Reading poems as a personal adventure
About a third of the teachers who teach poetry in the Netherlands feel that they do not have sufficient knowledge of the genre. Poetry critic and assistant professor of Dutch literature Jeroen Dera recently tweeted this. It can be concluded from Geert Buelens’ ‘Defense of Poetry’ that Flanders is not in better shape.
The high school education hardly pays any attention to the poetry canon. College and university students and their literature professors boast that they don’t read poems because they don’t understand them anyway, and that they’ve never heard—let alone read—of supposedly important, prominent poets like Dirk van Bastelaere or Kees Ouwens.
The interest in poems and poets is not lacking, says Buelens in his book Improper use (2008) clearly. And of course much can be done about the knowledge gap. Reading poetry and reading and thinking about poetry for example. In recent years, a number of accessible books on reading and interpreting poetry have been published, such as Tame words (part 2), Read your own poems and This is not about mowing the lawn which are very suitable for beginning or hesitant poetry lovers and teachers. Judit Gera and Jos Kleemans join Joy of poetry. A Poetry Analysis Manual for International Dutch Studies an interesting contribution to this genre, which is also very readable for Dutch speakers and teachers of Dutch and is also very suitable for drawing inspiration for poetry lessons.
Judit Gera, emeritus professor of modern Dutch literature at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and literary translator, and Jos Kleemans, philosopher and Germanist, consider the reading of a poem as a personal adventure that, in addition to pleasure, also generates recognition, knowledge and enchantment and shock. They derive these last four effects from The use of literature (2008) by Rita Felski. Her theory about the importance of literature for readers forms a guideline for Joy of poetry. Felski’s reader-oriented approach pairs Gera’s and Kleeman’s with the acquisition of stylistic, cultural-historical and biographical knowledge and with the ability to read and analyze poems.
Becoming an independent and critical reader of poetry takes practice. The authors do not avoid this. The enjoyment of the title does not represent superficial entertainment, but the satisfaction one can feel after an effort. Joy of poetry contains an introduction and an intermezzo with references to secondary literature on poetry concepts and concepts from poetics, a step-by-step plan and 21 poems by Dutch and Flemish poets published between 1892 and 2018, which are provided with questions and interpretation by the authors. This makes the book particularly suitable for self-study. Gera and Kleeman’s interpretations can also serve as a guideline for your own lessons on poetry.
The poems by, among others, Hélène Swarth, Paul Demets, Leonard Nolens, Anne Vegter and Radna Fabias are listed in chronological order. Each poem contains probing questions and a glossary, which are useful not only for non-native readers of Dutch, but also in the classroom. After all, not all students know what a jujube or a crucifix is. What is particularly nice about this edition is that all poems are included in the book twice, once in the section ‘Poems with glossaries and questions’ and again in ‘Interpretations of the poems’. This invites a deeper reading and makes it easier to follow Gera and Kleeman’s interpretations.
It is a pity that Gera and Kleemans did not choose a reverse chronological order, because the more recent poems are more accessible to untrained poem readers and interpreters. They refer to current themes such as the Nashville Declaration, migration and postcolonial criticism. Understanding the nineteenth-century opening poem ‘Voor andre kvinder’ by Hélène Swarth requires a great deal of cultural historical background knowledge and knowledge of figures of speech, as Gera and Kleeman’s interpretation shows. I can imagine that a reader who does not yet know much about poetry will quickly look at the titles from the intermezzo, i.a. In a poetic way (1996) by Ernst van Alphen and Maaike Meijer, will seize or interrupt his or her reading to look up words in the General Literature Lexicon of the Digital Library of Dutch Letters (DBNL), which Gera and Kleemans also refer to. It’s a shame, because the purpose of this otherwise excellent book on poetry analysis is precisely to get readers excited and confident first.
The reader is free to read poems ‘as best suits his or her surroundings’, write Gera and Kleemans. The authors invite the reader to first think about the poems themselves, each of which is well chosen, and only then read their interpretations. These interpretations are thorough, sometimes surprising and they testify to a deep insight into poetry. The anthology, Lyst til dittingt, and the extensive and careful interpretations make the publication worth it even for the more advanced poetry reader.
It is reassuring that Gera and Kleemans sometimes adjust their own lectures in response to discussions with students and reader reactions on Neerlandistiek.nl, where the poems and interpretations are provided. What they always do is show that the content of a poem can never be separated from its form. When pointing to the occurrence and function of, for example, antimetry, an elision or a hypogram, the authors immediately briefly explain what is meant by these concepts and how the figure of speech is used in the poem in question.
An example of a supplemented interpretation can be read in the chapter on ‘Seagulls’ by Judith Herzberg. According to Gera and Kleemans, this poem about machine destruction refers to the Holocaust. (They explain why they think this at length and, in my opinion, very convincingly.) Some of the students with whom they discussed the poem believed that Herzberg provides eco-criticism in ‘Seagulls’. They see the disappearing birds as ‘a metaphor for the destruction of nature’. Both interpretations can coexist.
Felski’s theory is reflected in some interpretations by Gera and Kleemans. For example, according to them, shock is an effect of reading ‘Seagulls’ if one recognizes a cold-blooded industrial killer of congeners in the crane (bird). The poem ‘De weg’ by J. Bernlef, which is about Theo van Gogh, ‘gives new knowledge to the reader’, according to Gera and Kleemans. The quote about the lives of Van Gogh and Breitner, with which the poem opens, makes the reader delve into both of their concepts of art.
The connection between social context, personality and style, as reflected in the characteristics of the two artists, gives the reader new knowledge.
The poem ‘A child like this’ by Hans Tentije had a magical effect on me. The spell is invoked by the toddler’s walker. I find the idea that such locomotor support for young children already existed in the fifteenth century endlessly fascinating. How the child and his walker looked can be seen in the picture of the back panel on Carrying the cross by Hieronymus Bosch, also called ‘Christ Child with walker’ Joy of poetry state. Tentije signed the title Such a child a series of a total of seven poems, which immediately made me curious about the other six.
The reflection of the young and adult Christ figure on two sides of the painting and the references to the child’s suffering, ‘his unknown but ominous fate’ in the words of Gera and Kleeman, fall under what Felski calls the knowledge effect of literature. considering. Reading the Bible and a few art history treatises is no superfluous luxury to get to the heart of this poem. This cognitive approach is repeatedly interrupted in ‘A child like this’ by the evocation of a child awkwardly moving in a mysterious environment, which consists of words and images that have an effect even without background knowledge. And that brings us back to Felski, who at the end of The use of literature emphasizes that there are no strict dividing lines between recognition, knowledge, shock and enchantment. Readers’ responses are always “messy, nebulous, complicated, and contradictory,” and literature’s affective, cognitive, and aesthetic effects are “inextricably intertwined.”
how manfully he pushes his rigid three-wheeled walker
not on, the wooden handle is his only grip
now that he never got hold of all the approaching twists and turns
can lose, the rods of the welded
the undercarriage is so fragile that it will immediately, over there
could go very wrong
but who sent him with a pat on the ass a company
hit one of his fragile shoulders, the uncertainty
of the world, sunrises, plagues, steaming
dung heaps, love nests, burnt villages
and trampled cornfields, meet auspicious rainbows?
Judith Gera and Jos Kleemans – Joy of poetry. A Poetry Analysis Manual for International Dutch Studies. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam. 192 pages €24.99.