Archive for March, 2012

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:


A Psalm

                     The green pastures the still waters

                    on the wallpaper in my room –

                    as a frightened child I believed

                    in wall paper




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,


                                         under the apple tree



                                         watching how my neighbour

                                         was still digging in his garden,



                                         then slowly it once again became

                                         too beautiful to be true, …………



                                         and later I heard the wings

                                         of wild geese in the sky

                                         heard how still and empty

                                         it was becoming



                                         under the apple tree,

                                         remarkably close

                                         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:


                             Miss A


                            On September 19, a misty

                            nineteenth, Miss A ………….





                            DHSS seemed out of reach.


                            She disembarked.

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,



                           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.


‘Rich in Vitamin C’ – from  ‘The Collected Poems of J H Prynne’


George Szirtes in his StAnza Lecture Possessing the Line (2007), cites George Steiner’s essay, On Difficulty (1978). Here Steiner has formulated poetic difficulty into four main classes.

1 – The Epiphenomenal Difficulty. This is in the use of obscure words, phrases; and of ideas that relate to unusual or relatively unconnected areas of knowledge.

2 – The Tactical Difficulty. This is where something is deliberately withheld from the text. This was a major strategy of Eastern European writers, where a classical allusion was used as a comment on a contemporary situation, but the readers had to draw the linkages themselves.

3 – The Modal Difficulty. This is where the tone of the poem renders it unappealing. Think of Swift’s diatribe’s on women’s boudoirs. It need not be inimical to the reader, just at odds with the subject.

4 – The Ontological Difficulty. Contemporary poets question more than ever before the ways a writer communicates with the reader, the languages used, and the ways syntax can be manipulated to express more of the complexity of the contemporary world.

A writer’s medium is that of expression through language, and by extension, the voice in space and time; and the printed page, the message of the layout on the page, and the type of font used.

For J H Prynne these are all part of the overall consideration of a poem. Bring in also the officialdom and legitimacy of the choice of publisher, and we have a picture of the writer’s chosen stance towards his/her audience, self, peers, and also to the writing itself. Is the text part of an ongoing psycho-biographical framework; or can it be seen as independent of the author, and therefore open to complete lexical analysis?

Prynne has published most of his books through small, unknown presses; this is partly through necessity, where the larger presses have shown themselves unsure of his work, but also it has become a deliberate tactic.

John Kinsella and Rod Mengham have written widely in praise of Prynne’s work. We have in their introductions one of our best resources for approaching Prynne’s difficulties. And they are temporal as well as strategic: they relate how Prynne’s relationship with his work, with the reader, have altered over time.


Kinsella’s commentary, in the Jacket Series, on Prynne’s ‘Rich in Vitamin C’, on a poem from the early nineteen seventies, is very deeply considered.

What is ‘rich in vitamin C’, according to the advertisement? Rosehip Syrup. That this is indeed the reference can be seen in stanza two’s ‘Or as the syrup in the cup’, and the last stanza’s ‘Such shading of the rose to its stock…’.

Rosehip Syrup is very much a WWII memory, bringing in the ‘Dig for Victory’ initiative: food supplies were not getting though the Axis’ naval blockade, and so all recreational land and gardens were to be dug up and turned to growing vegetables, to become self-sufficient. Part of this initiative was the collecting, harvesting, of rose hips because they were ‘Rich in Vitamin C’.

In turn this memory leads us into reading the poem as a very touching, indeed moving active elegy for an elderly person; it is also a commentary on the generation gap. The narrator has his own take on her life, how ‘the trusted’ of her time became in his the ‘idiocy’. Her ‘incomplete, the trusted’, that is the accepted status quo, the war time propaganda, becomes for the narrator tantamount to ushering in ‘what/motto we call peace talks.’ (in both senses of noun phrase, and verb phrase).

One strand of narrative behind the piece is of an elderly widow and her younger visitor; the widow has lost her husband to enemy action in the War, in the Baltic. Baltic in the poem is lower-case and hence taking on adjectival nuances. This ties-in later when we look at the way images are linked.

The garden the elderly widow looks out on (dug-up and replanted: the cycle of examination and re-examination that we call memory) could very much be a reference to the widow’s self-enclosed, memory-obsessed later life.

An archaic, or pseudo-archaic, note is heard in the ‘ shews’ and the arch; the water is like awareness/mental lucidity in the elderly widow; the image of ‘the purpose we really cut’ as a wind over its surface, a momentary disturbance, produces a brooding, almost Gothic, mood (there is also a metaphysical imagery at work here: the garden of the soul in medieval Christian writing, the Taoist imagery of wind on water. Is this also part of her ‘idiocy’ in the Auden-on-Yeats sense: ‘You were silly, like us…’? And is that ‘idiocy’ also that of the holy fool?). This Gothicness has a ring of falsity perhaps, of an ornate folly. Do we also sense here in the follow-up of the militaristic images of accidental damage, ‘the cross-fire’ et al, of the fall of the Brideshead generation in WW11?

The images follow on from each other in an associative manner; we have the point of view of the two people in the narrative, they intrude and weave between and comment obliquely on each other. We see the germane image of ‘darkly the stain skips as a livery/… like an apple pip’ connect with the dark Baltic region, with the darkness of depth and cold of the Baltic where her ‘loved one… sleeps’. This leads to the ‘shading/of the rose to its stock tips the bolt/ from the sky…’ Here we see the death in enemy action in the Baltic transform into the narrator’s present day fears where the Baltic, its cold, represents the threat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The ‘bolt/ from the sky…’ and ‘what we call peace talks…’ references nineteen seventies President Carter regime’s (the period of the poem) Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT 1 and 11). And also, quite appositely in the dark and cold, the ‘starry fingers’ and ‘bolt/ from the sky’ references, to space, and President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ web of a satellite early-warning system.


At first I was uncomfortable with this roping-in of WW11 and the Cold War together. There are obvious historical linkages, but by nature and character they were very different affairs. But then it occurred to me that this was indeed how a lot of the youth protest groups thought at that time, that naïve, half-understood restlessness, that throws out everything older generations did, thought or achieved.

The narrator’s pejorative of the widow’s ‘trusted’, that ‘idiocy’, is perfectly in tune with the youth-rebellion attitude.

What on first reading seems to be a continually shifting sand of half-meanings and implications, takes on a clearer perspective: to look back, to look forward: both are highly speculative acts, and both coloured by the observer’s contemporary concerns. The poem holds both views in the same space, and also we have the writer’s colourations: the kindness and generosity of his attitude towards the elderly widow apparent in the time he spends with her, ‘setting’ her in the poem.

And also the humour: vitamin C is considered an excellent remedy against colds; and was also believed to help one see in the dark.

This is simple word-play, but it also points-up Prynne’s ‘sounding’ of the connotive possibilities of words and language.

In stanza one the ‘snowy wing-case/ delivers truly…’ whereas the widow’s idea of honour is in the ‘incomplete, the trusted.’ What the eye sees (has she brown/ hazel eyes?) is what is there to be seen; what is remembered, ie the image held within the eye of what has been seen, is liable to ageing, changing tone and colour as one’s attitudes and beliefs change.

To really see, one must reflect upon and judge against what one knows. There is also the implication that what one truly believes is all there is of value for one. Can value be measured by what is seen, and what it is compared with? Or is it something objective?

The ‘syrup’ could well be a placebo, something sweet for our childish, or at any rate immature, minds to be soothed by: the ‘sweet shimmer of reason’ , a childish fascination with shiny, shimmery things.

The reference to health propaganda by health companies points up the insidiousness of language used against us: to believe the image and deny the thing.

It also points up that we as much as them, the characters in the poem, are just as vulnerable to the propaganda of our time: ‘this flush/ scattered over our slant of the/ day…’: the slant of sun at evening, and the slant of our take on our time.

We get the ghost-shiver of Socrates’ ‘the unexamined life…’ here, just as earlier we hear the ghost of Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’:  ‘Accurate scholarship can/ Unearth the whole offence/ From Luther until now/ That has driven a culture mad…’ in ‘an idea bred to idiocy by the clear/ sight-lines ahead.’.

There does not seem to be an occasion for the poem. It appears to occur at the point of happy coincidence of Prynne’s subjective concerns, reflections on his time, and memories, and the impulse to write in this manner at this time, on these themes.


It is surprising how this poem fulfils all of Steiner’s criteria for difficulty. There is no indication in Steiner’s writings that he was aware or appreciative of Prynne’s writing. And also I very much doubt that Prynne was paying Steiner any kind of homage in his writings.

Prynne’s poem in taking on the past, carries the suggestion from Geoffrey Hill’s work of a rehabilitation of history in poetry. Pound’s Cantos are read by many as a refutation, even cancellation, of the sense of history: Donald Davie states ‘…the poet’s vision of the centuries of recorded time has been invalidated by the Cantos…’.

In some ways the Cantos can be viewed as the last word of a generation’s sense of ‘the end of history’. This sense of the end was particularly strong amongst survivors of World War 1.

This period however also saw the beginning of a new validation of historical study. Here began the ground-breaking work of Marc Bloch and the French Annales School, and of course the developments in Marxist economic history.

If anything it was the end of the ‘history of great men’, of political, imperial history, history as narrative, of hierarchies. The new history, and this is relevant to the reading of Prynne’s poem, looked on the past as part of a matrix, its constituents linguistic, architectonic, relativistic: present and future are present in time past, as it were. Present concerns, coloured by past precedent, influence future decisions, the selection of material, their weighting, and interpretation.

One criticism levelled at both Prynne and Geoffrey Hill is that although both eschew any biographical approach to their work, their range of references and especially the nature of the references they use, are essentially personal, subjective.

As with all general comments this, as we have seen above it is not always the case. I feel this criticism applies more to the later Hill than the instance of this particular poem by Prynne. The poem is maybe idiosyncratic in its form but the intentions and motives appear mostly objective.