“On the New Year,” 1958
“Debtor’s Lane,” 1959
“Love Apart,” 1962
“Four Canzones,” 1962
“Lament of the Drums,” 1965
Path of Thunder: Poems Prophesying War, 1968
Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder, 1971
Collected Poems, 1986
Christopher Okigbo (oh-KIHG-boh) died in 1967 at the age of thirty-five, after having written serious poetry for only eight years. In that period he was recognized as the most important contemporary African poet. He remains important and influential.
Okigbo was born into the Roman Catholic family of Chief Ezeonyeligolu James Okigbo and Anna Onugwualuobi Okigbo, in Ojotu-Uno, ten miles east of Onitsha-on-the-Niger. His father was a school headmaster, an occupation that entailed frequent transfers, so Okigbo’s elementary schooling was discontinuous and dispersed. His Catholic upbringing and schooling left an imprint on young Okigbo’s psyche and was to find expression in the ritual and liturgical structure of his poetry.
Okigbo was always spirited and rambunctious, and his high school education at Government College, Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria, allowed him to experiment with and develop his budding interests in sports, music, and journalism, even as he pursued his education under austere colonial teachers and administrators. Critiquing of colonialism and cultural imperialism was to be a major preoccupation in his poetry, especially in Heavensgate and Limits.
Upon completing high school, he easily gained admission to the Ibadan College of London University to study medicine. There he juggled his studies with sports, music, magazine publishing, and poetry. Deciding that his calling was in the arts, he changed majors and took courses in ancient history, Latin, and Greek, graduating in 1956 with an honors B.A. degree in classics. This educational emphasis explains the classicism of his earlier poetry. Such influence combined with Roman Catholic liturgism and Okigbo’s indigenous culture and religion, of which he was hereditary priest, to endow his poetry with a haunting ritualistic and lyrical quality. The importance of his baby-sitter, a woman named Eunice, should also be noted; she was an immensely gifted singer who helped arouse the lyrical impulse of the young poet. His mother, who played the piano, also undoubtedly contributed to his interest in music.
Upon graduation from the university, Okigbo took and changed jobs in quick succession. Between 1956 and 1967 he worked as manager of the Nigerian Tobacco Company and United African Company; assistant secretary in the Federal Ministry of Research and Information; Latin teacher and sports coach at Fiditi Grammar School; librarian at the new University of Nigeria at Nsukka; West African manager and Nigerian representative of Cambridge University Press; publisher, with Chinua Achebe, of Citadel Publishing Company; and major in the Biafran army. His spectacular performance as commander and fighter earned for him, posthumously, the Distinguished Service Cross of Biafra.
It was the Biafra-Nigeria war that allowed Okigbo to demonstrate, on the fields of slaughter, his populism and humanity. Maturing from the experimentation and obscurity of his earlier poetry, Okigbo divested his poetry of borrowed elements, found his unique voice, and preoccupied himself with the fate of common humanity and a condemnation of the military politicians in Nigeria and Africa whose greed, divisive ethnocentrism, and unpatriotic furtherance of the interests of imperialism combined to push Nigeria to genocide and fratricide. Okigbo had loudly warned Nigerians of the consequences of mismanagement and misdirection; they paid no heed. Okigbo’s prophetic delineation of the apocalyptic turn of events in Path of Thunder: Poems Prophesying War was to be fulfilled to the very letter during the years between 1966 and 1970. It was during that war, which threatened the Igbo people with extinction, that Okigbo took up arms in defense of freedom and the Biafrans’ right to self-determination. Three months into the war, his death in battle created the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the victims of the pogrom.