The following appears in:
Willhardt and Alan Michael Parker, eds.,
Okigbo, Christopher (Nigeria, 1932-1967) Christopher Okigbo is perhaps the most written-about and yet most enigmatic figure in modern African poetry.
Okigbo was born in the town of Ojoto in eastern Nigeria, a member of the Igbo ethnic group. Raised both a Roman Catholic and being told that he was the reincarnation of his grandfather, a priest of the river goddess, Idoto, Okigbo's poetic imagery draws heavily from both traditions.
Okigbo was educated at some of the best schools in colonial Nigeria, including the University College, Ibadan, where he graduated with a degree in Classics in 1956. Although his academic career was not exceptional he was recognized by students and teachers alike as a bright, engaging young man, showing much promise if somewhat bohemian in his tastes. His time at Ibadan overlapped with that of many future literary luminaries, including Chinua Achebe, the renowned novelist, JOHN PEPPER CLARK, and WOLE SOYINKA.
Following graduation he worked as a civil servant, secondary school teacher, librarian, and publisher's agent. He also served as West Africa Editor of the literary journal, Transition.
Active in various student groups and publications at Ibadan, only after he left University College did he begin to give serious attention to his poetry. In interviews he cites 1957 as the year he received the literary equivalent of the call to the priesthood: from then on he thought of himself as a poet and worked accordingly.
He was, however, a sporadic poet, working on impulse and inspiration rather than by any set schedule. He could go months without writing and, though he took the art quite seriously, felt no remorse at such long, fallow intervals: "Poetry is not an alternative to living; it is only one way of supplementing life" he told one interviewer. He was, however, a nearly compulsive editor of his own work, constantly revising previously written and sometimes already published poems. Prior to his death he had planned to pull together four of his already published poetic cycles: Heavensgate (1962), Limits (1964), "Silences" and "Distances" - the latter two having appeared in Transition in 1962 and 1964 respectively. He substantially reworked each and prepared an introduction which provides a basic framework for understanding the dense, allusive and many-layered poems.
Okigbo draws on numerous traditions for both imagery and poetic structure, citing as influences his own Igbo heritage, FRENCH SYMBOLIST POETRY, French Impressionist composers, Near Eastern history and mythology, and English and American poets such as T.S. ELIOT, EZRA POUND and GERALD MANLEY HOPKINS. Okigbo, SOYINKA and others have been labelled by one notable Nigerian school of criticism as suffering from "the Hopkins disease," said of those who are perceived to write poetry that is willfully obscure and rooted in a personal ethos closed off to the average reader. But Okigbo was unapologetic, famously retorting that he wrote for other poets, not the average man on the street who had no interest in poetry.
Okigbo returned to eastern Nigeria from Lagos in 1966 after a series of coups and massacres and volunteered for the rebel army soon after civil war broke out in July 1967. He was killed in battle a month later. The planned collection of his poetry, Labyrinths, was published posthumously in 1971 and was made up of his introduction, four poetic cycles and his final set of poems titled, "Path of Thunder," subtitled "Poems prophesying War" and completed in 1966. This slender, 72-page collection continues to exercise considerable influence over poets and critics alike and stands as a monument to a poetic talent cut short.