Obi Nwakanma on Christopher Okigbo

(From his book: Christopher Okigbo, 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight, 2010.)

[p.196] [...] Kayode Jibowu had said something to the effect that Okigbo  wrote 'mere ditties' and dared call himself a poet. Okigbo shot back saying. 'Oh. I wish I  could write ditties. They are lovely things to write. But I don't write ditties! Go and ask Wole, ask J.P., who the poet is in this country... you block head, you never could write anything!' (81)
      Cambridge House also offered Okigbo refuge  from the chaos outside. There is a sense of distinct, personal disturbance fused with magical sensuality always present in the poems written in Ibadan. This was to become the purpose of Okigbo's writing:  'to bring out the sense  of an inner disturbance,' (82)  as he confessed to the Canadian  journalist and writer Marjory Whitelaw.  His growth as a poet was against a background  of political transition and change, exploding with extreme violence in post-colonial Africa.  Silence indeed was necessary in the life and work of the poet.  It was as important to him as tumult, as the sense of motion. People who knew him often  pondered these contradictions in Okigbo's personality; these silences and withdrawals in which he relapsed  into deep melancholy and during which  visitors to Cambridge House  felt its gaunt and awkward stillness.
   He tried various forms of escape in order to write: he would  sometimes go to Torch Taire's home  nearby  when he could no longer stand the human motion of Cambridge House. Or, as Taire recalled,  when as was sometimes the case, the Electricity Corporation  disconnected the power  in Cambridge House, because Okigbo had not have paid his light bills, being either too broke or too distracted by other pursuits to do so. Even after Torch Taire got married to his wife Oluremi, Okigbo would appropriate their house. At such times, Torch and his wife would be forced to go over to Cambridge House because they could not sleep with the lights on in their house while Okigbo worked on his poems all through the night. Taire was close enough to observe Okigbo's working routine.  He recalls that poetry was neither instant nor easy for Okigbo 'he worked hard on his poems... he struggled for words.'(83) Okigbo's poetry was thus, not merely wakened by a flash of inspiration. [] Okigbo combined craft something to which he committed an intense mental energy, perhaps all his humanity with a careful reaching for the highest form of music in his poetry. 
     It was usual to find Okigbo exhausted early in the morning, after the labour with the muse,  with crumpled balls of paper scattered  about his study, the result of an effort to arrive at some creative satisfaction or clarity. Observing Okigbo at work was an unforgettable experience for the playwright and poet Femi Osofisan.  He spent a night in Cambridge House with the poet which proved  to be a startling introduction for the young Osofisan  to the ways of the muse at the feet of a master poet. About this time in 1965, Femi Osofisan was only a senior at the Government College, Ibadan. [] Osofisan had begun to read Okigbo's poetry at about this time and became deeply engrossed by it. 'It was so different from everything else I had read.'(85)   []
       Osofisan resolved to become a writer principally because of Okigbo. He wanted to discover the process of writing to learn the poet's craft and routine. He let Okigbo  [p.196] ||  [p.197] know of his interest. []   He could stay overnight in Cambridge House and observed him  at work. [] 'It was instructive. Okigbo would write and tear up his effort. [...] in the morning, he had only four lines. He showed me the poem and asked for my comment. I thought it was great. But he was not satisfied  with his work. He tore that up too. [...]'(86)  [] He was never totally satisfied with his craft. [] it [] demonstrates Okigbo's artistic quest,  his reaching for the purity of the poetic line, and for perfection in craft.  He told Robert Serumaga  who interviewed  him in London in 1965 that he considered poetry 'technical a form of craftsmanship.'(87) 
      Okigbo imposed strict standards on himself as an artist. This reaching for the purity of art also powerfully demonstrates that aspect of his personality, the innate, ordered universe, which Chinua Achebe  referred to as the 'in-born finesse' (88) with which Christopher Okigbo did things. It also reflects his artistic honesty and purpose. He was his own greatest and most demanding critic. [] he knew deeply as a poet, that the muse was never to be taken for granted.  Okigbo also loved to read his poems aloud to his friends to hear the echo and movement of his poetry, to test  the notes from 'the  scansion  he carried in his head.(89) 'I hear sounds as they say a worshipper hears the flutes,'(90) he writes  in the final sequence of his poems, 'Lament of the Silent Sisters'.  Out of this process the poet grew. He was humble with his work  in the way that writers often are not. [] in his striving towards mastery he shared  his deepest poetic experiences with others.  He valued that []  
Ben Obumselu [] suggests that this tendency to be public with his poems may be an  indication of his initial uncertainty  about his abilities as a poet.  He was  tentative  because he did not feel sure  about himself as a poet  until he arrived at Distances.'(91)[p.197]
 

Source: Oni Nwakanma,  Christopher Okigbo, 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight. Woodbridge UK : James Currey / Boydell & Brewer Ltd.,  2010.
 
 

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