Monday 31 May 2010

A poem by another former Dutch poet laureate - Gerrit Komrij


Er was onder mijn hersenpan
Geen schuld die me bezwaarde –
Ik kende niet de fado van
De laatste mens op aarde –

Ik was een doodgelukkig kind –
Er waren kinderen als ik –
Ik waaide mee op elke wind
En had dezelfde schik.

In dromen martelde ik verwoed,
Maar had van niets berouw –
Nu ben ik menselijk en goed
En heb het Spaans benauwd –


Within my brain no shadow of
Some heavy guilt since birth –
I did not know the fado of
The last man here on earth –

When young I saw the world bright-eyed –
And there were children just like me –
I swam along on every tide
Contented as can be.

In dreams I grimly turned the screw,
Remorse, no, not a shred –
Now I am human, good and true
And live in mortal dread –

Thursday 27 May 2010

Poem for the 'Lyrisch van Rembrandt' book by the recently deceased Dutch poet Driek van Wissen, former Poet Laureate


Al stak je vroeger met z’n beiden
Elkaar voortdurend naar de kroon
En riep je elk op hoge toon
Dat je jezelf kon onderscheiden
Door trots je veren uit te spreiden
En leek dat telkens wonderschoon,
Toch zien wij dat je doodgewoon
En lelijk kwam te overlijden.

En ondanks al je geldingsdrang
Ben jij inmiddels eeuwenlang
Alleen maar wijd en zijd bekend
Omdat je in je ondergang
Net als je dode concurrent
Met meesterhand geschilderd bent.


Although you both with utmost flair
Would constantly outdo the other
And shriek still louder than your brother
That you were quite beyond compare
By proudly fanning every feather
And finding that a cause to stare,
We notice that you came to share
A common nasty end together.

Despite your urge then to excel
For centuries your fame has rested
And far and wide been uncontested
On your perdition and, as well,
That of your rival, being scanned
And painted by a master’s hand.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Poem by the Danish 19th century poet N.F.S. Grundtvig (based on Psalm 19)

Lord, of your glory the heavens are telling

Lord, of Your glory the heavens are telling,
By the blue welkin the Master is praised,
Sun, moon and stars in their hosts ever swelling
Show us Your handiwork, leave us amazed.
But in Your house, in Your church on earth founded,
There of You every day speaks unto day,
There are Your sun and Your thunder expounded,
There even night will enlighten our way!

In truth no word or thought ever are given,
Which in Your house found their voice and true worth,
And far and wide as the stars roam the heaven
But that they comfort, enlighten on earth,
And with the sun will the word, as times alter,
Come as a bridegroom at first flush of dawn,
Follow its course through the sky without falter,
With sunset’s wreath be as hero adorned!

So does God’s sun travel on as ’tis bidden,
Light in truth, circling our earth in pure blaze,
Nought here below from its eye can be hidden,
Ne’er shall its radiant track be erased,
Bright as pure gold are the statutes You gave us,
Souls who revere them You never despise,
Your steadfast token to life e’er will save us,
By it are ignorant mortals made wise!

Monday 24 May 2010

Poem by the Dutch poet C.O. Jellema


A slender bird that rarely lets itself
be seen. Just recently it flew between this
house and that next door out of my
chestnut tree into next-door’s tall ash and called
cuckoo. And thus I recognised it.
What he sought there? not roaming over
scattered fields, but all at once
close by. A mocking bird. I would
have liked to call to someone: quick,
a cuckoo, cheated though, my dog
because of it erratically began
to bark away.
                        So with unasked-for
suddenness between two thoughts,
you’re squatting down to weed a flowerbed,
cuckoo rings out oh you what’s new how come
still here, not there already, off, a cry
from inside-out. You straighten up
with trails of catchweed on your hands,
a statue of stock-stillness for a moment
in all of that indifference
of growing, flowering, sunshine – while the dog,
who would be where you were, sleeps
blissfully, outstretched on the warm grass.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Poem by the Dutch writer Jan Hanlo

It was four thirty one April morning
I was out walking, whistling the St. Louis Blues
Though whistling it in my own fashion
While whistling I thought: may my whistling
resemble the song of the mistle thrush
And so help me, after a while my
whistling of the St. Louis Blues actually
resembled the song of the mistle thrush:
turdus viscivorus

Monday 17 May 2010

Poem by the Dutch writer Toon Tellegen


There are people who cautiously, almost imperceptibly
want to kiss someone
or who just want to let something be known, something tender.
There is no explanation for this.

Others are always on the point of leaving,
already have a hand on the door.

And yet others lie in each other’s arms
thinking of the enemy,
sometimes even keeping an ear to the ground.


They came towards each other.
‘I’m going this way,’ the one said.
‘And I’m going that,’ the other one said.
The one went one way,
the other the other.
A little later they stood still, turned round
and shouted:
‘I’ll think I’ll go your way instead!’

and once again they came towards each other,
embraced each other in passing, fleetingly and fervently,
and pursued their paths –

for no one had told them it was raining
and that the paths were impassable,
that they had to take cover, ‘Take cover!’
take cover in each other.


Sleeping Beauty was asleep.
Next to her lay a letter:
        ‘Don’t wake with a kiss.
        On no account.
        Not even after a hundred years.’

What am I to do? thought the prince. Go away?
Or should I kiss her, assuming she doesn’t really mean it?
I’m so tired, so utterly weary...

Sleeping Beauty peered through her eyelashes.
With the utmost effort she breathed
slowly and regularly.
She saw the door shut,
heard the creak of the stairs –
so tired, so achingly weary, each step –

and her heart was torn to shreds.


Some people are complete.
They tear themselves to shreds to no avail.
They remain whole.

Women take them with them,
carefully wrap their feelings around them,
tie them with a bow,
place a rose in them – a white rose –
and lay them aside. For some other time. When days are hard.

And they get up and tear themselves to shreds,
shriek and tear themselves to shreds,
become great and all-powerful and tear themselves to shreds,
but to no avail.


A man sought his fortune,
could not find it anywhere,
persuaded himself it existed even so
and that he knew it for sure,
beat his two fists on his floor:
‘I know it for sure!’

People stood on tiptoe,
peered through his windows, over his lace curtains,
at him, his floor, with his two fists...
and they ran off, stumbled, fell,
got up again and shouted,
with flags, bloodied hands:
‘It exists! It exists!’


I’ll leave once. After that I’ll stay.
Maybe I’ll leave twice. But then I’ll really stay...

When I’ve left, I’ll stop up once
and hesitate,
maybe twice – I’m not sure.

I’m right, I’ll think.
I’ll take the shortest route, the loveliest route,
and also the quickest route,
the route past chasms and elegant ruins,
the route past poppies, past screeching gulls –

the way home.

Saturday 15 May 2010

A poem by Aage Berntsen, featured in Carl Nielsen's 'Funen Springtime'


Is there anything as hideous as a male voice choir? A question often asked me here in Denmark, mainly because it is difficult to assemble a choir of males capable of singing with any degree of professionalism. And I say this with a love of Danish amateur mixed choirs, which I have sung in for decades. We are thin on the ground – first tenors and second basses (the intrepid explorers of the vocal spectrum) are worth their weight in gold.

So when Carl Nielsen, among the other gems included in his ‘Funen Springtime’ – a wonderful composition that would fare much better if there were a good translation of the songs into a world language – included a short four-part male song to be sung by old men with rheumatics, rejoicing at the return of the Danish spring, there was an obvious potential hit in there somewhere.

And, in a sense, a hit it has become. ‘Nu lægger vi piben...’, one of the Aage Berntsen poems used by Nielsen in his work, is a twelve-liner that nearly every Dane would recognise within a couple of seconds.

So here it is, in a world language. And while pondering on its subtleties, try listening to the recording of it by the Studenter-Sangforening, recorded on Helikon HCD 1027. If you can't get hold of this, there is a youtube version sung by silkeborg choirs, though this is mechanical and uninspiring - here.
Alas, it also proves exactly why male choirs are so dreaded – a disaster in terms of pulse, turgid and without flow. But the music is great.

Så sætter vi piben i ovnens krog

Så sætter vi piben i ovnens krog
og lukker den skindklædte bibelbog,
det er den velsignede forårstid,
og gigten er bleven lidt mere blid.

Vi tager hinanden i trofast hånd,
hver finger er krum som en kroget vånd,
langs haverne puster den milde vind,
der luner det kuldskære, gamle skind.

Men når vi har rokket en lille tur,
så længes vi efter en lille lur,
for gammelfolk hælder mod støvet ned
og længes mod hvilen i evighed.

We lay down our pipe in the stove’s far nook

We lay down our pipe in the stove’s far nook
and close now our leather-bound Holy Book,
the sweet blessèd springtime is here once more,
each twinge of rheumatics not quite so raw.

We firmly shake hands in a trusting bond
with fingers as bent as a crookèd wand,
each garden’s caressed by a gentle breeze
that warms our old hide that is quick to freeze.

But when we have shaken our limbs a bit.
we long for a nap and a place to sit,
for old folks know well that to dust they wend
and long for a rest that will never end.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Poem by the Dutch poet Wiel Kusters

The book that may be read when it is night
now gleams, on past and future lives sheds light.
In all it comprehends, from spark to sun:
each word came via another into sight.

(This poem adorns a wall in Maastricht - see here. Standing beside it is another Dutch poet, Albert Hagenaars. Click to enlarge.)

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Two prose poems by the Dutch writer René Huigen



Your Reverence, what are eight stivers for a confession compared with
the price a penitent must pay for his shameful acts? Envy is what I feel
towards the man I married and and who to the abhorrence of the Lord has
made images of the Great Designer’s hands. I curse his pride and affliction,
the lover of rest and shadow, that conceited fool, from whom he
learned to be a world citizen and to belong to everyone. Nemesis
he drew on a cloud of moderation above Chiusa, but vengeance
was mine in Emmerich, where, tormented by thunderstorms I tore up three
of his portraits. Jealous am I of all those that he has immortalised,
towards the nameless just as much as his friends. They belong to the intimate
world of his hands, whose proportions reflect the musical intervals
of the harmony of the spheres. Brought to life in so masterly
a manner with velvet touch, they comprise mountains, valleys
and rivers, all herbs, all wood, all quartz and pebble stones, and everything
that has lines, veins and furrows. But it is the selfsame mountains,
valleys and rivers that now divide us. Since the time he sketched my dear
Agnes and later, with coarser strokes, had depicted me as a farmer’s wife
he has never touched me again. I am fallowland to him.
He portrayed himself as an effeminate coxcomb in a low shirt trimmed
with gold. In his fingers, as a token of his power, in both elevated
and down-to-earth fashion, to jeer at all that he loves, a prickly thistle,
with a purple crown, with which to crown the Son that he could not
give me, the Eryngium, also known as man’s faith. Amen


I have dared look the world straight in the eye, a fur collar
and veiled look have little changed that, for he is only vain
to those who do not fear God. And besides: no matter who I drew –
Lucas van Leyden in silverpoint or Nicholas, the jeweller, or little
Bernard of Brussels, Florent Nepotis, the organist of Lady Margaret
and secretary Peter, the angelic face of Johann or my dear
dear Agnes in charcoal – I portrayed them with equal devotion,
as I did you, my dear Saint Hieronymus. Man has always been
central to me, his complete, round form at the middle point of His
magnificent edifice – the firmament. Thus did the Ancients classify
their temples, public buildings and other structures according to the
construction of the human body, and no limbs exist that do not
refer to a constellation, a star, an intelligence or a divine name.
I realise that for many people this can be a leaden burden,
that only few are able to bear. Therefore, on Melancholia, I placed
compasses in the hands of a Genius who connects all that
surrounds us with the unmoved core of love and justice. His gaze
he has turned aside, composedly deferred looking, no longer vain
in the eyes of Him whom he fears, but become a man in his
own right. Amongst the symbols of the ancient science the tools
of such finite art lie idle – a plane, a hammer, a saw,
lost at his feet. Now that grace is no longer poured down on him
from above, that which gleams on the horizon makes him feel dejected,
and, above a nimbus of sunlight, he sees, on a spot that it cannot
illuminate, in black and white, a rainbow rent the welkin, he thinks thus
to weigh up the world, but feels only the immense weight of his head!

Monday 10 May 2010

A poem by the Dutch poet Eva Gerlach

man alive

He’s there outside, a fly lands on his tongue and
he spits it out, checks if it’s living, allows it                      
to dry in his hand, with his stick touches all of the
mulberry tree’s yellow leaves, each one in turn,
they fall at his feet. And the crow
forsakes him not.
You want him, he’s never again that man out there,

you’ve only just seen him and yet: at no time before
so perfectly framed in the light, man a-
live, all you know of him touches now
all that you see of him, there in the crook
of the question-mark mulberry tree
standing briefly translucent,

how you see him, his whole face
uplifted, the triangle under his chin, with the throat
most vulnerable, the skin there
now taut – never yours in this way, except when
inside you perhaps, forgotten – you want him, rap
on the window, he sees you, the fly he

throws up from his hand and upward it flies.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Another poem by David Koker (b. nov. 1921, Judendurchgangslager Vught 1943-1944, Auschwitz 1944-1945, died feb. '45 on the way to Dachau)

Ditty of the bitter end. Rondel

A dismal fate we’ve been accorded
sheer boredom to the bitter end
when the last few of us as sordid
smoke-pall from the stack ascend

So too my verse is disappearing
before that happens though I’ve penned
who knows if it will reach your hearing
this ditty of the bitter end

The smoke ends up by dissipating
and I have no more strength to spend
Better to straightway face cremating
as smoke-pall from a stack ascend
than years of boredom and of waiting
with even so that bitter end.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Today's poem is by the Dutch writer Ida Gerhardt


Even though swans we had never yet seen,
should on the water we chance to descry them,
oh, we would find ourselves joy-stricken by them –
laughing and crying maybe.

Even though swans we had never yet seen,
wings thrashing loudly, were they to fly over,
oh, we would see off this darkness for ever –
finally break free maybe.