'Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo (1932–1967) was a Nigerian poet, who is widely acknowledged as the outstanding English-language African poet and one of the major modernist writers of the twentieth century. Deeply influenced by the poetry of the early Modernists, particularly William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as well as by the ancient Latin and Greek classics, Okigbo is notable for his ability to combine Western and African influences. Although some critics have claimed that by embracing aspects of Western poetry, Okigbo abandoned his African roots, it is clear, both in his poetry and in his life, that Okigbo was deeply connected to his culture and his homeland. Okigbo was killed in action fighting for Biafran independence, and his poetry is a testament to his deep respect and knowledge of African traditions of poetry. At his best, Okigbo combines the methods of the Igbo and the Imagists into an utterly unique and powerful style.
Born on August 16, 1932, in the town of Ojoto, about ten miles from the city of Onitsha in Anambra State, Okigbo's father was a teacher in Catholic missionary schools during the height of British colonial rule in Nigeria, so Okigbo spent his early years moving from place to place. Despite his father's devout Christianity, Okigbo felt a special affinity to his maternal grandfather, a priest of Idoto, an Igbo deity personified in the river of the same name that flowed through his village. Later in life, Okigbo came to identify strongly with Igbo beliefs, and the "water goddess" Idoto figures prominently in his work.
Okigbo graduated from Government College Imuahia two years after Chinua Achebe, another noted Nigerian writer, having earned a reputation as both a voracious reader and a versatile athlete. The following year, he was accepted to University College in Ibadan. Originally intending to study Medicine, he switched to Classics in his second year. In college, he also earned a reputation as a gifted pianist, accompanying Wole Soyinka in his first public appearance as a singer. It is believed that Okigbo also wrote original music at that time, though none of this has survived.
Upon graduating in 1956, he held a succession of jobs in various locations throughout the country, while making his first forays into poetry. He worked at the Nigerian Tobacco Company, United Africa Company, the Fiditi Grammar School (where he taught Latin), and finally as Assistant Librarian at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, where he helped to found the African Authors Association.
During those years, he began publishing his work in various journals, notably Black Orpheus, a literary journal intended to bring together the best works of African and African American writers. While his poetry can be read in part as powerful expression of postcolonial African nationalism, he was adamantly opposed to Negritude, which he denounced as a romantic pursuit of the "mystique of blackness" for its own sake; he similarly rejected the conception of a commonality of experience between Africans and black Americans, a stark philosophical contrast to the editorial policy of Black Orpheus. It was on precisely these grounds that he rejected the first prize in African poetry awarded to him at the 1965 Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, declaring that there is no such thing as a Negro or black poet, and that poetry should be assessed solely on the basis of its merit, regardless of origin.
In 1963, he left Nsukka to assume the position of West African Representative of Cambridge University Press at Ibadan, a position affording the opportunity to travel frequently to the United Kingdom, where he attracted further attention. At Ibadan, he became an active member of the Mbari literary club, and completed, composed or published the works of his mature years, including "Limits" (1964), "Silences" (1962–1965), "Lament of the Masks" (commemorating the centenary of the birth of W. B. Yeats in the forms of a Yoruba praise poem, 1964), "Dance of the Painted Maidens" (commemorating the 1964 birth of his daughter, Obiageli or Ibrahimat, whom he regarded as a reincarnation of his mother) and his final highly prophetic sequence, "Path of Thunder" (1965–1967), published posthumously in 1971 with his magnum opus, Labyrinths, which incorporates the poems from the earlier collections.
In 1966, the Nigerian crisis came to a head. Okigbo, living in Ibadan at the time, relocated to eastern Nigeria to await the outcome of the turn of events which culminated in the secession of the eastern provinces as independent Biafra on May 30, 1967. Living in Enugu, he worked together with Achebe to establish a new publishing house, Citadel Press.
With the secession of Biafra, Okigbo immediately joined the new state's military as a volunteer, field-commissioned major. An accomplished soldier, he was killed in action during a major push by Nigerian troops against Nsukka, the university town where he found his voice as a poet, and which he vowed to defend with his life. Earlier, in July, his hilltop house at Enugu, where several of his unpublished writings (perhaps including the beginnings of a novel) was destroyed in a bombing. Also destroyed was Pointed Arches, a poetic autobiography which he describes in a letter to his friend and biographer, Sunday Anozie, as an account of the experiences of life and letters which conspired to sharpen his creative imagination.
Several of his unpublished papers are, however, known to have survived the war. Inherited by his daughter, Obiageli, who established the Christopher Okigbo Foundation in 2005 to perpetuate his legacy, the papers were catalogued in January 2006 by Chukwuma Azuonye, Professor of African Literature at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who assisted the foundation in nominating them for the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Azuonye's preliminary studies of the papers indicate that, apart from new poems in English, including drafts of an Anthem for Biafra, Okigbo's unpublished papers include poems written in Igbo. The Igbo poems are fascinating in that they open up new vistas in the study of Okigbo's poetry, countering the views of some critics, especially those who argued that he sacrificed his indigenous African sensibility in pursuit of an obscure Euro-modernism.
"Elegy for Alto," the final poem in Path of Thunder, is today widely read as the poet's "last testament" embodying a prophecy of his own death as a sacrificial lamb for human freedom:
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