Clark–Bekederemo, Johnson Pepper
Johnson Pepper Clark–Bekederemo
BORN: 1935, Kiagbodo, Nigeria
GENRE: Poetry, drama, essays
Song of a Goat (1961)
America, Their America (1964)
The Example of Shakespeare (1970)
A Decade of Tongues (1981)
Nigerian-born J. P. Clark-Bekederemo has been called one of the central figures of West African drama, and he is equally respected as one of his country's foremost poets. In both roles, he combines classical Western style and structure with stories, characters, and themes rooted in his native Ijaw tradition to create a body of work that is both universal and culturally unique.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Nigeria: From Colony to Independent Nation When Clark-Bekederemo was born on April 6, 1935, Nigeria was a colony of the British Empire. The British government had designated Nigeria as a protectorate in 1901, though the varied cultural makeup of the region—along with the independent and nationalist nature of its people—led to increasing independence from Britain over the years, culminating in the country's formal establishment of independence in 1960. Because of the strong British influence in the region, Nigerians such as Clark-Bekederemo were immersed in a rich mix of both West African and European culture.
A Precocious Talent Clark-Bekederemo was one of many sons of the Ijaw chief Clark Fuludu Bekederemo of
Kiagbodo in the western Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Perhaps due to the influence of his mother, Clark-Bekederemo had educational opportunities unusual for Kiagbodo children, who did not have a local grammar school. Clark-Bekederemo was christened Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, but upon the publication of Song of a Goat (1961) his name was shortened to John Pepper Clark by the designer of the cover. Clark-Bekederemo's subsequent publications used “John Pepper Clark” and “J. P. Clark” somewhat indiscriminately, until the publication of State of the Union, by “J. P. Clark-Bekederemo” in 1985. In his preface to that volume, Clark-Bekederemo wrote, “These works mark for me my assumption of my full family name, after waiting several years to do so jointly with my elder brothers. It is time to identify the man behind the mask so often misunderstood and speculated about.”
Clark-Bekederemo emerged as a formidable force in Nigerian literature at an extremely young age. Both his first volume of poetry, Poems, and his first play, Song of a Goat, were written while he was a university undergraduate— and both are still studied and celebrated today. A novel he wrote while still in secondary school has never been published, and he abandoned fiction—not, it seems, because he lacked talent, but because of his conviction that the novel and the Western short story, unlike poetry and drama, are alien to the African experience.
Clark-Bekederemo's earliest serious publication was in a journal called the Horn, which he and a small group of fellow students began in late 1957. In the poems Clark-Bekederemo has chosen to preserve from this early period (he has declined to republish many), three features recur: a basis in some occasion or concrete object (as, for example, the illness of his grandmother or a photograph in a magazine); imagery drawn from his home country or from a traditional story or belief; and intense fear or dissatisfaction. The imagery, of course, is not limited to the river country or mythology, nor is each occasion of each poem equally clear. But a sense of dissatisfaction is virtually omnipresent, sometimes as anxiety, sometimes as anger. His early major extended poem “Ivbie” is at times an outright cry of rage. It was originally published in Poems, was excerpted in A Reed in the Tide, and then reappeared complete in A Decade of Tongues (1981).
Recovering Traditions After he graduated with a BA in English from University College, Ibadan (UCI), in 1960, Clark-Bekederemo became a feature writer and editor for the Express newspaper in Lagos, began research into the traditions of the Ijaw people of the western Niger Delta, and also wrote a critical book about experiences he had had on an exchange at Princeton University (America, Their America, 1964). Then he accepted an academic position at the University of Lagos, where he first became professor of English and then served as head of the department until his retirement in 1980.
Since his undergraduate years at UCI, a dominant theme in Clark-Bekederemo's work has been the vitality of traditional life and art. He has devoted many years to recording, translating, adapting, and celebrating different traditional ways, while at the same time persistently critiquing colonial and postcolonial circumstances and external influences in Nigerian politics and affairs. Throughout, however, his has been an acutely personal art, expressive of a personal pain. In his earliest, most naive poetry, the personal was often obvious, leading Romanus N. Egudu to call “Grief, chaos, insecurity, and irredeemable loss” Clark-Bekederemo's “hallmarks” (in Four Modern West African Poets, 1977). In Clark-Bekederemo's later work, the immediacy and overwhelming quality of this personal pain shifted, to be replaced at times by an ironic detachment. Since his retirement from the University of Lagos in 1980, Clark-Bekederemo has held teaching appointments at various universities, including such prestigious schools as Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States. He is currently the director of the PEC Repertory Theatre in Lagos, which he and his wife, Ebun Odutola Clark, founded in 1981.
Works in Literary Context
Negotiating the Linguistic Legacy of Colonialism Intellectually, a central concern of Clark-Bekederemo's art has been the use of an alien language, English, as a means of expressing indigenous African speech and thought. Like others of his generation, he has found himself constricted by his education in English. While still an undergraduate, he characterized himself in his poem “Ivbie” as the “bastard child” of two cultures (in Poems, 1962). To write as he and others similarly situated have done has required adaptation, a reconceptualization of the function of the artist. In an essay titled “The Legacy of Caliban” (in The Example of Shakespeare, 1970) Clark-Bekederemo defines the issue for the African writer by asking if the colonial subject (represented by Caliban) has “acquired just the right dose of language and technique to cope with his trade, to practise the art of Prospero” (the colonialist).
Clark-Bekederemo lays out three approaches African writers can take to producing art. He writes, “As the erector or assembler of an outfit that should act upon the reader as a catalyst, is [the artist] himself serving as the medium to the experiment, or should he merely describe the process, or wholly leave the exercise to independent demonstrators to carry out? The first course entails the projection of the subject upon the screen of himself and consequently the production of a lyric piece. The second makes him something of a commentary man supplying a narrative. And the third leaves him completely out of the show, for then, having formulated what may be called a theoretical truth, the artist makes way for other experts to put it to the test, and the result is drama.”
As Clark-Bekederemo goes on to imply, he has opted for all three courses, which are by no means discrete: “No work,” he says, “is so impersonal that it does not at some point carry upon it the pressure of the personality of the author and none is so personal that it does not possess an independent life of its own.” More personally, in “Aspects of Nigerian Drama” (in The Example of Shakespeare), he says of playwriting that “the task for the Ijaw … artist, writing in … English, is one of finding the verbal equivalent for his characters created in their original and native context.”
Works in Critical Context
Critics have found ample evidence of Clark-Bekederemo's bifurcated background in his plays and poetry. They often note the presence of Ijaw myths, legends, and religion, masks, pantomimes, drumming, and dancing alongside poetic dialogue that seems distinctly Shakespearean, within epic tragedies styled after Sophocles or Euripides. Commenting in English Studies in Africa, T. O. McLoughlin observes, “The interesting point about John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo is that his awareness of what he calls ‘traditional’ and ‘native’ influences has come to dominate what he has learned from western literature.”
From a High Point to a Low: Song of a Goat to The Masquerade Clark-Bekederemo's first dramatic work was the 1961 play Song of a Goat. In this play the fisherman Zifa's sexual impotence causes his wife, Ebiere, to seduce his younger brother, Tonye—on the advice of the Masseur, a doctor-mystic. Ultimately, Zifa walks into the sea to drown, and Ebiere is left pregnant, setting the stage for The Masquerade, Clark-Bekederemo's 1964 sequel to this tragic family drama.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Clark-Bekederemo's famous contemporaries include:
Léopold Senghor (1906–2001): Senghor, a poet and cultural theorist of international repute, was better known as Senegal's first (and longest-serving) president after independence from France. Senghor remained in office from 1960 to 1980.
Alain Badiou (1937–): One of the most prominent French thinkers of the late twentieth century, the Marxist-influenced Badiou is known for trying to develop an idea of “truth” that addresses the challenges of postmodernist and relativist philosophies.
George H. W. Bush (1924–): The forty-first president of the United States, Bush presided over the First Gulf War in 1991, which was the beginning of an intensification of United States military involvement in the Middle East.
Chinua Achebe (1930–): Probably the best-known African author of the twentieth century, Achebe's most famous novel is Things Fall Apart (1958). He is also a spokesman for a generation of literary critics, and his attack on Joseph Conrad's alleged racism in Heart of Darkness spurred great controversy among scholars of colonial and postcolonial literature.
African American playwright LeRoi Jones asserts in Poetry that Song of a Goat “is English, but it is not. The tone, the references … belong to what I must consider an African experience. The English is pushed … past the immaculate boredom of the recent Victorians to a quality of experience that is non-European, though it is the European tongue which seems to shape it, externally.” Acknowledging that cultural background affects how an audience experiences Song of a Goat, Clark-Bekederemo once told a group of American students, “The idea of sacrifice is a universal one, but the theme of impotence is something that doesn't have the same kind of cultural significance for you as it has for me. The business of
reproduction, of fertility, is a life and death matter in my home area. If a man doesn't bear, he has not lived. And when he is dead, nobody will think of him.”
The follow-up to Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, is a lyrical, fairy-tale tragedy that has been compared with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In the play Ebiere's son, Tufa, is a grown man who woos Titi, a popular village girl who has refused all other suitors. When the groom's family history is discovered, however, everyone, including the innocent Tufa, is shocked into nearly (or quite) insane behavior. Critic William Connor praises The Masquerade,saying,“Icanthink of no other modern play which in its compactness, the power of its tragic irony and the neatness of its resolution comes as close to duplicating the achievement of Clark-Bekederemo's models, the classical Greek tragedies.” Nevertheless, the play has most frequently been dismissed by other critics as second-rate, having unbelievable storytelling, and as something that began in the playwright's mind as a classically modeled tragic trilogy but was never completed.
Responses to Literature
- Research and discuss Clark-Bekederemo's role in founding the Horn magazine and in coediting the influential journal Black Orpheus. What do his editorial commitments suggest about his attitudes toward English as a language for African literature? How was his engagement in these projects influenced by his theoretical positions regarding English? Among other sources, you may wish to consider Clark-Bekederemo's own critical work, especially The Example of Shakespeare.
- Consider several of what seem to be Ijaw traditions and themes in Song of a Goat. What comment, overall, does the play seem to be making about this cultural legacy and about its survival? Research the reception of the play. Consider the different critics who have praised and condemned Clark-Bekederemo for his fidelity to and bastardization of his own cultural history, respectively. What links can you draw between the message of the play and the conflicting messages in the criticism of the play? What does the play's overall cultural impact seem to have been, to date?
- Compare two or three poems from Clark-Bekederemo's early collection of poetry, Poems, with two or three from a later collection, such as A Decade of Tongues. How do Clark-Bekederemo's themes and stylistic devices seem to have changed over time? What philosophical shifts do you think these changes represent in Clark-Bekederemo himself? Structure your response as a thesis-driven essay, in which you explore your argument with detailed and specific references and analysis of different poems.
- Read one of Clark-Bekederemo's plays in the context of the genre of tragedy in general and of Shakespeare's tragedies in particular. In what ways does Clark-Bekederemo stay within the boundaries marked out for this genre, and in what ways does he transgress those boundaries? Would you describe his plays as tragedies in the classic or Shakespearean sense? Why or why not? If yes, what does this suggest about Clark-Bekederemo as a Nigerian poet? If no, how would you classify the play?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
One of the themes Clark-Bekederemo has most frequently considered is the practice and ongoing legacy of colonialism: its linguistic and social impacts, both in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. As such, he is a writer of what is often termed postcolonial literature. Here are several important works of postcolonial literature by other authors:
The Hungry Tide (1960), a novel by Amitav Ghosh. This sixth novel by the Indian author puts the colonial legacy—as seen in a government with little or no interest in the welfare of its poorer citizens—in striking juxtaposition with the beauty, fragility, and danger of the Sundarbans, one of India's lushest and most complex ecosystems.
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a novel by Jean Rhys. Dominican author Rhys's most successful novel, this book deals with themes of racial inequality and displacement, setting itself up as a prequel—beginning in Jamaica—to CharlotteBrontë's 1847 Jane Eyre.
Things Fall Apart (1958), a novel by Chinua Achebe. Nigerian author Achebe's short masterpiece chronicles the life of Igbo leader Okonkwo, tracing the tragic influences of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on his ability to live a life that is meaningful.
Cartey, Wilfred. Whispers from a Continent. New York: Random House, 1969.
Egudu, Romanus N. Four Modern West African Poets. New York: Nok, 1977.
Fraser, Robert. West African Poetry: A Critical History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Goodwin, Ken. Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets. London: Heinemann, 1982.
Izevbaye, Dan. “The Poetry and Drama of John Pepper Clark.” In Introduction to African Literature. Ed. Bruce King. Lagos: University of Lagos & Evans, 1971.
Wren, Robert M. J. P. Clark. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
Adelugba, Dapo. “Trance and Theatre: The Nigerian Experience.” Ufahamu 6, no. 2 (1976): 47–61.
Astrachan, Anthony. “Like Goats to the Slaughter: Three Plays by John Pepper Clark.” Black Orpheus 16 (October 1964): 21–24.
Brown, Lloyd W. “The American Image in African Literature.” Conch 4 (March 1972): 55–70.
Eyoh, Luke. “African Musical Rhythm and Poetic Imagination: A Phono Stylistic Interpretation of Clark-Bekederemo's Return of the Fishermen.” Research in African Literatures 32, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 105–18.
Nwabueze, P. Emeka. “J. P. Clark-Bekederemo's Song of a Goat: An Example of Nigerian Bourgeois Drama.” World Literature Written in English 28 (Spring 1988): 35–40.
Ogungbesan, Kolawole. “Nigerian Writers and Political Commitment.” Ufahamu 5, no. 2 (1974): 20–50.
Povey, John. “‘Two hands a man has’: The Poetry of J. P Clark.” African Literature Today 1 (1968): 36–47.
Theroux, Paul. “Voices Out of the Skull: A Study of Six African Poets.” Black Orpheus 20 (August 1966): 41–58.