One of South Africas most gifted poets, Ingrid Jonker, committed suicide in 1965.
One of South Africas most gifted poets, Ingrid Jonker, committed suicide in 1965.

Ingrid Jonker is perhaps best known for her suicide. She walked into the sea at Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town, in the early hours of July 20, 1965 and so ended her short, talented life as one of South Africa’s most gifted poets.

At the time she was in the grip of an enormous emotional upheaval, not an uncommon state in her life.

She has become during the past half-century an icon for a number of reasons: her anti-establishment political views (as expressed in her poems) and perhaps for the passion and drama of her tumultuous love life.

Probably the crowning glory of her fame came when President Nelson Mandela quoted her in his inaugural address to Parliament on May 24, 1994, when he read her poem, Child shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga.

He went on to say: “She was both a poet and a South African.

“She was both an Afrikaner and an African.

“She was both an artist and a human being.

“In the night of despair she celebrated hope. Confronted by death she asserted the beauty of life.”

Petrovna Metelerkamp is the author of an earlier Afrikaans biography of her life, Beeld van ’n Digterslewe, published 10 years ago.

This edition, translated into English, is an expanded view of Jonker’s life and work.

It contains much new material, as the biographer puts it: “A rich collection of facts, photographs, letters, articles and memories.”

She adds: “I decided to proffer all the material gathered objectively, without comment.”

It is left to the reader to interpret the material here and the influences surrounding her life.

In recent years, two plays, a dance drama, documentaries and two films have been based on Jonker’s life, and a number of her poems have been set to music.

She had often been compared to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf because of her suicide, and even to Marilyn Monroe, because of her love affairs with novelists Andre Brink and Jack Cope, among others, all of which ended poorly.

This book deals successively with her childhood from 1935 to 1951, her life in Cape Town between 1952 and 1965, and her brief marriage to Piet Venter from 1957 to 1959.

It also deals with the “Clifton years” from 1960 to 1962, her trip abroad with Brink in 1963 and 1964, and her tragic death in 1965.

This is a book to be savoured, even though it is also attractive enough to be used as a coffee-table book. But its real impact comes from carefully reading and reflecting on the material within.

I valued it immensely.

* Ingrid Jonker: A Poet’s Life

by Petrovna Metelerkamp (Hemel and See Publishers)