Christopher Okigbo – Looking Back at His Short-lived Life and Taking Stock of His Poetic Legacy

Nancy B. Alston

Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo one of the earliest Nigerian poets, who within his short lifetime, for he died fighting for the independence of Biafra, established himself as a central figure in the development of modern African poetry,has remained one of the most important African poets to write in English. Generally acknowledged as a master poet in spite of a complexity drawn from obscure allusions and symbolism, he has even been named Africa’s finest poet and one of the major modernist writers of the twentieth century. “For while other poets wrote good poems,” Chinua Achebe observed.”Okigbo conjured up for us an amazing, haunting poetic firmament of a wild and violent beauty..”

His birth and early life

Okigbo was born on August 16, 1932, in the town of Ojolo, about ten miles from the city of Onitsha in Anambra State, to a father who was a teacher in Catholic missionary schools during the height of British colonial rule in Nigeria, Okigbo spent his early years moving from station to station along with his father. Despite the fact that his father was a devout Christian, Okigbo felt a special affinity to his maternal grandfather, Ijejiofor of the Oto family, who has always provided the priesthood to the shrine of the deity Idoto personified in the river Idoto that flowed through his village. Later in life, Okigbo came to believe that his grandfather’s soul was reincarnated in him.

His Educatiiobn at Umuahia and Ibadan

Okigbo graduated from Government College Umuahia two years after the noted Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, having earned himself a reputation as a voracious reader and a versatile athlete. The following year, he entered the University of Ibadan to study Medicine, but switching to Classics in his second year.. He also earned himself a reputation as a gifted pianist, accompanying Wole Soyinka in his first public appearance as a singer. It is believed that he wrote original music at that time, though none has survived.

His initial literary work and art

After graduating in 1956, he held a succession of jobs throughout the country. He worked at the Nigerian Tobacco Company, United Africa Company, the Fiditi Grammar School (where he taught Latin), and was Assistant Librarian at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, where he helped found the African Authors Association.

In 1958 his life came to a turning point as he sought to know himself better.He began publishing his works in various journals, notably Black Orpheus a literary journal that was bringing together the best works of African and African American writers. While his poetry was in part a powerful expression of African nationalism, he was adamantly opposed to Negritude, which he denounced as a romantic pursuit of the “mystique of blackness” for its own sake. He also rejected the conception of a commonality of experience between Africans and black Americans, even though it contravened the editorial policy of Black Orpheus. For Okigbo, poetry was a highly personal endeavor. Even though he embraced African culture he rejected the literary concept of Negritude, for he thinks he was just a poet.” A poet writes poetry and once a work is published it becomes public property. It’s left to whoever reads it to decide whether it’s African poetry or English.” He therefore said that there was not any such thing as a poet trying to express African-ness as such a thing doesn’t exist. A poet just simply expresses himself. On precisely these grounds he rejected the first prize in African poetry awarded to him at the 1965 Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar.

In 1963 he became West African Representative of Cambridge University Press at Ibadan, a position which enabled hiim to travel frequently to the United Kingdom, where he attracted further attention. At Ibadan, he became an active member of the Mbari literary club.For he was among the many young artists who were looking for a platform to exchange their views and share their various talents. He and Soyinka, were also musicians, performing in jazz clubs. Consequently in 1961 the Mbari Writers and Artists Club was born in Ibadan founded by the German writer and critic Ulli Beier. who invited Okigbo to be one of the original Mbari committee members together with: Georgina Beier, Wole Soyinka, J. P.Clark, Chinua Achebe, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Amos Tutuola, D. O. Fagunwa, Dennis Williams, Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke, Frances Ademola and Janheinz Jahn, the ethnologist. The Mbari Club incooperated various activities as visual arts exhibitions, theatre, creative workshops and a publishing which Okigbo eventually became an editor. It played a decisive role in the birth of modern African literature,. publishing not only the writings of its members and adherents but those of the South African writers Dennis Brutus and Alex La Guma. For the visual arts, it presented the pioneers, such as the painters Uche Okeke and Yusuf Grillo, the sculptor and painter Demas Nwoko, and the silk-screen artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya. The Mbari Club promoted the creation of a true movement of contemporary African artists, who were poised to generate a new artistic culture reconciling the continent’s cultural traditions and the technical language imposition.

Okigbo published his first poems in the student literary journal Horn, edited by J.P. Clark. though his works also appeared in the more significant literary magazine Black Orpheus. In the same year he also published as a pamphlet, Heavensgate, and a long poem in the Ugandan cultural magazine Transition, published in Kampala.. Okigbo’s early poems reflected the divided cultural heritage of his country, although it had influences from Virgil, Ovid, Eliot, and Pound which seem to be stronger than the oral literature of the Igbo.

He completed, and published the works of his mature years, including Limits (1964), Silences (1962-65), Lament of the Masks (commemorating the centenary of the birth of W. B. Yeats in the form of a Yoruba praise poem, 1964), “Dance of the Painted Maidens” (commemorating the 1964 birth of his daughter, Obiageli or Ibrahimat, whom he regarded as a reincarnation of his mother) and his final highly prophetic sequence, “Path of Thunder” (1965-67), which was published posthumously in 1971 with, Labyrinths, which incorporates the poems from the earlier collections.

The Biafran War

The 1960s was a period of great political upheavals in Nigeria with the country becoming an independent republic in 1963 and four years later the eastern Ibo tribal region attempting to secede.In 1966 the Nigerian crisis came to a head following the massacre of thousands of Igbo in the North. Okigbo, living in Ibadan at the time, relocated to eastern Nigeria to await the outcome of the turn of events which culminated in the secession of the predominantly Igbo eastern region which eventually declared itself as an independent Biafra republic on May 30, 1967. .

Although Okigbo followed the social and political events in his country keenly, his early poems moved on a personal and mythical level. Path of Thunder (1968) showed a new direction – its attack on bloodthirsty politicians (“POLITICIANS are back in giant hidden steps of howitzers, / of detonators”) and neocolonial exploitation (“THE ROBBERS descend on us to strip us our laughter, of our / thunder”) reflective of the rise of radical movements in the late 1960s.

At the outbreak of the war Okigbo was working for an Italian business organization, Wartrade. Living in Enugu, he worked together with Achebe to establish a new but small publishing house, Citadel Press. However, the events in his country made him change his plans, and abandon his job. He immediately joined the new state’s military as a volunteer, a field-commissioned major. He became accomplished as a soldier, but was killed in action in September 1967 during a major attack against Nsukka, the university town where he found his voice as a poet, and which he had vowed to defend with his life.refusing safer positions behind the frontline.. Posthumously, he was decorated with the National Order of Merit of Biafra. Earlier, in July, his hilltop house at Enugu, where several of his unpublished writings were was destroyed in a bombing. Also destroyed was Pointed Arches, a poetic autobiography which is as an account of the experiences of life and letters which conspired to sharpen his creative imagination.


Several of his unpublished papers, however, survived the war. His daughter, Obiageli, d his literary heir, established the Christopher Okigbo Foundation in 2005 to perpetuate his legacy. The papers were catalogued in January 2006 by Chukwuma Azuonye, Professor of African Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who assisted the foundation in nominating them for the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Azuonye’s preliminary studies of the papers indicate that, apart from new poems in English, including drafts of an Anthem for Biafra, Okigbo’s unpublished papers include poems written in Igbo. The latter are fascinating in opening up new vistas in the study of Okigbo’s poetry, countering the views of, especially Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike , that he sacrificed his indigenous African sensibility in pursuit of an obscure euro-modernism.

“Elegy for Alto”, the final poem in Path of Thunder, is today widely read as the poet’s “last testament” embodying a prophecy of his own death as a sacrificial lamb for human freedom’

Earth, unbind me; let me be the prodigal; let this be

the ram’s ultimate prayer to the tether…

AN OLD STAR departs, leaves us here on the shore

Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;

The new star appears, foreshadows its going

Before a going and coming that goes on forever….

The two collections of verse that appeared during Okigbo’s lifetime established him as an innovative and controversial poet.

Features of Okigbo’s poetry

His difficult but suggestive and prophetic poems show the influence of modernist European and American poetry, African tribal mythology, and Nigerian music and rhythms. “Prophetic, menacing, terrorist, violent, protesting – his poetry was all of these,” S.O. Anozie wrote in Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric (1972).

In “Distances” (1964) he celebrates his final aesthetic and psychic return to his indigenous religious roots:

I am the sole witness to my homecoming.

Okigbo’s poetry makes constant and repeated references to mother Idoto. the “water goddess” especially so in Heavensgate (1962) opening with the compelling lines:

Before you, mother Idoto,

naked I stand,

Such a reference seems central to the meaning of the poem. “Idoto” is in reality a river goddess, an essence in African cosmology which Okigbo in fact uses as a personal symbol, elevating it to a saviour thus emerging as a force representing the protection of indigenous cultures and religions from westernization. Heavensgate thus marked his return to the African part of his heritage and self-renewal through the goddess of the earth:

Before you, Mother Idoto, naked I stand before your watery presence a prodigal

leaning on an oilbean lost in your legend…

An invocation to the Idoto spirit essence opens the ritualistic pattern of the poem to which is added the oilbean, the tortoise, the python and the rainbow..This last one could perform prophetic role as Sunday Anozie suggests. It could also be seen as a snake capable of both leading and devouring the poet.

Other god-heads or prophetic essences could be seen in Okigbo’s poetry. In Limits viii the prophetic role is invested on an important symbol – the sunbird representing the mourning conscience of the poet as the cohesive spirit of the people is eventually desecrated by the imperialists. Here too totems of the ritualistic worship ‘A fleet of eagles,/over the oilbeam shadows/ ‘ ‘holding the square under curse of their breath’,’ a blind dog known for power of prophecy, howling’,’ the tortoise and the python who are classed as the twin-gods of the forest,’ ‘shrinehouse bamboo towers’, ‘egg-shells, tiger mask and nude spear.,’dumb-bells’ and ‘oblong -headed lioness’ abound.

The two collections-Heavensgate (1962) and Limits (1964)-reveal a personal, introspective poetry informed by a familiarity with Western myths filled with rich, startling images. Labeled obscure by some critics, his poetry is demanding and allusive drawing as freely from modern poets, such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, as it does from the Roman Catholic religion of his family in Ojoto. Okigbo maintained that his poetry should be viewed as an organic whole as it expressed his coming of age as a poet.

Okigbo’s influences are not limited to Africa.going to Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as a mix of European, Asian, and African influences. He borrows from various sources like African religion as well as western religion. Romantic, pastoral and classical Greek and Latin influences like Vigil and Theocritus are much in evidence along with allusions to the Bible in Okigbo’s poetry.

His borrowings, as Dan Izevbaye notes, usually seem limited to the beauty and utility of the phrase itself.with the ‘meaning’ or ‘experience’ of the poem often controlled by its immediate context. When such borrowings or images are thrust into new collocations or associations, his poetry becomes startling and fresh. This might be imputed to the adaptation, summarization and conversion they undergo before being absorbed.

The main source of obscurity in Okigbo’s poetry is that references drawn from a private world through private symbols mainly through allusions to characters who were part of his childhood -oblongs such as Kepkanly, Enki, Flannagan, Haragin, Jadun, Upandru, Anna of the Panel and Eunice and obscure places like Rickland and rockpoint cable. Such references recur all too often. They might no doubt have very personal significance for the poet to have kept referring to them. But such significance is lost on the reader who is totally ignorant of their background.

A similar loss is suffered when the reader has no personal experience of such objects referred to as: ‘advent’, ‘dumb-bells’,’rockpoint of cable’, ‘Rockland’, ‘fucking angels’,’oblong-headed lioness’ and ‘a blind dog’ which all add up to the obscurity.

Since Okigbo is writing of complex and difficult subjects,his expression might of necessity be uncommon and hard to understand. This difficulty is compounded by his either knowingly or unwittingly creating a language of ritual to which the reader has to be initiated, thus fitting perfectly into the ritualistic contents of his work. This effect is reinforced by various aspects of his techniques inclusive of his use of language. Firstly there is the broken syntax and the use of various obscure words and unusual collocations such as ‘orangery solitude’, ‘broken monody’and ‘square yields the moron’. The structure of the work itself adds to this effect by way of a kind of syncretic musical pattern worked towards through distribution of parts to traditional Ibo musical instruments. The incantatory and invocational qualities shown through the rhythmn of the lines is another, a good example of which is in “Elegy for slit-drum.”

In Okigbo’s world the modern and the traditional are thrust into a tense conflict with the profusion of images and symbols akin to western religion and civilization abounding with ‘John the Baptist’,’preaching the gambit’,’crucifix’,’pilgrims bound for shibboleth’ and ‘the censer.’ In some poems Christian rites are so fully developed that they become as dominant rites akin to traditional African religion. The omni-presence and destructive potentials of the western presence is seen through images like: ‘Thunder of tanks of giant ironsteps of detonation,”the distant seven cannons’, ‘cables of the open air’. And ‘magic birds with the miracle of lightning flash on their feathers’.

This conflict soars up to an explosive point as seen in the intensification and repetition of the thunder motif. The resulting debris is captured thus: ‘parliament has gone on leave’, ‘the cabinet has gone to hell’, ‘the voters are lying in wait’, and ‘the blare of sirened afternoons’. The confusion of values and chaotic state could be captured in no better way.

Thundering drums and cannons in palm grove: the spirit is in ascent. (from ‘Sacrifice’)

Often recurring images in Okigbo’s poems are dance (“dance of death”, “iron dance of mortars”), thunder (“thunder of tanks”, “the thunder among the clouds”), and sound of drums (“the drums of curfew”, “lament of the drums”). Gradually Okigbo started to see himself as a singer-musician, who speaks with the ancient, pre-literate language of drums: “I have fed out of the drum / I have drunk out of the cymbal…” In ‘Overture’ (1961) Okigbo was a “watchman for the watchword / at heavensgate” and in ‘Hurrah for Thunder’ a “town-crier, together with my iron bell”

Okigbo shared with T.S.Eliot a vision of a spiritual quest, taking the poet to the realm of ancient myths and to his spiritual self: “Before you, mother Idoto, naked I stand…” often using repetition, with the rhythm of the poetry becoming songlike, and the words flowing melodiously, as if the poet were listening and interpreting distant sounds. From the four elements Okigbo chooses water, the dwelling place of Idoto: “Under my feet float the waters: / tide blows them under.”.

Much of his poetry is of sound, meant to be read aloud (or even sung) — culminating in the Lament of the Drums, and then the Path of Thunder (which begins: “Fanfare of drums, wooden bells”). Again, the mix is both of African and outside influences. When he was working on Heavensgate, Okigbo himself states he was working under the spell of the impressionist composers Debussy, Caesar Franck, Ravel …

The sound and beat always convince; though the meaning can sometimes be obscure. Okigbo’s poetry is full of ellipses, with barely a poem not marked by sentences left to drop off in the three dots:

And there are here

the errors of the rendering …

The pieces of the poems are striking, often jarring. “Gods grow out / Abandoned” in Fragments out of the Deluge, a sequence that ends: “& the cancelling out is complete.”

The poems — cut up, divided, brief in their sections — impress from line to line. Lines are repeated and varied throughout several of the poem-sequences. In Lament of the Silent Sisters, for example, the question of: “How does one say NO in thunder” is central — and the thunder reappears elsewhere too. (The “NO in thunder” is a “dominant motif” in Lament of the Silent Sisters. Here Okigbo also suggests:

Silences are melodies

Heard in retrospect

The final sequence, Paths of Thunder, is a series of Poems prophesying War. and letting the conflict between art and life, and the charged political climate of the day, bubble over. This might be ironical predictions of Okigbo’s later abandoning art to serve the Biafran cause, dying in battle. It wasn’t his words that got him into trouble, but even in Paths of Thunder he makes a rare personal appearance, warning himself:

If I don’t learn to shut my mouth I’ll soon go to hell,

I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.

Okigbo’s poems seem to leap out even from the page.for his poetry did not allow stasis and he did not merely stick to one successful form and style. Though Okigbo sometimes overreaches himself or misses the mark even in those poems whose meaning might elude the reader he still maintains interest. Though with deceptively few words Okigbo offers sometimes daunting complexity, his poetry is certainly worth reading.In spite of his varied influences, he is endowed with a distinctive and interesting voice

Further Reading:

o Sunday Anozie, Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric. London: Evan Brothers Ltd., and New York: Holmes and Meier, Inc.,1972.

o Uzoma Esonwanne, ed. 2000. Critical Essays on Christopher Okigbo. New York: G. K. Hall & Co.

o Donatus Ibe Nwoga, Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo, Three Continents Press, 1984.

oo Donatus Ibe Nwoga, Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo, Three Continents Press, 1984.

o Dubem Okafor, Dance of Death: Nigerian History and Christopher Okigbo’s Poetry. Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: African World Press, 1998.

o Udoeyop, Nyong J., Three Nigerian Poets: A Critical Study of the Poetry of Soyinka, Clark, and Okigbo. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1973.

o James Wieland, The Ensphering Mind: History, Myth and Fictions in the Poetry of Allen Curnow, Nissim Ezekiel. A. D. Hope, A. M. Klein, Christopher Okigbo and Derek Walcott. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1988.

Izevbaye Dan S. “The State of Criticism in African Literature”. African Literature Today. Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. Vol. 7. London: Heinemann, 1979. 1-19.

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