South African poetry – Touch by Hugh Lewin

Hugh Lewin was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. I recommend you read his biography below before reading this poem.


When I get out
I’m going to ask someone
to touch me
very gently please
and slowly,
touch me
I want
to learn again
how life feels.

I’ve not been touched
for seven years
for seven years
I’ve been untouched
out of touch
and I’ve learnt
to know now
the meaning of

Untouched – not quite
I can count the tings
that have touched me

One: fists
At the beginning
fierce mad fists
beating beating
till I remember
Don’t touch me
please don’t touch me.

Two: paws
The first four years of paws
every day
patting paws, searching
– arms up, shoes off
legs apart –
prodding paws, systematic
heavy, indifferent
probing away
all privacy.

I don’t want fists and paws
I want
to want to be touched
and to touch,
I want to feel alive
I want to say
when I get out

Here I am
please touch me.

What is the poem Touch about?

Extracted from:

The poem “Touch” is an attempt to capture his feelings during those horrific years in gaol. Upon being released from prison in 1971, Lewin chose to leave the country on what was known as a “permanent departure permit”. In other words, he could never return to the place of his birth.

About Hugh Lewin

Anti-apartheid author Hugh Lewin dies
Hugh Lewin

Hugh Lewin grew up during South Africa’s apartheid years. Upon leaving school, he became a journalist, working for Pietermaritzburg’s Natal WitnessDrum and Golden City Post.

His observation of the repressive South African regime eventually became too much for him and he resorted to fighting vehemently to bring about its downfall. In 1965 he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for sabotage. The poem “Touch” is an attempt to capture his feelings during those horrific years in gaol.

Upon being released from prison in 1971, Lewin chose to leave the country on what was known as a “permanent departure permit”. In other words, he could never return to the place of his birth. He would spend ten years in exile in London, followed by a further ten years in Zimbabwe.

He returned to South Africa in 1992 upon the cessation of the apartheid system and thereupon became the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg. Today he is a freelance media trainer.

Lewin has written several books and poems, and he has been the recipient of several literary awards.

The poet says the following of this poem: “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,” he says, “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. It was a terribly cataclysmic but important part of my life.”

Lewin wishes that readers of this poem would arrive at a deeper understanding of their own emotions and the world in which they live, as well as 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,” he says, “and the sacrifices made in the run up to the 1994 elections, I’d be very pleased.”

“Of course, it would also be great,” he added, “if the poem encourages students to write poems themselves and to explore the role of literature in society.”

Note: Excerpts from an interview of the poet are taken from:
The English Experience

62 thoughts on “South African poetry – Touch by Hugh Lewin

    1. Hi Jacqui, this is my son, Gregory’s, favourite SA poem. He recommended it to me. I had also never considered this aspect of touch before. My sons can be overwhelming with all their hugs and sometimes I get a bit irritated with their expressions of affection. I felt a bit bad about it when I read this.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. wow, a powerful poem. I admire Hugh’s conviction to stand up against apartheid, even though it lead to jail and denouncing his country. I’m glad he was able to return, and be an inspiration for others…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jim, he is an inspiration. He visited my son’s school in 2019 and Greg found his talk very inspiring. Greg is a champion of causes and helped organise a campaign for the school to allow a transgender person to participate in the girls races in sports day. He is always involved in such causes and also championed flying the Pride flag in June this year for the first time.

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  2. Did stir deep childhood emotions within me when i read this poem. If his goal was also for us to draw on our iwn emotions and memories as well as to empathise with his and others, i think i might have got it. He is a truly brilliant man

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  3. More dramatic monologue. Thank God for Tennyson, right? Once again, the sad adverbs in the first stanza pull a couple of what could have been knock out punches. Maybe I’m too rehearsed in the Romantics and the 20th century from Eliot to Thomas or poetic explication that certain language choices fail to resonate. This is an otherwise exquisite, visceral as well as cerebral work with power and brevity. But damn, you know? Nowhere near as conservative as Wordsworth I often find myself understanding his position on “poetic diction” as a moral issue. The words are there, the language is there. Must we denigrate the greatest literary artform with casual language? Well, that’s my thinky question of the week. Off to write some pulp trash where such questions are irrelevant. Thanks for the poetry!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Lots of people, myself included, were moved by the lyrics of protest pop songs, the lunacy bloodbath of Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, even the dust bowl. The question I pose is does that make them literature? Time will tell. It’s equally difficult to discern folk art from “real” art. Or is there a difference at all? Just a question. Never hurts to flex our brains on these matters.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. For me, poetry is an expression of strong emotion and mine probably usually takes the form of a protest against corporates an other societal issues. So for me, this would be a form of art as well as a mode of protest. An interesting debate.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Very emotional. We all know only too well about isolation and lack of touch after the past 18 months, but add to that the unwelcome “touch” and the length of the detention…I admire so much someone who lives their beliefs with such courage. Most of us are too afraid. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s amazing the depth feeling a poem can communiate. This one is a glimpse into an aching soul. I’m glad the author is in a better situation now, though the memories will always be with him.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Robbie, this is sad but lovely too.

    Hugh’s story and poem brought a tear to my eyes. SA history so sad. It is so good he was able to return.

    His poem, gosh, I can’t imagine. Freedom is to be cherished. Free speech- to be honoured.

    Tears. Thank God for a happy ending. But being in prison gosh.

    Liked by 2 people

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