Renowned Emeritus Professor of Literature, poet and playwright, John Pepper Clark- Bekederemo, died on Tuesday, October 13 at the age of 85, in Lagos.
In line with his “Written Will,” the burial was low-key as he told his children to bury him within three days of death. So, by Thursday, his remains arrived in Kiagbodo, Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State and was conveyed in a wooden boat to his house at JP Clark Creek Inland in the outskirt of the community. He was buried after a brief funeral ceremony.
He was born at his maternal grandmother’s home in the Urhobo village of Erhuwaren into two old Izon families, Bekederemo and Adomi, of Kiagbodo.
After his early education at Native Administration Schools, Okrika and Jeremi (Otughievwen), he went to Government College, Ughelli and University College, Ibadan, where he studied English Language.
Clark became Editor of Students’ Union magazine, The Beacon and was the first editor of The Horn, the poetry journal of University College, Ibadan that launched modern Nigerian poetry in English. It introduced Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, with Clark being the major contributor. His poem Ivbie, on the wrong of imperial power, beginning with the slave trade, created a great stir among staff and students.
Others like Abiku, Agbor Dancer, Fulani Cattle, Ibadan, Night Rain, Olokun, Streamside Exchange and The Water Maid, recited across faculties on the campus, later became favourites in anthologies.
On graduation, Clark served as Information Officer at the Western Nigeria Ministry of Information, Ibadan before moving to Express Group of Newspapers in Lagos as Features Editor and the Editorial Writer.
He then wrote his first play, Song of a Goat and his first collection of poems, both published by Mbari. A Parvin Fellowship to Princeton in the United States in 1962 gave him a break as he wrote his two plays – The Masquerade, the sequel to Song of a Goat and The Raft, which was seen as a prophecy of secession. America, their America was Clark’s account of that year abroad.
In 1963, Clark came back to the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan as a Research Fellow. In 1965, he moved to the University of Lagos as Lecturer, rising seven years later to become the Head of Department and Professor of English, the first African writer to be appointed to that Chair anywhere in the world.
Clark was also a Visiting Distinguished Fellow/Professor at Wesleyan University, USA, Lincoln University, Lincoln, USA, Yale University, USA and Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, from where he took his early voluntary retirement in 1980.
In addition, he won the Nigerian National Order of Merit and was named one of the seven Foundation Fellows of the Nigerian Academy of Letters.
In 2014, the University of Lagos, Department of English set up the JP. Clark Centre, which holds the JP Clark Library and Foundation. It also houses the Institute of African Studies and the Diaspora, founded by the University and the University of the West Indies.
Clark’s works received wide attention at home and abroad and his poems were translated into many languages, including Chinese, Hindi, Russian, French, Portuguese and German.
JP Clark’s poetry and plays were poignant and profound, evoking the right appropriation of language. He symbolically and imaginatively interrogates the water-world of riverine communities whose life swells around “the uncertainties and unpredictability” of the ocean and later crude oil, using a combination of Izon and Urhobo idioms and cadences to drive home his messages.
Clark, along with late Professors Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, represented the original triumvirate of Nigeria’s literary and creative writing heights.
With his death penultimate Tuesday, Nigeria has lost one of those who placed it on the foremost rung of world literature.
Clark was self-effacing and shunned the limelight, but was devoted to his writing and skills. The world of literature and poetry would surely miss this great Nigerian.