Review of Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader
By Ronald Paul
Lee Sustar and Aisha Karim, eds., Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).
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. -- Dennis Brutus, Scholar
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, organizer, 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 18 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 he past to those who are struggling for a better future.
One of the most profound and lasting ways in hich Brutus has carried this torch of experience s through his poetry. Literature has always been huge source of inspiration to him. It is ascinating to read Brutus's own poetry in the ight of his many critical comments in articles nd 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 ncounter 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 oet, I observed in him the ability to merge the rivate and the public, the aesthetic and the olitical. And I went back to poetry, because I aw a way that you could make a political statement, imultaneously and honestly - you know, it's not anufactured sloganeering. This is genuine poetic expression, which merges political comment ith personal comment, including love lyrics. (154)
Without doubt, there is a certain Audenesque uality about Brutus's own poetry, in particular in is ability to move from personal feeling to the pirit of the collective - the shared hopes and ears of people who are usually on the receiving nd of history. To use poetry as a means of ighting back against the forces of oppression and exploitation is for Brutus not just an intellectual hoice 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; he Struggle." When Auden writes "To-morrow he rediscovery of romantic love ... but to-day the struggle," Brutus paraphrases this radical ostponement with his own dialectic of personal reedom 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 ilenced. There is therefore in Brutus's poetry an mplicit sense of radical dialogue with people hose lives remain outside the focus of the stablished media. This is where the real struggle s 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,
tells me I have given her
- a father bereaved
by radical heroism
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.
Originally appeared in Socialism and Democracy, New York, 21, 1, pp. 160-162.