Making sense of touch: A Q&A with Hugh Lewin.

Poet and author Hugh Lewin talks to The English Experience about his celebrated poem Touch, candidly sharing his ideas on what students might gain from reading it, offering suggestions to help them understand the poem better, and explaining what he meant when he wrote “I’ve learnt to know now the meaning of untouchable”.

English Experience: How does it feel to know that your poem has been listed as a set work?

Hugh Lewin: It is a great honour and, of course, very flattering to be grouped with such literary giants as Shakespeare, Coleridge and Keats. I am very proud of Touch, but it is not really my poem anymore. It has a life of its own now. In fact, ever since Dave Evans took a copy of the poem with him when he was released from prison it has had legs of its own. Lots of different people have picked the poem up, used it and translated it.

EE: How do you think high school students will respond to it?

HL: I would like to think they would respond positively to the poem because its theme is one that is universally understandable. Touch is something that everyone can relate to because it is one of the most basic and strongest senses. Hopefully, it will also resonate with students because of situations they have personally experienced.

EE: What prompted you to write the poem?

HL: A fellow political prisoner, Ivan Schermbrucker, came to my cell one evening just before lock up, rattled on my door and said “you have got to write up what has happened and what they’ve done to us”. I started writing Touch that evening.

EE: What inspired you to choose the theme you did?

HL: I had been thinking about the senses and how they are affected in prison, the ways in which they are deadened by the experience. It was also the way we were treated by the guards when we were transferred from our cells to the workshops and back. The routine involved being searched three or four times each day. It was horrible. You had to stand there while they slapped and prodded you. It seemed a complete contradiction of touch as a means of connection, as something that should be tender and comforting.

EE: How long did it take you to write the poem?

HL: It poured out fairly automatically and only took two or three nights to write. That’s been my experience of writing poetry. Once you find the right image or idea, the poem almost takes over and develops itself.

EE: What thoughts and feelings does the poem conjure in you when you read it today?

HL: It’s very emotional because the poem reminds me of so many aspects of what it was like being in prison: the violence, cruelty and brutality. Reading it remains an intense experience for me because the memories it evokes are still very strong. Prison remains a touchstone for me and is still very much part of my life, even though I was released in 1971. I still refer back to the experience, whether I want to or not. I recollect how we reacted to various incidents as prisoners and wonder what I would do if I was ever sent back. It was a terribly cataclysmic, but important part of my life.

EE: What advice would you give students to help them understand the poem?

HL: Think about meaning and how something can, ultimately, become its own opposite. Think about how a word like ‘touch’ has such as multitude of meanings, connotations and contradictions. Reflect on the contradictions and ironies in the poem. Perhaps consider how a simple experience like touch can be explored from different points of view. It might also be useful to experiment and explore the connotations and contradictions present in other senses, such as sight and smell, as well.

EE: What would you like students to gain from reading the poem?

HL: A deeper understanding of their emotions and the world they live in. Perhaps also an appreciation for the power of poetry and how useful and important it can be when it comes to describing emotions and feelings. If the poem also helps them to appreciate what was happening in this country before they were born, the sacrifices made in the run up to 1994, I’d be very pleased. It’s also very important for students to think about prisons and the way we punish people as a society. To discover what actually happens in our prisons and consider what this says about us as a nation. To reflect on punishment and retribution and what our opinions regarding these subjects reveal about ourselves. Of course, it would also be great if the poem encourages students to write poems themselves and to explore the role of literature in society.

EE: What did you mean by “I’ve learnt to know now the meaning of untouchable”?

HL: It is, primarily, a reference to the Pariah or ‘Harijans’ in the Indian caste system, the people with the lowest status who are considered ‘outcasts’ and ‘untouchables’ — people who, literally, cannot be touched by others. Not only did this resonate quite strongly and personally with us as cut off, confined political prisoners, but it also echoes the experience of every black South African forced to carry a ‘dompas’ (passbook) during apartheid.

EE: Do you believe that prisoners can genuinely be rehabilitated?

HL: That is a complex question and there is no easy, simple answer. However, if you look at the nature of criminality and the current state of our prisons, you would probably have to concede that it is very difficult for genuine rehabilitation to take place. Rehabilitation has to be the main aim of imprisonment, but, having lived in a place like Pretoria Central Prison, I don’t believe half of the people inside are ever going to be meaningfully rehabilitated.

EE: Lastly, is another book or poetry perhaps imminent?

HL: My latest book Stones against the Mirror will be published by Umuzi in April this year.