Don Maclennan – flinging words against the world

Friends, admirers and colleagues of Grahamstown poet Don Maclennan gathered to honourhis memory on the one-year anniversary of his death this weekend.

It was also a chance to commemorate an esteemed friend and mentor and “to begin the process of giving his work the intellectual attention it has always deserved” according to his close friend and English professor, Dan Wylie.

Gavin Stewart, a former head of journalism and media studies, reminisced about their days as friends in his talk: “Questions on a krantz: on climbing with Don Maclennan.”

He recalls that they spent every Wednesday and Saturday climbing,  sometimes out at Blaauwkrantz, or at Maclennan’s beloved spot – the Compassberg in the Karoo.

Stewart remembers that upon reaching the summit, Maclennan would often turn to him and ask, “What is the meaning of all of this?”

Stewart summed up their relationship by quoting his cherished companion: “There is a powerful bond in a climbing rope – an absolute trust”.

Malcolm Hacksley, director of the National English Literary Museum (Nelm), particularly focused on the how Maclennan questioned life and the hereafter, referring to this quest as a notion of “the immanent divine” found in his poetry.

Hacksley believes that Don’s agnosticism nevertheless lead him to a sense of waiting to be found, but also that there was a finder, however indistinct the outline, who would find him.

He says that Maclennan would occasionally acknowledge mysterious elements found in the natural world (particularly in the realm of physics) which would then paradoxically contradict his belief in a merely materialistic universe.

“Despite all his adamant insisting though, I think it’s significant that in poems Don published over several decades, there is one phrase which recurs perhaps five or six times, a quotation from Virgil’s Iliad.

In the original, the speaker, navigating from Sicily, has taken his bearings by the stars but now clouds have come up and obscured them.

Out on the open sea at  night, he hopes he’s still on course. “As Don uses it, the phrase expresses an enduring uncertainty about what he believed he believed.

Virgil’s words mean ‘If I’ve read the stars correctly or if I’ve got it right’. That conditional ‘if ’ is a pretty big if and it was always there.

The doubt, the uncertainty about his chosen course stayed with him until the end”. Part of that uncertainty centred  on whether he had done the choosing or whether he had in fact been chosen, was he living or being lived,  was the poet the maker or the instrument?

Maclennan was never quite sure but this mystery was  returned to again and again in his work. Another touching tribute to the man and teacher was given by  John Forbis, a monk at Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery.

In “Not a closed chapter: a personal reflection  on Don Maclennan,” Forbis looked back on the 11 years he spent visiting Maclennan every  Monday.
 

He would walk to 24A Francis Street where Don’s wife Shirley would call: “Don, John’s here,” and  he would emerge from his study at the end of the hall.

Over the years Forbis witnessed him emerge in  varying stages of degeneration as motor neron disease claimed his mobility– first on wobbly legs with a cane,  next using a walker, then in a wheelchair and eventually, Shirley said “just go on back”.

In the study, on Maclennan’s desk, next to “a stubborn typewriter”, was strewn the work of the writer he was  discovering or rediscovering, his unfinished watercolours and his latest work -“all evidence of his insatiable  curiosity”.

Forbis says he came to Maclennan who was an atheist – as an agnostic monk. He  half-jokingly referred to Don as his spiritual director and to his visits as “Mondays with Don” (like  TuesdaysFriends, admirers and colleagues of Grahamstown poet Don Maclennan gathered to honour his  memory on the one-year anniversary of his death this weekend.

It was also a chance to commemorate an  esteemed friend and mentor and “to begin the process of giving his work the intellectual attention it has  always deserved” according to his close friend and English professor, Dan Wylie.

Gavin Stewart, a former  head of journalism and media studies, reminisced about their days as friends in his talk: “Questions on a  krantz: on climbing with Don Maclennan.”

He recalls that they spent every Wednesday and Saturday climbing, sometimes out at Blaauwkrantz, or at Maclennan’s beloved spot – the Compassberg in the Karoo.

Stewart remembers that upon reaching the summit, Maclennan would often turn to him and ask, “What is  the meaning of all of this?”

Stewart summed up their relationship by quoting his cherished companion: “There is a powerful bond in a climbing rope – an absolute trust”.

Malcolm Hacksley, director of the  National English Literary Museum (Nelm), particularly focused on the how Maclennan questioned life and  the hereafter, referring to this quest as a notion of “the immanent divine” found in his poetry.

Hacksley  believes that Don’s agnosticism nevertheless lead him to a sense of waiting to be found, but also that there  was a finder, however indistinct the outline, who would find him.

He says that Maclennan would  occasionally acknowledge mysterious elements found in the natural world (particularly in the realm of  physics) which would then paradoxically contradict his belief in a merely materialistic universe.

“Despite all  his adamant insisting though, I think it’s significant that in poems Don published over several decades, there  is one phrase which recurs perhaps five or six times, a quotation from Virgil’s Iliad.

In the original,  the speaker, navigating from Sicily, has taken his bearings by the stars but now clouds have come up and obscured them. Out on the open sea atnight, he hopes he’s still on course.

“As Don uses it, the phrase expresses an enduring uncertainty about what he believed he believed. Virgil’s words  mean ‘If I’ve read  he  stars correctly or if I’ve got it right’.

That conditional ‘if ’ is a pretty big if and it was always there. The doubt, the uncertainty about his chosen course stayed with him until the end”.

Part of that uncertainty  centred on whether he had done the choosing or whether he had in fact been chosen, was he living or  being lived, was the poet the maker or the instrument?

Maclennan was never quite sure but this mystery was returned to again and again in his work. Another touching tribute to the man and teacher was given by  John Forbis, a monk at Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery.

In “Not a closed chapter: a personal  reflection on Don Maclennan,” Forbis looked back on the 11 years he spent visiting Maclennan every  Monday.

He would walk to 24A Francis Street where Don’s wife Shirley would call: “Don, John’s here,” and  he would emerge from his study at the end of the hall.

Over the years Forbis witnessed him emerge in  varying stages of degeneration as motor neron disease claimed his mobility– first on wobbly legs with a cane,  next using a walker, then in a wheelchair and eventually, Shirley said “just go on back”.

In the  study, on Maclennan’s desk, next to “a stubborn typewriter”, was strewn the work of the writer he was  discovering or rediscovering, his unfinished watercolours and his latest work - “all evidence of his insatiable  curiosity”.

Forbis says he came to Maclennan who was an atheist – as an agnostic monk. He  half-jokingly referred to Don as his spiritual director and to his visits as “Mondays with Don” (like Tuesdays with Morrie).

Don taught by learning, and was fascinated with Morrie). Don taught by learning, and was  fascinated  by possibility. He delighted in hearing about what he didn’t know and believed that poetry was  significant to the growth of the human spirit.

Forbis saw in Maclennan the depths of a man who knew his  own smallness, in a world full of magnificence. “Love possessed him,” said Forbis.

Another close friend, the  poet Harry Owen poignantly spoke about the impact of Maclennan’s poems on his work and life.
 

Although  he only met Maclennan in 2007, he describes knowing him as one of the greatest friendships of his life.  Owen called him the “quintessential bulls**t detector” saying he listened to others and listened to himself,  living by the adage, “If you want someone to listen, talk quietly.”

Owen said Maclennan’s poetry was not aimed at poets, but readers, who shared with the writer the quality of being human. He called his writing  “flinging words against the world”, and as Maclennan’s voice began to degenerate, Owen held up his last anthology, Dress Rehearsal and said, “These are your conversations; this is how you will continue to talk”.

Wylie said the life and nature of Maclennan can be summed up in the words printed on the shirt he was  wearing when he died: “I have nothing, I want nothing, I am free”.

Under Compassberg II Scatter my ashes on the summit I so loved Let the Dolerite have what’s left of me. When the wind blows from the north the  scent of agathosma will enfold me. 

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The esteemed Eastern Cape poet, Don Maclennan. Photo: Ulandi du Plessis
The esteemed Eastern Cape poet, Don Maclennan. Photo: Ulandi du Plessis