For his bold appropriation of the old canons of poetry, Ikeogu Oke earns himself the opprobrium of critics but gets rewarded with The Nigeria Literature Prize’s laurel wreath, writes Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

“Oke has made ancient forms new again.”
These words, pronounced by Professor Abena Busia, drip with compliments. Besides, the Nigeria Literature Prize’s International Consultant had prefaced them with the assertion that Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad is “a bold and wonderful experiment whose great strength also could have been its great weakness”.

It is precisely the “great weakness” side of the coin that Odia Ofeimun – a political activist, who admittedly has earned his stripes in poetry – chooses to see. Unequivocal was a statement credited to him in an article published a week ago in these pages by a Lagos-based journalist Mike Jimoh. “The Heresiad is a particularly ambitious work,” Ofeimun was quoted as saying. “It comes at you as a laboured text in pursuit of the kind of 18th century poetic diction that Henry Wardsworth Longfellow damned in his Introduction to the Lyrical Ballads (sic). [Ikeogu Oke] has turned his back on the poetry of everyday speech to rummage in what he calls, but I would not accept as, heroic couplets. What he has done yields a stylistic dead end that I would not recommend as a model for Nigerian or African poetry in 2017.”

Not even Jimoh could restrain himself from taking on Ikeogu Oke, whose efforts he likened to “taking writing, poetry this time, several centuries back, to the time of Pope”.

This opinion, however, is one the Nigeria Literature Prize’s panel of judges didn’t seem to share. Otherwise, Ikeogu Oke would not have been announced the winner last Monday (October 9) by the Advisory Board of the Nigeria Prize for Literature and Nigeria LNG Limited “after an intensive process of adjudication”.

Still curiouser: Ofeimun hastily and erroneously attributes Introduction to the Lyrical Ballads to Longfellow rather than to William Wordsworth. Now, doesn’t this gaffe diminish his assumed scholarly status as an omniscient critic? Obviously, this high priest of the local literary scene thinks highly enough of his poetic credo to have it engraved in tablets as the holy guide and text. And woe betide that dissenting unknown outsider, who refuses to adhere strictly to them!

Back to the more pertinent issue. It’s now stale news that Ikeogu Oke is the $100, 000 prize’s latest poet laureate. His entry, The Heresiad, emerged winner from among 184 entries received for the competition. Thus spake the Advisory Board chairman, Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, at a press conference held at Eko Hotel & Suites in Victoria Island, Lagos.

“Poetry competition for the prize is always very fierce and very interesting,” Professor Banjo observed. “We couldn’t have been more reassured about the process because the panel of judges did a painstakingly thorough job in selecting the best from the final shortlist of three entries.”

Equally reassured were the Panel of Judges chairman, Professor Ernest N. Emenyonu, and the General Manager, External Relations at NLNG, Kudo Eresia-Eke, whose statements were plain endorsements of the judge’s choice.

To Professor Emenyonu, “Oke’s poetry collection reveals a conscious /deliberate manipulation of language and philosophy in the style that reminds us of the writings of great Greek writers of Homeric and Hellenistic periods.” Meanwhile, Eresia-Eke declared: “We are pleased with the judges’ verdict and Mr Ikeogu Oke has demonstrated that he is a fine poet and Nigerians need to rally around and celebrate him. We must begin to build cultural icons, the likes of Professor Wole Soyinka and Professor Chinua Achebe, and this prize is the leading project doing this right now.”
Three entries, from the initially shortlisted ones by 11 poets, had survived the judges’ scrutiny. The judges – Professor Ernest Emenyonu (professor of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan, Flint, USA), Dr Razinat Mohammed (associate professor of Literature at the University of Maiduguri) and Tade Ipadeola (poet, lawyer and winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, 2013) – had earlier chosen 11 from out of the 184 entries. Thus, Ogaga Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning, Tanure Ojaide’s Songs of Myself: Quartet and Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresaid made it to the competition’s final stage.

Privileged information from the judges suggested that the competition was further narrowed down to a choice between two entries: Ojaide’s and Oke’s. The latter, which – published by Kraft Books Ltd – “probes metaphorically the inner workings of societies and those who shape them”, finally emerged winner.
Oke said it took him 27 years to write The Heresiad. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka MA holder in literature had informed Jimoh: “I started writing it in 1989 in Calabar.” To think the award hadn’t even been conceived by then!
“With each passing day, week, month, year, Oke wrote lines upon lines, like a bricklayer adding a few more blocks until the building is completed,” Jimoh wrote.

Noteworthy is the fact that the prize money seems to have played a role in stirring up more interest in poetry. A quick scan through the facts and figures corroborates this assertion. The increase in the number of entries for the literary genre has grown from 13 in 2005 – the first time poetry was in focus – to 160 in 2009, then to 174 in 2013 and later to 184 this year. Recall that the value of the prize had first been upped from $20, 000 to $50, 000 before stabilising at its present value: $100, 000.
Poetry is, meanwhile, just one of the four literary genres, amongst which the prize rotates annually. The other three genres are prose fiction, drama and children’s literature.

Eminent writers have featured prominently among the prize’s past winners. After the maiden edition in 2004, which had no winner, the iconic poet Gabriel Okara and Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto were co-winners of the 2005 edition, which was devoted to poetry. The 2006 edition, which focused on drama, was won by Ahmed Yerima for his work, Hard Ground. The prize was again split between two winners – Mabel Segun (for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre) and Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (for her book, My Cousin Sammy) – in 2007, when the spotlight was on children’s literature. With the resumption of another four-year cycle, winners like Kaine Agary (2008, prose), Esiaba Irobi (2010, drama) and Adeleke Adeyemi (2011, children’s literature) emerged. The third cycle produced the winners: Chika Unigwe (2012, prose), Tade Ipadeola (2013, poetry), and Sam Ukala (2014, drama) while the fourth cycle, which only started last year with the focus on prose, had Abubakar Adam Ibrahim as the first winner.

Apparently wired to court controversy, the prize was reviled for producing no winners in 2004, 2009 and 2015. It was also once derided as a “ghetto prize” for initially daring to exclude the hordes of Nigerian writers in the diaspora. Yet, not even its eventual inclusion of the excluded foreign-based writers and concerted fence-mending gestures with the aggrieved members of the literati could appease its diehard acerbic critics, among whom are those with a predilection for courting the limelight through needlessly stirring up the dust of controversy.

Even so, the prize – which belongs to the world’s most valued– deserves the Nigerian literati’s commendation, not condemnation. They have, after all, never had it this good. Eresia-Eke enthuses, with good reasons, about the fact “that the prize has inspired writers to want to deliberately advance the cause of Literature and win laurels”. But, did it really lead “to the proliferation of books and increased the quality of books” as he also said? Perhaps. Indeed, there is no doubt about the NLNG’s lofty aims when it instituted the prize to lead to “a direct boost to literacy and education in the country, the foundation of cultural and socio-economic revolution”. Yet, tackling the country’s literacy problems calls for more incisive measures.
Pix: Ikeogu Oke with Nadine Gordimer.jpg, Ikeogu Oke 1.jpg and The Heresiad Definitive Front