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RIP Don Maclennan: 1929 – 2009

Don Maclennan

Don Maclennan, the South African poet and critic, has died, it has been announced by Rhodes University. He suffered a stroke last week and passed away on Monday, 9 February. He was eighty years old.

Five Books by Don Maclennan Born in 1929 in England, Maclennan came to South Africa in 1938. He spent most of his working life as a teacher and lecturer in the USA and South Africa, retiring from Rhodes University in 1994 after thirty years there. He was an “inspirational teacher, friend and mentor to countless poets,” who, despite being partly incapacitated by a motor neuron disease, “continued to give weekly seminars on a voluntary basis [at Rhodes] for ten years after his retirement, to the delight of his colleagues and generations of students”, said the University’s statement.

Maclennan’s oeuvre was extensive: a full bibliography doesn’t appear to be available online, but his works of poetry included Life Songs, In Memoriam Oskar Wolberheim (with Norbert Nowotny), Reckonings, Collecting Darkness, Letters, The Poetry Lesson, Solstice, Of Women and Some Men (with George Coutouvidis) [still in print - see below], Notes from a Rhenish Mission, A Brief History of Madness in the Eastern Cape, Rock Paintings at Salem, The Dinner Party and The Road to Kromdraai.

In 1997, Maclennan won the Sanlam Literary Award for Solstice.

Two of his non-fiction works remain in print, meanwhile: Olive Schreiner and After: Essays on Southern African Literature in Honour of Guy Butler, edited with Malvern van Wyk Smith and A Ruthless Fidelity: The collected poems of Douglas Livingstone.

Maclennan had a close association with Carapace publisher Gus Ferguson, who published a number of Maclennan’s collections under his Carapace Poets, Snailpress and Firfield Press imprints. The last of these was The Road to Kromdraai in 2002. In the final years of his life, Maclennan self-published several small volumes which Ferguson described as “beautiful little books”.

Here is an appreciation of Maclennan by Dan Wylie which includes several poems:

Don Maclennan, Grahamstown’s gaunt doyen of poetry, has always had a curious kind of modesty, incongruously married to an apparently irrepressible desire to shock people with comments of a bluntly personal and bodily nature. The raunchiness, however, all but disappears in his poetry, the kind of writing for which he’s now best known. In his earlier years, he concentrated on writing plays and produced a goodly number, the best of which is An Enquiry into the Voyage of the Santiago, which you can find in a volume of contemporary South African plays edited by Ernest Pereira (and in the first production of which Rhodes Drama Department’s Reza de Wet acted). Half a dozen novels he judged inferior and burned, with great satisfaction. An autobiographical piece remains in the mill. He also wrote a judicious minimum of academically kosher critical work, mostly on Olive Schreiner, but became infamous for failing to conform to institutional fripperies and norms. (It was with a certain worry in his eyebrows that one of my superiors suggested hopefully that I wasn’t going to follow in Don’s footsteps. I generally haven’t, even though Don is, in every way but blood, closer to me than my own father; and even in poetry, though Don remains my Number One Mentor and Shredder, I write very differently indeed.)

Funeral II
by Don Maclennan, collected in The Poetry Lesson (1995)

My nephew said, “You’re getting old.
Isn’t it time you thought about the Lord?”
How absolute his three-piece suit.
Momentarily I was back at school
having neglected to perform a duty-
Latin homework, or come late for assembly.

I have been thinking all my life
about such things; when I read
Plato or Ecclesiastes
I become an exercise of mind,
resurrected in the rich concision
Of that ancient poetry.

I was offended by his zeal,
his wish that I would not arrive
without a visa at my destination.
We’d just consigned his father-in-law
and were having tea and biscuits
in the hall. It was mid-summer,
everyone was sweating.
After the weak display of grief
refreshments were a great relief.

A cluster of life-scarred widows
welcomed my sister to the sorority
of empty beds and bodily denial.
She looked stern, remote, defiant,
flattered perhaps, or reassured
being the centre of attention.
Her husband’d got short shrift,
a gentle man who never made a stir,
did his duty and obeyed the law,
played six instruments,
but never had much fun at home.
The minister could not find much to say;
it was a great relief to him to ask us all to pray.

It is a strange religion thinks you
happy only when you’re dead -
he with his three piece policy
inviting me to be not me.
I am not worth much anyway,
and like to live inside with
the ironies of impermanence.
Who needs insurance after all
when our future is conjectural?
It may be true that this is where we die,
but more important,
this is where we live.

Book Details

  • Olive Schreiner and After: Essays on Southern African Literature in Honour of Guy Butler edited by Don Maclennan and Malvern van Wyk Smith
    EAN: 9780908396924
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

  • A Ruthless Fidelity: The collected poems of Douglas Livingstone by Douglas Livingston, edited by Don Maclennan
    EAN: 9780868522326
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    February 10th, 2009 @16:17 #

    When I started at Rhodes in my first year, I had the incredible good fortune of landing Don Maclennan as a tutor. Once I'd got over the culture shock, I made a point of requesting him as my tutor every single year after that. I knew it didn't get any better than this.

    I was one of those "girls / hurriedly dressed this morning / warm(ing) bare ankles / at my two-bar heater."

    He was a close personal friend of both Athol Fugard and Douglas Livingstone, and got both great men out to Grahamstown to talk to us on a couple of occasions. I had the inestimable privilege of having lunch with Douglas Livingstone at the Cathcart Arms Hotel. We talked about cats.

    It is difficult to convey quite how inspiring Don was and what an unbelievably gifted teacher, although Dan Wylie's tribute does a good job. Those qualities have died with him, but his poetry - his terse, beautiful, simple, and yet staggeringly complex poetry - lives on.


  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 10th, 2009 @16:47 #

    What a loss, even at his ripe age. Lucky Fiona, having him as a tutor -- and discussing cats with Douglas Livingstone.

  • mikeloewe
    February 10th, 2009 @23:04 #

    "And he was a poet too!" my old journ prof Gavin Stewart said today. It seems impossible to separate the poet from the ou, but those of us who spent time in the hills sitting tied to a belay with Don, or popped in for a cup of tea, can't ever remember him bursting into a poetic quote, or making some enormous (-ly pretentious) comment. There was hardly a hint of this side to him, just Don -- mischievious, witty, hilarious. And it was only when you left his company that the stuff he'd said just kept turning in the mind, opening it word by word. There have been tears in Grahamstown.


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