A World Beyond Myself, Enitharmon, 1991
Memories of the Unknown, Harvill Press, 2001
Part 1: Beginnings
In 1996, New York’s Vintage Press brought out ‘The Vintage Book of World Poetry’; the book settled many reputations, but also introduced many more.
The Dutch writer Rutger Kopland woke up one morning to find himself a world-class poet. Ok, he was already a top-selling author in his own country. But that is the point, as Martinus Nijhoff lamented in 1936, it is a country whose literary appreciation is limited to a small range by its language.
We are very lucky to have the masterful translations of the late James Brockway. He preferred the description of ‘collaborations’, it reflected more the close work with the author to render as near a syllabic and tonal copy as possible.
“…what I am presenting,” he wrote, “…is a Dutch poem by a Dutch mind, but now in the English language”.
James Brockway was made ‘Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands’ in 1997, for his services to Dutch literature. He died in 2000.
‘Rutger Kopland’ is the pen name of Professor of Psychiatry (retired) Rudi H van den Hoofdakker. He was born in 1934, and has won many prestigious prizes, one of which is the Dutch highest award for literary achievement, the P C Hooft Prize.
Kopland’s first book, Among Cattle, appeared in 1966. The date is important in a number of ways.
In the nineteen fifties Dutch art and literature woke up to experiment; it was a time of cataclysmic experiment in all forms, only paralleled in Dutch poetry by the exuberance of the medieval Rederijker rhetorical guilds.
Of course, as with many such movements, they also carry and help generate the seeds of their successors. Out of the foment of imagistic, lexical experiment a strong realistic note was beginning to be detectable.
Kopland, along with Judith Herzberg are now readily identified as the best representatives of this tone: of a sane, nonrhetorical, everyday language and subject matter.
In this first book are to be found all the tonal keys of his later work. An instant favourite was the first poem of the book, A Psalm, now a much anthologised piece:
The green pastures the still waters
on the wallpaper in my room –
as a frightened child I believed
in wall paper
when my mother had said prayers for me
and I had forgiven for one day more
I was left behind among
motionless horse and cattle,
a foundling laid in a world
now that once again I have to go
through god’s pastures I find no path
to take me back, only a small hand
clasped in mine that tightens
when the enormous bodies
of the cattle grunt and snuffle
The first thing to notice here is the almost total lack of punctuation. In the original there is only the final full stop, even the commas, lines 8 and 14, do not appear.
We catch the tone of slow, almost ruminative… can we call it ‘thinking aloud’? Are we overhearing a sotto voce between intimate friends? Husband and wife, perhaps, or is it between father and child, as maybe becomes apparent in the last stanza? I wonder, does it matter: the drama of a listening audience is of less importance, than the manner and intent of the narration.
Also notice the slow accumulation of details that reveal-but-not-reveal the narration: what was it he had, or had been, forgiven? The biblical references (note lowercase ‘god’) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) set a tone, particularly in the traditionally Calvinist/Lutheran Netherlands, for solitary meditative discourse, whose heavy and responsible purpose: to converse with God, without intercessors, is offset by the witty, chatty aside: ‘as a … child I believed in wall paper…’.
Psalm 23 becomes a constant reference point in his writing.
The setting of the poem: the home, night, childhood, segue into the author’s own fatherhood; the meditative tone; the rural setting : an image of continuity, perhaps.
This may seem a little dated to those only familiar with the great urban sweep from Rotterdam, east and south; it is, however, deeply ingrained in the Dutch cultural model.
Kopland has lived all his working life in the villages outside Groningen. This is where many still refer to as the real ‘rural’ Netherlands. These are the heartlands of the Dutch, the green ore that runs through the urban stonework.
What we read with Rutger Kopland, especially with these earlier books, are the books of the Dutch interior: the soul-lands. The irony is, Kopland is the least metaphysical of men; his insights are, I suspect, very much coloured by his profession as clinical neuroscientist.
Kopland was born in 1934; by the time of that terrible winter of German reprisals 1944/5, he would have 10 years old. 10, 000 died that winter.
Consider the following poem in the book: Under the Apple Tree:
I came home, it was about
eight and remarkable
close for the time of year,
the garden seat stood waiting
under the apple tree
I took my place and sat
watching how my neighbour
was still digging in his garden,
the night came out of the soil
a light growing bluer hung
in the apple tree
then slowly it once again became
too beautiful to be true, the day’s
alarms disappeared in the scent
of hay, toys again lay
in the grass and from far away in the house
came the laughter of children in the bath
to where I sat, to
under the apple tree
and later I heard the wings
of wild geese in the sky
heard how still and empty
it was becoming
luckily someone came and sat
beside me, to be precise it was
you who came to my side
under the apple tree,
for our time of life.
Masterly; we scarcely even notice the ‘literaryness’: the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, the manipulation of mood-buttons. He earns our trust, and the trust of the ordinary reader by foisting no great ideas of redemption on us, by insinuating no Political awkwardness. We get the ‘feel’: the surburbanism of life lived by the ordinary person, with a job, family… in fact, do we recognise in ourselves: nostalgia for the past? This is a claim that plagued Kopland from these early books.
See how he builds the tension from stanza two: the juxtaposing of details of the neighbour (for which read, everyman/the identifier of self as ordinary: the classic Dutch sense of communalness), the change in light: the dark that identifies colours, blues…. Having keyed up the emotions at this point: the ‘…too beautiful to be true…’ (those last three qualifying words communicate so much, particularly in combination with preceding, ‘…once again…’), he immediately disengages and redirects; the emotional response is channelled via the toys in the grass to the house, the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but the mind is made open, the imagination engaged by this “mental event”, so that when the geese fly they are identified immediately as ‘wild’, the sky is emptied by their presence, a sense of immanence is apparent. Once again this keying-up of emotions is channelled to the ‘…precisely you…’. An anchoring, grounding in the here and now.
Kopland displays here a willingness to be honest about feelings, a willingness to be open about his experience of them, of their place in his life and world.
And yes, he is privileged: he has a satisfying though demanding job, he has happy children, he has a close relationship with his partner. Is it Kopland, here? Or is it the ‘ordinary person’? Is it the person glad to be alive, having survived that last terrible winter of the War; like his neighbour he goes through the daily affirmation of survival.
Following a sequence of poems on his father’s death, we have:
On September 19, a misty
nineteenth, Miss A stepped-off
from the wrong side of her house-boat
into the waters of ‘The Deep’.
The cold had come, she had been unable
to get the stove to light,
her old mother had died,
everything was creaking, going to rust,
from her galley God and the
DHSS seemed out of reach.
An altogether different piece. We have here, I think, irony used as a stylistic device; there is no longer the personalizing, intimate nature of the experience, but a distancing. A tragic event; but almost, in this retailing, a news item; the details of particulars: date, boat name, area of mooring.
The domestic details are all laid out for us to see, like the effects of a dead person, to be collected by relatives (us: readers-as-community?), or the unknowns who will come later when our attention is caught by other news. Whichever way it is read we, the reader, or, shall I qualify that: we, the ones amongst the readers who actually care what happened to her – are involved: her fate impinges upon us. We may not be responsible, but we are made witnesses. To be able to remain open, to witness, and not close-off is maybe one of the things makes a workable community.
This poem appeared in print in 1968. This is significant: 1968, and The Netherlands were as much caught up in social upheaval as we were in England. It may be this poem can be read as a response to the student protests, the extreme political factions.
Another, more significant poem of his poems of the period was Young Lettuce:
I can stand anything,
the shriveling of beans,
flowers dying, I can watch
the potato patch being dug up
and not shed a tear – I’m
real hard in such things.
But young lettuce in September,
just planted, still tender,
in moist little beds, no.
Literary friends would repeat this poem when latest news came through of some new social upheaval, or political upset. Why? It is the understatement; the masterly irony; it is also a poem of great benevolence. The weary retort to old problems presenting themselves in new clothes, of seemingly unsurmountable social problems… and yet the response is of a wry gentleness.
Maybe this poem can be read as an attempt at affirming communal responsibilities.
The ironic yet engaged tone of the times, the response of an older generation.
Kopland’s sharper mode was prompted to some extent by what he saw as misreadings of his work. After the anecdotal style a greater dissatisfaction with accepted things became apparent. There emerged a ‘stern’ period of disillusionment.