Guy Butler, Selected Poems: a brief view

a small starter: 

     Drummer Hodge.          Thomas Hardy, 1840 – 1928
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found;
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the Veldt around,
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam
And why up rose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow up a Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.


This little poem mentions the Karoo, the only other poet except Butler where I have found it.  Hardy’s poem is from a distant viewpoint, another age.  It stirred my interest, no, affection for those far off places in South Africa I have never visited but have romanced in the fiction of Haggard and Wilbur Smith, even Brink after a fashion.  It’s the wide-open, deadly beauty that I imagine or have seen on the screen.  Possibly of a world now lost in or around cities but I like to think still exists in the heart of the country and its inhabitants. Guy Butlers poetry fixes my fascination.

So I opened Selected Poems’ of Guy Butler  (signed copy, but not to me) published in 1975.     The poem Karoo Town 1939  opens this collection, as it does in Stranger to Europe.  There are 45 poems, divided into 4 sections. The total includes 17 that appeared in E. ( mostly in parts 1 & 2).

See my earlier pages on Stranger to Europe.

I have picked out some of my favourites from the 28 poems that were new to me, refraining from a long list it could have been and sticking to five.

A prayer for all my countrymen

Great-great-grandmother.      The first few lines casting that spell and in quite a long poem the strength of the lady almost competes with the African landscape:

First five lines:

‘Bolt upright, reading her Bible for hours
in a wicker chair on the front stoep in the winter,
in summer under the pepper trees whose lacy shadows
wavered over the lacy shawl,
drawn tight across her little brittle shoulders.’

Isibongo of Matiwane

And finally: Tourist Insight Into Things

I would not presume to understand fully the depth of the poems, but the clarity of the description and the emotion, often love constrained but visible throughout, creates bright and sustained images.
Tourist Insight Into Things is probably the most visceral poem I have read, yet gets to the heart, literally, of the nature of the country and it’s African people, of Guy Butler’s appreciation and knowledge..

There is an interesting little comment in this poem:
‘you’ll find our big black brother has much, so much to teach you –
because, you see, he’s still in touch
with all the old gods in a way
that makes one wonder
why D H Lawrence wasted all that time
in Mexico and Downunder

Africans, like their continent, are not dark
For nothing. Their darkness is alive. ‘
Lawrence is a poet who appears in quite a few anthologies but his poetry is today somewhat neglected.  His original infamy as a novelist overshadows his poetry and most certainly his travel writing.  The Tourist in the title, I believe is how Guy felt in relation to his position, even though born in South Africa to a long-settled family.  Highly committed and respectful of the old country and its peoples and traditions.   The line on Lawrence, for me, shows a respect for Lawrence as having a similar nature with speculation on how strong would have been his poetic output in Africa.  Perhaps Guy Butler did not feel he could reach Lawrence’s heights.
The poem continues:
‘Africans, like their continent, are not dark
For nothing. Their darkness is alive. ‘

reading on is to be held, transfixed, to the last almost throw away, five lined stanza.

Back to Guy Butler.  Read Cradock Mountain and rush through the sights and sounds of a childhood remembered, like a flash-photo, like a flash-flood.  I was never there but despite the thousands of miles and the numbers of years I can see and feel almost as he did.

A collection that is truthful, personal and important.

km coverI still have to read his first auto biography, Karoo Morning and then Tales from the Old Karoo.   Nostalgia maybe, but my sort of reading.


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