J.P. Clark: A legend departs

ON Tuesday, one of Nigeria’s foremost literary writers, John Pepper Bekederemo Clark, Emeritus Professor of Literature, joined his ancestors aged 85. A poet and dramatist par excellence, J.P. Clark as he was fondly called was one of the quartet of pioneer writers, with Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, who shaped contemporary Nigerian written literature. Born in Kiagbodo in present-day Delta State, Clark received his early education at the Native Authority School, Okrika (Ofinibenya-Ama), in Burutu Local Government Area (then Western Ijaw) and Government College, Ughelli. He received his BA degree in English at the University of Ibadan, where he served as editor of various magazines, including the Beacon and The Horn. After his degree programme, he worked as an information officer in the Ministry of Information in the Western Region. He later served as  features editor of the defunct Daily Express, and as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. But the University of Lagos was his base. Clark was co-editor of the literary magazine, Black Orpheus. He called time on his illustrious career in 1980.

Following his retirement from the University of Lagos, Clark co-founded the PEC Repertory Theatre in Lagos with his wife, Ebun, also a distinguished professor and former director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos. He also served as visiting professor in institutions of higher learning, including Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States. As a matter of fact, his autobiography/travelogue, America, Their America (1964), written while he was studying at Princeton University, has been a recommended reading for decades. Although he wrote classic plays, including Song of a Goat (1961), The Masquerade (1964), The Raft (1964), Ozidi (1966), The Boat (1981) and The wives revolt (1991), it is perhaps unarguable that J.P. Clark’s primary vehicle was poetry. With those plays and his Poems (Mbari, 1961), A Reed in the Tide (Longman, 1965), Casualties: Poems 1966–68 (USA: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1970), A Decade of Tongues (Longmans, Drumbeat series, 1981), State of the Union (1981), and Mandela and Other Poems (1988), Clark established his distinctive voice as an integral part of the African literary canon.

Clark was a writer of writers. Who can ever forget his description of Ibadan, perhaps the most famous literary depiction of  the city anywhere in the world? Clark wrote: “Ibadan/running splash of rust/and gold-flung and scattered/among seven hills like broken/China in the sun.” His contributions to the literary world have quite simply immortalised him. Clark was a prophet and visionary, and those familiar with his writing cannot but rue the missed chances of Nigerian nationhood. From the socio-political questions to the cultural and religious, Clark dissected all with clinical majesty. Literature was for him not just art but a tool for social engagement.

By the way, even though his voyage with Soyinka and Achebe to Dodan Barracks to save fellow poet, Mamman Vatsa, ultimately failed, Nigerians nevertheless cannot, and should not, forget that great intervention. And it is quite symbolic, if not tragic, that at his death Nigeria is embroiled in the same evils he deplored, including the brutalities currently being protested against during the ongoing #End SARS protests. Nigerians are well aware that the casualties of the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad are not only those cut down for not paying a bribe; they also include the living victims dying by installment, and the millions living under the cloud of a brutal state. Literature does have many unique ways of dramatising enduring human passions, but the  general situation in the country today is not conducive to produce Clark’s kind: the opportunities are just not there.

The tributes have deservedly poured in: President Muhammadu Buhari said Clark’s repertoire of published works depicts the hard work of a great man devoted to a lifetime of writing, knowledge and promotion of the indigenous culture of the Ijaw nation. The president took solace in the fact that “his body of literary works, which earned him recognition and respect both at home and abroad, would continue to inspire upcoming Nigerian writers to pursue literary excellence and flourish in their chosen vocation.” Former President Goodluck Jonathan described Clark as a man who deployed the potency of creative art in nation building, a witness of truth and advocate of justice who was truly committed to art and the progress of the nation. For his part, Delta State governor, Ifeanyi Okowa, noted that “the literary works of Professor J.P. Clark promoted the Niger Delta, Nigeria and Africa, hence his demise is being celebrated by lovers of literature all over the world.” Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State paid homage to the “great academic and a celebrated poet who contributed immensely to Nigeria’s advancement through his numerous works.” And to Professor Hope Eghagha of the University of Lagos: “Our own JP’s boat reached its last earthly berthing place today, October 13. He lived a highly poetic and dramatic life, filled with intense creative moments and output. He was of the first generation of writers to put the name of Nigeria on the world canvas.”

Professor J.P. Clark’s image is indeed etched in the minds of generations of Nigerian students, and of their counterparts around the world. We commiserate with his family and friends, the Delta State government and the African literary community. May his soul rest in sweet repose.

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