Sander Leest | The old poet returns to his youth



BACKGROUND – In an interview in 2008, the Zutphen poet and writer HC ten Berge said that he was hailed at a lecture as “the man who, in his own words, does not write difficult poetry”. With the unintended opposite effect. “That way I’ll never get rid of that predicate,” he sighed.

a child’s eye, his latest collection, will finally shed the unfair label of inaccessibility. Not that he himself finds it a burden – Ten Berge just keeps writing, doesn’t let anything or anyone cheat him. And so, as he writes, constantly exploring the possibilities and limits of language and the human imagination, he has reached his own early years. He lived in Bergen aan Zee and experienced the war as a child. Not unusual, typically human, the more advanced the age, the greater the tendency to look back. Taking a distance in order to get closer: perhaps also a feature of literature and poetry as such.

In his latest collection, Ten Berge (1938) mentions neither ‘the little HC’ nor ‘the young Hans’ – the main character, his alter ego, is called Xander Specht. But on the cover of the book there is a photo of the young Hans, where you immediately recognize the look of the old HC. The adult has continued to look at the world through the eyes of a child.

In 2006, HC ten Berge received the PC Hooft Prize, the most important official Dutch literary award. He did not become a well-known Dutchman. Poetry is not highly valued.

But at war commemorations, which I was allowed to attend for this newspaper in Vorden this year, it turned out that when it really comes down to it, the poetry is there. A Canadian relative recited a poem at the cemetery that her uncle had in his pocket when the plane he was on was shot down over Hackfort.

Poetry is there when you want to put words to sadness, but also joy. If you want to awaken and pass on your childhood memories, as Ten Berge does in this collection. An attempt to reconstruct facts, events, adventures, boyhood dreams. Poetry gives this effort expressiveness.

Ten Berge narrates, narrates and explores the limits of poetry itself, but remains rhythmically consistent within them. He feels, weighs and weighs, hesitant and determined.

The collection includes the last years of war and the first years of peace in Bergen, but war, peace and youth are universal, it could have been in the Achterhoek.

By evoking his own memories, the poet also evokes the reader’s.

Anyone who can write all that down must have read a lot. Hans ten Berge was a reader from an early age: it sharpens the mind and sharpens the pen.

“Go play outside,” your mother called
if you have a new Eagle Eye again
or got hold of Winnetou.
She said what all the mothers said:
“You are still deceiving your eyes.”
All the adventures, excitement, distant
countries where life was different,
touched sensibilities, like your mind
numbed like a potion.’

Fortunately, Xander/Hans ignored his mother’s advice. He makes almost a whole life after that with a child’s eye paved the way for today’s readers to be carried away – not to say stunned – by the many poems, novels and stories that he has now written himself. Maybe in reverse order of appearance? So start with a child’s eye? The beginning, ending with a farewell, the escape from the parental home:


run be away
leave the nest –
fly out, be
air, a beat of a wing,
and never come back.

At a late age, HC ten Berge nevertheless returns once more and lets us take a look through his poet’s eye.

HC ten Berge: A child’s eye. Xander Specht’s early childhood. Publisher Kopernik

Sander Grootendorst

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