By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
The living legend, Emeritus Professor John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, universally known as JP Clark, passed away in the early hours of Tuesday, October 13, aged 85.
Tributes have poured in from across the globe in celebration of the iconic poet, dramatist and folklorist. JP Clark belonged to the troika of Nigeria’s literary greats alongside Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.
He was the poet in the midst while Achebe was the novelist, with the dramatist Soyinka now the only one still alive on the terra firma. The celebrated poet Christopher Okigbo who would have shared company with them died too early in the Biafra war.
JP Clark was born in 1935 in Kiagbodo of the present-day Delta State to an Ijaw father and an Urhobo mother. He had his early education at Native Authority School, Okrika, Burutu, before attending the famous Government College, Ughelli. He then capped his education foray at the University College, Ibadan.
Clark was among the prime-movers of the literary club, Mbari in Ibadan, alongside Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.
A highly gifted poet from the very beginning, Clark published his first collection of poems entitled Poemsin 1961 under the Mbari imprint. He then forged ahead to publish other collections such as A Reed in the Tide, Casualties, A Decade of Tongues, State of the Union, Mandela and other Poems etc.
Over the years and decades, Clark’s much-anthologized poems like “Night Rain”, “Abiku”, “Streamside Exchange”, “Ibadan”, “Casualties” etc. have been studied extensively for the West African School Certificate (WASC) examinations.
As a distinguished playwright, Clark published and staged Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Raft, Ozidi, The Boat, The Wives’ Revolt etc.
His irreverent account of his fellowship spell in the United States entitled America, their Americawas quite controversial.
Clark’s recording of the seven-day “Ozidi saga” of his native Ijaw people belongs to the topmost ranks of folklore studies in Africa.
JP Clark made history as Africa’s first Professor of English, a coveted feat he achieved at the University of Lagos, Akoka.
In life, Clark did have his differences with his bosom friend Chinua Achebe because of the Civil War in which both writers were on opposing sides. Achebe withdrew his dedication of his 1966 novel, A Man of the People, to Clark but the novelist restored the dedication when the poet invited Achebe to be the external examiner at the University of Lagos after the war.
Incidentally, it was to JP Clark that Okigbo had given the manuscript of his poems “Path of Thunder” before he was killed in the Biafra war, and Clark duly published the poems posthumously in the magazine Black Orpheus.
Clark and his wife, Professor Ebun Clark, set up the PEC Repertory Theatre in Onikan, Lagos after his retirement from the University of Lagos in 1980.
The story of JP and Ebun Clark was a classic love story. A daughter of the Odutola multi-millionaire family, Ebun was sent abroad at the age of nine by his father to study. When she eventually returned to teach at University College, Ibadan, she met JP Clark who was a research fellow there. They fell in love. Ebun’s father was totally against the marriage. The two lovebirds eloped to Benin Republic where they got married and drove back to Nigeria. Ebun’s father refused to talk to her daughter for an entire year, but the marriage blossomed until “death do us part”.
A crucial humane aspect of JP Clark’s life can be seen from when he initiated a move for Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and himself “to plead with General Ibrahim Babangida to spare the lives of Major General Vatsa and his colleagues” over the alleged military coup plot of 1986.
According to JP Clark in “The Burden Not Lifted”, his Nigerian National Order of Merit Award Winner’s Lecture, delivered in Abuja on December 5, 2001, he got in contact with Achebe “surprisingly on my first telephone call to Nsukka.”
Of course, as had been written earlier here, Clark and Achebe had made up soon after the war when Clark invited Achebe to be his external examiner.
However, in the case of Wole Soyinka, Clark reveals, “I had seen only once, and that’s in Dar es Salaam, since he asked me to his publisher’s office in London to show me page proofs of The Man Died in which he libeled me. I told him then I would take him to court which I did, and there were quite a few people waiting for the fight.”
Now that Clark needed to see Soyinka in the bid to save Mamman Vatsa, he wondered on how to reach the playwright “with his roving style.”
Someone gave a suggestion to Clark to try Soyinka’s man Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi at The Guardian. Clark did contact Dr. Ogunbiyi and got directions to Soyinka’s home in Abeokuta. He dashed off straight to the place.
In the words of Clark, “Wole was away hunting somewhere in the forest of a thousand and one demons. So I sat waiting for him at his neighbour’s flat. Of course, I was the last person he expected to see at his doorstep. I cannot remember whether he came back with a kill and what kind. All I know, we had a great recognition scene of it, and then good host that he is, he cooked us a great meal. Of course, like Chinua, he was a prophet needing no preaching to.”
Eventually, the three great authors put their heads together at Clark’s place at the University of Lagos “to send our petition to the power that was and some say still is and shall be.”
Clark continued: “Wole did the drafting, Chinua and I teasing him he had had more practice at making pronouncements than either of us.”
It happened that, according to Clark, “word had got to General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida all right, and he was not one to be done out of a show. Three distinguished world-acclaimed writers wanted to see him on a national matter of urgency – how could he refuse seeing them? He duly received us at Dodan Barracks the next day, and was his charming self and all attention. A difficult case, he told us. Some junior officers were the problem, but not to worry. He would take care of it. So, we left, walked straight into the arms of the press, and on to a restaurant to toast and treat ourselves to a lunch we all thought we thoroughly deserved.”
Clark concluded the story on a sad note thus: “We were still savouring our wine, when that same afternoon General Domkat Bali, Chief of Defence Staff, came on air, announcing Vatsa and the other accused had already been executed. As a matter of fact, the execution did not take place until well into the night that day.”
Clark’s Mamman Vatsa intervention is the quintessential measure of the man.
No less an authority than Encyclopedia Britannica rates JP Clark as “the most lyrical of the Nigerian poets.”
- Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is an author, playwright, and poet.