Dutch poetry is not that well known outside of the Netherlands. This selection of Dutch poems written between the eleventh century and 2013 is a useful introduction to the themes and issues that inspired Dutch poets over a millennium. It has a similar scope to the Kaleidoscope anthology, edited by Martijn Zwart and Ethel Grene, in 1998. Here the original Dutch text and English translations, by the editors, are presented side by side. No one poet has more than a single poem. The editors, both educated in Modern Languages at Cambridge in the early Sixties, provide a detailed note outlining their predilection based on their reading and teaching. They have attempted to produce a notional canon of ‘important’ works with a series of informing balances between earlier and later, male and female, North and South. They commendably have included a good number of female poets as well as a chronological schema with summaries of the (numbered) poems themes from each era. This helpful device combined with links to further information references online and in print allows the reader to move around the anthology easily and to pick up on both micro and broader themes. It is good to see an anthology, which embraces famous poets, such as Hugo Claus, Willem Kloos, Gerrit Komrij, as well as less well known Dutch poets. Komrij himself produced a large anthology, Dutch poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in 1000 and a few poems, also known as the ‘Fat Komrij’ in 1979.
Gaston Franssen’s Afterword offers an essay on the topography of Dutch poetry. This maps the connection between the landscape of the Netherlands and the attitudes of its poets. Their harsh critique of Dutch culture, framed within a loathing of the country’s landscape and climate, being part of a broader love-hate relationship between Dutch people and their country. The landscape is either loved or loathed with no middle ground. I find this fascinating in relation to the Dutch capacity for compromise, allowing different viewpoints and opposing practices to flourish within the law. Frannssen explores Dutch poets refusal to extol the virtues of the fatherland, unlike other Europeans, by tracing the history of the phrase ‘Holland at its most narrow’ (Holland op zijn smalst’) first used by Protestant minister and poet, Nicolaas Beets, in his 1860 poem, ‘Doorgraving van Holland op zijn smalst’ showing how it became a popular short-hand for a form of pettiness and narrow-mindedness and subsequently used in public and political debates. The rhetorical motif became a way of arguing that the Netherlands has always been too narrow for its canonical poets, many of whom chose to live abroad, and drawing upon the poetry of complaint for support.
Hendrik Marsman’s ‘Memory of Holland’, which implied that the terrain of Holland was metaphorically shaped by its history and cramped mentality, was voted the nation’s Best Poem of the Century in 2000.
P.A. De Génestet’s ‘Boutade’ earlier poem of complaint illustrates the tradition:
Oh land of filth and fog, of vile rain chill and stinging,
A sodden fetid plot of vapours dank and damp,
A vast expanse of mire and blocked roads clogged and clinging,
Brimful of gamps and gout, of toothache and of cramp!
Coming more up to date, Jules Deelder’s 1994 poem, ‘Blues On Tuesday’, continues the poem of complaint tradition:
The anthology covers a large field of national poetry splendidly. Its weakness is in the lack of different approaches included after 1960. Some of the more recent poems included tend to fit a prescribed version of modern Dutch poetry, and in fairness the editors note their own limitations in their perspective. Ramsey Nasr’s in ‘The Land Of Kings’, written after an attack on the Royal Family, and published in a national newspaper on 1 May 2009, clearly fits the public tradition of poetic complaint.
I live in a land
where the animal-lover decides
from sheer goodness to shoot a fellow man
I live in a land
where the righteous believer decides
from respect to plant the knife in the heretic
This though is far removed from a considered private poetics and one wonders whether more diverse approaches could have been honoured to achieve a stronger balance.
David Caddy 19th November 2015