Tribute: John Pepper Clark was a shy but consummate wordsmith

John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • He was a slender and slightly built youngish man then, and he would have been in his early years as an academic at the University of Lagos.
  • Any intelligent reader can see that these disasters are not an exclusively Nigerian problem.

J. P. Clark, our beloved versifier of Ibadan and Night Rain, finally departed this world, or as his sea-going kin put it, “paddled on to the great beyond” on Tuesday this week, October 13, 2020. I once saw Prof John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo in Lagos in, January 1977 but what I remember most clearly about the encounter is how little he said about his work.

He was a slender and slightly built youngish man then, and he would have been in his early years as an academic at the University of Lagos. But he had already made a strong impression on serious followers of African literature. Indeed, what puzzled me and maybe my other fellow celeb-chasers at that African Arts indaba in Nigeria, known as FESTAC77, was that he looked rather surprised at and even bemused by our attention to him.

I remembered that, even in my undergraduate days in Dar es Salaam, ten years prior to this encounter, we had been rehearsing for a performance of Song of a Goat, already a published text. One of the performers, an American student called Lynn, had approached me for coaching in a proper “African” accent. This was for her role as Orukorere, the tragic seer into the convoluted and illicit relationships among the leading characters in the play.

That seriously did our international cast, reflecting our multinational student body, take J.P. Clark in 1967.

African accent

Maybe Lynn’s anxiety about an African accent, if he had heard about it, would have found its way into his America, Their America, his tongue-in-cheek travelogue about that ambivalently irresistible country that continuously usurps the name of two continents.

Do you notice that Clark’s work anticipates the work of later Nigerian writers, like Ola Rotimi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?

Maybe it was J.P. Clark’s literary precocity (early maturing) that made him shy and reserved about his outstanding ability.

This is just a hypothesis, and I should have crosschecked it with one of his Ibadan University teachers, Prof Molly Maureen Mahood, who became my own teacher a few year later in Dar es Salaam. But I did not have either the curiosity or the sophistication in those distant days.

Another plausible explanation I assumed for J. P. Clark’s reticence, as indeed for that of many other Nigerian writers at the time, was the trauma of the civil war, the Biafran conflict, from which the country had emerged less than a decade previously.

That catastrophic pattern of clashes among the various communities of Africa’s most populous nation was, in many ways, the defining event of a whole generation, arguably even more momentous than the acquisition of independence in 1960.

We have eloquent testimonies to the devastation, pain and disorientation of the war from nearly all the leading writers of the time, regardless of the side on which they were. Soyinka and Achebe are on record with their responses, as is also Elechi Amadi, author of The Concubine, in his memoir, Sunset on Biafra. Christopher Okigbo, who perished in the conflict, left us his voice in Path of Thunder.

Indeed, a whole host of major Nigerian literary artists and critics, even across generations, have written and continue to write about the tragedy.

Consider, for example, the line of descent among my sisters, from my dear departed friend Flora Nwapa’s Never Again through Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.

Of J. P. Clark’s most explicit reflections on the war is his long poetic volume, Casualties. It probes with heart-wracking lyricism the niches and crannies of the destructive ravages of war, and the slimy web of paths of corruption, oppression and bad governance that lead us to deadly conflict.

Any intelligent reader can see that these disasters are not an exclusively Nigerian problem.

There are, however, two observations I want to share with you about J. P. Clark’s economy with words in face-to-face encounters.

Conflict

The first is that the wounds, or scars, of the conflict were still so raw in the hearts of most Nigerians, in the mid-1970s, that it was not easy to make comfortable conversation about the experience in common company. Maybe we should re-visit books like Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country for more insight into that nightmare, from which Achebe never seems to have fully recovered. Being “lost for words” may have been the safest option for sensitive minds like J. P. Clark.

Secondly, and on an impressionistic note, the poet struck me as a naturally introverted man, who found it difficult to understand the praises we were lavishing on him, let alone glory in our adulation.

This humility and self-effacement is what I actually found most attractive about J. P. Clark on that one fleeting encounter of mine with him.

It is now an even more endearing memory as I observe what is increasingly happening in the world of literary production today.

The swashbuckling shouter and rambler unilaterally declaring herself or himself to be a “poet” is a familiar figure in our midst.

The days of craft, technique and art in literary, and especially verse (not to say poetic) composition seem to be long forgotten. Anyone with a slogan or two, and a jumble of words, frequently vulgar or oven obscene, expects applause as a writer and poet!

The meticulously crafted work of J. P. Clark, drawing on all the resources available to him, from classical literature through everyday speech on to orature, as in his epic, Ozidi, reminds us that literature, and especially verse, is inevitably craft, art and technique.

A text may be politically correct, but if it lacks a competent mastery of the principles of linguistic structure, precision, imagery and compact economy, it should not pretend or claim to belong to literary art.

This artistic competence is what I particularly admire and celebrate in the work John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo. Emulating it is the challenge that we all face. Paddle well, J.P., Delta Man.

abubwase@yahoo.com