Nigeria: J.P. Clark - Passage of a Poet-Playwright

16 October 2020

In honour of the great nationalist poet, playwright and journalist, Prof John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, who died recently at 85, Yinka Olatunbosun reflects on how the socio-political realities in his writings remain relevant to present-day Nigeria

The news of the death of a leading post-independence scholar, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, otherwise known as J.P. Clark coincided with the super-sonic updates on social media regarding the nationwide protests to end police brutality.

As widely reported, the protests have left in its wake several casualties which unearthed the memory of the Nigerian civil-war inspired poetry written by J.P Clark titled, "Casualties."

The poet had been a product of the Mbari-club, domiciled at the University of Ibadan for grooming socially committed writers. The club which was founded by Prof. Ulli Beier was the convergent point for Nigeria's literati such as Prof. Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Francis Ademola, Demas Nwoko, Mabel Segun, Uche Okeke amongst others.

While at the University of Ibadan, Clark founded The Horn, a magazine of student poetry. After graduating with a degree in English in 1960, he began his career as writer and journalist by working as a Nigerian government information officer and then as the Features and Editorial writer for the DailyExpress in Lagos (1960-62).

A year's study at Princeton University on a foundation grant resulted in his America, Their America (1964), in which he attacks American middle-class values, from capitalism to black American life-styles. After a year's research at Ibadan's Institute of African Studies, he became a lecturer in English at the University of Lagos and co-editor of the Afro-centric literary journal Black Orpheus.

In the spirit of romanticising Africa, some of his poetry celebrate the physical landscape of Africa. He was also a journalist, playwright, and scholar-critic who conducted research into traditional Ijo myths and legends and wrote essays on African poetry.

Clark's verse collections include Poems (1962) and A Reed in the Tide (1965) and in his best poems his sensual imagination makes successful use of the patterns of traditional African life. His Casualties: Poems 1966-68 (1970) is concerned primarily with the Nigerian civil war. Other poetry collections include A Decade of Tongues (1981), State of the Union (1985, as J.P. Clark Bekederemo), and Mandela and Other Poems (1988).

The threads in J.P Clark's poetry found its way into the fabric of his plays. Of his plays, the first are tragedies in which individuals are unable to escape the doom brought about by an inexorable law of nature or society. Song of a Goat (performed 1961), a family tragedy, was well received throughout Africa and Europe for its dramatic skill and the poetic quality of its language.

The Masquerade (performed 1965) again portrays a family tragedy, but it is The Raft (performed 1978) that is arguably regarded as his finest piece of dramatic writing. The situation of four men helplessly adrift on a raft in the Niger River suggests both the human predicament and the dilemma of Nigeria in the modern world. Clark's characterisation is convincing and his symbolic setting richly allusive.

A more experimental work, Ozidi (performed in the early 1960s; pub. 1966), is a stage version of a traditional Ijo ritual play, which in a native village would take seven days to perform. Like Yoruba folk opera, it is embellished with music, dancing, mime, and spectacle. Clark also veered into film production with Francis Speed; The Ozidi of Atazi in 1972.

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