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Lionel Abrahams – gentle genius of South African literature

Updated on February 3, 2015

A mentor of poets

A mentor of poets and a powerful, very human poet himself – that was the great South African poet Lionel Abrahams who died in 2004. The list of poets and writers who were touched by this man’s gentle genius is a list of the best in South African literature: Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Joseph Mtshali, Modikwe Dikobe, Eleanor Anderson, Lionel Murcott and many, many others.

For more than two decades Abrahams ran a weekly writers’ workshop in which writers of all persuasions were able to bring their works, nascent or complete, and get honest and constructive opinions about the writings.

Week after week Abrahams would listen with an almost frightening intensity and sensitivity to the words and patiently, with great humanity and penetrating honesty, tell his feelings about the writing. From this amazing and nurturing experience of attention to the craft and art of writing an aspiring writer would emerge, sometimes a bit bruised, but always uplifted, always imbued with the sense that words could come that would express something profound, something worthwhile. It was a wonderful experience which I was privileged to experience for a few months.

Abrahams was instrumental in getting a lot of South African literature into the world, and his championship of Herman Charles Bosman’s work is, after his writing workshops, perhaps his most enduring legacy to the world.

Courageous honesty

For his whole life Abrahams battled with the extremely debilitating effects of Jewish Torsion Dystonia, which caused him not only intense physical pain but made verbal communication and physical movement difficult. In the workshops it was at times, especially before I got to know him better, achingly hard to sit near him, to witness his struggles, the grotesque contortions of face and body.

Yet there was never a hint of self-pity or of exploitation of the disease to gain sympathy or an easier ride through life. Abrahams did what he had to do without flinching, faced the world with an open gaze and responded to it with complete and courageous honesty.

Abrahams was a glutton for knowing, for experience and for the ideas that words stand for. In his collection The Writer in Stone, is a short poem, a gem of sheer Abrahams genius called "The Lustful Mind", which sums up his humanism and delight in the intellect:

The lustful mind is mined

with bombs of explosive joy.

But, chaste deliberate machines,

the merciless idea, the cold ideal

equip the factories of war.

For all the physical difficulty Abrahams endured, he retained a sense of “explosive joy” that shone through, making the physical not irrelevant, but just a “normal” part of life, nothing to get excited or angry about, just to live with. So that eventually the manifestation of the disease became totally secondary to the experience of being with the man and hearing his wit and wisdom, sharing in the “mining” of the mind to find the nuggets of great writing, the apt words.

His second-last collection, published in 1995, was called A Dead Tree Full of Live Birds. The questions of life and mortality were never far from his work, though he also was never morbid or soppy. Indeed he despised sloppy thought and believed that writing had to have a certain degree of precision to properly express thought. Sloppy writing to him was indicative of sloppy thinking.

His was an exemplary life, though I suspect he would have had a good laugh had anyone said that to him. He was a very humorous person who did not take kindly to pretension.

Over the Mountain

When I heard of his death in 2004 I immediately wrote the following poem, which I know he would have had many words to say about, but I offer it still as a response to my experience of him and the feelings I had at his death.

Over the mountain and through the valley

Towards an uncertain destination

We walk in the invisible footprints

Of the many gone before.

Along the way I see faces I know

Or thought I knew

In the shadows of the trees.

I hear voices I know

Or thought I knew

In the sound of the river.

And all the while

My heart beats a dirge

For you.


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    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Suzzy - thanks so much for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed this Hub, and you are most welcome. South Africa is a very interesting place and so are we, its people!

      Love and peace


    • suzzymilkmaid profile image

      suzzymilkmaid 7 years ago from pennsylvania

      Hi tony, I am presently reading a historical fiction book by Wilbur Smith about South Africa. Very interesting place and people. Thanks for adding more input on this subject.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Bakari - thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      bakari msangua 7 years ago

      well thanks lionel is good in his book CHAOS THEORY OF THE HEART as his last text;will make necessary revolution thanks;REST IN PEACE

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Anne - thanks for your valuable comment which I much appreciate. Indeed "Chaos Theory of the Heart" was Lionel's last collection. Will make the necessary changes, thanks.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Anne Kellas aka Hugo 7 years ago

      Lionel's last collection was in fact Chaos Theory of the Heart and other poems mainly since 1990. We published the book in 2005 through my small press (Roaring Forties Press, based in Tasmania) in conjunction with Jacana Media in Johannesburg. Lionel's widow Jane Fox provided additional poems after Lionel's death -- his original manuscript as submitted to my press was much smaller. Cover design by Giles Hugo. Both Giles and I had the pleasure of being in Lionel's poetry group until we left South Africa in 1986.

    • indanila profile image

      Inda Blackwell 8 years ago from Hampton Roads

      Nice hub! I must check out one of his books. Loved the poems!

    • Zeke Brett Tyrus profile image

      Zeke Brett Tyrus 9 years ago from San Francisco

      This gives me a new writer to check out. I also like what you wrote in regards to Pes. Obama.

    • ajbarnett profile image

      ajbarnett 9 years ago from Costa Blanca, Spain

      Lovely words, a lovely tribute.

    • profile image

      Peter Kirstein 9 years ago

      Yes, thank you, Tony for this tribute to one of the unsung heroes of South African literature.

    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 9 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Such a great man indeed, thanks for sharing his story and inspiring me in the process. :D

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for your comment Teresa. He was indeed a great man and a wonderful, inspiring mentor.

      Love and peace


    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      What a great tribute to a great man -- thanks for writing this, Tony, I found it to be very uplifting indeed.