After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Western classics at the University of Ibadan in 1956, Okigbo held positions as a teacher, librarian at the University of Nigeria, private secretary to Nigeria’s federal minister of research and information, and West African editor of Transition, an African literary magazine. He was awarded first prize for poetry in the 1966 Festival of the Negro Arts in Dakar but declined the prize because he felt that writing must be judged as good or bad, not as a product of a specific ethnic group or race. In 1967 Okigbo’s efforts to launch a publishing company in Enugu with the novelist Chinua Achebe came to an abrupt end after his death while fighting in the war for Biafran independence from Nigeria.
Okigbo published three volumes of poetry during his short lifetime: Heavensgate (1962), Limits (1964), and Silences (1965). His collected poems appeared posthumously in 1971 under the title Labyrinths, with Path of Thunder. Okigbo had a deep familiarity with ancient Greek and Latin writers and with modern poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, as well as with Igbo (Ibo) mythology. His poems are highly personal, richly symbolic renderings of his experiences, his thoughts on the role of the poet, and other themes. He weaves images of the forests, animals, and streams of his native Igbo landscape into works that are often obscure, allusive, or difficult. Despite this, his verse is intensely evocative and shows careful craftsmanship. Okigbo became the most widely translated of all Nigerian poets. A volume entitled Collected Poems was published in 1986.