Dennis Brutus Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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."