Gifted Hands: A Review Of Three Great Poems By UI Alumni

By: Moboluwarin Ogunleye 


   “And when my prayers to god were met with indifference, I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance.”

No, that quote was not from a poem. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote it in the play Hamilton. Hamilton says the line as he reflects on his life during a crisis. The quote speaks to his belief in the power of writing to overcome adversity, and coincidentally, the statement beautifully captures the essence of poetry.

Poetry is a form of self-expression, a medium through which we can articulate our deepest emotions and experiences.

Whether it is the exploration of personal struggles, the celebration of love, the critique of society, or the reflection of the human condition, poetry provides a  canvas where people can paint their truth, desires, and hopes.

The University of Ibadan has long been a cradle of literary talents, nurturing some of Nigeria’s most talented poets, each offering a unique perspective on life, culture, and our society in general. In this article, we will delve into three remarkable poems by UI alums, representing diverse poetic styles and themes showcasing the rich tapestry of Nigerian literature.



John Pepper Clark was an Ijaw man born in 1935. He graduated with an English degree from the University of Ibadan in  1960, after which he worked as an information officer in the Ministry of Information as the features editor of the Daily Express; he was also a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. 

His poem “Abiku” is a classic example of his ability to draw African folklore to create thought-provoking lines.  Abiku refers to a spirit child born to die prematurely and repeatedly return to the world. In Yorubaland, Abiku means ‘Born to die.’ The children, which are supposed to bring fulfillment to a marriage, bring pain instead.  Clark’s poem opens with the lines:

Coming and going these several seasons,

Do stay out on the baobab tree,

Follow where you please. Your kindred spirits

If indoors is not enough for you.

These initial lines set the tone for the poem, showing Abiku’s perpetual movement in the physical and spiritual world. He pleads for Abiku to “stay out on the baobab tree.” Asking for Abiku to make a choice and stay out on the tree with his spirits: “If indoors is not enough for you.”  

Clark’s imagery and choice of words skillfully portray the constant tension between life and death. It invites you to contemplate the mysteries of life and death. It beautifully captures the cyclic nature of Abiku’s existence by talking about the fact that Abiku is compelled to return to the mortal world despite the sorrows it brings the parents. In Abiku, Clark’s command of language and symbolism is displayed as he explores African mythology and spirituality to portray complex and universal issues. You can read the complete poem here.


Christopher Okigbo; Heavensgate

Christopher Okigbo, another UI alumnus, was a Nigerian poet, teacher, and librarian who died fighting for the independence of Biafra.  His poetry generally shares the same themes and philosophies.

In many ways, his poetry depicts the most poignant times when he struggled to balance his adherence to his culture and traditions with Western influences like education and Christianity. In his poetry, the image of mother Idoto appears frequently. An excellent example is his poem, Heavensgate, also called Idoto or ‘The Passage.’ Which begins with these lines:

Before you, Mother Idoto,

Naked, I stand;

Before your watery presence,

A prodigal

The poem is named after the river goddess Idoto, to whom Okigbo’s grandfather was a priest. The opening lines set a tone of reverence: “Before you, Mother Idoto, Naked I stand;” He presents himself as a prodigal son going home, standing naked to show his vulnerability. Throughout the poem, he talks about the divine, masterfully crafting words like: 

Learning on an oil bean,

Lost in your legend,

Under your power, wait I.”

Which beautifully captures Okigbo’s sense of comfort in the surroundings of the goddess he was praying to. “Under your power, wait I” describes how the aura of the vicinity of the goddess is seemingly overwhelming.

Finally, “At Heavensgate” might represent a boundary: the ‘spiritual’  river.  He hopes to cross with the help of the river goddess.

Overall, “Idoto” is a strong witness to Okigbo’s command of language and his capacity to combine subjective experience, cultural tradition, and introspective spirituality into a captivating poetic story.  It encapsulates reverence, humility, and anticipation through its rich imagery and profound respect for Idoto. If you’ve been compelled, you can check out this beautiful piece. 


Boluwatife Afolabi; To love is to die

Boluwatife Afolabi is a Doctor of Dental Surgery and PhD student in Oral and Craniofacial Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, with current research interests in head and neck cancers.  He was a dental student at the University of Ibadan between 2013 and 2019. In 2017, He wrote a book of poetry, The Cartographer of Memories. Which has a collection of beautiful poems, amongst which “To love is to die” is part. You can get the book on his website here (Check out “A memento for the Forgotten”).

To Love is to Die is a poem that, in my opinion, beautifully captures the paradoxes of love– its potential for both ecstasy and pain. It’s the capacity to fill us with hope and leave us feeling broken.

To love is to die every night

Hoping to wake up in a dream

Where love is a language

Ecstasy: a song

Where prayers flow into rivers

And children wake at dawn to

Fetch blessings into a gourd.”

In his opening lines, he sets a tone of longing and yearning; he introduces love as a form of rebirth. Where there are no words to describe love, it becomes a language. It makes me imagine that love and ecstasy are not just emotions but melodies that bring blessings and joy to those who experience them. 

Then he contrasts this when he begins the line “To love is to break,” where he describes love as a painful journey: “break your body to a sea,” opening yourself up to the depth, challenges, and vastness of your emotions. It is a beautiful metaphor that captures the complexity and intensity of love and relationships.

The first line of the concluding stanza, “To love is to seek,”  highlights the idea of love as a mission as it comes to a close. We become travelers, skeptics, and wanderers out of love as we look for the spark that lights our souls on fire. Even if we don’t locate that fire right away, we keep nurturing the embers we come across along the path, hoping that one day they will blossom into a brilliant sun of love.

This poem’s final verse perfectly captures love as a never-ending quest for hope and a journey that uplifts and supports the human soul.

To conclude this article, poetry is not just about rhymes and metaphors; it’s about raw emotion and human experience. It’s about finding beauty in the mundane and making sense of the chaos surrounding us. It’s about challenging norms, breaking boundaries, and sparking conversations.

So when prayers seem unanswered, and the world seems cold, remember that you have a pen. With it, you can write your deliverance. You can create your universe where every word holds power, and every line echoes with the rhythm of your heart. That’s the power of poetry.

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