Don Maclennan (1929-2009)
Scatter my ashes
on the summit I so loved.
Let the dolorite have
what's left of me.
When the wind blows from the north
the scent of agathosma will enfold me.
(Don Maclennan, from “Under Compassberg”)
Donald Alasdair Calum Maclennan, the South African playwright, poet and
critic, died in Port Elizabeth on February 9, 2009, at the age of 79. He will
be remembered chiefly for the poetry that he published in the last three
decades of his life.
Born in London, he came to South Africa with his family in 1938. He
was educated at St John’s College in Johannesburg, the University of the
Witwatersrand and Edinburgh University, where he studied philosophy. It
was also at Edinburgh that he met his American-born wife, Shirley Knapp.
After travelling extensively in Europe, North America and Africa, he
taught philosophy and English at Wits and UCT before, in 1966, accepting a
lectureship in English at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where he
taught until his retirement in 1994. He continued to tutor first-year students
at Rhodes on a voluntary basis until the end of 2008, when the degenerative
motor neurone disease from which he suffered began to affect his speech
and made it impossible for him to continue.
He was a popular and inspirational teacher. His lectures were stimulating
and demanding because he tended to think in terms of images rather than
concepts, which made the logic of his discourse to some extent associative
rather than linear. In his latter years he cultivated an earthy yet vatic style of
expression, which lent to such pronouncements as he made from time to
time a thrilling and memorable gravitas. But it was arguably as a tutor of
English in Africa 36 No. 1 (May 2009): 13-16
14 GARETH CORNWELL
small groups of students that Maclennan excelled. He was a master of the
Socratic method, unerringly guiding his youthful charges into exhilarating
realms of intellectual and aesthetic experience.
Along with Guy Butler, he pioneered the inclusion of African and South
African literature in South African university English syllabuses, and
anchored the innovative English in Africa course at Rhodes in the 1970s and
1980s. A close friend of Athol Fugard from the 1960s, Maclennan wrote
several plays, including The Third Degree (published together with Fugard’s
The Coat in 1973), “The Wake,” “A Winter Vacation,” and An Enquiry into
the Voyage of the Santiago (published in Contemporary South African
Plays, 1977). Also in the late 1960s, Maclennan was instrumental in
founding and fostering a township drama group in Grahamstown, the
First performed with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in a double bill
directed by Fugard, The Third Degree is an absurdist piece that satirizes the
academic pursuit of knowledge. Interviewed by the local newspaper,
Maclennan remarked that the play was about the “ghostly academic
mechanism or process in which logic defeats life.”2 This Blakean rebellion
against the regime of reason was to become one of the keynotes of his
poetry, of which the first slim volume, Life Songs, appeared in 1977.3
The follow-up, Reckonings (1983), contains some memorable lyrics
(including the trenchant “Grahamstown II”), but it was arguably only in his
third volume, Collecting Darkness (1988), that Maclennan found the
distinctive voice that was to characterize his subsequent, prolific output. This
is a voice in love with language but scorning embellishment; confessional,
self-deprecating but also forgiving; endlessly questioning; skeptical or
elegiac even in celebration; terse, gnomic; quite often amused and amusing.
The poetry is remarkable for its clarity of observation, subtlety of feeling,
and lucidity of expression. Tersely observed phenomena and experiences
pulsate with the promise of a meaning that is never entirely separable from
the words of the poem itself. As Malvern van Wyk Smith has remarked,
“like his great mentor, William Blake . . . [Maclennan] has remained
convinced that “Meaning is hidden / in particulars . . . [that] Eternity is in
love / with the productions of time.”4 In poem after poem, Maclennan
contrives to celebrate in fresh and surprising ways the immense yet
mysterious satisfactions of consciousness, feeling and memory. The poetry
urges us to attend to the immediacies of sensuous experience, to distrust
abstract thought (including the notion of God and the promise of an
afterlife), and to face the inevitability of death with equanimity, in the
meanwhile evading its looming shadow by loving with all the passion we
can muster. Maclennan was fond of quoting Sydney Clouts’s line, “Poetry is
death cast out,” and his poetry as a whole can be conceived of as a sustained,
death-defying expression of love for life.
Although he won a Pringle Award and the 1997 Sanlam Prize for his
collection Solstice, Maclennan’s work has been critically neglected, almost
ignored. Apart from a handful of reviews, there is no published criticism, and
the only extended treatment is a recently completed Rhodes MA thesis.5 It is
to be hoped that this situation will be remedied as more readers become
acquainted with his extensive oeuvre (see below), and as the stature of his
achievement becomes clearer with the efflux of time.
Don Maclennan will be remembered by his many friends for his
delightful sense of humour, his passion for life (from music to mountain
climbing), his fine conversation, his generosity as a mentor (Douglas Reid
Skinner and Dan Wylie are among the younger poets who have benefitted
from his guidance and encouragement), and the gracious and dignified way
in which he bore the affliction that confined him to a wheelchair in the
closing years of his life. He leaves his wife, Shirley, and four children, Ben,
Joe, David and Susan.
Don Maclennan: A Preliminary Bibliography
In Memoriam Oskar Wolberheim. Cape Town: Balkema, 1971.
Life Songs. In Bateleur Poets: Maclennan, Roberts, Style, Wilhelm.
Johannesburg: Bateleur Press, 1977.
Reckonings. Cape Town: David Philip, 1983.
Collecting Darkness. Johannesburg: Justified Press, 1988.
Letters. Cape Town: Carrefour Press, 1992.
The Poetry Lesson. Plumstead: Snailpress, 1995.
Solstice. Plumstead: Snailpress, 1997.
Of Women and Some Men. Plumstead: Firfield Press, 1998.
Notes from a Rhenish Mission. Plumstead: Carapace, 2001.
Rock Paintings at Salem. Grahamstown: The author, 2001.
The Road to Kromdraai. Plumstead: Snailpress, 2002.
The Dinner Party. Grahamstown: The author, 2002.
Under Compassberg. Grahamstown: The author, 2003.
A Letter to William Blake. Grahamstown: The author, 2003/
Excavations. Grahamstown: The author, 2004.
Reading the Signs. Plumstead: Carapace, 2005.
Selected Poems. Parkhurst and Plumstead: Quartz Press and Snail Press,
16 GARETH CORNWELL
The Necessary Salt. Grahamstown: The author, 2006.
The Owl of Minerva. Grahamstown: The author, 2007.
Through a Glass Darkly. Grahamstown: The author, 2008.
The Third Degree [with Athol Fugard, The Coat]. Cape Town: Balkema,
An Enquiry into the Voyage of the Santiago. In Contemporary South
African Plays, ed. Ernest Pereira. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1977.
A Brief History of Madness in the Eastern Cape. Plumstead: Firfield Press,
Perspectives on South African Fiction [with Sarah Christie and Geoff
Hutchings]. Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1980.
Ed. [with Malvern van Wyk Smith]. Olive Schreiner and After: Essays on
Southern African Literature in Honour of Guy Butler. Cape Town:
David Philip, 1983.
Ed. [with Malcolm Hacksley]. A Ruthless Fidelity: Collected Poems of
Douglas Livingstone. Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 2004.
1. Maclennan has claimed to have written in addition nine novels and twelve
short stories, destroying them all except the experimental A Brief History of
Madness in the Eastern Cape (eventually published in 2001). See the interview with
Michael Kaeflein, “The Thrill of a Tight Line,” Wordstock 1 July 2007.
2. “Lecturer Writes Play,” Grocott’s Mail 6 June 1967.
3. This is to except the libretto of the absurdist “cosmic oratorio,” In Memoriam
Oskar Wolberheim (1971, first performed 1968).
4. Malvern van Wyk Smith, “Don Maclennan, Poet,” unpublished statement,
5. Brendon Robinson, “No Other World: The Poetry of Don Maclennan,” diss.
Rhodes U, 2009.