•”Here lies a man who loved virtue and art” – Ikeogu Oke (Sept 2018)
•Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Dr Lola Akande also comment
By Prisca Duru
When news about the passing away of Nigeria’s celebrated poet, Ikeogu Oke, broke last week, not many people believed it was true considering that he was consistent in the public sphere as a celebrity since winning the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature for his poetry collection, “The Heresiad”. The late Ikeogu Oke was 51 years of age before his sudden death on the 24th of November 2018. He was born on May 23, 1967 in Jos, Plateau state; few years after Nigeria had gained her independence and also became a republic. A native of Abiriba in Abia State, Ikeogu Oke was said to have died in Abuja at the National Hospital from Pancreatic Cancer.
Oke attended the University of Calabar and also the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu state. While he was at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he bagged an MA in Literature. Before that, he was awarded a B.A degree in English and Literary Studies at the University of Calabar.
Before his death, the book which took him 27 years to write was adjudged a work that speaks to an intense commitment to innovation, tenacity in a way that brings out delight and engagement. The Judges that handed the prize to him described it as a bold and wonderful experiment.
Ikeou Oke was a poet and a Journalist before his death. As a Journalist, he wrote columns for different national dailies, and as a poet, he wrote several poems which won him the coveted Prize in 2017.
To his credit are literary works classified under adult and children’s literature which include “When I was Born” (2002), Fourth Dimension Publishing Company, Nigeria; “Salute Without Guns” (2009), Manila Publishers Company, Nigeria; “In the Wings of Waiting” (2012), Manila Publishing company, Nigeria. All these works are for adults.
His children’s literature include “The Lion and the Monkey” (2014), Manila Publishers Company, Nigeria; and “The Tortoise and the Princess” (2015), Manila Publishers Company, Nigeria
The renowned poet, known for performing his poems or appearing in functions in his native Ohafia war costume, was said to have had a premonition about his death owing to his epitaph which he wrote on his twitter handle @Okesisi in September 2018 which reads, “My Epitaph. Here lies a man who loved virtue and art, And gave to both his fortunes and his heart. Ikeogu Oke (1967 –).”
“My interest in writing began shortly after I left secondary school in 1984,” Ikeogu wrote. “My father wasn’t educated. He barely went to night school. In fact, I think he hated having not been educated. As a result, he came to love books deeply and somehow tried to acquire the ability to read and write passably. So, you may say he educated himself. From his example, I came to love books too. So, he encouraged me and inculcated in me a very deep love for reading books. In our house then, we had a bookshelf with an array of books.”
On getting the news of his winning the $100,000 cash award for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2017, Ikeogu said: “You know, it an amazing feeling. I mean, I’m gratified. But that’s not the kind of money I would think I couldn’t make. But I made it doing what I love. It brings a feeling that is almost difficult to describe. I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening when I started writing poetry.
“I didn’t embark on a literary career with such an expectation. I didn’t consider writing as something from which I would make money, though my earliest published poems were paid for. They were published in an American magazine – Unity Magazine.
For each poem they accepted to publish, they offered me money as far back as 1987. So, making money from my poetry isn’t something I wasn’t used to. But I wouldn’t have said ‘pay me’, for I’m gratified.”
Like many other writers, Ikeogu had some renowned poets whose works influenced his poetry especially the “The Heresiad”. “I began by reading the Romantics. Yes, I read Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron. Then, I moved to the classics: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Goethe, etc. Then I read some American Poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and the French poet Charles Baudelaire.
Then the Irish poets W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and Joseph Brodsky. I also read Pushkin, then Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. I had a particularly auspicious reading of Niyi Osundare’s “The Eye of The Earth” around the time I conceived “The Heresiad”.
I found the balance it struck between aesthetic and moral tendencies very interesting and wanted to reflect that in “The Heresiad”. I think each of these poets and many others I have read have influenced me somehow.”
Ikeogu was such an amiable and friendly man —Prof. Ezeigbo
Renowned writer and Professor of English, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, described Oke’s sudden demise as a sad one.
“The sad news of Ikeogu Oke’s death struck me like thunderbolt. I have not recovered from the shock. It still sounds like it didn’t happen, but it did! Immediately I heard of it, I made a number of calls to confirm the terrible news. I was dismayed. I grieved, remembering vividly how I had sat close to him when he came to my new university, Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, in Ebonyi State. He was such an amiable and friendly man. We had invited him to participate in the Igbo Cultural Day Celebration. He did not disappoint us. The students hailed him.
“His death came at the wrong time. You might ask what time is the right time to die. It is true that one can die at any time: young or old. Ikeogu died at the height of his fame and success as a writer, a remarkable poet. I wish he had lived longer to enjoy his success and to give more people pleasure. He won the most prestigious and financially rewarding literary prize in Africa, the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature. Only a few writers will win it in their lifetime. It is indeed one of best literary prizes in the world in terms of monetary reward. Ikeogu won the prize last year, 2017, and barely one year after he left this side of existence. I feel sad about it. I read his magnum opus, “The Heresiad”, before it won the prize, and I was impressed by its aesthetic accomplishments. It is good poetry which entertains as well as instructs.
“We lost a great poet, but as writers, we can celebrate him and his work. We can console ourselves with the knowledge that Ikeogu is immortalized in his work. He will never die. He lives in his work. This is the aspiration of every writer – that when we leave this flesh behind and migrate to another realm, those left behind and those who will come in future will derive joy and learns from the work of art we have created. I believe Ikeogu has this satisfaction wherever he is now. May God comfort his young family. May Ikeogu’s soul rest in peace.”
Ikeogu’s poetry imparts us profoundly – Dr Lola Akande
“Ikeogu’s passing is shocking and extremely painful. The consolation, however, is that he gave us what he has. His poetry imparts us profoundly and it will continue to do so even for generations yet to come. Writers don’t die. Ikeogu cannot die. Through his work, he stays alive forever.”