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."
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, is in fact written to express, to bring out a sense of an inner disturbance. We are trying to cast about for words; whether the words are in Ibo or English or in French is in fact immaterial … We are looking for words to give verbal concreteness, to give verbal life to auditory and visual images … I think this is a separate form of poetry from platform poetry. It just happens that one form is written more here, among English-speaking poets, and one more among French. But the two forms are valid, and I don't quarrel with négritude….
You say you go back to village festivals—I know you write a great deal about these.
Yes, I do. And I do not feel that in fact as a Christian I have ever been uprooted from my own village gods. We have a goddess and a god in our family, our ancestral gods. And although I do not worship these actively, in the sense of offering them periodic sacrifices, I still feel that they are the people protecting me.
But the way in which I think Christianity can be reconciled with this aspect of paganism is that I believe in fact all these gods are the same as the Christian God—that they are different aspects of the same power, the same force.
What shape do these gods take in your family?
Well, we have a carved idol representing a man, and another carved idol representing a woman, and the man we call Ikenga, and the woman we call Udo. And the man is the father of the entire family, for several generations back; the woman is the mother of the whole family, several generations back. And in a large extended family we have just these two gods, Ikenga and Udo.
We offer sacrifices to them periodically. I am here at Ibadan; I don't live at home at Ojoto. So my parents or my uncles will offer sacrifices to them periodically. And the women of the family will from time to time scrub the walls of the shrine where these gods are housed, with fresh mud (the walls of the shrine would be of a mud mixture, a very satisfactory and inexpensive building substance), and the men of the family will repair the thatched roof to prevent it leaking. And once in a while they offer a white hen, or eggs laid by white hens, or kola nuts, or pods of alligator pepper. And I feel, you know, that we still belong to these things. We cannot get away from them.
This is purely a family shrine, is it?
This is a family shrine. We have the ones worshipped by the whole town. The whole town, for example, worships the python and the tortoise. The python, I imagine, represents the male deity, and the tortoise represents the female deity. And the whole town worships these two idols, and they (the creatures) are sacred to the whole town. I mean they are sacred to their particular shrines, and we cannot kill them. If in fact you find a python that is dead, you give it a ceremonial burial. Oh, yes. This still happens, even now. And Christianity cannot wipe this out.
What does the python symbolize, then?
The python represents the penis. And the tortoise represents the clitoris. One for the male organ and the other for the female.
Do you also go to the Christian church?
I haven't gone to church for a long time.
Neither have I. This is a rather theoretical question … But you think of yourself as a sort of nominal Christian, do you?
I think that over the years I have tried to evolve my own personal religion. The way that I worship my gods is in fact through poetry. And I think that each poem I write is a ceremony of innocence, if you like. The creative process is a process of cleansing. And since I began actively to write poetry, I have never gone to church. So I don't think it would be right for me to say I am a Christian or I am a pagan. I think my own religion combines elements from both….
Do you think that for a lot of Africans today it is difficult to be African?
I don't see why it should be difficult. I don't think there is any culture in the world that doesn't have borrowed elements. There is this multivalence in all cultures. Africa happens to be a new society, new in the sense that people are just beginning to know about Africa. So this multivalence is emphasized. It is just like holding something under a microscope—it becomes enlarged. Africa is now under the world's microscope; everybody sees Africa, and nobody bothers to look at any other place.
I think most Europeans have the idea that if any writer should be 'committed' (to use this literary cliché) it should be the African writers. I mean committed to writing about social change, about discovery of identity—that is, he should not be working in isolation, in an ivory tower; he should not have removed himself from the preoccupations of the people of his own time.
Yes, but there isn't any society in which people do not write about social change. Social change is not only taking place in Africa; it's taking place everywhere in the world.
Yes, but in North America particularly there are writers who feel that the writer has a duty to discover himself rather than to discover the world. Thirty years ago writers like Thomas Wolfe were writing about the great panorama of American life, but today they seem, many of them, to be isolated from their contemporaries, to be concerned with self-exploration. They feel no responsibility whatever to their own society. Now the point I want to make is that we in the West might suppose that (because Africa is under such violent pressures of change) it would be difficult for African writers to...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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