The Nigerian old school of literary icons was further diminished with the home call of Professor John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, a renowned poet and playwright at the ripe age of 85. Like his contemporaries, Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo both of blessed memory as well as the Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, he belonged to a literary circle that made the nation’s premier tertiary institution, University of Ibadan tick in the halcyon days.
Clark was famous for his poetry which captured pertinent contemporary socio-political issues. His writings were influenced, expectedly, by his Ijaw cultural milieu through which he brought honour and great respect to Nigeria in general.
Ibadan formed him, in a manner of speaking, but he glowed even more at University of Lagos. He left his footprints in the annals of these two great institutions by imparting his literary treasure in those places breeding, in the process, a generation of writers that he hoped would keep the torch alight as a measure of his contributions to literature and education in general.
Friends, associates and those who came in close contact with him in his heydays testify, in their tributes to this great man of letters, that his writings mirrored the society all through its development as a nation. Like other writers of his generation, he spared no effort to nudge the society in the right direction. Clark unabashedly raised his pen when it mattered the most to condemn societal ills that threatened the nation’s collective existence and advancement.
Again, like every accomplished writer, he had his fair share of commendations for his prodigious output that made him stand out. He also attracted to himself critics who analysed his writings with the intention to fill the gaps created by his failings as is to be expected of any human being.
These critics took note of three main stages in Clark’s poetic career: the apprenticeship stage of trial and experimentation, the imitative stage, in which he tried to appropriate Western poetic conventions and the individualized stage, in which he attains the maturity and originality of form. The famous poet frequently dealt with the themes he chose through a complex interweaving of indigenous African imagery and that of the Western literary tradition bringing out, in the process, artistic eloquence that is usually associated with accomplished writers.
As a playwright, his plays have been criticized for leaning too much on the Greek classical mode, for their thinness of structure and for unrealistic stage devices. His defenders, on the other hand, argue that the identified mode challenge and engage the audience with their poetic quality and their uniting of the foreign and the local through graphic imagery. As one of Africa’s pre-eminent and distinguished authors, he continued to play an active role in literary affairs, a role for which he increasingly gained international recognition.
Clark’s contribution to other genres was remarkable. His book, America, Their America, a travelogue in which he criticized American society and its values generated enough furore which catapulted him into the international literary limelight. This and another of his works, Casualties, were claimed to have infuriated and alienated a large audience and some influential critics. But that was Clark, who like other famous writers, indulged in literary licence which also defined and made them what they turn out to be. It was not a surprise then that he shrugged off those critical analyses by maintaining that he merely portrayed events as he saw them.
John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo was born on April 6 1935. He received his early education at the Native Authority School, Okrika (Ofinibenya-Ama), in Burutu LGA (then Western Ijaw) and the prestigious Government College in Ughelli. Clark obtained his BA degree in English at the University of Ibadan. Upon graduation from Ibadan in 1960, he worked as an information officer in the Ministry of Information, in the old Western Region of Nigeria, as features editor of the Daily Express, and as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. He served for several years as a professor of English at the University of Lagos, a position from which he retired in 1980.
In 1991, he received the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award for literary excellence and saw the publication, by Howard University, of his two definitive volumes, The Ozidi Saga and Collected Plays and Poems 1958-1988. With his wife Ebun Odutola (a professor and former director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos), he founded the PEC Repertory Theatre in Lagos.
A widely travelled man, Clark held visiting professorial appointments at several institutions of higher learning, including Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States. As a newspaper, we join his family, relations, friends and associates in mourning the passing of this literary icon whose works will outlive many generations to come. We wish him a peaceful repose.