Guy Butler: Stranger To Europe, Poems 1939 to 1949

Published by A.A. Balkema. Capetown       1952                  23 poems

Sth Afr image

Guy Butler 1918 – 2001

Another rummage for old poetry books, this time in a charity shop and I found this title tucked away, also a selection by John Pudney, maybe more of him later……..

This is a collection of early poems by Guy Butler, recalling a moment in 1939 when the recruitment troops went round the townships of South Africa for volunteers to the Second World War.  Ending with a poem entitled,  After Ten Years,  a contemplation of his homeland, South Africa, after his travels round the war-zones of Europe and a period in England.

I took to the Internet to find more information about him and his writing.  I found  few sites and they only gave basic details of birth, death, marriage and children’s names.  Plus brief bibliographic details of his poetry, plays  autobiographic works, and his positions in a South African University.  But, despite the quality of his poetry, nothing seems to be currently available unless tucked into anthologies. There was a collected volume published some years ago (1999), now o.p..  Maybe he was not prolific or did not persevere as a poet.

I did find two poems on the site of ‘Poetry Nation Review 9’  (1979) and that was it.  From the same pages, written by David Wright, is a quote from an unnamed friend of his:  “were I asked to name the first wholly South African poet writing in English, I would point to someone few readers of poetry outside South Africa are likely to have heard of: Guy Butler, born 1918, the first to stick it out at home.”

I have no idea of the solidity of these words, I only recognise Butler’s use of language as a young man of twenty in 1939 and his acute observation of scene and mood as he was shuttled round various European theatres of war, followed by four years in England.  His subjects are different perspectives of his life throughout that period.  By 1949 his voice is still clear narrative, full of his native country though time has given him an older voice made harder, maybe, by the sights seen and time lost from his homeland.  He deserves a place as a war poet for this collection alone and I have read that his later poetry often reflected his war years and the losses and difficulties that echoed from them.  I believe his love of South Africa, its lands and heritage, drew him back to his homeland.

His remaining in South Africa through the years of apartheid may well have restricted if not  stifled his work and recognition around the English speaking world.  However, he may have felt it more important to remain in the landscape he loved.  Certainly the poetry in this book gives us colours, views and perspectives that are South African and obviously different to a strictly UK writers world.

The first poem in the book, written when he was twenty-one establishes his stance at once:
Karoo Town, 1939

In a region of thunderstorm and drought,
Under an agate sky,
Where red sand whirl-winds wander through summer,
Or thunder grows intimate with the plain, and rain
Is a great experience like birth or wonder:
By the half-dry river
The village is strung like a bead of life on the rail,
Along whose thread at intervals each day
Cones of smoke move north and south, are blown
By the prevailing winds below the clouds
That redden the sundown and the dawn.

Here the market price of wool
Comes second only to the acts of God:
Here climate integrates the landsman with his soil
And life moves on to the dictates of the season
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The recruiters arrive and 31 more lines show their effect on the small town and people, but finally the landscape is superior to all:

But cannot shake the rockstill shadows of the hills
Obeying remote instructions from the sun alone.

Karoo town 1939  sets the scene, the almost timelessness of the African scene of the day.  Even the village along the railway line and the way of life seem to fit within the overall scale and continuity of a natural, unhurried flow.

And then in brief lines, the call to arms, like a sudden bugle call disrupts the scene.  The second half of the poem changes tone, focusing on people, colonial war and control.  The words harder and lines sharper, imitating the shock of war and harsh reality it brings.
But the circle is closed with a movement back into the last two lines that despite the seeming man-made tumult, the land continues, implacably influenced by greater things in the Universe.  Little rhyming, natural rather than designed, a nice alliterative, effective line towards the end but the final word has for me a rhyme, a reverberation with five lines back which effectively closes the poem.  In turn it offers a little wider reflection.

A formative poem, setting the scene for what is a set of poems, a narrative over ten years. But be aware for the last poem, After Ten Years, as the man, the poet, the landscape, has changed.

The poems have a timeline of ten years; they always retain their direct image and story but later ones stretch through the emotional hardships and losses of the war and its effects. When finally back home, in   After Ten Years   he describes this new, city-view and bemoans the dramatic changes in the streets, as the city itself and for those living there.

Mostly, this poem moves to confirm the losses of contact with the soil, magnificence of Nature and God, by the world and especially himself.  Politics of the day is not mentioned but knowing a little of the period you feel that this last poem encompasses that distress in those cities, for all its inhabitants.
Finally he vows to put past encumbrances (effects of war; reasons for loss of faith) and look to the future with an open mind.
Poems picked out: Though the whole book gives a rolling perspective of aspects of life and the poet and should ideally be read at one sitting:
Common Dawn;   Mirage;   Air Raid Before Dawn;   Bitter Little Ballad,   and Farewell in a Formal Garden

Final comment: I am so pleased to have discovered this poet and will look for his collected works, just hope I can find one.  Guy Butler could join the ranks of war poets;  also a poet to be considered for an anthology of Writers in English around the World if he is not already included somewhere.

Check out  Useful links Tag.

Extract of Karoo Town, 1939 from copy of above book, acknowledgement to AA Balkema, Capetown 1952.


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