Nationality: South African and British. Born: Peter Robert Charles Adams in Cape Town, 11 March 1933. Education: Attended Cambridge, East London, and Sea Town high schools, Cape Town; University of Cape Town, B.A. in psychology and English 1952, Cert. Ed. 1962. Career: Has worked as a journalist, psychologist, clerk, and English teacher in seven countries. Awards: South African State Poetry prize, 1963; Festival of Rhodesia prize, 1970; Bridport Arts Festival prize, 1984. Address: 7 New End, Hampstead, London N.W.3, England.
The Land at My Door. Cape Town, Human and Rousseau, 1965.
Grass for the Unicorn. Cape Town, Juta, 1975.
Cries & Silences: Selected Poems. Randburg, South Africa, Baobab Books, 1996.*
Critical Study: In Momentum: On Recent South African Writing, edited by M.J. Daymond, J.U. Jacobs, and Margaret Lenta, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, University of Natal Press, 1984.
Perseus Adams comments:
(1970) Major themes: 1) subjects where the life-death, light-dark juxtaposition is sharply counterpointed; 2) creatures, people or animals, who have been robbed by life; 3) a metaphysical probing to discover our rightful place in the universe.
I employ a free verse with powerful resonant rhythms and complex tones. My style can be harshly decisive or gently lyrical, depending on the subject matter or mood. I have been called my country's "foremost lyricist," but this is not a title I care for.* * *
Perseus Adams is essentially a lyric poet. Even when he has grouped his poems under objective, thematic headings, the personal and subjective element comes through in the rhythms, texture, and structure of his verse. The mood varies from a Hopkinsian delight in nature and the joyful spontaneity of youth to a more introspective frame of mind in which the lessons of experience are mulled over. If this results at times in too explicitly didactic a strain, the poet's seriousness of purpose and lyrical intensity rescue his work from the commonplace or trivial. His first volume, The Land at My Door, with its division of poems into "Morning" and "Afternoon," reflects the two contrasting moods. It is a grouping reminiscent of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience without the conscious parallelism and antithesis. The mood of the "Morning" poems is closer to a Wordsworthian sense of awe, as in the closing section of the sonnet "Dawn on Table Mountain":
Nor has there ever been a presence of air to match
That tumult of impending absence that is
An African sky, and blue, so blue you feel
You are gazing at innocence and sacredness blended.
Now under that dome of an incandescent eye, three play
Their parts on this altar above the world: Grass, dew and sun
While joy shivers a watching bush-dove with supernal lightning.
The poems of this first volume are characterized by a somewhat indiscriminate abundance and variety of images, at times giving an impression of contrived ingenuity. The sentiment, too, can be forced and stilted, imposed rather than issuing from the poetic experience; this is true particularly of the closing lines of "Widow" and the self-consciously didactic "A Sky's Blue Innocence." It is worth noting that these failures of tone and technique occur mainly in poems whose subject matter lies outside the writer's range of experience. The clichés and ritual gestures of "The War Veteran," for instance, reveal a sensibility not fully engaged by its subject. Against these one can place poems such as "Crying Baby in a Grocer Shop," in which the apparently commonplace is experienced in a way that invests it with a humane profundity, or "My Grandmother," where the closing stanzas present a beautifully sustained and entirely convincing vision of age advancing toward death and decay.
In Grass for the Unicorn, published ten years after The Land at My Door, the verbal profusion of the earlier volume has given way to a markedly sparer style and a more austere, controlled expression of feeling. An empathic mode of perception is one of Adams's strengths as a poet, and this is finely realized in "Mountain Protea," which also illustrates his flexible but highly functional command of form:
if—as I'm inclined to believe—
empathy is the art that comes
most naturally to the deeply quiet
this sun pyx has it: high on Devil's Peak
with watch-fire head, all ears pricked
to enter into leopard and hawk
accenting their speed, a fleck in their sight
its tense repose, its dovetailing jet
theirs when they hunt …
Many of Adams's poems are inspired by his native Cape Town, South Africa, its environs and peoples. He observes keenly but with a sense of humility and awe, as in the fine, and Frost-like, lines of "Bird Shrine," in which the teacher-pupil roles are reversed as the normally backward class truant is transfigured by the "feathered glory" of his pigeons. Satire and protest are foreign to Adams's genius, and when—as in "Indigenous" and "Woltemade"—he resorts to overt social or political comment, he reduces the force and expansiveness of his lyrical gift. Similarly, though his metrical virtuosity is amply illustrated in Grass for the Unicorn, his experiments with typography and visual effect are extrinsic to his essentially metaphoric style and have little but novelty to commend them. The precision, force, and clarity encapsulated in a poem such as "Sea Scalpel" point to a salient aspect of Adams's poetry—his craftsmanship—and explain why he selected as a motto for his second volume the remark by the Argentinean poet Arturo Aquino that he preferred poetry to prose because "poetry drops like an eagle and stabs before you know." The other major feature of Adams's poetry is his humanistic vision; he never forgets the Wordsworthian admonition that the poet is a man speaking to men. It is this probing but sympathetic awareness that informs his most successful efforts, as in the poignant "Elegy for the Pure Act."