Clark, John Pepper

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CLARK, John Pepper

Also writes as J.P. Clark Bekederemo. Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Kiagbodo, 6 April 1935. Education: Warri Government College, Ughelli, 1948–54; University of Ibadan, 1955–60, B.A. (honors) in English 1960, and graduate study (Institute of African Studies fellowship), 1963–64; Princeton University, New Jersey (Parvin fellowship). Family: Married Ebun Odutola Clark; three daughters and one son. Career: Information officer, Government of Nigeria, 1960–61; head of features and editorial writer, Lagos Daily Express, 1961–62; research fellow, 1964–66, and professor of African literature, 1966–85, University of Lagos. Founding editor, Horn magazine, Ibadan; coeditor, Black Orpheus, Lagos, from 1968. Founding member, Society of Nigerian Authors. Agent: Andrew Best, Curtis Brown, 162–68 Regent Street, London W1R 5TB, England.



Poems. Ibadan, Mbari, 1962.

A Reed in the Tide: A Selection of Poems. London, Longman, 1965; New York, Humanities Press, 1970.

Casualties: Poems 1966–68. London, Longman, and New York, Africana, 1970.

Urhobo Poetry. Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, 1980.

A Decade of Tongues: Selected Poems 1958–1968. London, Longman, 1981.

State of the Union (as J.P. Clark Bekederemo). London, Longman, 1985.

A Lot from Paradise (as J.P. Clark). Ikeja, Malthouse Press, 1999.


Song of a Goat (produced Ibadan, 1961; London, 1965). Ibadan, Mbari, 1961; in Three Plays, 1964; in Plays from Black Africa, edited by Frederic M. Litto, New York, Hill and Wang, 1968.

Three Plays. London, Oxford University Press, 1964.

The Masquerade (produced London, 1965). Included in Three Plays, 1964.

The Raft (broadcast 1966; produced New York 1978). Included in Three Plays, 1964.

Ozidi. Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1966.

The Bikoroa Plays (as J.P. Clark Bekederemo) (includes The Boat, The Return Home, Full Circle) (produced Lagos, 1981). Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Radio Play: The Raft, 1966.

Screenplay: The Ozidi of Atazi.


America Their America. London, Deutsch-Heinemann, 1964; New York, Africana, 1969.

The Example of Shakespeare: Critical Essays on African Literature. London, Longman, and Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1970.

The Hero as a Villain. Lagos, University of Lagos Press, 1978.

Editor and Translator, The Ozidi Saga, by Okabou Ojobolo. Ibadan, University of Ibadan Press, 1977.


Critical Studies: Three Nigerian Poets: A Critical Study of the Poetry of Soyinka, Clark, and Okigbo by Nyong J. Udoeyop, Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, 1973; A Critical View on John Pepper Clark's Selected Poems by Kirsten Holst Petersen, London, Collings, 1981; John Pepper Clark by Robert M. Wren, Lagos, Nigeria, Lagos University Press, 1984; "The Lagos Scene," in West Africa (London), 3574, 16 December 1985; "The 'Sharp and Sided Hail': Hopkins and His Nigerian Imitators and Detractors" by Emeka Okeke-Ezigbo, in Hopkins among the Poets: Studies in Modern Responses to Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Richard F. Giles, Hamilton, Ontario, International Hopkins Assocation, 1985; "Poetry as Autobiography: Society and Self in Three Modern West African Poets" by Thomas R. Knipp, in African Literature in Its Social and Political Dimensions, edited by Eileen Julien and others, Washington, D.C., Three Continents, 1986; An Investigation of John Pepper Clark's Drama as an Organic Interaction of Traditional African Drama with Western Theatre (dissertation) by Thomas Vwetpak Anpe, n.p., 1986; "African Religious Beliefs in Literary Imagination: Ogbanje and Abiku in Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clark, and Wole Soyinka" by Chidi T. Maduka, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature (East Sussex, England), 22(1), 1987; "J.P. Clark as a Poet," in Literary Criterion (Bangalore, India), 23(1–2), 1988, and The Poetry of J.P. Clark Bekederemo, Lagos, Longman, 1989, both by Isaac Eliminian; "The Poet and His Art: The Evolution of J.P. Clark's Poetic Voice" by Aderemi Bamikunle, in World Literature Today (Norman, Oklahoma), 67(2), spring 1993; "J.P. Clark's Romantic 'Autotravography'" by Tony E. Afejuku, in Literature Interpretation Theory (New York), 4(2), 1993; "J.P. Clark-Bekederemo and the Ijo Literary Tradition" by Dan S. Izevbaye, in Research in African Literatures (Bloomington, Indiana), 25(1), spring 1994; "J.P. Clark's Dramatic Art: The Experimental Stage of His Dramatic Writing" by Daniel Nwedo Uwandu, in Literary Half-Yearly (India), 36(2), July 1995; The Tragedy of Uncertain Continuity: John Bekederemo and Wole Soyinka (dissertation) by Camille Aljean Willingham, Brown University, 1998; by Emevwo Biakolo, in Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Source Book, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and others, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood, 1998.

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John Pepper Clark is a dramatist as well as a poet, but whereas his drama production is held together by a certain unity of theme and style, his poetry is not. A Reed in the Tide is a collection of occasional poems, each one seemingly inspired by an actual occurrence in the poet's life such as watching Fulani cattle, seeing a girl bathing in a stream, or flying across the United States. The incidents take on a symbolic and sometimes a moral value that is worked out in the poems partly through description and partly through explicit commentary. In "Agbor Dancer," for example, Clark describes seeing a girl dance the traditional Agbor dance—"See her caught in the throb of a drum & entangled in the magic maze of music &"—and this leads him to a feeling of loss. He can no longer do the dance and is alienated from tribal life, but he wishes for reintegration: "Could I, early sequester'd from my tribe,/Free a lead-tether'd scribe/I should answer her communal call &"

The idea of cultural integration that runs through some of Clark's verse is supported by poems that deal with traditional African themes or that evoke Clark's native Nigerian town and landscape. The last section of A Reed in the Tide contains the most successful poems of the collection. The Ezra Pound-inspired poem about Ibadan and the sensitive depiction of the wet tropical Niger delta in "Night Rain," both excellent visual descriptions, are free of philosophical tags. The poems dealing with modern American life provide a logical contrast to the loving concern with traditional life. Clark dwells on the alienating effects of technology in "Service," about the slot machine, and in "Cave Call," on the underground train.

Clark's collection Casualties: Poems 1966–68 deals with the Biafran war. The poet took part in the war, intervening on behalf of a friend, and was personally acquainted with several of the most important leaders in the conflict. An intimate knowledge of the details of the clash is necessary for an understanding of the poetry, which is mainly narrative and argumentative. Clark has felt obliged to provide footnotes to most of the poems to explain the details, for instance, that the crocodile in "The Reign of the Crocodile" is Major General Ironsi, who carried a stuffed crocodile as a swagger stick. The collection suffers badly from its concern with the actual details of the war, and one can only agree with Clark when he writes in the preface to the book's notes that "I sometimes wish I had written in prose this personal account &" Some of the poems, however, are transfused with a sadness that transcends the details and brings across not just the misery of war but also the particular misery of civil war, in which friendships and family ties are tested and broken.

Clark's pessimism is at its most acute in the 1985 collection State of the Union. In the book's first section, "State of the Union," which focuses on Nigerian sociopolitical and economic problems, the tone of the poems is clear: "Services taken/For granted elsewhere either break down/Or do not get started at all/When introduced here." The problem, Clark maintains, lies with the citizens of the country ("something there must/Be in ourselves"), who cannot commit themselves to a social paradigm. But his purpose is not just to point a finger in familiar ways, and in "The Sovereign," the last poem of the first section, he makes his most complex claim. Nigeria has never been a sovereign nation, "never a union," nothing but "an amalgamation" of "four hundred and twenty three" states, "all spread/Between desert and sea," and it never will be a complete whole: "Hammer upon/Anvil may strike like thunder & but all is alchemy/Trying to sell as gold in broad daylight/This counterfeit coin called a sovereign." Clearly, as both Nigerian history and Clark's career have proceeded, his poetry has grown, its approach shifting according to political and historical circumstances and according to the unusual stance of this vital poet.

—Kirsten Holst Petersen and

Martha Sutro

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