"The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.”
Those quoted lines above were not written by Ikeogu Oke; they were actually culled from the poem 'To An Athlete Dying Young', one of the poems in A.E. Housman’s collection: 'A Shropshire Lad'.
However, they capture and encapsulate the life of Ikeogu Oke, winner of Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Prize for Literature in 2017 who died on Saturday, at the age of 51.
Perhaps they speak of man, too, and the ephemerality of the glory he expends his time and energies to pursue. Oke died barely a year after winning the prestigious NLNG prize.
His Early Life and Campus Years
Ikeogu Oke, a native of Abia State, was born in Jos on May 23, 1967. He attended Wilcox Aba Memorial Secondary School. He finished his secondary school education in 1984 and proceeded to the University of Calabar where he earned Bachelors of Art Degree in English and Literary Studies in 1997. Though a voracious reader, Oke did not live a lopsided lifestyle while on campus. He refused to sacrifice the joy of living a 'holistic' life on the altar of bookishness. He dabble in campus politics and vied for the post of President of the Department of English and Literary Studies. The lyrical poet in him was at the work and he flagged off his campaign using the slogan 'Okey is Okay'. Although he lost, the ever charming Oke took the defeat in his stride and moved on with his llife. But like a patriotic citizen that he was, he changed tack from trying to have the reins of power to writing to right societal ills. He turned to column writing in various newspapers across the country. He kept doing this till he succumbed to death. In fact, his piece 'Reliability and the Pendulum of Carpet Crossers' sent to The Punch newspaper a week before his death was published on Monday, November 26, 2018, two days after his death.
A Lover of Words and Custodian of Culture
Anywhere Oke went in his lifetime, his pouch was always brimming with words. He was always weaving and weaponizing words, depending on the demand of the occasion. Charming by nature, Oke became ebullient whenever the subject of discussion was poetry or literature in general. He was a performing poet that often deployed the antiphonal call-and-response style when on stage. Often dressed in his trademark traditional Igbo garb with a matching cap whenever he was performing on stage, Oke would draw from the inexhaustible well of rich lore of his Igbo people to fulfil the dictates of his Muse. He was a patriotic Nigerian who was also unabashedly Igbo.
Oke Wrote His Epitaph
Poets over the years have always been venerated — not just for their writing prowess — for having prescient ability similar to that of a prophet. Oke was no exception. Ikeogu pared down his life and living in a post 'My Epitaph', written on September 16, 2018, on his timeline on Facebook. The poet wrote:
“Here lies a man who loved virtue and art,
And gave to both his fortunes and his heart”
Many people may ascribe the writing of his epitaph to the debilitating effect of pancreatic cancer on his once-strong body. It is said that Oke had been fighting a secret battle with pancreatic cancer for some time; the battle which he supposedly lost on Saturday.
That NLNG 'Award-Clincher' Book
Having silently worked his fingers to the bones in the recesses of his room, the capstone of his literary career came in 2017 when he won the prestigious $100,000 NLNG Prize for Literature. With his collection of poems 'The Heresiad', he beat Professor Tanure Ojaide, the author of 'Songs of Myself: Quartet', and Ogaga Ifowodo’s 'A Good Mourning' to the prize. As it is often the wont of writers who strive for stylistic perfection — think of the great Gustave Flaubert of Madam Bovary’s fame — Ikeogu spent 27 years on 'The Heresiad'. He started writing the poem in 1989 and finished it in 2016!
In his acceptance speech for the 2017 NLNG prize, Ikeogu said: “Give all you have to what you do and love it with your heart. Do it with your whole heart, with integrity, seeking first the kingdom of excellence for which other things should be added for you”.
He continued: “Time is too precious to waste doing something you do not love, even it brings you fortune”.
Time is not just too precious, it is too short for the fulfillment of all humans’ desires and aspirations. And a year after winning the prize, he chose to be a legend rather than a decrepit monument. He didn’t leave to outlive his fame, he left the stage when the ovation was loudest. On Saturday night, Oke’s boisterous spirit was stilled by the grave reaper, his sizzling dreams doused by the cold hands of death, leaving the living with its hissing sound. However, it is a sound that will continue re-echo and resonate through the ages. Ikeogu has earned his rest, having worked tirelessly on this side of the cosmos. He is survived by a wife and three children.
Sleep on brilliant bard. Adieu!