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."