Breyten Breytenbach Essay - Critical Essays


The poetry of Breyten Breytenbach is both highly personal and highly public. This paradox is explained by his intense emotional involvement with the society in which he was born, a society that is condemned universally for its racism and bigotry. His sensitivity to this relationship readily leads self-expression into public posture. He was constantly antagonistic to apartheid, yet he realized that he was inevitably a part of it. The consequent dilemma may begin to explain the moods of near suicidal despair and depression that are found in his more intimate poems. Brought up among cosmic cruelties, it must have seemed to him that the opportunity for any individual to find separate solace was as delusive as it was reprehensible. That admission contains within it one of the reasons for the constant emotional tension encountered in his revealing verse.

Another way in which Breytenbach’s work may be considered personal is the close link it has with his actual experience. The sequence of his poems follows the events that were occurring in his life as an exile and a political prisoner. By exploring and confronting the anxieties he faces as a human being, he indicates that his responses are based upon political conviction but have a deeper psychological origin than radical activism. Breytenbach defies and rejects apartheid in his writing through introspective self-analysis, rather than through a more open and formal stand. There is an almost neurotic emotion that commands the efflorescence of extraordinarily violent language and metaphor, but it affects only the poetic surface. By implication, as much as by direct statement, there clearly remains an underlying political stance in Breytenbach’s poetry. Breytenbach denounces the regime with an anger that derives some of its intensity from his own sense of personal affront as well as his predetermined and principled political beliefs. The man is the poet and the poet is a political activist. The paradox provokes a revealing duality of aims between poet as artist and poet as spokesman. This divergence has preoccupied both writers and critics in the twentieth century. The essential elements of the controversy have never been convincingly resolved. What is the proper role of a poet who exists under an oppressive regime? Does the urge toward declamatory affirmation make poetry mere propaganda? Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous essay “What Is Literature?” explores this issue with typical acuity. Does moral and political commitment minimize the expression of the more universal human truths which many believe constitute the ultimate reason for poetry? Breytenbach’s work both explores and exemplifies this dilemma. These are the issues that must be considered as one examines the volumes of poetry that have come from his pen. Across a period of twenty years, these ideas have confirmed his development as a writer and signaled his commitent to revolution.

Die ysterkoei moet sweet

Breytenbach’s earliest...

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