Christopher Okigbo’s Poetics and the Politics of Canonization

in Matatu
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Abstract

Christopher Okigbo conveyed in his poetry the sense of patriotism and personal anguish at the monstrosity of a benighted nation. Some critics have argued that Okigbo was not only obsessive in his depictions of metaphors that incarnated the recurring trope of death, but also embodied a death wish culminating in his death in the Nigeria–Biafra war. They further argue that he embodied a suicidal impulse that motivated his general conduct and death in that battle. Unfortunately, only a handful of scholars have sought to contest this view and to illuminate Okigbo’s self-immolation in the name of a higher duty. To be sure, suicide and martyrdom may go beyond the question of dying to the problem of laying one’s death dramatically at someone else’s door. Following Kant’s theory of the ethical act, this paper undertakes a critical intervention that reappraises some of Okigbo’s poetry as well as documented accounts of his life in order to identify him appropriately: is he a genuine martyr or a mere suicide who presides ritually over his own dismemberment, or both? Examining lines of his poetry that have been misread as embodying his ‘haunting’ death-wish, on the one hand, and evidence of his self-giving impulse, on the other, the paper seeks to articulate how Okigbo as a tragic poet transcends his destiny by submitting to it—victor and victim at once. In its conclusion, the paper reconciles Okigbo’s will to heroic action with the symbolic meaning that is locked in his poetry in order to justify his ascension to the rank of martyr.

Matatu

Journal for African Culture and Society

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