'Iron on iron': Modernism engaging apartheid in some South African Railway Poems

Wright, L.S. (2011) 'Iron on iron': Modernism engaging apartheid in some South African Railway Poems. English Studies in Africa, 54 (2). pp. 1-15. ISSN 0013-8398



Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00138398.2011.626177


Abstract Modernism tends to be criticised, internationally, as politically conservative. The objection is often valid, although the charge says little about the quality of artistic achievement involved. This article argues that the alliance between Modernism and political conservatism is by no means a necessary one, and that there are instances where modernist vision has been used to convey substantive political insight, effective social critique and solid resistance. To illustrate the contrast,the article juxtaposes the abstract Modernism associated with Ben Nicholson and World War 2, with a neglected strain of South African railway poetry which uses modernist techniques to effect a powerful critique of South Africa’s apartheid dispensation. The article sustains a distinction between universalising modernist art that requires ethical work from its audiences to achieve artistic completion, and art in which modernist vision performs the requisite ethical work within its own formal constraints. Four very different South African railway poems, by Dennis Brutus, John Hendrickse, Alan Paton, and Leonard Koza, are examined and contextualised to demonstrate ways in which a modernist vision has been used to portray the social disruptions caused by apartheid. Modernist techniques are used to turn railway experience into a metonym for massive social disruption,without betraying the social reality of the transport technology involved.

Item Type:Article
Uncontrolled Keywords:Railway poetry, South Africa, Modernism, apartheid, Dennis Brutus, John Hendrickse, Alan Paton, Leonard Koza, Barbara Hepworth, Khoi, St Ives, Cornwall, Christopher Hope, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Charles Bernstein, Clement Greenberg
Subjects:P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Divisions:Research Institutes and Units > Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA)
ID Code:2208
Deposited By: Prof Laurence Wright
Deposited On:06 Dec 2011 14:27
Last Modified:06 Jan 2012 16:22
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