Opperman, D(iederik) J(ohannes) 1914-1985
OPPERMAN, D(iederik) J(ohannes) 1914-1985
PERSONAL: Born September 29, 1914, in Dundee district, South Africa; died September 22, 1985; married Marié van Reenan (a writer); children: Heila, Trienke, Diederi. Education: University of Cape Town, M.A., D.Lit.
CAREER: Poet, playwright, essayist, critic, and teacher. University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, professor of Afrikaans literature, 1960-79.
Negester oor Ninevé, 1945, reprinted, Tafelberg (Cape Town, South Africa), 1974.
Heilige Beeste (title means "Holly Cattle"), 1945, reprinted, Tafelberg (Cape Town, South Africa), 1979.
Joernaal van Jorik, 1949.
Engel uit die Klip, 1950, reprinted, Tafelberg (Cape Town, South Africa), 1978.
Digter van Dertig, 1953.
Periandros van Korinthe, 1954.
Blom en Baaierd (poetry), Nasional Boekhandel (Cape Town, South Africa), 1956.
Dolosse, Nasionale Boekhandel (Cape Town, South Africa), 1963.
Kuns-mis Kor reis na Carrara, 1964.
Edms Bpk, 1970.
Voëlvry,: Kroniekspel van 'n voortrek, Human en Roussea (Cape Town, South Africa), 1971.
Verspreide Opstelle (essays and lectures; title means "Scattered Writings"), edited and introduction in English by J. C. Kannemeyer, Human & Rousseau (Cape Town, South Africa), 1977.
Junior Verseboek, [Pretoria, South Africa], 1978.
Koma uit 'n bamboesstok, synde die mirakelagtige terugkeer ná lawerversaking van ene Marco Polo, Human & Rousseau (Cape Town, South Africa), 1979.
Versmelde Poësie (collected poetry), Human & Rousseau (Tafelberg, South Africa), 1987.
Groot Verseboek 2000, edited by André P. Brink, Tafelberg (Cape Town, South Africa), 2000.
(With H. J. Van Zyl) Klankies vir kleuters, Nasionale Boekhandel (Cape Town, South Africa), 1958.
Groot Verseboek, Tafelberg (Cape Town, South Africa), 1971.
Klein Verseboek (children's poetry), Nasional Boekhandel (Cape Town, South Africa), 1959, reprinted, Tafelberg (Cape Town, South Africa), 1976.
(With H. J. Van Zyl) Afrikaanse digkuns (poetry), Via Afrika (Cape Town, South Africa), 1959.
Spirit of the Vine: Republic of South Africa, Human & Rousseau (Cape Town, South Africa), 1968.
(With H. J. Van Zyl) Klankies vir kleintjies, Tafelberg, (Cape Town, South Africa), 1979.
SIDELIGHTS: Although he wrote essays and plays and was a South African literature scholar, D. J. Opperman is remembered best for his Afrikaans poetry. Considered one of the most important poets of South Africa, Opperman was among a new group of poets that began to publish in South Africa around 1940. Opperman quickly moved to the forefront of these poets with his volume of poems titled Heilige Beeste. In this and subsequent volumes, Opperman showed himself to be a versatile poet who wrote verse that was sober and, for the most part, devoid of sentimentality. He often wrote about the paradoxical natures of African and Western cultures; and much of his work was inspired by the political and social situations existing in South Africa, beginning with the Boer War early in the twentieth century.
By the time his 1979 collection of poems, Komas uit 'n bamboessok, synde die mirakelagtige terugkeer ná lawerversaking van ene Marco Polo, was published, Opperman was considered the doyen of Afrikaans poetry. His previous collection of poems, Edms Bpk, had been published nine years earlier. After its publication, Opperman had become extremely ill and eventually lapsed into a coma. South African newspapers already had his obituary written and plans were underway to give him posthumous awards. But Opperman recovered and began writing poetry again. His subsequent book Komas uit 'n bamboessok includes poems about the travels of Marco Polo that serve as an inspiration and metaphor for Opperman to reassess his own roots and life. For example, the poem "Comas from a Bamboo Cane" is a discussion of Opperman's months spent in a coma as well as a story about silkworm smuggling by Marco Polo. Barend J. Toerien, writing in World Literature Today, commented, "Opperman's poems are therefore treasures smuggled more or less from the beyond, in the way of Polo's." Toerien also noted the volume's careful construction as a unit and that it required several "careful readings, in spite of the simplicity of the language on the surface." Toerien concluded: "One can only admire and salute a poet who recasts and simplifies his poetic diction, one who rarely throws overboard his previous mainstay, rhyme, and who can construct a book of poems like a work of architecture."
In 1987, two years after Opperman's death, his poems were collected in a volume titled Versamelde Poësie. Toerien, once again writing in World Literature Review, noted that, except for Komas uit 'n bamboessok, Opperman focused on writing poems "in strict verse forms of fixed stanza length and rhyme schemes" and that his poems included "love poems, satires, parodies, and much more." Toerien also said, "Opperman tried to encompass the entire range of South Africa in all its variety." This effort included such "cycle" poems as "Brandaan," about Saint Brendan, in which the various South African races are described, and "Staking op die suikerplantasie" ("Strike at the Sugar Plantation"), which focuses on the racial tensions of South Africa.
Opperman was also an accomplished essayist and lecturer, many of which are included in the volume Verspreide Opstelle. Calling him "one of the formative voices of Afrikaans literature, not only as a poet but also as critic and commentator," reviewer Denis Diamond noted in World Literature Today that Opperman was a "concerned man" who challenged South African writers "to play meaningful parts in the reformation of South African Society." The volume is broken up into three sections: criticisms on Afrikaans literature; various essays written after 1950, and predictions about South Africa's future, including commentary on the need to reduce racial tensions. Noting that Opperman's essays provide "invaluable comment upon the relationship of literature to society and political events in South Africa," Diamond concluded his review by saying, "He has made it more than possible for others to answer his call: he has effectively made it their burden and their challenge."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
D. J. Opperman: Dolosgooier van die Woord, Tafelberg (Cape Town, South Africa), 1974.
Kannemeyer, John Christoffel, Kroniek van klip en ster: 'n studie van die oeuvre van D. J. Opperman, Academica (Pretoria, South Africa), 1979.
World Literature Today, winter, 1979, Denis Diamond, review of Verspreide Opstelle, pp. 174-175; summer, 1979, Frans Van Rosevelt, review of Groot Verseboek, p. 549; spring, 1980, Barend J. Toerien, review of Komas uit 'n bamboessok, p. 328; summer, 1988, Barend J. Toerien, review of Versamelde Poësie, p. 502.*