Christopher Okigbo’s Voice

First published in Next newspapers, March 13, 2011. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

The late great Christopher Okigbo once said of his poems’ similarities to other people’s works: “It is surprising how many lines of my Limits I am not sure are mine and yet do not know whose lines they were originally. But does it matter?” I think it matters. A while back on Next, the poet Chimalum Nwankwo offered evidence that Okigbo had plagiarized some of his poems. He quoted Carl Sandberg’s poem, For You: “The peace of great doors be for you./Wait at the knobs, at the panel oblongs./Wait for the great hinges.//The peace of great churches be for you./Where the players of loft pipe organs/Practice old lovely fragments, alone//The peace of great books be for you,/Stains of pressed clover leaves on pages,/Bleach of the light of years held in leather.//The peace of great prairies be for you./Listen among windplayers in cornfields./The wind learning over its oldest music.”

He contrasted it with Okigbo’s The Passage: “O Anna at the knobs of the panel oblong,/Hear us at the crossroads at the great hinges/Where the players of loft pipe organs/Rehearse old lovely fragments, alone-//Strains of pressed orange leaves on pages/Bleach of the light of years held in leather://For we are listening in cornfields/Among the windplayers,/Listening to the wind leaning over/Its loveliest fragment….”

Nwankwo has been harshly criticized for his views, but he has a point. Many Nigerian thinkers that I greatly respect and admire point out Okigbo’s youth and observe that “derivation” of others’ works was common practice at the time. But then if someone had shown me Sandburg’s lines without attribution, I would have sworn that it was Okigbo’s voice. Which begs the question: How much of Okigbo’s voice is borrowed or “derived”? Derivation is nothing new. The late Ola Rotimi made it very clear that his play The Gods Are Not To Blame was an adaptation of the Greek mythology Oedipus Rex. Wole Soyinka has been careful to make the connections between his plays and external influences. So is Okigbo guilty of plagiarism? Yes, I agree with Nwankwo There is no attribution as far as I can tell; if there had been notes explaining this, it would be reasonable to see this as an experiment.

A poem is a spiritual journey undertaken by the poet-priest, a deeply personal journey that finds voice in poetry. If I was to take a renowned writer’s work and incorporate it into mine, I would be required by traditional conventions to cite the source. If I was to come up with a copy of it, using most of the language, without attribution, it is possible that it would speak to a reader as the original spoke to me. If the reader was to find out that indeed, this new story used language and themes virtually lifted (in Okigbo’s case, about 80 percent) from the original, the reader would feel a certain sense of disappointment. There would also be questions as to whether indeed the writer undertook that journey personally. There is a software out there that determines how much of a student’s work is similar to work out there. Okigbo’s piece would have been unacceptable today were it to have been submitted as original work, no ifs, no buts about it. More importantly, it raises reasonable questions in my mind about how much of the spiritual journeys in his works were his journeys. I think that is an important question.

Donatus Nwoga wrote an excellent paper on the subject titled Plagiarism and Authentic Creativity in West Africa. The paper showcases several other instances of plagiarism by Okigbo. Take this piece by Miguel Hernandez, the Spanish author of “El amor ascendia entre nosotros“: “ Love ascended between us like the/moon between two palms/that have never embraced;/Love passed like a moon between/us and ate our solitary bodies/ And we are two ghosts who seek one another/And meet afar off.

Here is Okigbo’s “Lament of the Lavender Mist”: “The moon has ascended between us—/Between two pines/That bow to each other;/Love with the moon has ascended,/Has fed on our solitary stem;/And we are now shadows/That cling to each other/But kiss the air only.

Here are lines from Alberto Quintero Alvarez: “What departs leaves on the shore/Gazing seawards at the star foreseen;/What arrives announces its farewell/Before a coming-and going that goes on for ever.

Here is Okigbo: “An old star departs, leaves us here on the shore/Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;/The new star appears, foreshadows its going/Before a going and coming that goes on forever…”

These pieces and several other instances in Nwoga’s excellent paper offer evidence of plagiarism; if it is “derivation”, it is actually poorly done, with little attempt at creativity. I believe my friends who assert that these forms of imitation were common practice at the time but it would be impossible to defend this conduct today. I am in awe of Okigbo and I doubt that the day will come when someone would convince me that he was anything less than a genius. But let’s call what he did by the real name: Plagiarism. And it matters, because it was wrong.

The Poet Lives in Us

As someone who thoroughly enjoys reading Nigerian poetry, let me just observe that several of our new poets are timid holdovers from the Soyinka-Okigbo era; that era that Chinweizu famously derided as unreadable and obscurantist. Such an uncritical adherence to that era ignores the fact that even as oblique as their works were, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo were truly relevant to the times in at least one sense. They spoke in decipherable code to their fellow intellectuals (some of them in military uniform) and the intended audience listened closely. Soyinka has many seasons of incarceration to show for the effectiveness of his poetic rage. Okigbo died carrying his message.

An uncritical adherence to a Euro-centric approach has the unintended consequence of isolating our best voices, and assigning their songs to a pantheon of obscure mediocrity. On behalf of our long-suffering people, I would like to urge a return of voices to the true songs of our people. Africa cannot afford the consignment of its griots to the barracks of the unreadable. How does the poet become truly relevant to the yearnings and anxieties of our people?

Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, Okigbo, these poets spoke to the oppressors in the language they understood. Our new oppressors do not understand the complex nuance of the type of poetry that many of our poets seem to favor, that pass the smell test in the West. And if therefore they do not read our poetry, when will they hear the clanging of the chains around our people’s necks? Which begs the question again: What are our poets living for today? It is about seizing opportunities. Our lands lie devastated, enduring rape upon rape. Our poets stare stunned, in disbelief and in shame, because, this time, their voices have been drowned in shallow pools of self-absorption. Word to the poet: turn your poems into songs of freedom, and let your songs morph into weapons of war. We are at war, what are you doing stringing together incoherent sentences?

The poet lives, breathes in all of us. And as Soyinka would probably say it, the poet dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. Let us honestly divine the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. The consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what good poetry is and what is painful to the eyes. But I miss the haunting lyricism and imagery of poets like Okogbule Wonodi. Hear him sing to me: “But we have poured more wine/than the gods can drink/more than the soil can drink/and have become outcasts/dispersing the fishes/for which the baskets are laid/and the fisherman did not like us.” [Okogbule Wonodi, Icheke: IV]

Is Wonodi a bad poet? I would never know. I hope that there are many more bad poets where he came from. I come from a land of simple people who hide deep meanings inside simple words. One has to listen carefully to my people to get the insult or the accolade. I look for those kinds of poems to enjoy. Freed from the stifling confines of classrooms, I have taught myself to only pay for that which my heart seeks. If a poem turns out to be what the acerbic reviewer Randall Jarrell refers to as giving “the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter,” I will simply move on quietly to a more worthy pursuit. Our poetry is not dead; it just needs packaging.

Thriving societies of thinkers and doers look at their world and they see visions of possibilities and they say, why not? We have inherited a culture that celebrates customs as sacrosanct, and the past poses as the present tense. The great societies take their best thinkers and exhort them to think, no, dream of a better world, and worry about the constraints later. Every day, we lose our tenuous grip on our continent; I think we are going to drown in the syrupy fluid of Western customs and traditions.

In the beginning there were walls. And in the beginning walls defined every being and everything. The Berlin Wall is no more and poets lament the coming of the new dispensation. Except that the new dispensation is not new; it is here. Books are dying, poetry as we know it is limping on life support and prose is hawking her wares in obscure literary journals like a junkie in need of a fix.  But the world lives, life goes on and ideas continue to rock our foundations. In the seeming irrelevance of the written word, the poet lives. Poet, do not cripple your voice with silly little sentences that make sense only to the terminally drunk. I say, speak up, don’t stutter. Straighten up and lift our people’s dreams on the strong backs of your strong voices, and carry them through to the deaf myrmidons of darkness who live beyond the valley of darkness, past the hills of decadence. And sing it; sing it for a people long used to the silence of her priests. The poet lives. The poet lives in all of us.