Dennis Brutus

Citation metadata

Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,566 words

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: November 28, 1924 in Harare, Zimbabwe
Died: December 26, 2009 in Cape Town, South Africa
Nationality: South African
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Bruin, John; Brutus, Dennis Vincent


  • Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (Ibadan: Mbari, 1963).
  • Letters to Martha, and Other Poems from a South African Prison (London, Nairobi & Ibadan: Heinemann, 1968 [i.e., 1969]).
  • Poems from Algiers (Austin: African and Afro-American Research Center, University of Texas, 1970).
  • A Simple Lust (New York: Hill & Wang, 1973; London: Heinemann, 1973).
  • Thoughts Abroad, as John Bruin (Del Valle, Tex.: Troubadour, 1975).
  • Strains (Austin, Tex.: Troubadour, 1975).
  • China Poems (Austin: African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center, University of Texas, 1975).
  • Stubborn Hope (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1978; London: Heinemann, 1978).
  • Salutes and Censures (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1984).
  • Airs and Tributes, edited by Gil Ott (Camden, N.J.: Whirlwind, 1989).
  • Stubborn Hope: New Poems and Selections from China Poems and Strains (Oxford, U.K. & Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1991).
  • Still the Streets (Sante Fe, N.M.: Pennywhistle, 1993).


  • Informal Discussion in Third World Culture Class, Ames, Media Resources Center, Iowa State University of Science and Technology, 1975.


  • African Literature, 1988, edited by Brutus, Hal Wylie, and Juris Silenieks (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents/African Literature Association, 1990).


One of the foremost South African poets, Dennis Brutus is a prime example of Third World writers whose work is particularly striking because they are successful at combining Western literary structures and traditions with indigenous forms and experiences. Brutus's poetry evinces a remarkable range of poetic influences: from William Shakespeare and, particularly, John Donne to Pablo Neruda and some Japanese Haiku masters. Nevertheless, his most outstanding achievement consists of his political lyrics, intensely personal poems that focus on fundamental political topics.

Dennis Brutus was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) on 28 November 1924 to South African parents, both teachers: Francis Henry and Margaret Winifred Bloemetjie Brutus. He returned to South Africa with them shortly after his birth and lived there until he went into exile in 1966. He received his B.A. from Fort Hare University College in 1947, and for the next fourteen years he taught English and Afrikaans in various high schools in Port Elizabeth and (illegally) in Johannesburg. On 14 May 1950 he married May Jaggers, a factory worker, and they have eight children. After a short time in Great Britain he has spent most of his exile (with his family) in the United States and has taught at various universities, including Northwestern, Swarthmore, and Texas. From 1986 to 1991 he was chairman of the Department of Black Community Education Research and Development at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is a professor of African literature.

While technically proficient and aesthetically masterful, his verse is deeply political in that he is uncompromisingly opposed to the apartheid regime of South Africa and committed to articulating the feelings of his oppressed countrymen. The manner in which racism permeates every facet of life in South Africa and how it affected Brutus's education is seen in his early poetry. However, Brutus's first major encounter with the politics of racism and apartheid came through his interest in sports, an activity that should be entirely free of political considerations. Attracted to track-and-field events at an early age, Brutus was frustrated by the racial segregation of sports, which allocated the better facilities and opportunities to whites. Brutus founded the South African Sports Association in 1959 in an attempt to overcome this discrimination. The government ignored his activities for a while; however, when Brutus attempted to organize a "Coloured National Convention" in 1961, the government banned him from writing or taking part in politics and dismissed him from his teaching position. Brutus studied law for two years at the University of the Witwatersrand but was banned from practicing as a lawyer. This confrontation was part of a larger conflict at a time when the government was legislating increasingly repressive measures, annulling the few civil liberties that remained, and consolidating its own totalitarian power. A series of laws legalized the government's power to arrest and imprison without charges or trials.

Refusing to be intimidated, Brutus attended a meeting of the South African Olympic Committee in Johannesburg in 1963. He was promptly arrested for violating his banning order. Released on bail, he attempted to flee South Africa through Mozambique, for he realized that life would be too restricted for him in South Africa. However, when the Portuguese colonial authorities who then controlled Mozambique captured and returned him to the apartheid police, Brutus was faced with a complex dilemma. Since his recapture was never announced, and his friends and relatives believed him to be safely out of the country, the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS) could do with him whatever it wanted without anyone knowing about it. He could only announce his presence in the country by attempting to escape once again, hoping either to get away or to create an altercation in the streets of Johannesburg that would publicize his return. While attempting to dash from his captors in the streets of the city, Brutus was shot in the back, the bullet exiting through his chest. Fortunately he did manage to attract international support and publicity for his predicament. After his partial recovery, he was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment on the notorious Robben Island, off Cape Town.

In the midst of the events leading to his imprisonment, Mbari Press in Nigeria published his first book of poems, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (1963)--which, as one would expect, is severely critical of the apartheid regime. The manuscript had been sent out secretly because of Brutus being "banned." Though the ban continued upon his release from prison, Brutus was able to take ingenious advantage of the clause that permitted personal correspondence: he wrote a series of verse letters about his prison experience to his sister-in-law, Martha Jaggers. In 1969, during his exile, these were published in Letters to Martha, and Other Poems from a South African Prison .

Out of prison in 1965, Brutus was still confined under house arrest and unable to work. His desire to escape from this confinement coincided with a strategy chosen by the government to get rid of politically undesirable people. The government offered to issue a "canceled" exit permit to Brutus; after accepting and using this illegal permit, he would be automatically imprisoned if he ever returned to South Africa. Under the pressure of this mad logic, Brutus went into exile in 1966.

At that time the apartheid government's response to those who would not bow before its fascist will was relatively simple and monolithic. It tried to eliminate them in one of two ways: either by imprisonment, torture, and murder; or by stifling them into silence and oblivion. Brutus experienced both strategies. Preventing him from teaching or becoming a lawyer and thus from earning a living; holding him under house arrest and barring him from attending any gatherings; placing him under constant surveillance; and, finally, forbidding him to write or publish his statements--all these constituted an attempt to deny the very existence of the man: it was, in fact, an attempt to murder his spirit after his body had survived their guns and prisons. If a government thus tries to murder the spirit of a poet because he will not accept the distribution and justification of political and economic power based on skin color and if a government prevents him from writing poems ultimately because the color of his skin is not white, how then can anyone expect his poetry to divorce and compartmentalize the questions of race, politics, and imprisonment from aesthetic and lyric considerations? The division between literature and politics is perhaps viable in cultures that have constitutional guarantees safeguarding the civil liberties of individuals. But even in such societies one would have to consider how issues of race and politics are relevant to the literature of those minority groups that are disfranchised because of race, class, or gender. In examining the poetry of Brutus, then, not only must one avoid such compartmentalization, but, on the contrary, one must appreciate that the South African society--where the public cannot be separated from the private, the political from the aesthetic, or the prisoner from the poet--is precisely the appropriate ground for the growth of the political lyric.

Brutus's poetry is varied and evolving, the changes and varieties produced by internal, personal shifts in his sensibility and preoccupations as well as by his response to the forms and attitudes of other poets. As John Povey has pointed out, the poems written prior to Brutus's imprisonment are significantly different from those written during his incarceration and from those composed in exile, which also can be grouped according to various phases and preoccupations. An alternative organization of Brutus's work, into complex, simple, and balanced poems, has been suggested by Bernth Lindfors. However, the political lyric is at the center of the diverse experiences that find appropriately varied forms in Brutus's canon. The genesis, tone, and structure of his political lyrics are clearly visible in those poems that thematize the fusion of politics and the lyric voice.

Political oppression and aesthetic experience are presented in poem 18 of the "Letters to Martha" sequence. The imprisoned persona of the poem, overwhelmed by an urge to see the stars clearly through his prison window, dares to turn off the corridor light that interferes with his view. This immediately arouses the wrath of the guards, who descend upon him with threats: "And it is the brusque inquiry / and threat / that I remember of that night / rather than the stars." This poem, which emblematizes the incarceration of the entire nonwhite population of South Africa, implies that the brutality of the apartheid regime can permanently occlude all potentiality of aesthetic or sublime experience. Yet Brutus does not succumb. Another poem, "Tenderness" (in Sirens, Knuckles, Boots ), begins, "Somehow we survive / and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither," then goes on to catalogue and characterize various kinds of oppression unleashed by apartheid, and concludes with a variation of the opening line: "but somehow tenderness survives." Tenderness, an emotion that recurs in Brutus's poetry, symbolizes the emotional quality essential to lyric poetry. The stoic calm, mild surprise, and sense of gratitude expressed in the last line of this poem characterize the typical attitude in Brutus's poetry toward the survival of a human voice in South Africa; the parallelism between the first and last lines suggests that individuals and communities survive because tenderness survives.

In "A Common Hate Enriched Our Love and Us" (also in Sirens, Knuckles, Boots) Brutus rejects the easy and comfortable life because "In draughty angles of concrete stairs / or seared by salt winds under brittle stars / we found a poignant edge to tenderness." The implication that deprivation somehow nourishes lyric sensibility is spelled out by the last two lines of the poem: "hate gouged out deeper levels of our passion--/ a common hate enriched our love and us." The political brutality that had threatened to occlude aesthetic experience is gradually subordinated so that the latter is enriched.

This process of internalizing and sublimating not only a personal but a communal experience of social, economic, and political oppression and transforming it into a lyric expression is best exemplified in the title poem of Sirens, Knuckles, Boots:

The sounds begin again;
the siren in the night
the thunder at the door
the shriek of nerves in pain.
Then the keening crescendo
of faces split by pain
the wordless, endless wail
only the unfree know.
Importunate as rain
the wraiths exhale their woe
over the sirens, knuckles, boots;
my sounds begin again.
In this poem the internalization of sociopolitical oppression is mirrored by a metonymic chain of sounds that move fairly rapidly from the periphery to the center of the self: the sirens lead to the thunder at the door, which suddenly engulfs the entire self in that the "shriek" of nerves in pain excludes, at that moment, all other experience. The focus on sounds--for instance, the manner in which the poem presents a powerful physical blow as a crescendo, a final explosion of sounds--stresses the transformation of physical torture into a lyric cry that is being articulated by the poem. Finally, the minor but significant variation between the first and the last lines, characteristic of many of Brutus's poems, completes the transformation: "The sounds" become, after the internalization, "my sounds." This process whereby objective political conditions are appropriated through personal, physical suffering and eventually turned into a lyric poem defines the fundamental strategy and structure of Brutus's political lyrics.

The lyrical appropriation of the political world is designed not only to sublimate apartheid brutality but also to re-create the community that the Afrikaner government attempts to destroy. The poetic self consistently articulates the unspoken experience of others, thereby defining the efficacy of the self as being inherently dependent on its integration with others, as in the title poem of A Simple Lust (1973):

A simple lust is all my woe:
the thin thread of agony
that runs through the reins
after the flesh is overspent
in over-taxing acts of love:
Only I speak the other's woe:
those congealed in concrete
or rotting in rusted ghetto-shacks;
only I speak their wordless woe,
their unarticulated simple lust.
Such a movement of incorporation fuses sexual love with patriotism, turns the lyric cry of the self into that of the community, transforms pain into sexual / political desire, and presents a complex, contradictory transformation in the oxymoronic tension of a "simple lust." In the desire to counteract the disintegration produced by apartheid, to weld a community back together again, the sentiment of the political lyric is even capable of compassion for the oppressors. As R. N. Egudu has pointed out, in the poem "The Mob" (in Sirens, Knuckles, Boots) Brutus's appropriation even includes a brutal white mob that attacked a group of black protesters and subsequently peopled the nightmares of the poet. It is Brutus's desire to bind his community by transforming hate and brutality into passion and tenderness that leads him repeatedly to characterize himself as a roving troubadour who disdains political dangers in order to sing about his people and his land. The irony involved in this characterization of the self as a troubadour, who sings love songs to his country rather than to his mistress, contains and acknowledges the paradox of the political lyric. The last two lines of a troubadour poem in his first book run as follows: "--no mistress favour has adorned my breast / only the shadow of an arrow-brand." The troubadour's songs have not set in motion a Cupid's arrow but have instead earned him the prisoner's arrow-brand; the poet is a captive of his country and its captors. Brutus's political lyrics are as resonant as a metaphysical conceit.

A significant subset of this political genre comprises those poems that transform the implied conjunction between sexual love and patriotism into a bold metaphysical conceit. The poems in this category, varying from light and humorous to serious, and from the explicitly political to those that gradually fade into the purely erotic, are numerous. A brief (untitled) example is in Brutus's first book:

I might be a better lover I believe
my own, if you could truly be my own:
trafficked and raddled as you are by gross
undiscerning, occupying feet,
how can I, the dispossessed, achieve
the absolute possession that we seek?
How can we speak of infidelity
when, forced apart, we guess each other's woe?
My land, my love, be generous to forgive
my nomad rovings down the vagrant streets:
return to me, sometime be wholly my own
so you secure me entire, entirely your own.
Here the conceit, turning on the idea of sexual/military possession, invokes the foreign occupation of the country and the resultant separateness, the poet's passionate surrender to his land, and the reciprocal absorption of the poet by the country. The self is again defined by an experience that obliterates the "normal" boundaries of the self, and the intimacy of the political engagement is indicated by its equation with the intimacy of sexual and emotional love.

While this subset is characterized by ornate conceits and relatively complex imagery and diction, the other poems that together form the corpus of Brutus's political lyrics tend to be exquisitely simple and austere in diction, syntax, and imagery. Brutus defensively describes them as prosaic, but their strategy is more accurately described by poem 14 in the "Letters to Martha" sequence:

How fortunate we were
not to have been exposed to rhetoric
--it would have falsified
a simple experience;
living grimly,
grimly enduring
Oh there was occasional heroic posturing
mainly from the immature
--and a dash of demagogic blood thirstiness
But generally
we were simply prisoners
of a system we had fought
and still opposed.
The unadorned language, the rhythm, and the virtual lack of imagery in all the "Letters to Martha" poems, and other such works, match perfectly the meditative, stoic, reflexive voice of the speaker, thereby revealing the process of the political lyric. These poems derive their power from the lack of artifice, the honesty that the style imparts to the experience of political struggle and to the endurance necessitated by stubborn hope. The quiet, honest, intensely lyric voice better communicates a commitment to political liberation than would a vitriolic characterization of the oppressor or a rhetoric full of heroic bravado. These poems constitute the best part of Brutus's poetry.

His poetry has changed and evolved a great deal over the span of three decades. While firmly centered around the political lyric, his poetry radiates out to other forms and at times shows a marked influence of and a dialogue with other poets from Western and non-Western traditions. Much of his early poetry, what Brutus has characterized as his preprison poetry, is deeply influenced by the metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne , as can be seen clearly in Brutus's poem that begins "I might be a better lover I believe." The controlling conceit of his lyric poems, a conceit that becomes the structural metaphor of many poems in Sirens, Knuckles, Boots , is the equation of the love between a man and a woman to that between a man and his country. The influence of Alfred, Lord Tennyson can be seen in the language and imagery of chivalry, particularly in the persona of the troubadour, which is not only featured in many of Brutus's poems, both early and late ones, but also furnished the name for the publishing firm founded by Brutus in Texas, the Troubadour Press. The presence of a Keatsian "negative capability" can be seen in the relentless quest to experience, merge with, and understand fully the oppressed condition of black South Africans--to digest thoroughly the "status of the prisoner," "savouring to the full its bitterness / and seeking to escape nothing." Strains of T. S. Eliot 's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1916) can be heard in poems such as "I Could Be Dead."

Interaction with a non-Western literary form is evident in Brutus's use of the Chinese chueh chu, after which the works in his China Poems (1975) are patterned. In his poems in Salutes and Censures (1984) Brutus returns to the African oral tradition of blame-and-praise poetry, which seems to have experienced a curious and ingenious revival in South Africa, where, in response to the government's banning of most literature written by black South Africans, oral poetry conveniently circumvents censorship and prohibition.

These influences in no way render Brutus's poetry derivative; rather, they indicate the richness and variety of his verse, which needs to be examined in the context of world literature rather than being dismissively confined to the ill-defined critical category of "protest literature" that so often prevents an adequate appreciation of black South African writing.



  • Dennis Duerden and Cosmo Pieterse, eds., African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews (London: Heinemann / New York: Africana, 1972), pp. 53-61.
  • Bernth Lindfors, Ian Munro, Richard Priebe, and Reinhard Sander, eds., Palaver: Interviews with Five African Writers in Texas (Austin: African and Afro-American Research Institute, University of Texas, 1972), pp. 25-36.
  • Lindfors, "Somehow Tenderness Survives': Dennis Brutus Talks about His Life and Poetry," Benin Review, 1 (1974): 44-55.
  • E. Ethelbert Miller, "An Interview with Dennis Brutus," Obsidian, 1, no. 2 (1975): 42-55.
  • Renato Berger, "Interview with Dennis Brutus," Genève-Afrique, 18, no. 2 (1980): 73-78.
  • William E. Thompson, "Dennis Brutus: An Interview," Ufahamu, 12, no. 2 (1983): 69-77.
  • Ria de Meester, "An Introduction to Dennis Brutus' Prison Poems," Restant, 8, no. 2 (1980): 47-56.
  • R. N. Egudu, "Pictures of Pain: The Poetry of Dennis Brutus," in Aspects of South African Literature, edited by Christopher Heywood (London: Heinemann / New York: Africana, 1971), pp. 131-144.
  • Issac Elimimian, "Form and Meaning in the Poetry of Dennis Brutus," Literary Half-Yearly, 28 (January 1987): 70-78.
  • Colin Gardner, "Brutus and Shakespeare," Research in African Literature, 15 (Fall 1984): 354-364.
  • Bernth Lindfors, "Dennis Brutus and His Critics," West African Journal of Modern Languages, 1, no. 2 (1975): 137-144.
  • Lindfors, "Dialectical Development in the Poetry of Dennis Brutus," in The Commonwealth Writer Overseas: Themes of Exile and Expatriation, edited by Alastair Niven (Brussels: Didier, 1975), pp. 219-229.
  • Craig W. McLuckie and Patrick J. Colbert, Critical Perspectives on Dennis Brutus (Colorado Springs, Col.: Three Continents, 1995).
  • Gessler Moses Nkondo, "Dennis Brutus and the Revolutionary Idea," Ufahamu, 10 (Spring 1981): 79-91.
  • Nkondo, "Dennis Brutus: The Domestication of Tradition," World Literature Today, 55 (Winter 1981): 32-40.
  • Wole Ogundele, "The Exile's Progress: Dennis Brutus' Poetry in the First Phase of His Exile," Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 10, no. 2 (1988): 88-97.
  • Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, "The Song of the Caged Bird: Contemporary African Prison Poetry," Ariel, 13 (October 1982): 65-84.
  • Tanure Ojaide, "The Troubadour: The Poet's Persona in the Poetry of Dennis Brutus," Ariel, 17 (January 1986): 55-69.
  • Jasper A. Onuekwusi, "Pain and Anguish of an African Poet: Dennis Brutus and South African Reality," Literary Criterion, 23, nos. 1-2 (1988): 59-68.
  • John Povey, "I Am the Voice: Three South African Poets: Dennis Brutus, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali," World Literature Written in English, 16 (1977): 263-280.
  • Bede M. Ssensalo, "The Autobiographical Nature of the Poetry of Dennis Brutus," Ufahamu, 8, no. 1 (1977): 130-142.
  • Paul Theroux, "Voices out of the Skull: A Study of Six African Poets," Black Orpheus, 20 (August 1966): 41-58.
  • Hal Wylie, "Creative Exile: Dennis Brutus and René Depestre," in When the Drumbeat Changes, edited by Carolyn Parker, Stephen Arnold, and Wylie (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1981), pp. 279-293.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200005013