BORN: 1932, Ojoto, Nigeria
DIED: 1967, Nsukka, Nigeria
Poems: Four Canzones (1968)
Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder (1971)
An important transitional figure between traditional and contemporary African literature, Christopher Okigbo was one of Africa's most prominent poets writing in English. In rhythmic, musical poems, he imaginatively blends African culture and ritual with such influences as Christianity and Western poetics. With work reflecting a broad interest in the aesthetics of a variety of art forms—music, poetry, and the visual arts—Okigbo became an important figure in the international literary world. As a result, he drew attention to the postcolonial experience in Africa, particularly in Nigeria.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Missionary Background Christopher Okigbo was born in Ojoto, Nigeria, on August 16, 1932, to a traveling teacher and headmaster for a local Roman Catholic mission. Okigbo's childhood was shaped by his village of Ojoto, as well as the Nigerian mission schools where he lived, and the combination of indigenous and Western views of the world was to become a central element in his poetry. In 1936, Okigbo's family moved to Ekwulobia, where Okigbo began primary school and met the teacher he refers to as “Kepkanly” in Heavensgate (1962).
Education and Teaching In 1945, Okigbo entered Umuahia Government College and developed an interest in such Western sports as football, tennis, and boxing. From Umuahia, Okigbo gained admission to the prestigious University College, Ibadan, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1956. For the next four years, he held various jobs, including a teaching position at Fiditi Grammar School, where he encouraged the study of poetry and helped coach a few of the school's athletic teams. During this time, Okigbo wrote his first poem, “Debtor's Lane,” which was published in the Horn literary journal.
Literary Connections While working as a librarian at the University of Nigeria between 1960 and 1962, Okigbo, along with academics and students alike, joined Nigeria's emerging literary circles. In 1962, Okigbo resigned from his library post and became the representative for Cambridge University Press in West Africa, a position that gave him the opportunity to travel throughout the region, as well as to pursue his literary interests, which included making international literary contacts. Also in 1962, Okigbo was appointed the West African editor for the intellectual journal Transition, in which he published a number of his own poems.
The Nigerian Civil War The nation of Nigeria was established by the British after they claimed the region as a protectorate in 1901. The area had previously been claimed by a British mercantile company known as the Royal Niger Company, despite the fact that many different tribes native to the area already had their own longstanding claims within the region. Creating the new nation of Nigeria, Britain grouped these tribes together, and over the first half of the twentieth century, tensions among several of the largest ethnic groups began to grow. These problems continued even after Nigeria became an independent nation in 1960 and culminated in a civil war beginning in 1966. In 1967, a small portion of southeastern Nigeria withdrew and formed its own independent nation called Biafra. The battle to recapture Biafra as a part of Nigeria lasted for three years, and was ultimately successful—though the resulting warfare and famine cost the lives of as many as one million Africans.
Untimely End In 1966, the massacre and resulting exodus of eastern Nigerians prior to civil war led Okigbo to write his renowned collection of poems, Path of Thunder: Poems Prophesying War, which were published after his death in Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder (1971). When civil war eventually broke out in Nigeria, Okigbo was commissioned as a major in the Biafran army. In August of 1967, two months after the beginning of the war, Okigbo was shot and killed on the Nsukka front.
Works in Literary Context
During his short lifetime, Okigbo published only two collections of poetry: Heavensgate and Limits; Poems: Four Canzones and Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder appeared posthumously. Despite Okigbo's limited number of published volumes, his work is considered a significant contribution to both African and world literature, primarily for the innovation he brought to African poetry. At a time when African verse was restricted to patriotic themes and conventional poetic methods, Okigbo's work involves complex, personal themes.
Western Influence Okigbo's style was influenced by Western artists, especially American expatriate poet Ezra Pound. In addition to stylistic elements and images inspired by Pound, much of Okigbo's poetry shares similarities with several other notable modernist writers, including T. S. Eliot. Scholars have linked the musicality of Okigbo's poems not only to Pound's Cantos (1975, posthumous), but also to pieces of such composers as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Though Okigbo participated in the tradition of Western literature, he also adapted its devices and symbolism to explore African identity. This blending of Western ideas and techniques with a Nigerian perspective has distinguished Okigbo's work from that of his contemporaries.
Musicality Okigbo is perhaps best remembered for the distinct musical style of his verse. Recommending that readers listen to Okigbo's poems in order to appreciate them fully, scholar Paul Theroux observes that “looking is confusion: what we see in the poem may be an impenetrable mystery, and there are words and phrases in Okigbo's poetry that are nearly impossible to figure out. Listening is simpler and more rewarding; there is music in [his] poetry.” Artistically stimulated by Okigbo, many African poets have imitated his practice of infusing poetry with rhythm and song.
Works in Critical Context
Okigbo was widely praised during his career and continues to be acknowledged as a master poet; however, his use of intricate symbolism, myth, ritual, and personal experience has evoked mixed critical reactions regarding the meaning and importance of his work. While some scholars argue that Okigbo's poetry reflects mankind's quest for divinity, others interpret it as an attack on Christianity. Still others maintain that Okigbo's poetry is a vehicle for his political and social views, especially the poems that delve into the cultural and political alienation of Nigeria during the colonial period.
Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder A few critics have claimed that Okigbo was more a stylist than a poet with a message; however, several recent scholars call attention to his role as a prophet. Because of the powerful imagery and voice in Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder, academics have analyzed the work through this lens. Other critics have focused their investigations on the construction of Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder, emphasizing its reliance on musical patterns in both sound and phrase. For example, in an article titled “From Pre-history to Post-history: Revisiting the Poetry of Christopher Okigbo, the Prophet of the New African Renaissance,” Catherine Acholonu comments that the “musicality of language, the recurrent patterns and variations upon the same theme, the accumulating images of infrastructure and dramatized experience function as carriers of the poet's vision. Through music, the poet attains a state of abstraction in his pursuit of the artistic ideal of purity, of the perfect identification of matter with form.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Okigbo's famous contemporaries include:
Chinua Achebe (1930–): Nigerian author whose novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is acknowledged as the most popular work of African literature ever written.
Harold Pinter (1930–): Despite its wit, lively dialogue, and depiction of humorously irrational human behavior, Pinter's drama has been called the “comedy of menace” because it always imparts a sense of threat to one's identity.
Richard Wilbur (1921–): Praised for his perfectly crafted poems, Wilbur's recollections of childhood and his observations of town life are captured as universal experience.
Many critics have contemplated how Okigbo's verse might have developed if he had not died at such a young age. In light of Okigbo's short life and prophetic vision, Chukwuma Azuonye comments in “Christopher Okigbo: The Road Not Taken,” “Path of Thunder is not a fulfillment but a promise of the revolutionary direction of the unrealized future of Okigbo's poetry. Had he survived to realize that future, it is conceivable that he would have shed the remnants of obscurity in imagery and allusion, which, despite his new poetic manifesto, can be found still lingering in this essentially transitional piece.” Path of Thunder scholar Sunday O. Anozie declares, “Nothing can be more tragic to the world of African poetry in English than the death of Christopher Okigbo, especially at a time when he was beginning to show maturity and coherence in his vision of art, life and society, and greater sophistication in poetic form and phraseology. Nevertheless his output, so rich and severe within so short a life, is sure to place him among the best and the greatest of our time.”
Responses to Literature
- A year before the Nigerian civil war in which Okigbo lost his life, he wrote a volume of poetry prophesying the war; Okigbo's “Come Thunder” has been compared to “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats. Read these two poems, as well as the backgrounds of the wars each poet anticipated. Make a list of portents in each poem. Do you believe each work contains enough evidence for critics to say the writers were able to predict war?
- At the onset of the Biafran war in Nigeria, Okigbo decided that it would not be enough to write about the war, so he joined the army and died fighting on the front lines. Many of his fellow Nigerian writers survived the conflict and went on to long and illustrious careers. In your opinion, did Okigbo better serve his cause by fighting, or would he have proven himself more effective by staying alive and continuing to write?
- In a book by Ali Mazrui titled The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971), Okigbo is put on trial in heaven, where he must defend his decision to give up his art in order to go to war. Why would Mazuri write such a book? Assume the voice of Okigbo and write a one-page essay in your defense.
- In a speech on the Web site Panafrican.org, scholar Alex I. Ekwueme states: “There is some of Okigbo's poetry that I understand at first reading and some I do not understand at all; some that I did not understand at first reading but which made some sense later; and some that appear to make different senses at different readings. But whatever be the case, be the lines clear or obscure, they make enjoyable and inspiring reading—especially aloud.” How can writing that is beyond comprehension be valued as literary? Is a poem effective if it can be enjoyed only for its musicality and cadence when read aloud? What criteria concerning art, its form, and its vision would you establish for it to be considered worthwhile or important?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Rich with mythological imagery and archetypal symbolism, Okigbo's verse explores the human pursuit of divinity. Indeed, many scholars believe that Okigbo's poetry is an account of his inner struggle to reconcile the concepts of two different faiths, Christianity and his native religion. Mankind's spiritual quest for the divine has been a recurrent theme in the literary traditions of all cultures, including in the following works:
The Creation of Adam (1508–1512), a fresco painted by Michelangelo. The focal point of this inspirational piece on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is the near contact between the fingers of Adam and God.
Women in Praise of the Sacred (1994), a poetry anthology edited by Jane Hirshfield. From Enheduanna of ancient Sumeria to American lyric poet Emily Dickinson to Subok of Korea, this collection of poetry explores and celebrates women's spirituality.
Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study (2004), a nonfiction book edited by Teun Koetsier and Luc Bergmans. The purpose of this work is to show that throughout history and across cultures, mathematics and theology are intimately related.
Anozie, Sunday O. Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric. London: Evans Brothers, 1972.
Egudu, Romanus. Four Modern West African Poets. New York: NOK, 1977.
Mazrui, Ali A. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. New York: Third Press, 1971.
Okafor, Dubem. The Dance of Death: Nigerian History and Christopher Okigbo's Poetry. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1997.
Theroux, Paul. Introduction to Nigerian Literature. Teaneck, N.J.: Africana, 1972.
Acholonu, Catherine. “From Pre-history to Post-history: Revisiting the Poetry of Christopher Okigbo, the Prophet of the New African Renaissance.” Retrieved May 21, 2008, from http://www.catherineacholonu.com/Articles.
Azuonye, Chukwuma. Christopher Okigbo: The Road Not Taken. Retrieved May 21, 2008, from http://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/0907/okigbo_conference_programme.htm.