Plea for Poetry 2020

Week of the Festival: Felix Poetry Festival & Poëziecentrum, Belgium

Joan Miró, The Sun (El Sol), 1949

“Poetry is the art of catching the sea in a glass”, the Italian author Italo Calvino wrote. The sea in a glass. Just read it, there’s more to it than it says. While you are writing poetry, you try to capture (in Dutch: “vangen” ) something, but there is also so much going on that is elusive while you are writing that the process can just as well resemble receiving (in Dutch: “ontvangen”).

Every life, even in the case of adults walking around with an aversion to poetry fuelled by stereotypes, started with the basic, conjuring power of rhythmic verses, often largely consisting of sounds that are incomprehensible or that have become incomprehensible. They is something ritual about them, something almost physical, but that can equally be found in a lot of poetry for adults. It is not without reason that the English poet John Barrington Wain said, quoting the French poet Paul Valéry: “Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.” And let me once again cite a well-known quote from the famous T.S. Eliot: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Something can happen, can be experienced, even physically, before it “is understood”. Understood, “begrepen” in Dutch. I think the Flemish-Dutch “verstaan” for “understanding”, is more useful here than the Dutch-Dutch “begrijpen” which also translates as “understanding”, because for me “verstaan” refers to dwelling on something, whereas the word “begrijpen” resonateswith wanting to grasp it, as in the French “comprendre”. As if you, as a reader, could grasp (“vangen”) a poem, as in the all-too-certain platitudinous question: “What did the poet want to say?”. What the poet wanted to say has been said in their poem. The word “begrijpen” (the grasping kind of understanding) sounds rational, whereas poetry plays in so many more registers, exactly like that dance you just saw. And while reading you can understand something without perhaps being able to get a grasp on it.

I find the most beautiful way to write about poems is by fingertip exploration — searching, suggesting, suspecting, which usually leads to personal, inspiring texts, differing somewhat from labelling them with -isms, applying arbitrary hierarchies to them and forcing them into a hole by hook or by crook.

Many people don’t read any poems. But masses of poems are posted on the Internet showcasing their lachrymose content with straightforward use of big words and rhymes that have no sustaining effect. Just an example, taken from the site “Supermooie gedichtjes” (“Super Beautiful Poems”): “Leven zonder liefde/is leven met verdriet/leven zonder liefde/is het leven niet/ is het leven zonder jou/en dat kan ik niet/ omdat ik van je hou”. In English: “Living without love/is living with regret/...” A sentimental message full of heartbreak, recognisable, to be sure.

There are great poets who get away with big words, because their tone and choice of words don’t turn it into a clear-cut bite-sized snack. Take the Dutch-American poet Leo Vroman, who knew what war was from his own experience and wrote in his poem “De laatste wereldvrede [The ultimate world peace]” about his longing “for freedom or if need be a cup of hot chocolate.” The desire for freedom and for hot chocolate, in a single line. Mark Boog even devoted an entire collection to it, “The Encyclopaedia of Big Words”, in which he approached those big words with worldly language available to everyone. About one’s Lot it says: “Was the coat so thick, were the trousers so stiff, the leather footwear so heavy?”

A cup of hot chocolate and a coat can come to be more than what they are and acquire a meaning that is more pregnant than the platitudinous peddling of boundless concepts. The sea in a glass.

I am reminded of the friend — an author and poet in his native country — forced to flee because of a war. For a long time, he was unable to write anything at all, because what he had gone through was beyond words. The first thing that came back on paper was something between prose and poetry, something seemingly small about beetles on a broken table, but a whole war was brewing under it.


The art of poetry has become a niche for us, even though forms of expression have emerged that livened things up, such as slam poetry. When I took part in a literary festival in the Surinamese capital Paramaribo some twenty years ago, I saw how different things were there, how much the public extolled their esteemed poets Srinivasi Rayaprol and Michaël Slory and how their presence connected everyone. They and their work were known and loved and the audience showed this with great enthusiasm.

Conversely, there are the poems and other literary expressions that are seen as threatening by dictators and related types. Inter alia, the authors’ association PEN stands up for imprisoned colleagues.

The fact that poetry is a special genre was brought home to me again when a couple I didn’t know asked me to write a poem for their son who had died in a traffic accident, and I received the same request from a friend who had lost two children within a year. Lyricism has an effect that is distinct from a message. I also think of the Lonely Funeral, that poetic ritual whereby people for whom no family or friends show up are not buried or scattered behind everyone’s back. A monument has been erected for them on the Internet and there are interested parties who receive the poems in their mailbox on request.

Bespoke or commissioned poems can also be relevant, in my view.

Poets seek images that surprise, that sound new. Very young children who do not yet have a large vocabulary often do so naturally. I have not yet forgotten how my long-grown son saw pitted olives on the table as a little boy and asked: “Can I also have a belly button like that?”. A poet tries to look at things “as if for the first time”, in that way stripping language of clichés and surprising themselves with it, as the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney once said: “If you don’t surprise yourself, how can you expect to surprise someone else?”.

Particularly with adult authors who have had a lot of violent experiences in their lives, I again encounter that peeling back to the beginning. This is what the Russian Daniil Kharms wrote in one of his notes:

“I’ve been reflecting on how beautiful everything is the first time. How beautiful is the first reality. Beautiful is the sun, and the grass, and the stone, and the water, and the bird, and the beetle, and the fly, and the human being. But also beautiful are a glass and a knife and a key and a comb.”

How beautiful is the last line of a poem, actually, when it stands in contradiction to the previous lines, when it surprises and, with its precision, brings about a physical effect and resonates into the white space below.

Poetry peels off to the core; poetry makes words come at you as new, in poetry, unexpected connections can arise. Poetry requires attention, to go along with what is meaningful, but what seems useless in a world that only appears to value what can be measured and what generates monetary profit.

Poetry can provide a counterbalance to all those trap-shutting words that people use to assault each other: cultural Marxist, do-gooder, feminazi, you name it. Within poetry, anger, despair, humour, love, pleasure and so much more can be hiding, to be found in everyday words, in rhythm, in sound, in beetles, coats and combs.

Poetry doesn’t need know-it-alls who self-importantly restrain it, but rather kindlers of enthusiasm. There are such people, also often among readers. For years I walked past a house where, on the window sill, between the windowpane and net curtains, there was a stand with an open book of poetry on it. Almost every day a different page, a different collection. And I always stopped to read what was offered to me along the way. As the current occupant of a seventh floor, I hope that there may still be such window sills somewhere at street level, where passers-by will be briefly offered a chance to reflect on poetry. To experience and understand something, to catch (“vangen”) and ultimately to receive (“ontvangen”) something.