Modernism in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Okigbo

Christopher Okigbo’s poetry has often been compared to that of T. S. Eliot, partly because Okigbo uses Eliot’s signature linguistic devices such as exploiting metaphor to create a densely symbolic dimension to his poetry. In addition, he also appears at times to be consciously invoking comparisons with Eliot through such means as similarity of titles, as in the correspondence between his own Four Canzones and Eliot’s Four Quartets. Also like Eliot, Okigbo’s poetry forces a critical assessment that moves beyond the content of the works themselves to enlarge the discussion about broader topics such as the meaning of poetry and the purpose of the poet in modern society. Christopher Okigbo’s poetry reveals a man who was not merely aware of the work of Eliot, but who effectively drew upon him as a model for bringing to African poetry a modernist perspective. This may be due in part because he saw in Eliot’s bifurcated identity as an American who is best known as a British poet an accurate reflection of his own sense of himself as an outsider; an African poet infusing his work with the sensibilities of Anglo modernism. Finally, both Okigbo and Eliot have each suffered the slings of criticism that their poetry, for all its technical virtuosity, too often gives in to pessimism and thus deprives the reader of the joy that is assumed to be a vital component for all great verse.Of course, the most striking contrast between these two poets is that Eliot’s name is known by even those unfamiliar with his work, while Okigbo remains a relatively obscure figure outside African and poetry circles. T.S. Eliot is deserving of his esteemed position in 20th century literature as one of the greatest poets of the century. Even those who don’t place him atop the heap recognise his tremendous importance in revolutionising poetry. Eliot was one of the most successful experimenters of poetry of all time, forever challenging the method by which readers should address all aspects of a poem. Eliot’s greatest accomplishment, perhaps, is that he forced subsequent poets to intellectualise the traditional emotional and aesthetic elements of poetry. Eliot’s ability to appeal to readers on various levels at once clearly influenced Christopher Okigbo. Just as Eliot’s poetry intellectualises the emotional void of a modern western world confronted by social and technological upheavals of the turn of the century, Okigbo sets out to address in an intellectual manner the emotional upheaval of colonialism upon African natives. Exploration of ritual can be found within the poets of both men as they use symbolist techniques such as allusion to force an understanding of how traditional guides contemporary thought and future destiny. Eliot engages in ancient myth to underscore contemporary themes; Okigbo differentiates himself from previous African poets by introducing colonialist ideas in order to provide a thematic framework that reflects the amalgamation of native and European cultures and values to create the sense of confusion of identity that marks African peoples.The urge to piece together the fractured and fragmented identity for both Eliot and Okigbo contains a certain undeniable element of the search for spiritual satisfaction. At the heart of this concern for both is the image of the wasteland and the annihilation of tradition and universal truths that have been exposed as ill-equipped to handle the psychic needs of modern society. The sense of underlying pessimism that distresses certain critics can therefore be viewed from the alternative perspective as necessary modernist conceit of no longer having the will to accept the falsity of disproved beliefs and shaky theoretical constructs of morality. In essence, the best poetry of both Eliot and Okigbo can easily be interpreted as the reaction to an acknowledgement of the disconnect engendered by the wasteland and the subsequent purification ritual aimed toward a kind of spiritual reconnect. Comparing the poetry of Christopher Okigbo to that T.S. Eliot is significant in part due to thematic and linguistic similarities, but also because it is impossible to ignore the abundance of direct and conscious evocation of Eliot by Okigbo. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, T.S. Eliot urged the poets of the 20th century compose with a sense of history and “a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence” (Brooker, 1994, p. 13). Okigbo succeeds in this, but appears to have traded Homer for Eliot as his guidepost. That is not to say that Okigbo copies or plagiarises Eliot. Okigbo’s invocation of specific elements of Eliot’s poems is perhaps a bit more obvious than Eliot’s usage of ancient precursors in his own poetry, but this can clearly be interpreted as an attempt by Okigbo to introduce into African literature a precursor he finds to be as significant as Eliot finds Homer. Eliot’s knowledge of literary history cannot be argued and he engages the mythic qualities of that literature to revolutionary levels that effectively succeeded in changing the very nature of poetry. Okigbo’s answer to that can be criticised for lacking the wealth of knowledge that Eliot possesses, or it can be extolled for his intellectual choice to replace the arcane allusive quality that dominates Eliot’s poetry with the more relevant insight into the historical and social fabric of colonial Africa. Eliot’s poems are often striking for the manner in which ancient myths are utilised to comment on contemporary human condition. Okigbo meets this challenge by forcing African tradition to confront the foreign intrusion of colonisers. Once again, the question of reconnecting a splintered identity is introduced and in many poems from both men the result is language that is equally fragmented, containing multiple elements that inform Eliot’s idea of a simultaneous existence created by the entire history of the world and not just the poet’s own inner psychological architecture. Identity and society are viewed as not only labyrinths, but labyrinthine processes that are intended to infuse the very act of writing poetry. The critique that a streak of pessimism permeates the work of both conveniently ignores the fact that the physical act of writing poetry is itself a denial of any nihilist convictions. Further underscoring the illegitimacy of this critique is the obvious intellectual effort required to produce poetry of this caliber. If there is a feeling of pessimism that can be said to course throughout the poetry of Eliot and Okigbo, then it may be said to inform the possibility for spiritual reawakening in a world facing the devastation of ancient traditions as those traditions are reworked into a modern perspective.T. S. Eliot demonstrates a complex relationship exists between the language and the spiritual deliberation. In his Four Quartets poem “Burnt Norton,” Eliot confronts the restrictions and restraints inherent in language in its attempt to adequately lend meaning to spiritual perceptions. The opening stanza of “Burnt Norton” dives right into a thematic commonality that exists between Eliot and Okigbo, that of the connection between the past and the future. Stanza two serves to illuminate another solid modernist technique shared by the two poets, that of experimentations in voice and tone. Eliot’s use of vibrant adjectival imagery stands in stark contrast to the abstractions that are delineated in the first stanza. The movement is from starkly archaic to a more fluid contemporary quality; it is a terse an example of language evolving. That evolution of how words are used to describe abstract ideas gives rise to the greater thematic concerns of time and how it affects tradition and the clash of cultures. The cyclical nature of societal progression is intimately intertwined with the inference that language evolves over time as well. Eliot exhibits this relationship by juxtaposing the fragmentation that exists between the sacred and the secular. In “Burnt Norton” this fragmentation arises as an obstacle to understanding and reach forward to a greater spiritual awareness when he writes that language “will not stay in place/ Will not say still” ( V, l. 17). The commotion caused by language often being ill-equipped to deal with the abstractions of contemporary life arises again when Eliot asserts that writing is always a process of beginning anew each time the pen is set to paper. Eliot’s poetry in the first of the two quartets engages the modernist issue and presage the postmodernist concerns of interpretation. In these specific poems, Eliot addresses the issue of how language often serves to create problems in the communication of ideas directly related to knowledge and spiritual matters. There is a concurrence of ideas at work that underscores the unspoken belief that transcendence can only be achieved through a dualistic process in which light and shadow co-exist to form a synthesis. Eliot consistently makes indication to the evolution of words and meaning, implicitly associating that this dualistic relationship may hold the key to arriving at a deeper understanding of how cultural fragmentation works to construct a synthesis. Any synthesis of ideas based on language is subject to certain limits of ambiguity, but this is all the more so if one accepts that language if very often an obstacle toward understanding even the intent of the wording, much less the meaning beneath the language. The critique that Eliot allows pessimism to enter into his poetry may be viewed from the perspective of really being nothing darker than cynical scepticism, and that is illustrated here in the form of hesitation in “Burnt Norton” such as when he writes “What might have been is an abstraction/ Remaining a perpetual possibility” (I, ll. 6-7). This weary wariness of possibility negated can be interpreted as a statement on the dangers inherent in the ambiguity of language itself, as well as how language is utilised to communicate what may be viewed as incommunicable. The poem raises serious questions about the elusive nature of the truthfulness of anything that one may ever experience in life, as demonstrated in the poem’s sequence describing the actions that take place in the garden. Within the poems contained in the first two quartets are many allusions to myth that serve Eliot’s intention to punctuate the realism of the events described with a meaning more heightened in experiential substance. This is accomplished, however, through what appears to be simple linguistic devices such as descriptive imagery heavy on the usage of adjectival description. The predicament facing the synthesis of the fragmentation that exists because of the ambiguous nature of language and the ephemeral quality of spirituality that makes it so very difficult to define rests on the horn of the inescapable dilemma that meaning cannot be divorced from medium. In other words, language is an absolute necessity in order to both understand and then relate the higher meanings that exist in the philosophical spheres that dominate the greatest poetry. In “Burnt Norton” Eliot writes that “Only by the form, the pattern,/ Can words or music reach/ The stillness as a Chinese jar” (V, ll. 4-6). These lines propose that context is inseparable from the process of fully understanding and appreciating the significance of language, but context is almost always complicated by the introduction of interpretation. An example of this occurs in Okigbo’s “The Passage,” during the section that retells the story of the bird finding itself in a foreign land and urging itself to stand astride just one leg because it does not fully understand the traditions of the new culture. The incident reflects the contextual significance of understanding language, as well as the obstacles placed in the path of understanding. The bird is much in keeping with the abstraction that allows the existence of the possible through the infinite. Okigbo is also concerned with Eliot’s importance of form to the prosaic message of understanding. His poems confront this issue through literal translation of metaphor such as in “Lament of the Lavender Mist” in which the natural purification symbol of water is personified in the female subject. Okigbo also follows Eliot’s linguistic lead by engaging in the art of juxtaposition. Okigbo uses the technique of grouping together contextually unrelated images to concretise a new meaning from disparity. The result may not be immediately logical, but it is creatively coherent. Discordant language and cacaphonous rhythms are used to apprehend the new sensation forged from the fragmented reality of original meaning. Eliot and Okigbo both use this kind of juxtaposition and linguistic flourish to highlight the fact that language can act as a stranglehold on knowledge, while also possessing the ability to force interpretation as an act of enlightenment. Eliot’s purposeful confusion of seasonal imagery “East Coker” exposes the mystifying disorder of contemporary society. His insistent desire to see how far he can alter the method by which language communicates ideas generates a further issue concerning the inherent deceptive qualities of how words can be used to transmit thought. The restrictions of verbal communication serve as a metaphor for the development of language and society, illustrated by the lines discussing how tradition is “removed, destroyed, restored or in their place/ Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass” (“East Coker,” I, ll. 3-4). Eliot also engages the idea of the subtle treachery of language in such lines as “Our only health is the disease” as a way of understating the twofold aspect of everything. Eliot’s poetry revealed that it requires context for understanding language and this obviously is compounded with the language is introduced to a foreign audience either through the immigration or emigration of communicable ideas and concepts. It is the emigration of communicable ideas that stifles indigenous cultural concepts that forms the basis of the colonial mindset in which Christopher Okigbo set out to follow in the tradition of T. S. Eliot. Spiritual themes involving the fragmentation of tribal traditions, Christianity and the struggle between the two dominate much of Okigbo’s writing. The themes of religious suppression, anti-Christianity, religious revival, and literary struggle predominate. Okigbo’s poetic attempt to reveal the fragmentary construction of communication combines African traditions and the intrusion of Western academia. Mirroring Eliot’s position as an American intruder into British society, Okigbo works from the perspective of an African writing in an almost post-colonial mindset rather than an embrace of a pure nativism. Okigbo’s poetry winds up having a transformative effect that is completely in keeping with Eliot’s move toward establishing the duality of language as a means to both illuminate and obstruct the ability to communicate. By fusing together traditional Africa and post-colonial attributes, he concretises a synthesis of European and Africa perspectives to create a new modernist approach that also inhabits the significantly diverse fields of literary endeavors that take into full consideration the spiritual rituals of indigenous polytheistic belief and Christianity. Okigbo merges Christian and Igbo religious iconography to showcase the difficulties inherent to language, which Eliot had identified, while providing the promise of reconciliation. He also manages to get around the constrictions of adhering to outmoded tradition, as well as skirt many issues of the post-colonialist literature. “Before you, mother Idoto, / Naked I stand” summons the specter of the Igbo religious tradition while also invoking Christian imagery with the line “upon waters of the genesis.” What Okigbo is actually doing is synthesising the symbolism of water that runs throughout all religions in a general sense by using specifics to defragment the chasm that separates the specifics. This is an imagistic amalgamation that echoes much of the greatest work of Eliot and, indeed, modernism as a movement. This usage of African and colonial religious traditions was not intended to put them into total competition through juxtaposition, but to draw them into relief together to show evidence of a cooperative effect on language and communication. At the same time, Okigbo is also quite capable of using these divergent images as a force of collision between two warring factions. This may be most effectively accomplished in the Fragments poems that take full promise of the idols of worship. “And the ornaments of him, / And the beads about his tail; / And the carapace of her / And her shell, they divided” explicitly draws attention to the divisive potential that exists in the confrontation and competition of a duality that exists between two traditions. Heavensgate exists as a text whose mission is to defragment African and European manners of language and communication in an attempt to synthesise a new paradigmatic whole by connect the oral history of Africa with the written tradition of the West. Dramatic evolution is at the center of this poetry, and throughout Okigbo is quite careful about the utilisation of voice. Okigbo accomplishes very much of the same thing in Limits and regularly adds another poetic dimension to the work in terms of the mood and ambience that pervades each of the poems. The same dependence on fragmented imagery exists, but the overall emotional mood is a bit more somber and possibly the target of the criticism of pessimism directed toward him. In these poems, there is an encroaching sensation of isolation; a sense of an isolated hero facing down the wasteland. T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” describes a modern society overwhelmed by alienation and disorder, knocked off its bearings by the inexorable tide of progress arriving at double speed. For Eliot, industrialisation is the culprit; for Okigbo the sinister agent threatening to turn his society into a wasteland is colonialism, essentially a synonym for industrialisation. Throughout “The Waste Land” Eliot powerfully questions whether industrialisation and the consequences of urbanisation have resulted in positive effects on culture and society. He engages the same modernist techniques of discontinuity and fragmentation of language to underscore the confusion and chaos that is the topic of the poem. In the poems contained in Limits Okigbo recognises that the introduction of Christian religion is a metaphor for the European colonial designs at large. Okigbo reveals quite explicitly in “Limits X” the full extent of the waste laid to his people through the symbolism of the invaders into the pristine land of his ancestors. Tellingly, these invaders are not just colonialists but also Christian missionaries. The missionaries, though imbued with the sense of savior in their own minds, are in fact little more than apologists for the devastation to come. This devastation is given poetic flight in the killing of the sacred sunbird before entering the jungle. There two different gods are present, metaphors for the indigenous ways and the new Christian path that is set to fragment those ancient traditions. The suggestion of death and rebirth connotes the unavoidable acceptance of Christian iconography, but Okigbo wisely chooses juxtaposition as his greatest poetic tool. This juxtaposition of the old and the new, the indigenous and the forced reaches a state of ultimate artistic triumph with the image of the rite of fertility. Here, the pagan sacrifice of one of his own gods is utilised to upend the religious significance of the act and reveal it instead as an aggressive attempt to exterminate tribal rites and annihilate pre-colonial identity. If Eliot might be termed a revolutionary artist in the sense that he was attempting to revolt against style and substance by enacting a sacrificial death and resurrection of the medium poetry, there can be no doubt that Okigbo was not attempting an actual revolution against the forces of spiritual colonialism. Okigbo ultimately comes down on the side of recognition. The defeat of the tribal tradition has a tremendous impact and there is an authentification of the sense of having lost something valuable to the psyche. Eliot’s poetry forces the reader to recognise the potential threat of industrialisation and the loss of myth, whereas for Okigbo it is enough to merely recognise what has been lost and to move onward. Despite these apparent differences in intention, both T.S. Eliot and Christopher Okigbo openly confront the issues they posit and defy easy explanations. Their dense, allusive language may at first appear to be merely adding to the obstacles that Eliot insist language presents to communication, but the real intention is to force the reader to polish his skills for interpretation and to understand that the simplistic declarative language he so often confronts is loaded with ambiguous connotations. Modernism as a general rule recognised that it is not the simplicity of language that assures communication and understanding. Genuine communication is reached only through the contextual decoding of the fragmented cultural contributions of an increasingly diverse population. Understanding is not facilitated through common ideas of ease and direct discourse. Both Eliot and Okigbo position themselves as the translators that are necessary to full decode and then recode the transmission of signals, symbols and signs. Poetry serves that purpose best because it is the medium of literature that relies least upon the standard convictions of simplistic, stripped-down language. The irony is that though the poems of Eliot and Okigbo may be more dense and difficult than others, their many contextual clues actually make them better vehicles for communicating ideas those that are less dense. It is specifically this absence of simple clarification that turns the poetry of Eliot and Okigbo into things both beautiful and menacing to so many readers.BibliographyBROOKER, J. S. 1994. T.S. Eliot and the dialectic of modernism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. OBIECHINA, E. N. 1990. Language and theme: essays on african literature. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.