By Chris Anyokwu
As a young schoolboy being introduced to African Literature, I was mesmerized and rendered speechless by the myth of an inscrutable muse, some vague indefinable, revenant unlike everyday people, who superintended over the printed page. This awe-inspiring quality of the phenomenon called “Book” was made all the more mind-bending owing in large part to the so- called infallibility of the page, an omnidirectional kingdom whose king,for good measure, was suitably fleshless, ineffable.As readers of literature, we could, as starry-eyed callow minds, eff the ineffable through immersion into the bracing sea of literary art. We thus managed to put flesh to the chimera who, like the spider, spun piquant yarns that enthrall. How can any educated person from these parts deny knowledge of such oft- anthologized poems such as “Ibadan”, “Streamside Exchange”, “Night Rain”, “Abiku”. “Olokun”, “Fulani cattle” and “Agbor Dancer”? As schoolboys and girls, even on our way back from school, we would engage one another in poetry recital contest: here we go: “Ibadan, running splash of rust and gold, flung and scattered among seven hills ,like broken china in the sun”. Thus, intoning, chanting and declaiming J.P Clark’s poetry, we succeeded in reducing the tedium of the long trek. Such indeed is the lucid directness of the lines, the prancing poetry shimmering like diamonds on the page, the sheer evocative power of the figured fancy provoked through an adroit command of the sonic resources of the language thronged and teeming with a vitalism distilled masterfully from our lush and luxuriant biodiversity and ecosystems of quasi-mystical interaction with bones and silence. Dubbed by a worthy ephebe Niyi Osundare, the most lyrical poet from Africa, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo was able to inspire a generation of Nigerian, nay, African poets and playwrights through the felicity of phrasing that his work typifies. To date, Clark has continued to encourage through the power of personal example both established voices and emergent singers, all of them sculpting poetic parables which eternally aspire towards the imperishable cry.
But J.P Clark like the fabled Janus,to be sure, is double-faced: beyond the textualised jocundities of his mellow verse, Clark the man by critical consensus came across as standoffish, distant, and even disdainful of good- hearted praise.
In his characteristically waspish style, BiodunJeyifo adverts our attention to Clark’s middle name, to wit: PEPPER.BJ, as Jeyifo is fondly called, performs a succinct epistemic disquisition on the lexical item “Pepper” and delivers a coup de grace on the bearer. In brief, BJ quips that as the name, so is the bearer, and, therefore, JP’s superciliousness could be understood in the context of the ontologic alchemy of his unusual name-PEPPER. By the same token, Femi Osofisan also expresses on many occasions a similar sense of bemusement at JP Clark’s hauteur. Osofisan wonders on end why such a global figure, beloved of people, should deliberately cultivate such a reclusive, austere Olympian remoteness like a hermit at war with worldliness and society.
But I can confidently declare that the alleged “arrogance” of Clark is all humbug. Those who were really close to JP Clark would tell you he was a very friendly and affable bloke. Please permit me to share this anecdote with you as proof of my rebuttal. A few years ago, J.P Clark and I were guests at the ninetieth birthday anniversary of the late Gabriel Immomotine Okara at Yenegoa ,Bayelsa state. As soon as we disembarked from the plane at Port Harcourt, we had both boarded the car provided for us by the organizers of the event, that is, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Bayelsa chapter. JP and I became instant friends, swapping beautiful turns of phrase between us. He had offered me chocolates which he was eating at the time and I had wondered how come such a “god” was indulging in life’s little extras. He allowed me into his room during the event and thereafter continued to show me such avuncular affection and was concerned about my personal career development. He was also generous with his books, for instance he gave me copies of his magnum opus,Ozidi Saga.
JP Clark was a great man. Writing on his plays and his poetry, Abiola Francis Irele, arguably the greatest critic of African literature, characterizes JP Clark as “A National Voice”. Innocuous as this may sound, it is by no means a flippant compliment paid the author, particularly against the back drop of our clamorous and rowdy clannishness, ethnic revanchism and allied limitations. Most people only feel the need to write only when they wish to canvass and propagate their tribal pieties. Like our politicians who never rise beyond the tug of the belly or, at best, championing ethnic agendas, some of our writers are defined or definable by the overarching ethnicization of vision. Not so, JP who was cut from a nobler cloth.
JP, as he was ever so fondly called by his friends and epigones, was Whitmanesque: he was large, containing multitudes. He was a master dramatist and playwright producing tons of plays straddling various genres and modes. Although some critics have seen fit to churlishly give him short shrift over what they claim is an attempt at archaicizing and classicizing his orally-rooted histrionic allegories, JP Clark’s dramatic oeuvre is as capacious as they come, beginning with Three Plays (Song of a Goat, The Masquerades and The Raft) chronicling the triumphs and troughs of the postcolony and going on to compose more homely, familiar locally-relevant plays highlighting the challenges and prospects of nation-building as well as the sweet and sour of private life. Apart from drama, JP Clark is a force to reckon with in nonfiction as his inimitable memoirAmerica, Their America amply exemplifies; oral literature, folklore and dramatic practice and theory. He was also a journalist, theatre director and producer and politician. The grand old man, JP was human in every sense and like some people untrammeled by societal halters, he loved and sated everything good and beautiful, and as far as that goes, your guess is as good as mine.
But, pray, why was JP Clark always modestly attired in spite of his considerable resources? Any personal reason(s) or ideology for that? In his lifetime, Clark-Bekederemo patented the short-sleeve shirt, a simple or plain pair of trousers complete with a matching pair of leather sandals. Dressing down was JP’s trademark such that everybody around him always felt overdressed and therefore ill at ease. Another version of Tai Solarin, JP was indeed Spartan in sartorial outlook, distant in deportment and understated and self-effacing in presence.
Regarding his creative writing, some have opined that the progressive prosaicness of his later poetry was suggestive of a kind of class suicide signposted by his abandonment of all the architectonics of embourgeoisement, the repudiation of liberal humanism and literary elitism and embrace of a more demotic earthiness of the Volk. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: our uncertain times require the urgencies of “is and was”. Again: perhaps he was reacting to the vitriol and diatribes aimed at him (alongside Wole Soyinka, Okigboetc) by the BolekajaTroika and decided to strip his work of modernist abstruseness for which the Ibadan-Nsukka school of Nigerian poetry was known. Yet again, perhaps what Lewis Nkosicalls the“lapse of rigour” was creeping into the veteran’s work due to a pained response to the seemingly endless manifestations of the Nigerian condition. Little wonder as the evening shadows started lengthening, the songbird started singing of the Remains of the Tides. “Remains” here intimates corpses, which in turn approximate mortality, passage or death. JP was all but set for the boatman long before the curtain call. By the same token, “Tides” speaks to the ecology of art, the interfusion of the environment, literature, politics and metaphysics, all of which are superintended over by Olokun the Creatrix in Clarks in Clark’s fabulous universe.
Goodnight, JP, sleep well.
-Chris Anyokwu, Dept of English, UNILAG.