By CYRIL ABAKU
I had set out to title this tribute as The Long Life of Poetry: Gabriel Okara at 96. But, just as soon, a second overwhelming nudge rebuked me with the recollection that, the celebrator himself, in the path-finding iconoclasm that has characterised his poetic craftsmanship for more than six decades, had long provided a caption in the fitting title to one of the most enduring masterpieces to have come out of African literature: Piano and Drums.
I thought, therefore, Piano & Drums for Gabriel Okara at 96. But then I had some reservations again, you know. Kindly forgive me if with this title I seem to have gotten ahead of myself; if I seem to have drawn too early a foreclosure on the possibility of Pa Okara himself having a preference for one of those musical instruments over the other. That is to say: whether he’d prefer pianos to drums; drums to pianos, and so on.
And, you see, this concern does hold true for some. Gabriel Okara was born on April the 24th 1921, and educated at the prestigious Government College, Umuahia, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, thus belonging in that founding generation of African writers who had to be preoccupied much with the struggle for identity and ideology; and the concomitant battle of contrasting values in the colony (and post colony), to which Piano and Drums, perhaps more than any other poetic offering of his generation, appends an immortal signature.
The subject of this brief essay, without overlooking what I have just said above, is clearly the celebration of a very rare natal milestone; one which very few in our clime have had the grace to enjoy, considering the statistics, today, on national life expectancy in Nigeria!
Pa Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara, the great poetic visionary and undisputed pioneer of literary modernism in Africa, is 96: let us be happy! Let us roll out the drums -and, perhaps, the pianos too! I’m not aware if today, there is much by way of discrimination, as it was in earlier days, to compel a stringent definition of artistic preferences within exclusivist or exclusionist parameters: to declare categorically a preference for the drum as a mark of African cultural patriotism or the piano itself, which might mean a solidarity with an otherness that may not be entirely African.
But at 96, it is more than safe to say that Pa Okara has expectedly made the most, if not all, of the contribution a great writer of his stature would to world literature. A classic by every standard, his 1950 poem, The Call of the River Nun, which won the ‘Best All-Round Entry In Poetry’ prize at the Nigeria Festival of Arts in 1953, remains an abiding watershed in the revolutionary depiction modern African writing brought to man’s inner (perhaps sometimes abstract) struggles in his journey between birth and death. Some four years later, he would again blaze the trail for other writers by becoming the first Nigerian writer to publish in Ulli Beier’s interventionst journal, Black Orpheus (1957), eventually joining its editorial board shortly after. His collection of poems, The Fisherman’s Invocation (1978), won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize the year after it was published. The maturity of his lyrical vision, with an approach to language that remains deeply symbolic, while maintaining a rather swift succession of lines, flows into a stream of qualities that make his poetry gold standard in modernist scholarship anywhere in the world.
Among his notable prose works are his first novel: The Voice (1964), as well as Little Snake and Little Frog (1992) and An Adventure to Juju Island (1991) which are children’s literature.
Consistent with a long-standing literary passion, Pa Okara, after several years, returned with the collection The Dreamer, His Vision (2005): an instant success which became a joint winner, that same year, of Nigeria’s highest literary honour, The NLNG-endowed Nigeria Prize for Literature. In 2009, he received an Honorary Membership Award from the Pan African Writers’ Association.
These accolades notwithstanding, what appears to offer greater perspective to his oeuvre, in light of these times, should be the fact that Pa Okara’s writings constitute a body of foresight which, more than any other’s, accurately spoke to the epoch of globalisation in which the world is today immersed.
Rightly, the world today has largely transcended geo-cultural boundaries. The body of literature denoting appreciation of -if we turn to it again- Piano and Drums, almost entirely misses the fact that the poem takes its relevance beyond the immediate moment of its birth. The pattern has always been to depict a height of struggle between worlds European and African; the seething contrast between them and a predictable conclusion: if the one successfully displaces the other. But this body of stereotypes hardly embodies the true spirit of an offering whose title alone lays naked its intent from the doorpost, guiding, as it were, with the qualified assistance of a simple conjunction: and!
Piano and Drums. Not Piano vs Drums or Piano against Drums. The poem speaks to a world in which contrasts co-exist as distinct but mutual entities increasingly interdependent; where junctions become conjunctions. A world in which Pianos and Drums find equal expression, both by symbolism and direction, with a guiding vision of commonality rather than opposition, distanciation and conflict. The melody of both worlds, threshed in the interest of a common humanity, is the harmony of this new age.
It is an age in which the world gravitates towards a centre: a centre that finds expression in virtual and extra-personal spaces.
Hence, contemporary reading finds literary berthing that satisfies its collective quest for the interpretation of reality and location of meaning. And, Gabriel Okara, that deathless muse, more than 60 years ago, met the yearnings of ageless time.
He is 96 years now – four years short of the centennial mark. May he reach it. May he exceed it. Long live the muse!