"I write you from afar" - Wopko Jensma enigmatic poet of Africa

Ex Africa semper aliquid novum


I feel the drums of my tribe

beating away in me


they are a hard long scream

a ghoul gangrene


i nibble stones for bread

yell no amen for me


they are this night

all just breaking glass


drums, i write you from afar

hear my pounding heart

- from "stones for bread", by Wopko Jensma

In 1993 a disheveled man walked out of the Salvation Army Men's Home in downtown Johannesburg and was never seen again, as far as anyone knows. This not too unusual event would be unremarkable, except that the man in question has been called the "first South African poet", an artist of whom it has been written that "he used his words as his jazz instrument and his expression is his rhythm."

Some of the facts of his life are known, but much is not known about him. There are long periods of his life which are unclear, shrouded in mystery and cluttered with conjecture.

What is known for certain is that Wopko Jensma was born on 26 July 1939 in the Karroo town of Middelburg, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. His father was Dutch and his mother Afrikaans.

Jensma studied at the University of Potchefstroom for a short while until his studies were interrupted by a motorcycle accident. He later studied again, this time at the University of Pretoria, where he enrolled for a bachelor's degree in fine arts, majoring in sculpture. During this time he also did part-time editing and translating work.

Jensma travelled widely in Southern Africa, marrying a black woman called Lydia, which meant he could not return to South Africa with her and their two children, as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was still in force.

In 1969 he returned alone to South Africa and, as far as is known, never saw his family again. He moved around South Africa, never settling long in one place, all the while producing a torrent of poems, lino-cuts and other art works.

Writing from afar

By 1973 he had had 24 exhibitions of his art works and by 1977 three collections of poetry, with many artworks interspersed with the texts, had been published. These collections were entitled Sing for Our Execution (1973), Where White is the Colour, Where Black is the Number (1974), and I Must Show You My Clippings (1977), all published by Ravan Press in Johannesburg.

Because he was writing about an experience or experiences that were far removed from those of his fellow white Afrikaners these collections aroused mostly animosity and a deliberate non-understanding. This led to his marginalisation by most in the literary establishment, at least as far as the Afrikaans part of that was concerned. Poet Mafika Gwala, after meeting Jensma, and feeling his pain, said: "I could think of only one thing: his white world was killing him, as if out to destroy him. Perhaps he had refused for too long to be the white he was expected to be" (Matatu 3/4:2).

Jensma began to slide into the shadow world of schizophrenia, living off a state pension for the permanently disabled and living in the Salvation Army Men's Home along with hobos and other down-and-outs.

From dada to struggle poetry: Pullin Strong

In the less than two decades of his productive artistic and poetic life he produced some amazing work which in my view spanned many different genres and styles - dadaism, surrealism, and the beginnings of what came to be known in South Africa as "struggle poetry," though I think to put that label on his work is to see it through too limiting a lens - his work was far broader and more anchored in the personal than "struggle poetry" could ever be.

It is true that he wrote angry and anguished poems about the reality of life in a deeply divided society, which somehow he started to reflect in his own psyche. It was almost as if he took into himself the divisions of the worlds in which he lived and then wrote his words with this almost jazz improv feeling, this feeling of ragged improvisations on life in the key of suffering.

Jensma was clearly also influenced and inspired by jazz and the blues. Many of his poems reference jazz or blues musicians, both from the United States and South Africa.

For example, the poem "Pullin Strong at Eleven-forty-five" from the first collection, referenced Champion Jack Dupree, Pee Wee Russell, Malombo (a South African jazz group), Jimmy Rushing, under the epigram: baby, i'm not a fool - champion jack dupree:

"till mornin an eevnin peewee'n malombo jazz

oh gee boys, who's dat man dere

blow a flute, boy

you's my kinda guy - oh hea'm

his byebye baby any monday walkiin a ol blues


as jimmy rushing says: any monday 'n

she aint your girl, she aint my girl


no, she's anybody's goddam girl - an i get

maself ma shootin rod

an slash anybody's skull open hea me ova, yea hea me

blowin dat to spiky blues ova

ma dea woman - yea 't aint your beloved ol


dowtown orlando: it's solid hearin, you ablo

in a shack oozin, amn feel dat dirge, oh yeya


This poem epitomises much of the character of Jensma's poetry - its capturing of the language of the so-called "underclasses" in South Africa, a street patois known as "tsotsi taal" or "vly-taal", its surreal mixing of images and the expressions of anger, sometimes of violence. It is a poem of frustration, and I think Jensma was a very frustrated man, in spite of his outpouring of words and images.

It is this use of language which led many to think that Jensma was in fact Black.

Kippie: No Dream

Another poem calling up the spirit of a jazz man is entitled "No Dream", and it calls up famed sax man Kippie Moeketsi, known as the "sad man of South African jazz" and also revered as the "South African Charlie Parker" for his embrace of the bebop style of jazz, well before any other South African musician did so.


stroppy kippie moeketsi

blows a

high-falutin -

!no

an heave-ho

all blasfemis

to-do's

in a pea

we softly walked the holy of holies in

some MP laughs, jeers

and holds up his hands in cleanliness

shattert we a'

all feelin -

!no dammit

heave-ho

dem all in a pea

you ol

high-falutin

stroppy kippie moeketsi


Kippie Moeketsi is again called up in the poem from Clippings called "klop en vir julle sal toegemaak word" (knock and it will be closed to you), a poem about schizophrenia (was it prescience or knowledge of his own condition) written in Afrikaans, which calls up artists who have been alleged to have been schizoid: Beethoven, Gauguin, Baudelaire (who, according to this poem, was not only shizoid, but "boonop is hy aan syphilis dood" - "in addition he died of syphilis"), French outsider poet Francois Villon, Flemish poet and activist Paul van Ostaijen, Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, and a whole list of others, including Moeketsi.

Black Bottom Stomp and Binsey Poplars

In the collection Where White is the Colour Where Black is the Number appears this remarkable poem, entitled "Black Bottom Stomp", in which Jensma calls up a strange, Surreal mixture of jazz and blues with high Victorian English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, specifically his poem "Binsey Poplars". It makes for a heady mix:

she sings her sorrows no more

no booze bottles

ma rainey dear -

my black-rim hat don't fit

my heads polluted with grief

also my binsey poplars

all felled, felled, are all felled

gone

mama, da bleedin moon

cuts no ice, split no dice -

bloody bustin - oh hell

if i died her

oh yea, my day'd neva eva end

The line "all felled, felled, are all felled" is a direct quote from Hopkins' poem. The point of touch between the poems is I guess the fragility of loved things, and perhaps Jensma was harking back to Hopkins' lines about nature: "Where we, even where we mean / To mend her we end her." Did Jensma feel that about his relationships, perhaps with Lydia? Is that what he meant in that haunting last stanza?

Whatever, this poem carries a heavy load of meaning, a "head polluted with grief."

Finding himself in a situation

Wopko was clearly aware of his "situation" especially in respect of his schizophrenia. A poem called "Spanner in the What? Works" from the Clippings collection speaks about his situation, about his sense of paradoxical connectedness and disconnectedness. After listing his place of birth as four different towns or suburbs in South Africa, although always on the same day, he writes that "i found myself in a situation":


"now, when my mind started to tick

i noticed other humans like me

shaped like me: ears eyes

hair legs arms etc....(i checked)

we all cast in the same shackles:

flesh mind feeling smell sight etc..."


The next stanza gives personal details:

"date today is 5 april 1975 i live

at 23 mountain drive derdepoort"


and the next stanza a list of possessions:


"i possess a typewriter and paper

i possess tools to profess i am an artist"


Then follows a stanza which begins:


"I brought three kids into this world

(as far as i know)".


And I wonder about that capitalised "I" all of a sudden - why at that point in the poem is it capitalised? Just another question to add to all the others I have about this enigmatic poet.


In the next stanza he shows how, in spite of everything, he still hopes, he still wants to have meant something in the world, and it's a stanza I cannot read without a sense of loss and sadness, knowing the kind of end he did have.


"i hope to live to the age of sixty

i hope to leave some evidence

that i inhabited this world

that i sensed my situation

that i created something

out of my situation

out of my life

that i lived

as human

alive

i"


And I guess this is "some evidence" that he "lived / as human/ alive" that we can still read his poetry and wonder about it, wonder about what was happening in that head "polluted with grief"? We can still marvel at the works of art he produced with the "tools to profess i am artist", which he certainly was.


The final stanzas of this amazing poem tell of his death on "26 July 1999" in four different circumstances and places: the Costa do Sol, the "grasslands" and the Kgalagadi (usually Anglicised as "Kalahari") desert and "in an argument." Was that last a prophecy about how he would die? Did he in fact die in an argument? Perhaps we will never know. What we do know is that however and wherever he died (if he is indeed dead) he will have found himself "in a situation."


On Sunday he would have celebrated his 70th birthday (or perhaps he still will, who knows?) and this tribute to him is my humble birthday gift to him. I wish I could give it to him in person. Instead I write it to him from afar.


Tony McGregor

Pretoria

22 July 2009.

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Comments 19 comments

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

Wow. What a sad deal of anguish, and what a sad life. But this excellent examination of his work is fascinating, if morbidly so. That you can cover Jensma's jazz references and his Hopkins quotations too does the poet a great service: to be considered for ALL that he was, not just one limited aspect of it. And it seems that he had a complicated story to tell.


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 7 years ago from United States

Thanks for sharing this excellent article. I did not know Wopko Jensma before.

"he wrote angry and anguished poems about the reality of life in a deeply divided society"

Such circumstances are the basis for some of the most powerful poetry on earth.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks so much, Teresa and Tom, for your wonderful comments. I do appreciate them. I have appreciated Jensma since the late 1970s when I first came across his work. Found it very difficult then and still do, but he was saying what many of us felt in those dark and frightening days of apartheid. I think it is surprise that a sensitive person resorts to schizophrenia in a society as messed up as South AFrica was then. For me th only surprise is that there weren't a whole lot more. It was a very mixed up and sad time, and Jensma caught the mood and spoke it out. And in the end acted it out also.

Love and peace

Tony


alekhouse profile image

alekhouse 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

Tony, what a wonderful and interesting analysis of such a sad and complicated life. His poetry is powerful and was so in tune with the society in which he lived. Thank you for letting us have a brief look into the mind and heart of this brilliant and troubled man. BTW, the African prints are really nice. I love african art.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks Alek - the artworks are by Wopko, by the way! You can see why many thought he was himself Black.

Love and peace

Tony


shamelabboush profile image

shamelabboush 7 years ago

This poet/ artist is really talented! Ther is a sweet mystery in his works. Thanks dear tonymac04.


\Brenda Scully 7 years ago

that was so interesting


Peter Kirstein 7 years ago

I, too, had not known of Wopko Jensma. I was truly touched by his poetry and art. Thank you Tony.


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Thanks for sharing his story


Marlon jensma 6 years ago

He surely was a great man . But i still wonder wat realy happen to him


David levey 6 years ago

Special to find this page; I've enjoyed and struggled with his poetry and art for many years. Have a professional interest as I'm a lecturer in English Studies, but also an emotional one: he really moves and grabs me in my guts.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Marlon - thanks so much for visiting. I feel honoured.

David - thanks to you too. And yes, his poetry and art are really powerful. Very moving and sometimes mysterious.

Love and peace

Tony


Moulik Mistry profile image

Moulik Mistry 6 years ago from Burdwan, West Bengal, India

This is an excellent article, very well researched and this way I had the rare chance of getting to know a wonderful personality and his struggling life, thank you so much...


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thank you, Moulik! I appreciate your reading and commenting. It means a lot to me.

Love and peace

Tony


Matt 5 years ago

a great article, tony. just found this tonite as the Joburg winter crawls into town. A friend of mine who now runs an art gallery provided psychological help to wopko, in the late seventies, if memory serves me he was in a home for lost souls in hillbrow then, and to help support him I bought two artworks - around 1979 - which now hang next to expensive Kentridge works and others, in 2011. i also have a copy of the 'clippings' book. his work has travelled well over the last decades into the now. i think.

best.


Mike Slater 5 years ago

I moved to Swaziland from England in Sept 1979, and lived on Qualuseni Campus, university of Swaziland until 1981. During this time Mrs. Jensma was a regular visitor, going from house to house selling Jensma's prints and books. Almost everyone there then bought from her, (many of the lecturers were Dutch at the time), to the point even of saturation.

I ended up with lots of prints and books, (wish now I had bought them all!), and used to give them away to visiting friends. The few prints I kept and framed got ruined about ten years later in a flood, but I still have a couple of the books.

I asked Mrs Jensma about her husband several times, and I got the impresssion that she was from Mozambiqe, and that Wopko was there at the time, (+-1981). She appeared every couple of months with lots of new stock of books and rolls of prints, so she must have been in contact with him regularly.

I left Qualuseni in 1982, but remained in Swaziland until '94 when I moved to Jo'burg. There was a small exhibition in a window gallery in Rosebank in '95, ("Revlutionary in a Shopping Mall"), and an article in the paper, but with no mention of any connection with Swaziland.

A while after returning to Swaziland in '98, I spoke to Ray Berman, the well known Swaziland artist/sculptor/architect, (Please visit his website), and asked him about Wopko Jensma. He told me that he came to Swaziland to do some commissioned work for King Sobhuza's new palace in '75-76, but doesn't know what happened to him after that. (Ray was also comissioned to do two carved lions, but that is a story in itself).

I'm sure that a lot of people who were in Swaziland around that time will remember him, because only a year ago, a young Swazi was at my place and saw one of my Jensma books, and commented on it. I was surprised that he had heard of him.

Hope this is usefull in some sort of way, and think that further research could be done in Swaziland to fill in a few gaps. (or add to the growing folklore surrounding Wopko Jensma). Good Look.

ps that's not a spelling mistake


Cati Weinek 4 years ago

....my heart still aches for this fine man, poet and artist


Keith Rossiter 4 years ago

I knew Wopko in the mid-1970s and considered him a friend. When I last searched the internet for his name, about 8-10 years ago, there was hardly any info out there. At the time I wrote this poem - http://keithrossiter.wordpress.com/21-hits-for-wop... - as a tribute. How pleasing to see that as the web has grown, Wopko's memory and reputation have grown with it.


Philippa Hobbs 4 years ago

I am an art historian, working on a research project related to Egon Guenther's printmaking studio. I am trying to track down people who knew Wopko during the period that he was working on projects there. Any help or suggestions would be appreciated.

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