.
[In the essay below, Egudu characterizes Okigbo as "the most significant poet" of his generation.]
Christopher Okigbo is obviously the most significant poet of [1960s Nigeria] not only because of his national relevance but also because of his artistic excellence. He can rightly be described as the poet of Nigerian history, for there is a movement in his work which parallels that of the history of Nigeria from her contact with the white man to the early stages of the civil war, when Okigbo died. Heavensgate and Limits are a re-enactment of the cultural (especially religious) alienation which the country experienced during the colonial era; "Distances" is a conclusion to Heavensgate and Limits, and a final reversion to indigenous traditional religion; "Silences: Lament of the Silent Sisters" and "Lament of the Drums" are a study in Nigeria's post-colonial politics with its confusion and lack of any sense of direction which led to the disillusionment of the masses; and "Path of Thunder" is an assessment of the coup d'état of January 1966 and a verdict that is also a prophecy of war.
If Okigbo's poetry is "one long elaborate poem" as one critic remarked, [O. R. Dathorne,...
(The entire section is 1618 words.)
SOURCE: "Okigbo's Labyrinths and the Context of Igbo Attitudes to the Female Principle," in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies & Anne Adams Graves, Africa World Press, Inc., 1986, pp. 223-39.
[In the following excerpt, Fido traces Okigbo's treatment of female characters in his poetry and links Okigbo's view of women to Igbo tradition and familial influences.]
Igbo culture is a complex entity, and the boundaries which define it are diffuse. Igbo people have intermarried with peoples along their borders, and the colonial intrusion and its aftermath has so changed things that it is hard even for scholars bent on determining essential facts to find them. The process of disentangling colonial influences and non-Igbo influences from the core of traditional Igbo culture is ongoing, but debates persist as to whether one element or another is old Igbo or is the product of a continually changing and adapting cultural ambience. To be sure, there are deep-seated blendings of the traditional and the modern and the Igbo have become known for their capacity to accept and absorb change. One major area of this debate concerns Igbo attitudes to women.
Christopher Okigbo was born at Ojoto, a town near Onitsha in which a local but powerful goddess, Idoto, had her shrine. Many of the riverine areas of Igboland and of Eastern Nigeria in general have...
(The entire section is 5949 words.)
Anafulu, Joseph C. "Christopher Okigbo, 1932–1967: A Bio-Bibliography." Research in African Literatures 9, No. 1 (Spring 1978): 65-78.
Combines an extensive bibliography of Okigbo's work with a brief biography.
Lindfors, Bernth. "Okigbo as Jock." In When the Drumbeat Changes, edited by Carolyn A. Parker and Stephen H. Arnold, pp. 199-214. Washington, D.C.: African Literature Association and Three Continents Press, 1981.
An account of Okigbo's school years which focuses on his athletic achievements.
Thomas, Peter. "Ride Me Memories: A Memorial Tribute to Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967)." African Arts 1, No. 4 (1968): 68-70.
Thomas, a close friend of Okigbo, relates anecdotes characterizing the poet as a lively, generous man sometimes subject to the deep sadness he expressed in his poetry.
Akporabaro, Fred. "Christopher Okigbo: Emotional Tension, Recurrent Motifs, and Architectonic Sense in Labyrinths." Nigeria Magazine 53, No. 2 (April-June 1985): 6-13.
Highly laudatory examination of the themes and techniques of Okigbo's poetry.
(The entire section is 707 words.)