Breyten Breytenbach’s early and prison poetry: a comparative stylistic analysis

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This article stems from the ongoing research of my doctoral study. For the purposes of the larger study, Breytenbach’s entire Afrikaans poetic oeuvre is divided into four periods and compared to determine if signs of late style can be identified, and if so, which late style his later oeuvre can be typified as. Qualitative and quantitative research methods are used to examine Breytenbach’s oeuvre in terms of three parameters (style, identity and theme). The quantitative analysis is done with the help of a corpus programme (LancsBox).

Breytenbach’s oeuvre is divided into four periods, namely early, prison, post-prison and later poetry. I created a Breytenbach subcorpus of each period and these periods consist of the following publications:

1.1 subcorpus A: Ysterkoei-blues 1964–1975 [2001]
1.2 subcorpus B: Die ongedanste dans: Gevangenisgedigte 1975–1983 [2005] saam met Die singende hand: Versamelde gedigte 1984–2014 [2016] from p. 21 to 80
1.3 subcorpus C: Die singende hand from p. 81 to 301
1.4 subcorpus D: Die singende hand from page 302 to 726 with op weg na kû [2019]

In the larger study, each research question will be applied to each period and a comparative approach will be followed. The conclusions of A will therefore be compared with B, A with C, A with D and then B with C, B with D and C with D. In this article only the conclusions of A and B are compared. Following these separate comparisons, an overall conclusion will be drawn to determine whether the hypothesis (that the late style theory applies to Breytenbach’s Afrikaans poetry) can be proven or rejected. The late work phase (1999–present) carries more weight, and the early phases will be analysed to highlight the possible late work of the later phase in the larger study.

This article focuses only on Breytenbach’s early and prison poetry, as the data from these two periods show the most differences compared to the other two periods. This article focuses on an interesting phenomenon that was noticed regarding the first parameter, namely that there are considerable stylistic differences between the first two phases of Breytenbach’s oeuvre: the early poetry (A) (1964–1974) and the prison poetry (B) (1975–1987). These differences are greater than the differences between the early and the later work. My aim is to describe and analyse the differences and suggest possible reasons for them.

The six style elements discussed in this article are unconventional writing, innovations, punctuation, length of poems, stanza construction and type-sign ratio. A preliminary study was done for the thesis and these six stylistic categories for the investigation stem from it.

Late style (a term derived from Theodor W. Adorno’s original German “Spätstil”) is the work that artists produce near the end of their lives, and is accompanied by intense “intimations of mortality”, such as that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) in his thirties (Said 2006:xiii in Van Vuuren 2011:463). My hypothesis is that there is a shift in the direction of late work in the Afrikaans poetry of Breyten Breytenbach.

There are four types of late style according to Lourens (2017:80):

2.1 serenity, acceptance and transfiguration;
2.2 fragmentation, exile and insufficient coherence;
2.3 resurrection;
2.4 fellow humanity, coherence, freedom, transformation and transcendence.

In this article, only the first two periods are looked at, as there is a shift in the data from the first to the second period. The last two periods again show more similarities, but also do not share the conclusion of the first two periods.

In this article, Breyten Breytenbach’s early poetry and prison poetry are compared in terms of style within six categories: unconventional writing style, innovations, punctuation, length of poems, stanza structure, and type-token ratio. The two periods were found to show considerable differences in style. Breytenbach’s corpus changes shape as his poetic focus, biographical circumstances and state of mind change (Tait and Van Vuuren 2017), and the data from the comparison of the two periods confirms this.

It’s concluded from the unconventional writing style that although the number of phenomena is consistent with the quantitative data set, the content of the phenomena is quite different. There are differences in themes and each subcorpus has a unique trend or pattern. In the qualitative data, period A has more unconventional typography, while period B contains more unconventional poem titles.

In relation to the innovations that Breytenbach came up with, a trend was noticed in the quantitative data that in both subcorpora he mostly uses nature as a theme. It was found that period B contains many more new creations than period A. Period A is thematically mostly about the body, while period B mostly has to do with nature.

In subcorpus B there is much more punctuation in the key word in context (KWIC) than in subcorpus A. KWIC is a method of showing a search term or node word in the context of a text. This typically indicates that the node is centred in a table, with columns to its left and right displaying co-text. “Key word” in this context refers to “search term,” not “keyword”. The KWIC in both corpora that has the most punctuation next to it is “I”. In terms of the stanza structure, period A contains more free verse and period B more use of the couplet. This means more fixed rhyme schemes were used during the prison period, which reflects Breytenbach’s confinement (Van Vuuren 2006a). Periods A and C are the most similar in terms of free verse, while periods B and D are similar in terms of couplet use.

Breytenbach uses a greater variety in poem length in period A than in period B. Period B’s works have been described as obscure and impenetrable, and the long poems may possibly contribute to these observations. The type-token ratio shows that subcorpus B is lexically richer than subcorpus A. The use of many different words may also contribute to the obscurity and impenetrability of the prison period, similar to the influence of poem. The fact that there are also so many more innovations in the prison poetry than in the earlier poetry contributes to the lexical richness of the second phase. This change in lexical richness is important, as it shows the transformation that occurs in Breytenbach’s poetic oeuvre. Transformation is key to late style.

There are four types of late style and I suspect that Breytenbach’s poetic oeuvre may display elements of the second and fourth type of late work. There are elements of fragmentation, exile and insufficient coherence (second type), as well as humanity, freedom and transformation (fourth type) in his oeuvre. The comparison of the stylistic elements of the early and prison poetry shows how trapped Breytenbach was in prison, but also how it contrasts with the freedom he had before the prison phase. Since his oeuvre is so large and spans such a long period of time, I suspect that it is quite possible that more than one type of late style may apply.

Keywords: Afrikaans poetry; Breyten Breytenbach; corpus; early poetry; late work; prison poetry; style


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