May: Poetry on the Edge of Pop Culture
(click on image to enlarge photo)
Surge Can Duo, North America "...They sit high up, on thin tires,
in the margin of the traffic. Their strip
not yet annexed, they are on their way
in a slower century, perhaps with time //
passing hands over the fever of the world..."

from In the Margin, a
poem by Willem Jan Otten

This week, an image called
Surge Can Duo.
Also: seven new translations
of Lowland poems.

Poetry on the Edge of Pop Culture
| listen to Cliff Crego read from the introduction # |

here we place poetry on our metaphysical map of the world is, I think, one
of those questions which is of central cultural importance. Of course, explicitly,
such a map does not exist, but none the less, it is there, tacitly, implied by what
we think, say and do.

After an absence from North America of more than seven years, when I came here
again recently I was struck by a number of things to which most locals would give
no mind. But for me they were very telling. For example, it seemed obvious to me that
the environmental movement had failed terribly in not only reducing the number and
types of big polluting cars, but that things had in my eyes actually gotten worse. I couldn't
get over the new popularity of big jeeplike luxury vehicles that have 'get -out -of -
my-way-or-I'll -run-over-you' written all over them. Second, I was struck by the
lawns—those monocultural, ecologically unsound, sacred cows of a Disneyland-like
suburbia, were not only as ubiquitous as ever, but now husbanded by veritable
small-scale armies of pesticide companies with euphemistic names like "Black
Diamond" and "Lawn Art". And lastly, to round off my little short list of shocking

nouveau americana
, there was and is, of course, the ever-present pop can. I grew-up
in the North American sixties when aluminum cans were just being introduced
and were as high-tech and modern as moon travel. Already some twenty years ago, when
I was working as a gardener in Berkeley, California, I had a sudden epiphany while
tending one of my over-watered non-native gardens. It was this: that the environmental
movement will have demonstrated that a fundamental change in our awareness of
the natural world is possible only when and if the pop can is not just recycled, but
rather totally eliminated. Well, this hasn't come to pass. But for me it remains nonetheless
a powerful symbol of the fact that, despite all the important changes which have taken
place in dealing with pollution, basically anti-ecological and outmoded ways of thinking
have by and large survived unscathed.

So, at least we can be sure that, on the
physical map of the world, big cars, carpet-
like lawns and loud-colored cans still loom larger than life. My conjecture is
that does not bode well for poetry's
meta-physical position on the same map. At the
same time, I tell myself that it is possible not to be influenced by all the surrounding
chaos and simply say that poetry—even if it does not at present–should and does
occupy a central place in our collective cultural being. This is so because poetry, it seems
to me, is where the energy of essence is both divined and given manifest form. Perhaps one
could say that if we don't give poetry its proper role, then something cheap and destructive,
something like lawns or pop cans, will indeed move in like noxious alien weeds in a
pristine landscape and take its place.

The seven new translations of Dutch poems I've brought together here relate to
this theme in different ways. Willem Jan Otten's
In the Margin gives us the nice
image of
poetry-as-bike-trip in the land of cars. Indeed, that does ring very true.
Anton Ent's two little pieces have taken this bike out into the beautifully lush and
green Dutch countryside and now help us see the world around us with new eyes and
ears. J. Slauerhoff's famous poem,
Homeless One, takes a more contrarian
approach , setting up camp right inside the poem itself. And Remco Campert, as always,
offers here refreshingly straightforward and simple musings about the poet as happy
outsider who wanders about like a lost Socrates pondering the strangeness as well as
the significance of what he sees. And lastly, as a coda and as a way of marking the
special time of May in Dutch culture, the time when the horrors and suffering
of World War II are remembered, we have
Nijhoff's ode to an unknown soldier.
Here the poet is alone again, crying out to the world that this place, where he stands,
where an anonymous soldier lies buried, seems to be the only place left still true to the
spirit of the Netherlands. Thanks to all those who heroically came to liberate the Lowlands
and the whole of Europe more than half a century ago, this did not come to pass:

In de Marge

Zij zitten hoog, op dunne banden,
in de marge van het verkeer. Hun strook
is niet ingelijfd, zij zijn op weg
in een tragere eeuw, missen de koorts

de wereld bijtijds te bestrijken,
de verte aanwezig te rijden, breed en brutaal.
De auto is jong, zingt de werkelijke taal.
Op de fiets komt men nergens. In ijdel

evenwicht sturen dichters hun hoogmoed
de marge in, waar God nog bestaat,
en zingen daarboven met dunne halzen,
iets duurs op de rand van de taal.

   Willem Jan Otten
In the Margin

They sit high up, on thin tires,
in the margin of the traffic. Their strip
not yet annexed, they are on their way
in a slower century, missing the fever

to pass hands with time over the world, riding
the distant into the present, brutal and wide.
Cars are still young, the true language sings.
On a bike one gets nowhere. In noble

balance the poets send their pride
into the margin, where God still exists,
and sing from above with thin throats
something precious on the edge of language.

| listen to In the MarginDutch original; English trnaslation # |


Geen gedicht, geen ets, geen aquarel:
niets voegen wij toe aan dit landschap.
Het rust in zichzelf met dit naamloze licht,
dit lichtgroene gras. Op hun plaats kleuren
de roondbonte koeien en olijfgroene olmen.
Alles is goed, ook de groep fietsende vrouwen
met hun van de dijk afrollend geschater.
Dorst. We stuiten op bramen, blauwzwart
en glinsterend als tientallen regendruppels.

   Anton Ent
Bicycle Trip

No poem, no etch, no aquarelle:
We add nothing to this landscape.
It rests within itself with this nameless light,
this light green grass. In their place
the spotted cows coloring and olivegreen elms.
Everything is good, also the group of bicycling
women with their chatter rolling off the dyke.
Thirst. We happen upon blackberries, blue-black
and glistening like hundreds of raindrops.

| listen to Bike TripDutch / English one recording # |


Alleen in mijn gedichten kan ik wonen,
Nooit vond ik ergens anders onderdak
Voor de eigenhaard gevoelde ik nooit /
   een zwak,
Een tent werd door de stormwind meegenomen.

Alleen in mijn gedichten kan ik wonen.
Zolang ik weet dat ik in wildernis,
In steppen stad en woud dat onderkomen
Kan vinden, deert mij geen bekommernis.

Het zal lang duren, maar de tijd zal komen
Dat vóór de nacht mij de oude kracht /
En tevergeefs om zachte woorden smeekt,

Waarmee 'k weleer kon bouwen, en de aarde
Mij bergen moet en ik mij neerbuig naar de
Plek waar mijn graf in 't donker openbreekt.

   J. Slauerhoff
Homeless One

Only in my poems can I live,
Never did I find other shelter,
Never did I have a weakness for one's /
   own hearth,
A tent would be blown away by stormwinds.

Only in my poems can I live.
As long as I know that in wilderness,
In the city of steppe and forest, I can still find
That shelter, no hardship shall discourage me.

It will take a long while, but the time will come
That before the night I no longer have the /
   old energy
And in vain plead for gentle words,

With which I could build perhaps, and the earth
Must put me away and I bow down to the place
Where my grave breaks open in the darkness.

| listen to Homeless OneDutch original; English trnaslation # |


Een spinnenweb met dauwdruppels.
Sta stil, kijk hoe het schittert, zwijg,
volg de draden en beschouw
de ovale wangetjes van zilver.
De spin is dood, verpulverd
in het licht. De dauw voltooit
zijn spinnenweb met druppeltjes,
afzonderlijk, schitterend, verstrooid. 

   Anton Ent

A spider web with drops of dew
Stand still, look how it shimmers, quiet,
follow the threads and observe
the oval cheeks of silver.
The spider is dead, turned to powder
in the light. The dew has completed
his spider web with tiny drops,
separate, shimmering, scattered.

Binnen en buiten

Wat zich daarbinnen afspeelt, in de schaduw
in de slaapkamer, in dat huis
waar ze steeds ingaan—
muziek klapt open en dicht—
is voor mij niet na te gaan

Volop in de zomer
speel ik met takjes, met mieren, met knikkers
graaf gangen
nooit langer dan mijn arm

Nu zelf muziek zonder begin of eind
mier op weg naar een stroopvlek
een bed, een huis
een schaduw
maar wat zich daarbuiten afspeelt
is voor mij niet na te gaan.

   Remco Campert (1929)
Inside and Out

What's going on inside, in the shadow
of the bedroom, in the house
where they always enter—
music slaps open and shut—
isn't for me to find out

In the height of summer
I play with twigs, with ants, with marbles
dig trenches
never longer than my arm

Even music now without beginning or end
ant on its way to a patch of syrup
a bed, a house
a shadow
but what's happening outside there
isn't for me to find out.

| listen to Inside and OutDutch / English one recording # |

Ik wil wel...

Ik wil wel graven
Naar poëzie, maar niet
Te diep. Je weet
Hoe ik dichter ben
Bij de gratie van
Hemelbodem ook
Wel genoemd. Daar
Staan mijn handen
Nu eenmaal naar. Dus
Wandelaar en zwart-
Ziener, geen delver
Maar werper
Van stenen, laatste
En eerste. Scherend
Over aarde, daar
Nesten mij bouwend
Als zwaluw.

Remco Campert
I'd like to...

I'd like to dig
For poetry, but not too
Deep. You know
How I am a poet
By the grace of
The earth's surface
Also called the ground
Of heaven. My
Hands are just
Made for this. Thus
Wanderer and black-
Seer, no miner
But a thrower
Of stones, the last
And the first. Shearing
Over the earth, building
My nests there
Like a swallow.

| listen to I'd like to...Dutch / English
one recording # |

Bij het graf van de Nederlandse onbekende
soldaat gevallen in de meidagen 1940

Dit graf is al wat er aan Nederlandse grond
ons nog gebleven is om Nederland te noemen;
alleen hier waait de vlag en ademt vrij de mond,
alleen hier schept het voorjaar Nederlandse /

Zoek troost hier, Nederland. De bijen die hier zoemen
schrijven zoemend uw naam om 't naamloos graf /
   in 't rond.
Wees trots. Kondt gij voorheen u ooit op meer /
dan op hetgeen een zoon om uwentwil doorstond?

't Was Pinksteren; 't was waarlijk Pinksteren dit keer.
De vuurdoop, door uw sterfelijke zoons ontvangen,
doopte u, o land, o moeder, met onsterflijk vuur.

Beklim het duin, of zet op bronzen heide u neer,
of daar waar wolken diep in spieg'lend water hangen,
en sla u, zingende, 't kleed om van 't wijd azuur.

    Martinus Nijhoff
At the grave of the Dutch unknown soldier
who died during the days of May, 1940

This grave is everything that on Dutch soil
remains for us to call Holland;
only here does the flag wave and the mouth breathe,
only here does the spring bring forth Dutch /

Look for comfort here, Holland. The bees that buzz here
write with buzzing your name in the round on the /
   nameless grave.
Be proud. Could you have ever claimed /
   more fame
than that for which your son for you has withstood?

It was Pentecost; it was truly Pentecost this time.
The baptism of fire, received by your mortal sons,
baptized you, o land, o mother, with immortal fire.

Climb the dune, or sit down among the bronze heather,
or there where clouds hang deeply in the mirror of water,
and singing, turn over the cloth of the sky's wide azure.

  (all tr. Cliff Crego)

| listen to Unknown SoldierDutch original; English trnaslation # |

| view / print Picture/Poem Poster: Monday (Ellen Warmond) (86 K) | or download as PDF |


"Straight roads,
Slow rivers,
Deep clay."
A collection of contemporary Dutch poetry
in English translation, with commentary
and photographs
by Cliff Crego

| See also a selection of recent Picture/Poem "Rilke in translation" features at the Rilke Archive.

See also another website
by Cliff Crego:
The Poetry of
Rainer Maria Rilke
A presentation of 80 of the
best poems of Rilke in
both German and
new English translations
biography, links, posters

| # listen to other recordings in English and German of eight poems from
The Book of Images
at The Rilke Download Page (# Includes instructions)
| back to r2c | back to Picture/Poems: Central Display |
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Photograph/Texts of Translations © 2001 Cliff Crego
V.13.2001) (revised V.12.2002)