Poetry and the wealth of nations: Odia Ofeimun @ 70

THE poet Odia Ofeimun’s seventieth birthday comes up on Monday, March 16. When I was a first-year undergraduate at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in the late seventies, the name Odia Ofeimun was quietly making waves on campus. He was a youth corper teaching in one of the secondary schools outside the old city. But his fame was already spreading. He had won the poetry prize at Ibadan and was being celebrated as a budding star.

In 1979, Odia made headlines as the new aide to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He became what was known in those days as “the private Secretary” to the revered statesman and presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). His star waned somewhat when some important secrets of the party had been spilled to the press and Odia became the fall guy. It took quite a while before it became clear that he was innocent of all the charges.

Odia Ofeimun has pursued an illustrious career as a journalist and man of letters. He was one of the brightest stars in the Guardian stable; establishing himself on the intellectual firmament as activist, gadfly, social critic and poet.

As fate would have it, we were never to meet until the late eighties. And that was in England, during my post-graduate years at Oxford. Odia was appointed to a Rhodes Fellowship at St. Antony’s College. We struck it off immediately. Our bond became stronger when he discovered that one of the brightest young poets that was emerging, Idzia Ahmad, happened to be a cousin of mine. Idzia used to live with me when he was an undergraduate at the University of Jos, majoring in Management Sciences. We attended the same secondary school. Idzia died tragically young, in his late twenties. We have continued to mourn him to this day.

During our Oxford days, Odia was the sun around which the rabble of Nigerian and African students congregated. He had a way of challenging you and making you rise up to your highest potentials. His Oxford years were also among his most productive. When he was finalising the manuscript on “Under African Skies”, I was privileged to read and critic it.

German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe counselled that an educated person ought, “every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”

Poetry has always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was introduced to the romantic poets by my literature teacher in secondary school, a young English woman from Liverpool by the name of Linda Hutchinson. She made poetry come alive for me. When she recited Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale in class, I could swear I saw one flying through the window!

For most of my teenage years, you would never catch me without a slim volume of either Blake or Wordsworth or Keats or Shelley. I later added Christopher Okigbo to my stable and later, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Kofi Awoonor, David Rubadiri, Dennis Brutus and Tchicaya Utamsi. Not to forget T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender and the immortal Pablo Neruda.

I have dabbled in poetry, but I do not have the audacity to call myself a poet. The accumulated wisdom of time and experience has taught me that one is born to certain vocations. You are either born a poet or you are not. Same is true of artists, musical composers and even mathematicians. We are all differently wired. In the inimitable language of our Igbo people, one has to know what one’s Chi is made of and then pursue it with all of one’s heart, strength and might.

Odia was born to be a poet. He apparently did not follow a normal scholastic trajectory like your typical middle-class Nigerian. He worked as a labourer and factory hand while doing his O’ Levels. He later earned his advanced papers by private studies before gaining entry to our premier university of Ibadan; majoring in political science. That was a very wise choice of degree subject. The wisest teachers counsel that a creative writer should not necessarily major in literature and languages, as these are capable of unconsciously forcing him or her to follow established literary rules and conventions. It stifles creativity.

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In my intellectual and personal interactions with Odia Ofeimun, I have come to revere him as one of the greatest literary oracles our country has ever produced. When his dear mother passed on about a decade ago, he confided to me that her only regret is that she was not privileged to hold her grandchildren. Odia has never been married. I suppose he is already married to poetry, which is a very jealous mistress. One of the hopefuls, a very beautiful damsel, legend has it, visited Odia’s house and discovered that there was no place to sit down. Books lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Even the settees were taken over by dog-eared tomes. She wisely understood that she had no future in such bohemian settings.

Odia is an epitome of self-discipline. Perhaps he got some of that from our political master Obafemi Awolowo. He does not touch alcohol. Wherever we go, he will only drink water. He does not smoke. He is also a vegetarian. It was from him I learned that even your diet can affect your intellectual output and your level of spiritual vibration.

But I cannot lie to you, women worship Odia Ofeimun. As a poet, I suppose he cannot afford the luxury of not reciprocating the kindness.

I am currently reading one of the classic Bildungs roman of German literature, Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe. It is evident that great poets have a deeply romantic streak. Great poets must always have a muse — that one woman to whom they can pour out their very soul. In the case of Odia, I do not have the privilege of knowing who his muse is.

There is something that happened long ago that I have never revealed. During his last days at Oxford, Odia was invited to read some of his poetry in Italy. I have forgotten which city it was – perhaps Rome or Torino or Trieste or Milano. On his way back, something went wrong. British immigration rules prevent anyone from entering Britain with a passport that has not less than 2 weeks to expire. Absent-minded poet that he was, Odia forgot that his passport had barely 10 days to expire. He was turned back at Heathrow Airport. He had to go back to Nigeria, leaving his flat in Oxford, with all his books and personal effects.

The part of the story we never told him was that the late Tajudeen Abdurrahim and myself had to break into the flat and pack up all his books and personal perfects for safekeeping. Because we were indigent students, we could not hire a taxi to help us convey the personal effects. We had to get some sacks, with Taju holding one end and me the other, dragging the things through Corn Market Street, into a storage at St. Antony’s College. Taju is now late, but the memory of him and me dragging Odia’s things through the streets of Oxford like miserable tramps still fills me with laughter!

Odia will forever be the vagrant poet. He once turned up at Abuja airport from Lagos, only to realise that he had forgotten his purse at home and had no money even to get himself into town. Odia’s wealth cannot be quantified in bricks and mortar or in terms of investments in blue chip companies. His wealth is in the immortal songs that have sprung from his pen and the many he has inspired to achieve great things in life. I am one of his mentees.

The Greek philosopher Socrates believed that poets are inspired by “a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean”. Perhaps it was for this reason that Plato advocated the outright banning of all poets from his ideal republic. Plato was, of course, a fascist. In our age of violent extremes, poetry civilises and humanises. Poetry lifts us above the banal and the commonplace towards the sublime and transcendent; towards truth, goodness and beauty – towards the eternal.

The wealth of a nation can never be measured by GDP or by other economic and financial indices alone. It must also take account of the quality of the people; and their largeness of heart and mind.

In our age of crass philistinism, the barbarians currently ruling us are incapable of appreciating poetry or valorising the greatness of a writer. Great nations like France or Brazil would have used the likes of Soyinka or Odia as cultural ambassadors for their country. But they sadly will never.

Happy birthday, Odia di Great!

 

NIGERIAN TRIBUNE

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