Life History

Introduction and Life History written in 1986 by Gus Ferguson1 and Alan James2

I met Roy Joseph Cotton in the early ’70s when I was working nights and weekends in his father’s pharmacy and when he was still a medical student.  Roy was often in and out of the pharmacy but we scarcely registered each other’s presence until one evening when I was rather ineptly expounding to a fellow pharmacist on the Prometheus theme in John Updike’s novel, The Centaur.  Roy had been eavesdropping and ambushed the conversation with an exuberance that stopped just short of a physical attack.  At that time he was in the intense throes of composing a vast word drunk play called The Watcher which was about revolution and suburban angst, and which had as its underpinning the Promethean myth.  Roy was stunned and delighted by the coincidence of his myth being discussed slap in the humdrum centre of his father’s dispensary.

We became friends and over the next year or so we spent hours in the pharmacy discussing writing, art and music.  Roy showed me his poems which I loved, and spoke passionately about his impossibly ambitious plans for an almost infinite play cycle called The Dreamsatiyre Multimythicum which he saw as his magnum opus.

In Quarry 78179 Lionel Abrahams published a clutch of Cotton poems which he dubbed in the introduction as hallucinatory satire, a term that aptly trapped the mood of Roy’s work at that time.  Since then Roy has had dozens of poems published in nearly all the South African poetry journals and has had one of his plays, Ashbin Plaza, produced at the now defunct Glass Theatre in Cape Town.  He has also had a poem published in the British magazine Other Poetry and another in the British anthology Senior Poetry Anthology.

Roy’s later poems still have elements of satire, attacking the smugness of suburban life and the uneasy comfort of privilege; but since events have caught up with his vision, his work now seems far from hallucinatory.  In contrast to and in balance with his apocalyptic lyricism, there is a strong religious strain in his work which is manifest as a Blakean innocence which I think is the most attractive feature of his poetry.  That and his sheer rejoicing in words.

His room in his parents’ Goodwood home was a planetarium of  his personal cosmos. His large record collection reflected the best in Rock.  Dire Straits, Dylan, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Weather Report, Bob Marley, The Velvet Underground, King Crimson and Otis Redding.  Roy wrote his poems to a constant strain of music.  The bookshelves around his desk and bed were crammed with Brecht (his favourite playwright), Shakespeare, Yeats, Baudelaire (his favourite poet), Goethe, Eliot, Ibsen, Browning, Orwell, Dostoyevski, Neruda, Pound, Peake, Pinter, Jane Austen, James Joyce, Stevenson and Pynchon.  In my readings of his work, I detect the clear but weak influence of Bob Dylan and the far stronger profounder influence of Baudelaire.  His walls were covered with carefully spaced, telling images from record covers, postcards, photographs and pieces of poems and prose.  For me, the most poignant image on the wall was the painting which appears on the cover of this volume.  It is a rather amateurish picture by Roy of a smudged and subtly awry Greek temple on top of a hill under a turbulent sky.  This notion of a classical order under the assault of unrestrainable romantic forces lurks behind the verbal latticework of many of the poems in this collection.

On Roy’s death, part of the desolation that I felt was caused by the suspicion that Roy’s work would fade from memory before we realised what we were missing.  This collection will go a long way towards bringing the Cotton poems to the attention of a wider audience.  I feel very privileged to have been able to share with Alan James in the selection and editing of this volume which is, at the very least, representative of Roy Joseph Cotton’s work.


Roy Joseph Cotton, who died in March 1985, spent most of his 31 years in and around Cape Town.  He first wrote poetry when he was at school, but it was only after his breakdown during his fifth year of medical studies at UCT that he decided to concentrate his energies on writing.  He accordingly enrolled to study English at UCT, but soon dropped out as he felt that the institutional, academic approach to literature would destroy his ability to write poetry.  His literary education was therefore, in the end, informal; but it was continuous and extensive.  He read widely in British, American and European literatures, and he wrote and he wrote.

The lack of a formal literary education went hand-in-hand with a fervid imagination, an unquenchable compulsion to write, and a whole-hearted faith in and devotion to his role and calling as a literary artist.  These factors allowed Roy to be innocent of the literary pretension and bookish sort of self-consciousness which easily informs work by poets who have a more orthodox literary background.  They granted to his poetry an idiosyncrasy, a power and an appealing naivety which seem to consume and excuse the obviousness and clumsiness with which he sometimes employed literary devices – alliteration, simile and metaphor being used frequently.  They also set him free to break up patterns of expectation (whether of sound, syntax or semantics), to concoct unusual language constructs, to dislocate language into meaning, and thereby to unveil reality and give it a fresh immediacy.  Semantic problems, strange constructs, difficulties of sequence, awkwardness of language, lack of polish and urbanity, a disregard for objectivity, the foregrounding of personality – these are all part of his style, adding flavour and intensity to the poetry and yielding brilliant, sometimes surreal effects.  Certainly, his work is at the other end of the spectrum from the carefully deliberated and processed, well-polished and painstakingly placed words and lines of more ‘literary’ poets whose w6rk yields nicely to close reading techniques.

On the other hand, these factors supported his apparent unwillingness to act as a stern critic of his poetry.  One gets the impression that Roy did not distance himself from his work; that he did not pay careful attention to problems that his languages brought about; that his control over his language-forming habits was not always fully conscious and complete.  But even if this is true, does it matter, and is one really entitled to expect or demand otherwise?  And in-any event, it was a small price to pay for his kind of freedom, and I am pleased that he paid it.

There were of course other’ elements in his life which were central to his writing- the love of his family, his recurrent illness, religion, music … If writing was his first love, then music was his second. jazz, Rock and Country music-recordings were the constant background to his daily activities.  And if he had any idol, it was Bob Dylan, to whom he accorded an almost

mystic status.  Like Dylan, Roy had a deep spiritual sensitivity; most of his work is imbued with a sense of the spiritual, amounting at times to mysticism; there is longing and desolation; there is joy and acknowledgement; there is wonder and mystery.  He could not see anything without also seeing that it had a spiritual dimension.  Coupled with this spirituality was a strong dislike of commerce and worldliness, and a hatred of sin.

It was this spiritual understanding and commitment which enabled him to hold in tension the contradictions of the world that he knew: a life, a nation and a land at once both beautiful and cruel, ordered and confused, promising and hopeless, open and closed, a whole and fragmented.  Without this, the absurdity would have overwhelmed him far sooner than it did.

During his adult writing career, which spanned a period of about ten years, Roy produced, at a rough guess, more than ten thousand poems as well as numerous dramatic and prose pieces.  Part of this large corpus of poetry is either over-private and inaccessible, or, contrariwise, trite and uninteresting; but as this collection evidences, there is much that is profitable and precious.  As editors, Gus Ferguson and I worked independently of one another, but found that we were able to agree very closely on the poems which each of us proposed for inclusion in this volume.  The poems which we have selected, have been taken in the main from the body of unpublished work; they have been arranged not in order of composition but, very loosely, by theme: family poems, landscape poems, poems to women (real, imaginary, symbolic) …

I wish to end on a more personal note.  There is an authenticity about Roy’s poetry which I find compelling, devastating even; and the mediating effects of the poetry have brought me to places where I have been forced to re-think and re-feel my relationships with, and understanding of life/death, God/myself, language and the landscapes and people around me.  Ag, man?  Ag, man.  Ag, man!


One thought on “Life History

  1. Inspiring and well written. I knew Roy and his family personally and remember him fondly. I also know that his family treasure his memory.

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