21 April 2017

Nigeria: A Poet's Resurrection

Forty-three years after he vanished, friends and family of Soji Simpson gathered at the Muson Centre recently to bring him back to life.

The hall dropped into pin-drop silence as celebrated actress, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, took to the stage and started to read a Soji Simpson poem titled 'Nigerianisation', which urged Nigerians to redefine themselves and move away from habits and practices copied from their British colonial masters. "Let us be true Nigerians, not Anglicised Africans," a line read. When she was done, the crowd cheered with vibrant applause.

Ajai-Lycett never met Soji Simpson, but his was the first play she took part in when she returned from England. "And I've heard about him for the last 43 years, about his mysterious disappearance," she said. But she does not buy the idea that he has evaporated into oblivion. "As I get older, it becomes increasingly clear to me that we don't die, because we are spirits."

Soji Simpson was a Nigerian writer born in 1939. He was one of the shining lights of his generation, in the field of creative art. A thespian, poet, and playwright. Simpson wrote over 70 poems between 1958 and 1961 while he was a student at the Lagos Baptist Academy and King's College, Lagos. He also wrote five plays (Too Much Too Soon, The Vogue, If I forget Thee, His Master's Voice, and The Mirage), all of which were performed by Neighbourhood Players, a troupe founded and directed by him. The Neighbourhood Players, which ran between 1966 and 1968, also performed plays written by other writers. He was also a journalist. He used to write a column called 'Voice of the 70s' in the Daily Express between 1968 and 1973.

But, one evening in August 1974, Soji Simpson mysteriously vanished while he was rehearsing Rasheed Gbadamosi's play, 'Behold my Redeemer' at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, aged 35. He has not been seen since. Yet, he remains to friends and family, a devastating loss.

Decades after, his younger brother, Femi Simpson, an educationist and writer, has decided to unearth Simpson's manuscript of poetry and breathe life into it by compiling and annotating some of his poems into a book titled 'Meditations'. According to the publishers of the book, Diamond Publications, "Meditations is a living testament to Soji Simpson's genius; an indication of what was and a glimpse of what could have been. It is a collection of poems which will sit well for individual pleasure as it cuts across diverse genres (odes, lyrics, ballads, sonnets), speaking to the breadth and depth of Simpson's craft. It should also make its way into the classroom as a worthy collection deserving closer scrutiny."

So, to launch the book and revive the memory of Soji Simpson, a poetry recital was organised at the Muson Centre and dozens of readers, including Ajai-Lycett, were invited to read poems from Meditations.

"We at Diamond Publications are grateful that the significant work that Meditations represents was not stillborn," the Chief Executive Officer of Diamond Publications, Lanre Idowu, said at the recital. "We are grateful that it was not aborted through negligence or misadventure. In a sense we are celebrating love; love for diligence, love for talent, love for enterprise, love for industry, love for the arts, love for poetry, love for fatherland."

One of the readers at the recital and the Chairman of the occasion was Basorun J.K. Randle, a seasoned Chartered Accountant who attended Kings College with Soji Simpson. "We take it for granted when Soji was alive that Nigeria was destined for greatness - in fact it was already great; everything worked well and the future was bright," he said. "But today, the Nigeria we are dealing with is very different from what the likes of Soji Simpson and many others devoted their time, energy and effort to."

The former Executive Governor of Ogun State, Olusegun Osoba, was also one of the readers. He did not go to the same school with Simpson, but they both went to school on the same street and related closely. "Then, Soji showed deep genius and was a true academician, even at that age. And I must commend the Simpsons family - one that has produced many professors and successful people - for being still together. We know many families who scatter when a tragedy happens." He read from Simpson's 'Hard Must He Work'.

The book was reviewed on stage by Mr. Kunle Ajibade, the Executive Editor of TheNews. He noted that the testimonies of those who knew Simpson intimately and the body of his work show that Soji Simpson's presence made the darkest days feel clear, as a human being, a poet, a playwright, an actor and as a culture enthusiast.

Before he became a playwright, poetry was Simpson's first mode of creative expression. During his days at Lagos Baptist Academy and Kings College, he distinguished himself as a powerful debater and poet. According to his contemporaries, Basorun J.K. Randle, Chief Femi Robinson and Professor Ekundayo Simpson, he was a bookworm and 'just' loved books and would engage virtually anyone in all components of literature. He also had a riveting knowledge of history, both African and European, which enabled him to authoritatively quote, verbatim, resonant events together with precise dates that made him a champion in Inter-House and Inter-School debates. He was a great and spell-binding orator. He was always a threat to other schools at debates, because he would prepare his brief just like a lawyer. He could recite by heart all 128 of Thomas Gray's elegies.

According to Chief Robinson, Soji Simpson was an avid reader; he read all kinds of books. He stood out as a teacher among his contemporaries. He was also a keen sportsman, although he chose to socialise selectively, since solitude was more productive to him as a budding writer.

"The poems were not written in dense metaphors that are encased in complex layers of meaning," Mr. Ajibade noted in his review. "This may be described by some lovers of high-brow poetry as juvenile because he was not fully formed as a poet when they were written; but they have literary strength and enduring values. In his poetry, sincerity and tenderness survive. There is a sense in which his publication, now, is a form of redemption. It is gratifying that we are remembering Soji Simpson today with a part of him that is not missing, a part of him that is a testament to his talents."

Simpson was influenced by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and William Blake, all romantic poets. He was also influenced by William Shakespeare, John Milton and Francesco Petrarca. He learnt his creative tricks and techniques from these masters. He untangled their lines, scrambled them, and adapted them. He imbibed many of the elements of romanticism as a literary movement - their focus on the writer's emotion, celebration of nature, the idealisation of women and children.

"We can therefore argue that in this collection, he was more of a romantic poet," Mr. Ajibade said. "He wrote passionately on love of women, hardwork, time, the unstoppable cycle of human existence and stupidity, life after death, and on the challenges of Nigeria. He wrote about Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe; and as if he was predicting his own exit, he wrote about death in the prime of life. He also wrote on the complexities of life, on depression and dissolution, on the vagaries of nature, about the challenges of keeping New Year resolutions, and the difficulty of parting from our loved ones. He wrote on his strong faith in God; he wrote like a preacher about the importance of humility, he wrote to celebrate the birthday of his brother, Dayo; he paid tribute to Tinuke, one of his sisters when she gained admission to Methodist Girls High School. He also wrote poems on his great affections for the arts."

The compiler and annotator of the poems, Femi Simpson, told THISDAY that he hopes Meditations would one day find its way into the school curriculum. On the challenges he faced while working on the book, he talked about the dilemma of whether to present the poems chronologically or in categories. "And then there was the problem of whether to retain the deviations of his spellings and the project's funding," he said.

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