Friday 30 September 2011

Another poem with the word 'token' - this time by the Dutch poet Menno Wigman


Heaven consults no bible, and no star
spells the koran. But the good reader sees
each token as a blessing from on high.

Once you have visited a skinflint’s pad.
He wasn’t bad, poured draughts of air, served stones
and gladly toasted all his charms away.

Once you have shared drinks with a millionaire.
His laugh was loud, his gaze was solid, as
the money was that paid his fancy’s bill.

Don’t rest. Don’t rest until your pocket burns
with stars of granite. Lead your bank a dance.
Squander away. Follow your fancy. See

each token as a blessing from on high.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

One of mine this time, also in Danish translation


tailing brussels
ma sliced off just enough
for the outer leaves
darker and more bitter
to be easily removed

that done
she made a quick cut
across each base
then another
the sign of the cross

why the cuts? i asked
to make sure they cook
to perfection
said ma

whenever i tail
at the sign of the cross
ma comes alive

she does this
in remembrance of me


ma skar lige tilpas
af roden på rosenkål
så at de ydre blade
mørkere og mere bitre
lettere kunne fjernes

når dette var gjort
lagde hun et hurtigt snit
tværs over hver flade
og så endnu et
i form af et kors

hvorfor snittene? spurgte jeg
for at sikre at de bliver
perfekt kogte
sagde ma

hver gang jeg skærer roden
i form af et kors
bliver ma levende

dette gør hun
til min ihukommelse

Monday 26 September 2011

A poem by the Dutch poet P.C. Boutens


To J. Th. Toorop
after having seen the crayon drawing of the same name

You who the coloured splendour of the East
Exalted in our paler Northern sun,
Until our joy-infatuated eyes
Gleam after gleam once more gained from your eyes;
You who pursued with keenly whetted point
The silent symbol’s tautly vaulting grace,
The blatant power: of gesture hard at work;
That caught the earthly star of childlike face,
Whose rays our quivering emotion saw,
In the sure stroke of pure artistic line, –
You came, oh happy pilgrim, to my land,
My blond-duned Zealand island, as it lies
Forever for me in the mystic gleam
Of all the many suns that this life brings,
Youth and both joy and pain, and once more joy?...
This is the inner country of my dream;
For all horizons shimmer in the gleam
Of summer evening, and the foreground lies
In fleeting shadow of a shower just past
Through which God’s radiant arc bends to the earth:
A young man whets his brightly flashing scythe,
And next him stock-still in the evening light:
A country maid aglow with red as by the dream
In which she lives and cannot comprehend.

Another poem by the Dutch poet Jacques Bloem


The summer night will soon pale into morning;
As yet no trace of light invades the skies.
Only the rain’s small voice before the dawning
That at my open window sighs.

Though bed was sought to ease life’s long chastising
By one who longs for sleep when earth confines,
I seem to feel a lighter joy arising
Because the moon so brightly shines.

Oh restlessness on days when sun is hateful,
Oh roads on which one suffers dust’s fierce bite,
Who after lethargy and fear would not feel grateful
At such a perfect light?

All that I have withheld while life was calling,
A yearning without form and without name,
Has now turned into warm rain that is falling
Outside a silver pane.

Thursday 22 September 2011

A poem from 'The Landholder' by the Dutch poet Tonnus Oosterhoff

The water began to feel ashamed
of what it was and had always done.
On behalf of everyone a fish came to the land
to come to an arrangement.

The fish straightened its back:
‘Folks: three wishes.’

The shore was empty, only the shells
had the form of caps with ear-flaps under them.
The crafty creature had to stop itself from laughing.

I can promise what I like, it thought.
This won’t cost me a farthing. History hasn’t even begun yet.
I ought to be getting back through the breakers.

Or shall I stay here for a bit? After all, I’m dry now.
I mean it’s great, that sea breeze.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

A poem on a familiar theme by the Dutch writer Gerrit Komrij


Verse is just ballast. Make it disappear.
You can demolish it if by some code
You cause a bomb (beneath the part that’s there)
Or landmine (in the last line) to explode.

Make sure you light the fuse. A pious hope.
There is no bomb. Yet you’re obliged, yes, come
What may, to swell the verse to its full scope.
Only beyond a slalom lurks the bomb.

At such a point, why do you not resist,
Stop fiddling with it, let it go, desist?
The cord is cut. Yet still you would persist.
A poem must be round to not exist.

Monday 19 September 2011

Today's translation is of a poem by the Danish writer Pia Tafdrup


Immerse myself in a drop’s still light
and recollect how I came into being:
A pencil put into my hand,
my mother’s cool hand round mine, which was hot.
- And then we wrote
in and out of coral reefs,
an underwater alphabet of curves and points,
of snail spirals, of starfish arms,
of flailing octopus tentacles,
of cave vaults and cliff formations.
Letters that quivered and found their way
dizzily across the whiteness.
Words like flatfish that flapped
and burrowed into the sand
or sea anemones with hundreds of strands
gently swaying in unison.
Sentences like streams of fish
that gained fins and began to rise,
gained wings and moved with a steady rhythm,
throbbing like my blood, which blindly
threw stars against the heart’s night sky,
when I saw that her hand had let go of mine,
that I long since had written myself free of her grasp.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Two poems by the Dutch poet Peter van Lier



standing it persists as a

staying in clusters, munching at grass as

a happy whinnying that causes tails to swish: nothing
exceptional, it could be said,
until –

the farmer with the forage bin on his back (‘giddy-up’)
turns up, recognised already by every horse at a distance
as a
forerunner of what every horse’s heart is longing

for: end of period working at a trot; away with the concentrates,

        ‘luscious farting on sorrel and clover’?



back to back, in clusters,

‘something a horse rarely indulges in!’,

is seen by farmers as a high point of agrarian existence,
even to such an extent
that –

in many a country marriage
the decision’s
taken that ‘the small hoofs (‘gee-up’)
must kick the air just one more time’,

especially after that long period of darkness: full of deep silence and

        labour of sweating horses.

Some thoughts on translating sonnets into English from Germanic languages

I have tried to put down some general thoughts about this, using Natur und Kunst by Goethe as an example. For the .pdf file, go to here

To see how 16th sonneteers translated/mutated Petrarch, there are examples of sonnets by Wyatt, Surrey and Sir Philip Sydney here

Friday 16 September 2011

A translation of Goethe's sonnet about nature and art

Natur und Kunst, sie scheinen sich zu fliehen

Natur und Kunst, sie scheinen sich zu fliehen
Und haben sich, eh man es denkt, gefunden;
Der Widerwille ist auch mir verschwunden,
Und beide scheinen gleich mich anzuziehen.

Es gilt wohl nur ein redliches Bemühen!
Und wenn wir erst in abgemeßnen Stunden
Mit Geist und Fleiß uns an die Kunst gebunden,
Mag frei Natur im Herzen wieder glühen.

So ists mit aller Bildung auch beschaffen:
Vergebens werden ungebundne Geister
Nach der Vollendung reiner Höhe streben.

Wer Großes will, muß sich zusammenraffen;
In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.

Nature and art, they seem to shun each other

Nature and art, they seem to shun each other
Yet in a trice can draw back close once more;
The aversion’s gone too that I felt before,
Both equally attract me, I discover.

An honest effort’s all that we require!
Only when we’ve assigned art clear-cut hours,
With full exertion of our mental powers,
Is nature free our hearts once more to inspire.

Such is the case with all forms of refinement:
In vain will spirits lacking due constraint
Seek the perfection of pure elevation.

He who’d do great things must display restraint;
The master shows himself first in confinement,
And law alone can grant us liberation.

Goethe sees nature and art as apparently opposing forces, like magnets that repel each other, only to be attracted to each other again. In the poet, apparent aversion is a stage that is now past – he sees no real opposition between the two.
The basic human path of personal development (Bildung) is seen as being from the freedom of nature (the innocence of childhood) through willing subjection to the rigours of art to a higher form of (adult) freedom. This is a highly common theme in Romantic poetry, for example. Opposed to this is the idea of the human spirit being unwilling to subject itself to the law of art, of choosing licence instead of working for freedom. But this inability to bind oneself cannot lead to any real form of emancipation or liberation. For the true aim of personal development is to attain ‘the perfection of pure elevation’. Belief in the supreme power of individual genius, of unbridled imagination - the fundamentalist side of Romanticism - is rejected in the poem.
English has no one term that can satisfactorily translate ‘Bildung’. It has many meanings, but one of the crucial ones is personal ‘forming’ or ‘shaping’. It can also refer to the result of this process. 
Note that Goethe does not use the word 'Kultur' - this operates at a higher level than the individual.
The basic message of the poem is that you have to observe the laws, gain mastery of them, before you are allowed to go beyond them. Goethe is well over his 'Sturm und Drang' phase. The poem was written in 1800.

For a very different translation of the same poem, I would refer you to that of David Luke.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Two Danish 'rosebud' poems - by Ambrosius Stub (1705-58) and Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75)

You rosebud sweet and fair

        You rosebud sweet and fair!
Close to, let me inspect you!
Each man must needs respect you,
        In you all nature’s art
        And splendour dwell apart;
Each petal’s coloured feather
Leaves us uncertain whether
        Apparel neat and trim
        Says more than splendour’s whim:
A maze where coloured petals –
In paths where each unsettles –
        Add fragrance to the air;
        You rosebud sweet and fair!

        Today, alas, you’re gone,
But yesterday with pleasure
I viewed your thorn-borne treasure;
        I plucked you, whereupon
        Today, alas, you’re gone.
Your bright shades fade and pall
Your dull red tells me all
        Your glory is but brief
        Your beauty held in fief;
You jewel of nature’s crown,
Where now is your fine gown?
        Your blossoming is done,
        Today, alas, you’re gone.

        Come, Phyllis, come and see
My rose does now invite you;
Your beauty won’t requite you;
        Come, Phyllis, come and see!
        Your image view quite freely!
All that’s a source of pleasure
Cheeks crimson beyond measure,
        That mouth, its honeyed ploy
        Those eyes, their sparkling joy
That neat body, those neat hands
That every favour do command
        Do fade; come, Phyllis, see
        Your image view quite freely!

        One beauty outlasts others –
When all else only withers –
And years and age outweathers,
        And gains eternal vales
        One beauty never fails.
Virtue, Phyllis, its name,
Seek it ere time’s no claim!
        And that a spirit true
        May dwell as is its due,
Live but to praise your maker
In virtue be its taker!
        So when all else does wither,
        Your beauty lasts forever.


Rosebud, ever firm and round,
Like a young girl’s lips so sound!
When I kiss you, as my bride,
lovelier still you open wide.
One more kiss your lips inspire -
        feel my heart’s fire!

I must straightway have confessed:
No lips have I ever kissed!
No girl waits with heart so true,
rose, my kiss must be for you!
Ah, my yearning ne’er will tire -
        feel my heart’s fire!

With each kiss you gain a song,
when as dust you lie ere long,
may the song recall to view
no one kissed me, none but you.
Your kiss only is love’s lyre -
        feel my heart’s fire!

Denmark’s daughters, at my grave,
say for every song I gave:
‘Him indeed should kisses sate!’
Well said, truly, but too late -
While I live reward me higher.
        Kiss me on fire!

Tuesday 13 September 2011

A poem by the Dutch poet K. Schippers


On a classroom cupboard
stood a globe
under it I placed
a pencil sharpener
in the form of
a globe

and so I recall
my worlds when I
see the star-shavings
in the sky.

Friday 9 September 2011

Another poem by the Swedish poet Lars Gustafsson

The eel and the well

In old Scania there was a custom:
Young eels from the sea were let down
into the black depths of the wells.
These eels then spent their entire lives
imprisoned in the darkness of the deep wells.
They keep the water crystal-clear and clean.
When on occasions the well-eel comes up,
white, frighteningly large, caught in the pail,
blind and coiling in and out
of its body’s enigmas, unaware,
everyone hurries to submerge it again.
I often feel myself as being
not only in the well-eel’s stead
but well and eel at the same time.
Imprisoned in myself, but this self
already something else. I exist there.
And wash it clean with my twisting,
miry, white-bellied presence in the darkness.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Four poems by the Dutch poet Anna Enquist

I Between fires
II Between banks
III Between languages
IV Between times


I Between fires

Of the two faces the night-edge;
I drove off with her past blazing Easter bonfire,

twilight deepened, we bathed in my impatience,
her rotten temper, making for tasks, lists,

for longings and the wall against which they
smash to pieces. For home. Her elbow

bolted the door. No word from her. We blew
blue smoke into the car. She looked aside, saw

two swans flatten down the grass
before settling to sleep together.

We stood still at express train speed, I heard
her slowly sigh, air left her

and we floated past the fires in the evening,
smoking, there was no escaping.

II Between banks

January says forward, at night, and the car lisps
over asphalt past bends as of a young river.

Next to you the empty seat with the child with no driving licence
older than she ever was, serious profile, this out of the corner of your eye.

Look ahead, a view of black, on the motorway
a meander round an armpit of mystery; rain

quiveringly catches the headlights. Tree trunks glisten
on both sides, between them the glittering teeth of the wolf

that greedily gobbles up the wormwood and honey
of her middle years, without tasting. You will never see

her wrinkles, you have to make do without her sniffing and singing,
revulsion and bliss. Without. You steer through the night,

stretch your hand out to the right and grope in familiar,
in bitter emptiness. Forward, it is January.

III Between languages

How can you translate that life full of pace and tumult,
those cries and sighs into a standstill?

Irrefutable, a work of art, a flaming
goldfish caught in glass. It begins with the photos,

hardened in their frames. Then: what she no longer
takes up, crockery, the dresses

small debris in her bag. After six years even the
language of loss must be transposed, you reach

for the dictionary, search
for the stationary image. A table,

anywhere in the world, three places laid
and one empty chair. That pitiful emblem

of longing is, after translation, merely
present, the dream of occupation over.

IV Between times

In the present she cannot breathe, not stay among
the faces. We write what is called future.

In the car the daughter’s DNA crumbles
in hairs and flakes of skin. The mother steers

with stiff hands from pillar to post. Violence
goes without saying. Coat dry-cleaned and straight back.

She cannot long, not even for a jaw-line,
a strand of hair. She lives in the speed of the vehicle,

an orchestra whimpers. Then silence. A four-part
choir clears a path to her ear, destroys

her face, wrenches her hand from the wheel
to the radio knob, but it lasts and lasts;

she is a sculpture, she does not reach or touch but
can finally yearn and dream of fire.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Poem by the Dutch writer Rogi Wieg


During the day I often sleep,
like Proust, although at night I am not
working on a temps perdu, but keep on sleeping.
‘No closer to the gods can any mortal rise.’*
Do you by sleeping get closer
to the gods than by creating?
Dammit, it would seem to look like it!
And after all gods too occasionally sleep. They have
devised the laws of the curved universe
and then have started snoring: that’s the background noise
of the Big Bang.
The gods are lying on their backs, sides or stomachs
with their eyes closed letting the universe do the work.
I do not want to work but be there with the gods.

* The physicist Edmund Halley dedicated these words to his friend
Isaac Newton

A poem by the Danish poet Michael Strunge (1958-86)

The Machinery of Night

Slowly the night is charged by the city’s lights.
The star buttons blink
and on the moon-screen the first images can be seen.
Oh, I am lulled as on a steamer,
a heavy express train through the dark,
fly high in the Machinery of Night.
The clouds of dream-steam
whisper whitely to the earth.
The Machinery of Night works away, absorbing human souls.
The dark is packed tight with a buzz of energy...

I am at a concert in the Machinery of Rock.
The week’s survivors crowd around the small stage
the air is hot with music.
We are in trance and urge
the boundaries beween the sexes,
between dimensions of reality,
dancing in trance-formations
somewhere in the sleeping city.
We are exhausted little angels
with wings of future-song,
with the child in our blood and a fag in our mug.

Our skin is of the frailest dream
and our hearts gleam brighter than neon.
We’ve been blighted by the harsh lights of day,
bleeding pink snow,
speared by newspaper headlines.
We are a part of the Machinery of Night
transform fear into friendship.
We wear our brains with pride
exchange dreams and cigarettes,
fill ourselves with ecstasy and music
change sex and masks...

Later we go home our separate ways
pass through the Machinery of Night with new identities
along publicly determined routes.
Large black lumps of sleep fall
from the oil-sky into our eyes.
We fall asleep as single-cell organisms
from the time when the earth was sea.