Dennis Brutus

The South African poet in exile Dennis Brutus (born 1924) is known both as a creative artist and as a political activist opposed to apartheid.

Dennis Brutus was born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, of South African parents. Educated at Fort Hare College and the University of the Witwatersrand, he taught for 14 years in South Africa and participated in many anti-apartheid campaigns, particularly those concerned with sports. The South African government eventually banned him from attending political and social meetings and made it illegal for any of his writings to be published in South Africa.

In 1963 he was arrested for attending a sports meeting. When released on bail, he fled to Swaziland and from there tried to make his way to Germany to meet with the world Olympic executive committee, but the Portuguese secret police at the Mozambique border handed him back to the South African security police. Realizing that no one would know of his capture, he made a desperate attempt to escape, only to be shot in the back on a Johannesburg street. On recovery he was sentenced to 18 months hard labor on Robben Island.

When he finished his term in prison, Brutus was permitted to leave South Africa with his wife and children on an "exit permit," a document which made it illegal for him to return. He lived in London from 1966 to 1970, where he worked as a teacher and a journalist. In 1970 he took a position as a visiting professor of English at the University of Denver for a year, after which he moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He was a professor of English at Northwestern from 1971 to 1985, then took a position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1986. In 1983 Brutus was granted political asylum in the United States. During the 1970s and 1980s he remained active in a number of anti-apartheid organizations, particularly SANROC (South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee), which led the movement to have South Africa excluded from the Olympic Games because of its discriminatory sports policies. He was also on the staff of the International Defense and Aid Fund. Brutus was as famous for his political activities as he was for his poetry.

There were five distinct phases in his development as a poet, each marked by formal and thematic shifts which tended not only to reflect his changing preoccupations and professional concerns, but also to document profound transformations in his conception of the nature and function of poetry. Each new phase grew out of a personal experience which made him question his previous attitudes toward verbal art and seek a more satisfying outlet for his energies of articulation.

His first book of poems, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (1963), contained a variety of lyric forms invested with many of the standard poetic conventions. This was highbrow poetry— tight, mannered, formal, and sometimes formidably difficult. Schooled in classic English verse, Brutus attempted to compose multi-leveled lyrics that would challenge the mind, poems sufficiently subtle and intricate to interest any well-educated lover of poetry. He frequently sought to achieve an ambiguous idiom that allowed him to make a political and an erotic statement in the same breath. It was during this early phase in his career that he wrote nearly all of his most complex verse.

While he was in prison Brutus decided to stop writing this kind of poetry. The five months he spent in solitary confinement caused him to reexamine his verse and his attitudes toward creative self-expression, and he resolved thereafter to write simple, unornamented poetry that ordinary people could comprehend immediately. His Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (1968) contains brief, laconic statements deriving from his experiences as a prisoner. The diction is deliberately conversational and devoid of poetic devices. Instead of seeking to express two or three thoughts simultaneously, Brutus was striving to say only one thing at a time and to say it directly.

After he left South Africa and began his life in exile, Brutus' poetry changed again. This time a change appeared as a balance between the complexity of his early verse and the simplicity of his prison poems. While traveling the world as an anti-apartheid crusader, he wrote many nostalgic, plaintive lyrics recalling the beauties and terrors of his native land. This homesick verse, collected in Poems from Algiers (1970), Thoughts Abroad (1970), and A Simple Lust (1973), was more richly textured than what he had written in prison, yet he continued to aim for lucidity rather than symbolic nuances.

In the summer of 1973 Brutus visited the People's Republic of China to attend a sports meeting. Impressed by the extreme economy of Chinese verse, he began experimenting with epigrammatic poetic forms resembling Japanese haiku and Chinese chueh chu, in which very little is said and much suggested. The results were brought together in a pamphlet called China Poems (1975).

Brutus's later collections, Strains (1975), Stubborn Hope (1978), and Salutes and Censures (1980), contained poems written over a span of years and thus in a variety of poetic idioms. But in his later verse he appeared once again to be moving toward a balanced position, this time between the extreme density of his complex early verse and the extraordinary economy of his nearly wordless Chinese experiments. However, despite these remarkable changes in poetic posture, Brutus's political stance never altered. He devoted his life and his art to opposing apartheid in South Africa.

Until the dissolution of the apartheid system in 1993, Brutus' work was systematically banned in South Africa. He did manage to publish his collection, Thought Abroad under the pseudonym John Bruin for a short while. Until the government learned Brutus was the author, the poems were actually studied in South African universities. The banning of Brutus' work was so thorough, literary critic Colin Gardner observed in Research in African Literatures, "it seems likely that many well-read South Africans, even some of those with a distinct interest in South African poetry, are wholly or largely unacquainted with his writing."

In the late 1980s, Brutus published Airs and Tributes (1989). The end of apartheid brought a surge in creativity for South African writers, and in 1993 Brutus visited his native country for the first time since 1966.


Further Reading on Dennis Brutus

No books have yet been written on Dennis Brutus, but he is discussed in most books dealing with African poetry or with South African literature. Informed critical commentary can be found in Ken Goodwin, Understanding African Poetry (1982); Ursula A. Barnett, A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1983); and Jacques Alvarez-Pereyre, The Poetry of Commitment in South Africa (1984).