Mention the name J.P. Clark and you will be surprised at the enthusiastic response that will assail your ears from the Nigerian English and literature students.
Apart from these rapturous responses from the undergraduates, graduates of English and literature and learned Nigerians too will add more to your appreciation of this giant writer whose literary prowess helped authenticate Nigeria’s claim to literary authority.
In the word of Emeka Chuks, a graduate of English and Literary Studies from Adekunle Ajasin University, J.P Clark ranks as his number one academic hero, among great Nigerian writers. According to him, Clark’s poetic creativity never seizes to amaze him.
‘Nigeria is so full of talented writers, but J.P. Clark, to me, is my number one literary hero. When I was still a student of English, I had the opportunity to read his works and since then, I have become enamoured with his poetic styles that speak beautifully of the African landscape. To be honest, his writing style is something that always amazes me.”
Another student who spoke to Daily Newswatch when contacted about J.P. Clark is Yemisi Oshurianade, an who holds a Master’s degree. According to her, J.P. Clark’s works are a pride to her as a student of English studies.
“At my level, I am in a position to separate the grains from the chaff when it comes to exceptional Nigerians whose creativity helps shape the minds of young Nigerians. To me J.P Clark is one of such talented men God has blessed Nigerian with.
“As a literary giant, J.P. Clark is a rock that shapes in most young Nigerians who aspire to attain a lofty height in poetic representation. J.P Clark is such a natural poets whose works always elicit freshness and Africaness in me. He is a writer whose works always make me proud to be a Nigerian because his representations of Africa are breathtaking.
“Stream Side Exchange’ and ‘Song’, two of his powerful poems, are good examples of how this man has been able to immortalise himself in the eyes of all the students of literature. The two poems, whose poetic flow captures different moods, are something that has been retained in my mind all these years. Even up till now, I can still recite Stream Side Exchange without missing a line. “River bird, river bird sitting all day long on hook over grass/ River bird, river bird, sing to me a song of all that pass and say, will mother come back today? You cannot know and should not bother/ Tide and market come and go and so shall your mother.”
“This poem, as short as it is, is a poem that has been firmly etched in my mind and it has become a kind of philosophy that guides my perspectives of this ephemeral life.”
While J.P. Clark is a darling of all literary-minded Nigerian, investigation, however, indicated that he was not born a writer.
According to research, John Pepper Clark was born at Kiagbodo in the Ijaw Kingdom in 1935 and was educated at Government College, Ughelli before obtaining a degree English from the University College, Ibadan.
He started his career as a journalist before venturing into literary writings. While at the University of Ibadan, Clark founded The Horn, a magazine of student poetry. After graduating with a degree in English in 1960, he began his career as writer and journalist by working as a Nigerian government information officer and then as the features and editorial writer for the Daily Express in Lagos. A year’s study at Princeton University on a foundation grant resulted in his America, Their America (1964), in which he attacks American middle-class values, from capitalism to black American life-styles. After a year’s research at Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies, he became a lecturer in English at the University of Lagos and co-editor of the literary journal Black Orpheus.
Clark’s verse collections Poems (1962) and A Reed in the Tide (1965) do not display the degree of craftsmanship apparent in the work of his fellow Nigerian Christopher Okigbo; but in his best poems, his sensual imagination makes successful use of the patterns of traditional African life. His Casualties: Poems 1966–68 (1970) is concerned primarily with the Nigerian civil war. Other poetry collections include A Decade of Tongues (1981), State of the Union (1985) and Mandela and Other Poems (1988).
Of his plays, the first three (published together under the title Three Plays in 1964) are tragedies in which individuals are unable to escape the doom brought about by an inexorable law of nature or society. Song of a Goat (performed 1961), a family tragedy, was well received throughout Africa and Europe for its dramatic skill and the poetic quality of its language. The Masquerade (performed 1965) again portrays a family tragedy, but it is The Raft (performed 1978) that is considered to be his finest piece of dramatic writing. The situation of four men helplessly adrift on a raft in the Niger River suggests both the human predicament and the dilemma of Nigeria in the modern world. Clark’s characterization is convincing and his symbolic setting richly allusive.
A more experimental work, Ozidi (performed in the early 1960s; pub. 1966), is a stage version of a traditional Ijo ritual play, which in a native village would take seven days to perform. Like Yoruba folk opera, it is alive with music, dancing, mime, and spectacle.
Clark also produced a film with Francis Speed entitled The Ozidi of Atazi (1972]) and an English translation of this Ijo epic.