The Arts

August 18, 2013

The shrub among the poplars of Obi Nwakanma’s Verse

The shrub among the poplars of Obi Nwakanma’s Verse



Nwakanma was educated at the prestigious Government College Umuahia, the English-type boarding school for boys where famous Nigerian writers — Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, V.C. Ike, I.N.C Aniebo, Ken Saro-Wiwa and others went before him. He earned a degree in English at the University of Jos, the MFA in Poetry at the Washington University in St. Louis and a PhD in English from the Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked as a journalist in Nigeria and internationally as Group Arts Editor of the Vanguard and Deputy editor of the Sunday Vanguard.

He has also written variously for the American Newsweek magazine, the Neue Zurcher Zeitung (NZZ) of Zurich and the Independent in South Africa. Often described as the most gifted of his generation of poets in Nigeria, Nwakanma who writes a famous weekly column in the Sunday Vanguard, The Orbit not only writes recondite poetry, but he is also a versatile literary critic. Last week, one of his new collection of poems, Birthcry was among the 11 books shortlisted for the prestigious NLNG prize for literature In this essay, Obu Udeozo takes a critical look at some of his works.



Obi Nwakanma was educated at Government College Umuahia, and wears that heritage, like a precious Jungle Cap, among officer cadets. He remains one of that haloed institution’s freshest ambassadors on the global stage. Obi Nwakanma is a cerebral and committed writer that has edited Nigeria VANGUARD Arts section for over a decade; and contributes amazing wisdom over policy matters on Nigeria and the world. He also has the distinction of breaking frontiers of significance by syndicating for the international media, like Newsweek Magazine, the South African Independent, and the Neur Zurcher Zeitung of Zurich.

Obi Nwakanma has a stunning grasp of the politics of privilege and marginality on worldviews and their salient channels of broadcast. He sensitized TIME International Magazine to restore their ranking of Chinua Achebe among the global literary colossus in their Centenary Series. And in furtherance of that impetus to promote Africa’s heritage on world affairs; Nwakanma has laboured on the first Biography of Christopher Okigbo, – inadvertently lost during production. He has never wavered to illuminate exceptional scholars which the Nigerian officialdom and academic circuit have failed to honour.

The Roped Urn was Obi Nwakanma’s first collection of poems, which won the ANA / Cadbury Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry in 2007. He wrote the famous literary essay Lives of the Lagos Poets in 19 –; and was guest poet at the international Poetry Festival in Rotterdam. From his recent Resume we learnt that Obi Nwakanma, who has joined the numerous members of The Third Wave of Nigeria Poets domiciled overseas, received an MFA in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis; and edited the Ars Poetica, the writing program’s publication of that institution. He now teaches at Saint Louis University Missouri, in the United States of America.

Overview of life and art.

An Igbo proverb says that after an old woman’s second fall; it becomes cheap to estimate the earthen wares in her bamboo trough. Evaluating Obi Nwakanma’s art, presents a peculiar challenge: he is the only writer said to have lost two completed works at different times and locations in less than seven years. That is why this appraisal must countenance, the inescapable reminiscence over the lives of artists in general.

The Roped Urn Obi Nwakanma’s debutant anthology, is reported to have become lost by the Nigeria Press. With the lost version of his completed Biography of Christopher Okigbo, there is a genuine attitude problem, at the level of crisis in the creative process.

In 1999, at Chinua Achebe’s Odenigbo Lecture in Owerri, I presented Obi Nwakanma, with photocopies of The Roped Urn, which I made from Ben Obumselu’s desk in Lagos, 1998 – but both of us, could not sort the unpublished manuscripts; because, the pages of the poems had sub-headings but no page numbers. The work is like that, till this moment.

And we must proceed, as inferentially as we can, over the organic sequence of the book in question. I shall hereafter; cause the manuscript in my custody to be computer type set; re – photostated, saved in electronic DVDs, and hard copies – and sent to Obi Nwakanma – again to his American address. I shall also deposit these versions to the Association of Nigeria Author’s archives, and the internet. As Rev. [Professor] Joseph Schulyer, used to tell us, at The Elements of Social Relations in 1978: “ Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians alone”. He was obviously citing Charles De Gaulle. n

Obi Nwakanma’s scholarship and creative works are too significant to be left to the vagaries of tragic oversights. Any writer Black or White, doing an important literary work – Needs to back it up at all stages of the creative process – in hard copies, electronic devices and different locations This has been my own practice – against heart – breaking failure to our mutual heritage and civilization.

If I could have advanced without these public admonitions; one would have moved into the critical appraisal head -on: that the morphology of our landscape be made vivid – before appreciating Obi Nwakanma’s verse.

Owing to the practical obstructions encountered in this apparently seamless anthology, the evaluation, shall countenance only the aspects that are clear and unambiguous. And to keep the proceedings, less cluttered and lucid, The Roped Urn, will be appraised first and entirely; before commentaries on the unencumbered second volume: The Horsemen and other poems published 2007.

The Roped Urn is an anthology of poems that is structured by the faith of their lyrical weight and, payload. There are sub-title motifs like The Roped Urn; Songs of Dawn, The Firestorm, A Midnight Call, A Song of The Reed, Flute, [for Maik Nwosu, Uche Nduka, Toyin Akinosho and Izzia Ahmad]; I know Why the Wind Whispers to You; Turns in the Gyre, Bury Me at Six O’clock; The Pilgrim’s Chant and The Last Light.

The Roped Urn – movement, which lends the anthology its title is an inspiration that invokes cosmological memories. The opening stanza, speaks of shepherds in the fields of starfield nights; and of how like Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals, God’s hand reached them / and they began to speak / This obvious reference to the universal birth of Jesus Christ the notion of Christian pilgrimage; pays oblique homage to T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of The Magi, and to Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths. The Okigbo sentience, saturates the presentation at this point. See:

In this ravishing tribute to a literary avatar, Christopher Okigbo, the younger poet reminds us of too much semblance at a particular point – and carries this disposition throughout the collection, as a philosophy and aesthetic choice.

Let us inspect the correlations with the literary antecedence of the past master to reveal, why Obi Nwakanma’s voice, is a de javu, of a once haloed mentation.