By Hope Eghagha
It is within the context of a poignant, profound and perhaps arcane ritual imagination that we encounter John Pepper Clark in his literary world as evidenced by the evocative power of his primal poetic and dramatic compositions.
Especially so are some of the early works such as Song of a Goat through Ozidi; the ‘middle’ The Boat, The Return Home, Full Circle, Casualties, and the later Remains of a Tide.
His only known work of prose the semi-autobiographical and bitingly sarcastic ‘America their America’, at once immediate in content and prophetic in thematic concern exists outside this ontology of ritual and the mythic imagination.
Almost to the letter (or depth) of contemporary effusions from Trumpian America, this work captures the supercilious arrogance of white America and victims of racial disharmony narrated after a personal encounter with the programmed academy of American culture, capitalism and sociology which our young and bristling JP had found condescending and utterly restrictive.
And he wasted no words in expressing his thoughts on this sensitive matter even as a guest of that beautifully captivating American world!
His appropriation of language in his literary work highly symbolic and imagistic interrogates the water-world of riverine communities, whose precarious existence is often dictated by the uncertainties and unpredictability of the tide and, of course, the obtrusive black gold which came in 1958.
Here we encounter free verse forms presented within the African, indeed Izon and Urhobo idioms and cadences.
If this appropriation serves the overriding purpose of literature, it is because language of the local, different from the global, is often a reflection of the natural dynamics of one’s social and cultural environment.
For, long before it became fashionable to frontline the environmental degradation that has become the Niger Delta, his literary imagination had created a platform for apprehending the dilemma of the beleaguered region.
What, we may inquire, is our prognosis on the apparently simple poem ‘Night rain’ which teenagers encountered in the West African School Certificate Examinations way back in the 1970s?
How then, we may ask, did the work, or has the work of JP escaped the level of attention that he richly deserved both in literary scholarship and public acclaim?
Can this be attributed to his near-legendary avoidance of the media to project his person?
What are the ethical implications of self-projection in the world of writers?
Are we commanded to leave blowing of the trumpet to external forces over which we have no control?
To be sure the world of his literary work is not exclusive of the modern or the contemporary.
The contemporary we can argue is projected at two levels – the level of metaphor and the level of a physical and realistic presentation.
While, for example, Ozidi is set in a pristine environment its message and purview capture the world of contemporary politicians, in terms of power grab, vendetta, corruption, treachery, assassinations and fatal betrayals.
All for Oil moves in time and to the Nigerian State after the discovery of oil in commercial quantity.
If JP has written for all time, for the pristine past and the rambunctious society we currently live in, if his work is an embodiment of genuine creativity and profound thinking, if he along with Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe form the original triumvirate of Nigeria’s literary pantheon of artistic deities, if the academy of creative writing has swollen in size and depth through his literary oeuvre, why has he escaped universal critical attention?
It was against this background that the Department of English, University of Lagos and Monmouth University in the United States decided to co-host an international conference to honour this reticent and self-effacing genius son of the Delta in the second week of July 2018.
It is an irony that the seed for the conference was sown by a Nigerian academic sojourning in Trump country, Dr. Oty Agbajoh-Laoye, an academic who cut her teeth in the foremost university in Nigeria, the University of Ibadan.
Perhaps her long stay from the hustling environment that is Nigeria detached her enough to conceive of a conference to honour JP.
Fittingly, the keynote was delivered by a contemporary of JP’s from the halcyon days of University College Ibadan, Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka who indeed was very generous with his time and rigorous intellect.
His lecture OTHELLO’S LAMENT: The MIGRANT RUES The WAVES provided a bridge between history and contemporary experiences by an excursion through history and geography.
In full attendance were the majestic living ancestors of English studies in Nigeria.
Where Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, Professor Wole Soyinka, Professor Dan Izevbaye, Professor Niyi Osundare, we can with confidence say that the tribe of English studies is well represented.
Uncle Sam Amuka, a profound man of letters, publisher of Vanguard was in attendance as Special Guest. Professors Femi Osofisan, G. G. Darah, and Biodun Jeyifo sent in their apologies on account of previous commitments.
The new generation was represented by Tade Ipadeola and the NLNG literature laureate for 2017, Oke Ikeugo.
The feast was ready and the objects of sacrifice were in abundance.
But this dance and poetry was not for seven days and nights in the famed plot of ritual celebration of completeness!
It was a two-day fiesta with activities of a life-time crammed into 48 hours!
As we pay tribute to JP, now in his 80s, still upright and firm in his ways, we indeed honour our pantheon of creative writers who have placed Nigeria on the foremost rung of the international ladder in the world of literature.
JP has remained self-effacing, writing still and cracking jokes about the remains of the tide and old and sleep.
It is hoped that the papers presented at the conference will place his artistic output once again on the radar of literary studies both in Nigeria and the rest of the world.
In the course of the conference the ‘whys and wherefores’ of the failure of governments to name academic institutions after these great men came up.
Whereas our nation quickly names institutions after politicians, famed or notorious, not even the grandfather of prose fiction in Africa, Chinua Achebe had the honour of having a university or college of education named after him.
Sadly, it is a reflection of how not to treat our literary icons whose contributions would certainly outlive the political machinations of politicians.
This, therefore, is a fitting salute to and celebration of our own distinguished JP, of the famed Bekederemo family, Professor of English, of the University of Lagos, the famed writer of Agbor Dancer, Ibadan, Night rain and of course The Ozidi Saga and many more.
May the final boat of his earthly voyage remain in perpetual abeyance and may we be gifted a perpetual feast on the literary fecundity of this poetic genius!