Dennis Brutus Essay - Critical Essays

Brutus, Dennis


Dennis Brutus 1924–

South African poet and activist.

Brutus is regarded as one of the most distinguished contemporary South African poets. He employs traditional forms and rich language in his poetry to detail, without self-pity or bitterness, the physical and mental anguish he had suffered as a political prisoner and as an exile. Brutus is well known for his involvement in the antiapartheid movement and has opposed apartheid in his works. In Aspects of African Literature, R. M. Egudu has deemed Brutus's poetry as "the reaction of one who is in mental agony whether he is at home or abroad," adding that this agony is "partly caused by harassments, arrests, and imprisonment, and mainly by Brutus's concern for other suffering people."

Biographical Information

Brutus was born in 1924 in Harara, Zimbabwe, which was then called Salisbury, South Rhodesia. His parents, teachers Francis Henry and Margaret Winifred Brutus, were South African "coloureds" who raised their son in Port Elizabeth. After receiving a bachelor's degree in English at Fort Hare University College in 1946, Brutus taught at several South African high schools. In the late 1950s, Brutus began to protest apartheid actively, concentrating on the conflict over race in sports. He was instrumental in the sanction to exclude South Africa's segregated sports teams from most international competitions, including the Olympics. In 1963, Brutus was arrested at a sports meeting for defying a ban which prohibited him from associating with any group. He fled the country after his release on bail but he was apprehended and returned to Johannesburg. Brutus again tried to escape but was shot in the stomach by police who pursuing. He was subsequently sentenced to 18 months of hard labor at Robben Island Prison—a notorious, escape-proof facility off the South African coast. During his imprisonment, his first volume of poetry, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (1963) was published. In 1965, Brutus was released and allowed to leave South Africa on the condition that he never return. He emigrated to England in 1966 and then to the United States in 1970.

Major Works

Sirens, Knuckles, Boots includes love poems as well as poems protesting South Africa's racial policies. These poems, like many of Brutus's later pieces, are highly personal

and meditative, interweaving references to his personal experiences while developing such themes as love, pain, and anger. Brutus's work was awarded an Mbari Prize from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Because Brutus was forbidden to write poetry in prison, he instead wrote letters. These formed the basis of his next collection, Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (1968), which was not published until after he left South Africa for England in 1966. In this volume, Brutus recounted his prison experiences through letters to his sister-in-law; the poems, which describe the deprivation and fear of prison life, were praised for their objectivity and lucidity. Critics have noted that these poems are different in style from those in Brutus's first collection; Brutus acknowledged that he altered his technique in favor of simpler idioms that make his verse more accessible to the average reader. Although his first two volumes remained officially banned in South Africa, Brutus's Thoughts Abroad (1970), published under the pseudonym John Bruin, were widely circulated in the country. A collection of his poems about exile and alienation, Thoughts Abroad was an immediate success in South Africa, and it was even taught in several colleges there, until the government discovered that Brutus was the author.

Brutus's first volume of poetry published after leaving England, A Simple Lust (1973), includes his earlier work concerning prison and exile, as well as new poems. Tanure Ojaide has described Brutus's characteristic persona, which becomes most prominent in A Simple Lust, as "a troubadour who fights for a loved one against injustice and infidelity in his society." In the new poems in this collection, Brutus wrote with passion of the homeland for which he yearned and of his compatriots who remained behind. His anxiety over their suffering is intensified by the contrast between his life as a free individual and their restricted lives. In Stubborn Hope: New Poems and Selections from "China Poems" and "Strains" (1978) Brutus again wrote about his prison experiences and the inhumanity of apartheid. Endurance and hope are dominant themes in this volume, as Brutus extended his concern with the oppressive conditions of his homeland to a universal scale and assumed the role of spokesperson for all suffering people. Brutus continued to write poetry while in America, publishing Salutes and Censures (1984) and Airs and Tributes (1989). In these volumes, he undertook to educating the American public about apartheid in South Africa.

Critical Reception

Critical evaluation of Brutus's poetry depends on the individual critic's conviction about the political purposes of poetry. Many have argued that his experience of political repression and his opposition to apartheid impart force and breadth to his poetry. In regard to the sustained opposition to the South African government and to repression in general, Colin Gardner has maintained that Brutus's poetry "has found forms and foundations which dramatize an important part of the agony of South Africa and contemporary humanity." Myrna Blumberg has contended that in parts of Letters to Martha, Brutus "has grace and penetration unmatched even by Alexander Solzhenitsyn—or perhaps Brutus is just less shockable and less verbose about the levels of degradation and joy, the nature of human nature, he has seen and felt."

Few critics question that Brutus, as Egudu writes, is " … a capable poet fully committed to his social responsibility." Some, however, argue that the political context of the anti-apartheid movement has limited the potential of his poetry. Frank M. Chipasula has deemed Sirens, Knuckles, Boots as the height of his poetic achievement and argues that the pressures of political activity led Brutus toward a poetic style that lacked "both power and craftsmanship." Others have accused Brutus of using his poetry for propagandistic purposes, although some have faulted him for being too restrained in condemning the South African government. Most however, would agree with Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, who has argued that Brutus succeeds in generalizing his experience of repression to symbolize "the existential human predicament that man finds himself in."

Principal Works


Sirens, Knuckles, Boots 1963

Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a Sout African Prison 1968

Poems from Algiers 1970

Thoughts Abroad [as John Bruin] 1970

A Simple Lust: Selected Poems Including "Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, " "Leters to Martha, " "Poems from Algiers, " "Thoughts Abroad" 1973

Strains 1975; revised edition, 1982

China Poems 1975

Stubborn Hope: New Poems and Selections from "China Poems" and "Strains" 1978

Salutes and Censures 1984

Airs and Tributes 1989


Cosmo Pieterse (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: An interview with Dennis Brutus, in Cultural Events in Africa, No. 26, January, 1967, pp. I-III.

[In the following interview, Brutus discusses with Pieterse some of the themes and techniques of his poetry, as well as his principal influences.]

[Pieterse]: Dennis, one notices in poems of yours that fairly frequently there are opposites, for instance in the third line of the introductory poem from your collection; Sirens, Knuckles, and Boots:

A troubadour, I traverse all my land
exploring all her wide flung parts with zest
probing in motion sweeter far than rest
her secret thickets with...

(The entire section is 1961 words.)

Pol Ndu (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Passion and Poetry in the Works of Dennis Brutus," in Black Academy River, Vol. 2, No. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1971, pp. 41-54.

[In the following excerpt, Ndu maintains that the presence of passion is critical for creating great poetry and he argues that Brutus's poetry is limited by what the author calls his "cautious " emotional involvement in the anti-apartheid movement.]

Dennis Brutus sows the needs of great poetry when he discusses themes of special intimacy to himself. Such themes could have arisen from some loss, some desire, some feeling or even the pain of the confrontation of the abominable regime. But in each case, the poet does not generalize or pose...

(The entire section is 3072 words.)

Palaver interview (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Interview with Dennis Brutus," in Palaver: Interviews with Five African Writers in Texas, Bernth Lindfors, Ian Munro, Richard Priebe, Reinhard Sander (eds.), The University of Texas at Austin, 1972, pp. 25-36.

[In the following excerpt, Brutus speaks to an African literature class about the personal experiences and literary influences that shape his poetry]

I'm glad to be here, and it seems to me the most useful thing I can do is to spend most of the time answering questions on the things that interest you. I ought to warn you that I don't know all the answers, and when it comes to poetry, even my own, I don't always give the same answer to the same question....

(The entire section is 3309 words.)

R. N. Egudu (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Pictures of Pain: The Poetry of Dennis Brutus," in Aspects of African Literature, Christopher Heywood (ed.), Heinemann, 1976, pp. 131-144.

[In the following excerpt, Egudu describes Brutus's poetry as the expression of "mental agony" and praises his use of emotional tension.]

The poetry of Dennis Brutus is the reaction of one who is in mental agony-whether he is at home or abroad. This agony is partly caused by harassments, arrests, and imprisonment, and mainly by Brutus's concern for other suffering people. Thus Brutus feels psychically injured in some of his poems. When he traverses all his land as a 'troubadour',10 finding wandering 'motion...

(The entire section is 1355 words.)

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Song of the Caged Bird: Contemporary African Prison Poetry," in Ariel, Vol. 13, No. 4, October, 1982, pp. 65-84.

[In the following excerpt, Ogunyemi charts how Brutus transformed his prison experiences into a "humanistic" poetry that grapples with the problems of existence.]

Writing in the nineteenth century, in his poem "Sympathy," Paul Laurence Dunbar equated the incarcerated nature of black life in America to the life of a caged bird. As a black man with only the foretaste of genuine freedom that the Reconstruction Period in American society could provide, he could fully sympathize with the plight of the bird, and records it dolefully:


(The entire section is 1931 words.)

Amiri Baraka (review date 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Airs and Tributes, in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 621-26.

[In the following review, Baraka faults the poetry in Airs and Tributes as being written to please academics and for failing to fully serve the international "revolutionary struggle."]

This new volume of Dennis Brutus carries a multiple significance. Because Brutus is one of the best known of the South African poets in the U.S., we are interested not only in the poetry qua poetry and the life it carries and introduces us to, but because of the nature of the world itself, independent of poetry, Brutus's name carries another set of...

(The entire section is 2229 words.)

Frank M. Chipasula (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "A Terrible Trajectory: The Impact of Apartheid, Prison and Exile on Dennis Brutus's Poetry," in Essays on African Writing: A Re-evaluation, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Heinemann, 1993, pp. 38-55.

[In the following essay, Chipasula argues that the strains and pressures of the apartheid state, rather than inspiring Brutus, actually limited the extent of his poetic achievement.]

In contemporary African literature very few poets have attracted as much international attention for their extra-literary efforts as the exiled South African activist-poet, Dennis Brutus. Having been nurtured on a 'diet of eloquent delectable accolades',1 he has grown into...

(The entire section is 6031 words.)

Ronald Ayling (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Statements and Poetry: Salutes and Censures Re-Examined," in Critical Perspectives on Dennis Brutus, edited by Craig W. McLuckie and Patrick J. Colbert, Three Continents Press, 1995, pp. 135-141.

[In the following excerpt, Ayling offers an assessment of the poems in Salutes and Censures and criticizes Brutus for writing poetry without tension.]

Dennis Brutus was already a well known poet and activist by the time in the early 1980s that he came to collect together the occasional writings that eventually appeared as Salutes and Censures. Of the eight previous collections of his poems, three were of major proportions in quality as well as...

(The entire section is 2216 words.)

John Lent (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: '"Turning Stones to Trees:' The Transformation Of Political Experience in Dennis Brutus' Strains," in Critical Perspectives on Dennis Brutus, edited by Craig W. McLuckie and Patrick J. Colbert, Three Continents Press, 1995, pp. 99-112.

[In the following excerpt, Lent examines how the concrete landscape imagery in Strains embodies the abstract emotions of suffering and exile.]

At the end of Strains, Dennis Brutus suggests this paradox regarding artistic expression and silence: "Music, at its highest / strains towards silence." (Strains, 44) In a curious way, it identifies an artistic issue that lies beneath the composition of the...

(The entire section is 2977 words.)

Further Reading


Alvarez-Pereyre, Jacques. "The First Generation of Committed Black Poets." In The Poetry of Commitment in South Africa, Clive Wake (trans.), pp. 130-145. Heinemann Educational Books, 1984.

Provides an overview of Brutus's political activity and his commitment to the anti-apartheid movement.

Legum, Colin, and Legum, Margaret, "Dennis Brutus: Poet and Sportsman." In Choice: Eight South Africans' Resistance to Tyranny, pp. 1149-166. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1968.

Surveys Brutus's early involvement with poetry, sports, and politics in South Africa....

(The entire section is 659 words.)