Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader

Lee Sustar and Aisha Karim, eds., Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).

In a speech given in 1975 at the University of Texas at Austin on the question of literature and commitment in South Africa, Dennis Brutus said something that sounds like a personal credo: “You have to decide which side you are on: there is always a side. Commitment does not exist in an abstraction; it exists in action” (200). During a long life of radical activism in South Africa and elsewhere -– as a writer, organiser, poet, critic and international socialist -– Brutus has consistently sought to translate this link between the personal and the political into the reality of everyday living. This comprehensive collection of his writings, spanning his whole career, is a fitting testimony to his dedication to the cause.

For almost half a century Dennis Brutus was at the forefront of the campaign to bring down the apartheid system in South Africa, the place where he was born and which gave him the awareness of racism, poverty and injustice that has informed his work ever since. In 1963 Brutus was shot by the police in South Africa and later imprisoned for eighteen months alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. After being exiled from his homeland, Brutus became a prominent political organizer, who in 1970 led the successful campaign to expel apartheid South Africa from the Olympic Games. While working as a university lecturer in the US, he also became a pioneering advocate of postcolonial studies within academia, helping to introduce African Literature as a category within the curriculum.

He returns powerfully to his traumatic experience of punishment and isolation on Robben Island in the extracts from his Memoir published here. They contain some of the most harrowing descriptions of daily prison life, a season in hell that has left a lasting mark on Brutus both physically and mentally. These autobiographical writings not only provide unique documentation of the cruelties of an oppressive system; they also help us understand Brutus’s determination to convey the lessons of the past to those who are struggling for a better future.

One of the most profound and lasting ways in which Brutus has carried this torch of experience is through his poetry. Literature has always been a huge source of inspiration to him. It is fascinating to read Brutus’s own poetry in the light of his many critical comments in articles and speeches about the function of literature and its relationship to politics. At first this ideological connection troubled Brutus, forcing him for a time to stop writing poetry altogether. It was his encounter with the early poetry of W.H. Auden that helped him bridge the aesthetic gap between literature and politics, allowing him to overcome the problem of allusiveness and the often obscuring compression of traditional poetry:

While teaching W.H.Auden, a major English poet, I observed in him the ability to merge the private and the public, the aesthetic and the political. And I went back to poetry, because I saw a way that you could make a political statement, simultaneously and honestly -– you know, it’s not manufactured sloganeering. This is genuine poetic expression, which merges political comment with personal comment, including love lyrics. (154)

Without doubt, there is a certain Audenesque quality about Brutus’s own poetry, in particular in his ability to move from personal feeling to the spirit of the collective — the shared hopes and fears of people who are usually on the receiving end of history. To use poetry as a means of fighting back against the forces of oppression and exploitation is for Brutus not just an intellectual choice but an existential cry from the heart for social change to come sooner rather than later:

In the dark lanes of Soweto,
amid the mud, the slush, the squalor,
among the rusty tin shacks
the lust for freedom survives stubbornly
like a smoldering defiant flame
and the spirit of Steve Biko moves easily. (253)

Auden’s poem “Spain 1937” is a particular point of reference in another poem by Brutus — “Love; the Struggle.” When Auden writes “To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love… but to-day the struggle,” Brutus paraphrases this radical postponement with his own dialectic of personal freedom and political necessity:

Conched, contrapuntal our concord
Day’s breath wracks our peace,
Our dreams disrupt in blustery discord
Buckling to winds’ capricious buffet we desert our calms
– Ah love, unshoulder now my arms! (273)

Like the early Auden, Brutus also sees his role as that of a public poet, “the world’s troubadour” (392) as he describes himself, one who seeks to give a voice to those whom the system has silenced. There is therefore in Brutus’s poetry an implicit sense of radical dialogue with people whose lives remain outside the focus of the established media. This is where the real struggle is taking place, and it is within this context of solidarity with the dispossessed that Brutus has always situated himself as a writer:

An old black woman,
suffering,
tells me I have given her
“new images”

– a father bereaved
by radical heroism
finds consolation
in my verse.

then I know
these are those I write for
and my verse works. (255)

Poetry and Protest is a guiding beacon of a book that shines through our dark times with the wisdom, consciousness and radical optimism that have been gained through a lifetime of passionate engagement with the cause of human liberation.

Reviewed by Ronald Paul
University of Gothenburg, Sweden
ronald.paul@eng.gu.se

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