He is not given to talking much, having lived a rich life of quiet creativity that spans many decades. But his loud silence at the launch of his recent collection of poems, Remains of a Tide, at the University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos, shocked many of his ardent admirers.
They had thronged the centre named after him in the university, where he made name as the first African professor of English and expected oracular pronouncement from the poet of the riverrine lore.
1965 signaled Prof. JP Clark’s giant stride into the realm of poetic journey when made his debut with a collection of poems entitled A Reed in the Tide. The book was an immediate success. Literary buffs, who had waited enthusiastically for an offering from the literary colossus, embraced it warmly.
This was about the same time Clark married his adoring wife, Ebun Clark, to whom this newest collection, Remains of a Tide, is dedicated. There is a poem in it that commemorates their 52nd wedding anniversary.
The JP Clark Centre at the University of Lagos was filled to capacity by giants in Nigeria’s literary landscape, who had come to pay respect to the one who is easily their father and colleague in the creative field. There were also old friends of the poet from the prestigious Government College, Ughelli, Nobel laureate and fellow iconoclast, Prof. Wole Soyinka and his wife Folake, Prof. Femi Osofisan, ace broadcaster, Julie Coker, Chief Oscar Ibru, and Head of Department of English, University of Lagos, Prof. Hope Eghagha, who also stood in for his Vice-Chancellor and chairman the occasion, Prof. O. T. Ogundipe. They all came to witness what could perhaps be the poet’s valedictory offering to a turf he has indelibly stamped his name.
However, it turned out to an occasion of mixed feelings for guests when the octogenarian poet declined to make any comment or even respond to questions. The guests’ expectation was further dashed when Clark’s literary sibling, Soyinka, who is usually more outspoken, also did not say a word. However, to those with uncanny foresight, this singular gesture was indeed louder than what the best of elocution could have communicated.
Indeed, Remains of a Tide has proven Clark’s publisher wrong on the idea of a valedictory offering from the poet. Back in 2012, his publisher, Mr. Kolade Moruro of Mosuro Publishers Ltd, upon the publication of Full Tide (collected poems 1958 – 2012), had made similar conclusion, saying it would perhaps be Clark’s last literary offering.
Remains of a Tide is a catalogue of elegiac poems in honour of departed friends and relatives like the late Olorogun Michael Ibru who he describes as ‘A Tree Bigger than the Iroko,’ who ‘a fungus, untamed, attacked/A Tree, bigger than the Iroko/At Ubiaroko” and about the lives of benefactors like the amazing trio: Aduke Alakija and the Rhodes sisters, Olga and Gloria, who exited “in reverse other of their coming.” He also relates the persona’s freaky, near-death experience and he wonders if it “Has given me a preview of my end?”
The list is endless, of poems reflecting on the nothingness of life, but which is lived in fake finery, with a veneer of beauty that conceals the smelliest of messes. The poems also frequently express fears informed by the reality of an imminent death. This is most captured in the poem ‘A Tree in a Grove (for Dele Kasunmu)’ that partly reads: ‘…For then I become acutely/Aware others there, standing still,/Will in turn be moved, perhaps,/To the pith as, one day, no signs/And comets seen blazing above,/Nor quakes below, news too will spread:/JP Clark, poet, dramatist and mascot/For old masters at home, is dead.’
Eghagha spoke about the invaluable contributions of Clark to the Department of English, where he was the pioneer Head of Department, saying, “I am really intimidated by the pedigree of the two literary demigods sitting to my right” while making reference to Soyinka and Clark on the high able. In the same breath, Eghagha stated that “JP wanted a vivacious gathering, the reason for the inclusion of students from the department to help light up the mood.”
The students later read selected poems from the collection which comprises of ‘Satyr to Siren,’ ‘Message from Boro’ (for Sam Amuka), ‘Aleppo’ (for Bode Emmanuel), ‘Devotion’ (to my wife on our 52nd wedding day) etc. The exercise helped to give the audience insight into what to expect in the new book.
While paying tribute to Clark, Chief Oscar Ibru spoke about how proud he was of his uncle, who dedicated his entire life to the arts and recalled how he was made to read Clark’s works as a student. Oscar subsequently thrilled the audience with a recital of his favourite of Clark’s poem ‘Ibadan,’ which he said was he chose because of “its length and straightforwardness.”
An unavoidable sight at the book launch that made seem like a reunion was the presence of Clark’s childhood friend all the way from Government College, Ughelli, Mr. Titus Okere, who walks with the aid of a tripod. It opened up a well of emotions and how far Clark has travelled in his 83rd year on mother earth!
Notable writer, scholar and Head, Department of English, University of Lagos, Prof. Hope Eghagha has call for a National Cultural Policy, saying that it will among other things, it is one of the ways of forging national unity.
Eghagha, who state this on Tuesday (yesterday) in a chat with New Telegraph at the presentation of Remains of a Tide, a new collection of poems by renowned poet and dramatist, Prof JP Clark, at the University of Lagos, also noted that there is a problem in reading culture now because people don’t buy books again, and when they read, they don’t read books of literature, for pleasure.
Dignitaries at the book presentation, which was held at JP Clark Centre, University of Lagos, include Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, the Vice Chancellor of University of Lagos, Professor Oluwatoyin Temitayo Ogundipe, who was represented by Prof Eghagha as the chairman of the occasion, renowned dramatist and scholar, Prof Femi Osofisan.
“There is a problem in reading culture now because people don’t buy books, and when they read, they don’t read books of literature, for pleasure. So we do hope that with this we can stimulate interest in reading. And there is the problem of light; when people get home they are battling with power supply. During the day, they are running after their business and private concerns. So they are not able to read.
“But we do hope that as the infrastructure improves, when there is power supply, people are likely to read.”
According to him, the cultural policy is fluid because the nation itself is fluid.
“The political structure of the country has not permanently solidify. The nation seems to be in doubt of itself. And the rise of ethnic nationalism is also affecting a lot of things. Having a cultural policy is one of the ways of forging national unity. If we can come out with a national cultural policy, we then define who we are, define where we are and where we are going, it will help in putting the country together.”
He described the book presentation as an exciting one.
“It was an exciting time; coming from the pen of one of the foremost writers in Nigeria, intervening in national and international issues in a poetic manner, was a very exciting event. And to think also that the Nobel Laureate, Prof Soyinka, was there, it was very good,” Eghagha said.