Friday, June 3, 2011


Yes, we’re back, and for a second week. For sympathetic readers mildly curious about what deep dark hole we disappeared into, it will come as no surprise to hear that poetry blogs are as vulnerable to the exigencies of time and cash as magazines and small presses. We pick up where we left off, with a few changes which I’ll describe below.

Last week, I introduced a great poem by Dutch poet Hester Knibbe entitled “Last Night”. I love how Knibbe handles colour and tone in that poem. My neighbour and poet George Payerle was struck by the lyric poem, too (reminding him, he said, of the German poet Gottfried Benn). Here’s a second offering by Hester, followed by our interview.

Thetis’ Heel

Even gods, though they were born
in our own heads, died out to myth.

Just as no one can point to the source
of the spring or later at sea can say: this

is the water from deep in the earth, that
flowed from the mountaintops, so

is the stream of mortals and gods.

About my origins I know
nothing. I married the earth, a child

grew in me, fell
out of me at last, and I

babbled: little mutt of mine, I’ll
name you, dunk you in invulnerability.

He smiled at me, held me tightly
by the heel and said mama.

Translated By Jacquelyn Pope

DG: What I take from this poem is that our preoccupation with origins is undercut by the impermanence of history and the shift in how we comprehend reality. Is that what you intended? Does it not also address concerns about male and female knowledge, e.g. Thetis’ “knowing nothing” and that sly inversion by Achilles when he dips his mother Thetis into the River Styx?

HK: In the old ‘story’ Achilles’ mother Thetis married Peleus, a mortal, and as a result her son also becomes mortal. So that Achilles, the fighting boy and hero, can become immortal Thetis dips him into the Styx. Why is Thetis doing this? Because her kid is her vulnerability, I think. And so I also read in that story the vulnerability of all mothers. No, Achilles didn’t dip her into the Styx, he only touched her and said ‘mamma’. And with that ‘mamma’ she was doomed to live in fear for him.

I like it to see old stories and myths from other positions. In the original story Thetis has only a sort of small supporting role; in this poem I give her the leading part.

As for your questions about origins the gods exist by the grace of the existence of human beings. And we don’t know or have memories about where we were before life on earth and where we will be after life, if we were or will be.

DG: In poems such as “The Archaeologist” and "Light Years” you seem to invest hope in our capacity to grasp meaning and beauty from the things of the past and the stars overhead, only to have this undercut by an abiding skepticism.

HK: It’s more an observation of patterns. Things are what they are, neither more nor less. There is a strong order in nature and that order is disturbed by chaos. In my poems I try to restore the order, to discover a certain pattern, even in chaos. There is no good or evil in nature, no justice or injustice. These are only good tools for the livability of a community.

As for skepticism, that’s not my intention. I am always astonished that the feelings of people nowadays are so much like those of the people who lived more than two thousand years ago. That is the reason we can understand the old plays: it’s all about emotions that we still have and can see in our own environments, feel in our own body. I am curious about those things, about what people have in common, not bound by place or time.

DG: Am I wrong in seeing some influence of Philip Larkin in your poetry? Who are your favourite American and British poets?

HK: My (deceased) colleague, Jan Eijkelboom, a marvelous translator from English into Dutch, has translated a lot of the beautiful poems of Philip Larkin. But my favorites are T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. I used two lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets for my poetry: “I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where/And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time”. And:

“The end is where we start from”. These are also themes in ‘Thetis’ heel’.

For my new collection, ‘Het hebben van schaduw’ (Having shadow’), I use a sentence from Auden in his poem ‘For the time being’: ‘We who must die demand a miracle.

DG: How much confidence do you have in language to convey fixed or inviolable meaning? I ask because of what I perceive to be the “doubleness” in your use of words and syntax, e.g. the opening line in “The Archaeologist”, which can be read two or three different ways: In one who doesn’t speak the story petrifies/gets stumbled over, causes hurt. Then/says the man who should know about the past, then/is a word you need to learn now…”

Are you not in some sense using the variability or instability of language to deconstruct meaning, if only in a playful way?

HK: One of the things that makes poetry is what I call “layer-language”, i.e. language with different meanings, like layers in a layer-cake. Every layer has its own taste. Without that, poetry becomes a simple announcement. It’s what accounts for the ‘doubleness’ in my syntax and use of words. In Dutch there are a lot of ways to ’play’ or ‘work’ in language, to give several meanings to a word and make a sentence interpretable in different ways. In “The Archaeologist”, for example, the last word is ‘vanishing point’. In painting it is the point at which all lines come together. But it is of course also the point at which everyone will vanish. In the poem it is the altar that must save us from vanishing forever.

Sometimes I suddenly see the old beauty of a word. In the last sentence of the poem ‘Persephone’ the Dutch word is ‘verbruid’. It comes from the verb ‘verbruien’ which means ‘to be through with’, but in it is also the word ‘bruid’ which means ‘bride’. In the context of the poem it is a marvelous extra.

In another of my poems I use the words ‘huidige tijd’ which means ‘now’ or ‘this time’. But in Dutch we have the word ‘huid’ which means ‘skin’. So you can say the time now is our skin time. That is the beauty of language, which I am afraid can also lead to difficulty in translation. Of course you can say it is a sort of deconstruction of meanings. But it is also a way to build new meanings and a way of restoring language to its original.

DG: Your language is also spare and rather compressed. Is this a conscious choice or is something more unconscious and serendipitous at work here?

HK: This is often considered to be my idiom. When writing I use language both consciously and unconsciously. It has to do with rhythm, the music of the poem. I often sense that the poem selects its own construction and music. So when I write, I am listening to what the poem wants. After years of practice I have tended more and more to write down what I hear. Afterwards I make the necessary corrections.

DG: That’s an interesting word to use: “corrections”. Are you saying that the unconscious has made an error in some fashion that must be fixed?

HK: When a carpenter has made a chair, he will sand and polish it to make it a good and useful one. A poet has to do the same.

DG: What I love about your work is your ability, sometimes in the same poem, to shift from enormous delicacy (as in “Glasswork”) to a kind of abrasive roughness (e.g. “Hungerpots”). Do you see reality or the world in this way, i.e. as a place where beauty and ugliness collide and sometimes even cooperate?

HK: Yes, I do. It’s also a matter of listening, of conscious and unconscious. I let it happen.

DG: You write about romantic love in your poems, but again without a sense of love’s reality or its capacity to endure (a perennial theme, to be sure, in classical poetry). Is romantic love, as we understand it in the classical tradition, possible in contemporary poetry? Or has our experience and understanding of love changed too dramatically for this to occur?

HK: In the classical tradition poets have also written about love to die for, physical love and all kinds of love sorrow. In the Middle Ages there was courtly poetry and burlesque poetry. In that sense it is the same as in contemporary poetry. I don’t think that our understanding of love really has changed. As in the past we have the ‘eternal’ love, the one-night stand and all that is between the two. That is the reason that we can understand so completely the classic plays, the old myths. Good poetry is timeless. Nowadays, too, we can say and write things with universal and timeless value.

DG: One of the best poems I’ve read in a long while is one we featured last week “Last Night” in which the speaker “saves” two children. Readers may differ over whether the crisis in the poem is set within a dream or the imagination, but what is more intriguing to me is the emotional pitch of the poem (i.e. matter-of-fact, detached) and what it seems to say about consciousness (i.e. that we have choices in how we view and interpret the world). Are you speaking to a larger responsibility here than simply executing a well-wrought poem?

HK: It’s only rarely that I write a poem only to create something that is ‘well-wrought’ or what we call “l’art pour l’art”. When I write I am trying to express something. But it’s striking that you should mention this poem! The theme of it is also the mother’s fear about losing her children, an attempt to save them from death. I wrote the poem years before “Thetis’ heel” and a lot has happened meantime. But there it is again: the vulnerability of a mother.

DG: A technical question: many poets enjamb their lines, but not always very successfully. Your enjambments, by contrast, really do seem to contribute to the sense of the line and to the rationale underpinning your stanza breaks. Any tips here for other poets on how you approach lineation and enjambment?

HK: It’s to the credit of my translator Jacquelyn Pope, who has saved many of them. I try to say something extra with an enjambment, for example, that a hesitation between yes and no in the 8th and 9th lines of "Thetis' Heel":

About my origins I know

nothing. I married the earth, a child

With that enjambment I express my doubt and say: ‘yes, I know about my origins’ and ‘no, I know nothing about my origins’. I advise every poet to explore those sorts of possibilities in the arrangement of their words and look for others. In that way you can give more depth to a poem.

DG: I understand you’re working on a book of poems to be published in English. Can you tell us a little about that project?

HK: I should like to have a selection in English and I hope to realize it in cooperation with Jacquelyn Pope, who translates my poems so well. My favorite translation of my work by her is an edition in two languages with the Dutch version on one page and on the opposite page the translation in English. That way the reader can see the original text, and have an idea of the sound, the length, the enjambments, etc.

Until now it was up to Jacquelyn Pope to choose the poems, but perhaps we’ll agree later about which poems she will translate. For me it is difficult to assess the problems she has to address within a translation.

DG: Finally, a question for translator Jacquelyn Pope. Any translation will suffer from the limitations that naturally arise when words from different languages attempt to describe the same or similar experience, a difficulty compounded by the idiomatic nature of language. What are some of the things you tried to keep in mind while translating Hester Knibbe’s poetry?

JP: Translation always involves compromise, and sometimes the nature of the compromise changes as you are working on a particular piece. Dutch is a much more compressed language than English, and that poses challenges to begin with. Hester’s work has lots of echoes for Dutch readers, even between single words, that can’t be replicated in English because, for example, a particular similarity in sound or spelling simply doesn’t exist. On the other hand, English allows pretty generous syntactical freedom, and that is tremendously important in translating poems. In virtually any translation there are always words, phrases or references that are difficult to convey out of their particular cultural context, but I try to put my awareness of these aside, since what I want to concentrate on are the parts of the poem that can come in to their own in English, and after several rounds of revision it usually becomes clear whether or not a particular poem is going to be viable.

In translating Hester’s work I try to pay particular attention to the architecture of the poem and to reflecting its sounds, colors and echoes, as these are the factors that establish that elusive quality of tone, the thing that really draws me to a poem in the first place, and certainly the thing that first drew me to her work.

Hester Knibbe made her literary debut in 1982 with "Tussen gebaren en woorden", which was followed by another ten collection of poems. Her work has been awarded inter alia the Herman Gorter Prize, the Anna Blaman Prize and the A. Roland Holst Prize. Hester Knibbe has appeared at various poetry festivals, with her work appearing in several literary magazines. Her poems have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Turkish and Hebrew. Between 2008 and 2010 she was the chair of PEN Nederland..

Recent publications:

De buigzaamheid van steen (The Flexibility of Stone), 2005

Bedrieglijke dagen (Deceitful Days), 2008

Oogsteen (Eye Stone), (selected poems 1982-2008), 2009

Het hebben van schaduw (Having Shadow), 2011


I hope you’re going to see something a little different at Speaking of Poems from now on. First, less commentary and a stronger commitment to reviewing, if for no other reason than reviews are in short supply in this country. That means one full length review on the last Saturday of each month, i.e. twelve reviews each year, with the occasional poet interview. Second, some blogs will be devoted to poets from countries besides Canada. Convinced that we all fare better, and our national literature grows stronger when we drink in more of the world around us I’ll introduce poets you might not be familiar with, but who I think you’ll really enjoy.

First up in late June: a review of Don Coles’ Where We Might Have Been - short-listed for The Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry (winner TBA June 23rd).

1 comment:

Alice Major said...

Welcome back, David. The blog is a real contribution to the poetry discussion -- and the interview with Hester Knibbe.

I'm interested in issues of translation, because it somehow goes to the heart of defining what poetry is -- the part that is unique to (a) language and can't really translate, and the other large part that can be carried from language to language.

If anyone is interested, the translation journal TransCultural is currently looking for submissions to its upcoming issue:


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"Read the interviews with Hester Knibbe and Catherine Graham...they were wonderful. Refreshing to read such straightforward writing about poetry. Most helpful and will share with writing friends. Thank you for your work." Wendy Crumpler.

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