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Poetry & Translation: Gerrit Kouwenaar translated by Lloyd Haft

October 1, 2013

By Holland Park Press

Dutch Centre, 7 Austin Friars London EC2N 2HA
Thursday 24 October at 7pm
Tickets at the door, reservations:
£5, conc. £3

A Dutch master captured in English

We’re delighted to announce a new series of Poetry & Translation. We thank the Dutch Centre for hosting the first event and we’re very pleased to welcome Lloyd Haft, poet, writer and translator, to talk about one of the giants in poetry Gerrit Kouwenaar.

Lloyd Haft has an intriguing background and is highly qualified to talk about translating a grand old man, so you’re in for a treat.

Gerrit Kouwenaar
Gerrit Kouwenaar

Gerrit Kouwenaar, born in 1923, is arguably the greatest living Dutch poet. He no longer travels but his poetry does.

Gerrit Kouwenaar, in a truly modern fashion, self-published his first poetry collection Vroege voorjaarsdag (Early Spring Day) during WWII. It landed him in prison for 6 month, and immediately after completing his prison sentence he went into hiding.

His official debut collection Achter een woord (Behind One Word) was published in 1953, and he became one of the leading lights in 1950s movement, a group of experimental poets influenced by the COBRA avant-garde movement. His reputation grew and by the 1980s, he not only had acquired a large loyal set of readers, but he also influenced many Dutch poets.

He has won all the major Dutch language poetry and literature prizes including, in 1970, the PC Hooft Prize for his entire oeuvre, and, in 1989, the Dutch Literature Prize again for his entire oeuvre. He also translated plays by Brecht, Goethe and Sartre and wrote his last full collection Het bezit van een ruïne (Possession of a Ruin) in 2005.

For the connoisseurs here are some facts and figures in Dutch and for English speakers a summary from the Dutch Literary Fund.

To underpin Gerrit Kouwenaar’s importance for present-day writers, I would like to share a few comments from a contemporary Dutch poet and writer, Arnold Jansen op de Haar, about a poet who inspired him:

Each year, Gerrit Kouwenaar is high on the list of a likely Dutch candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His poems move you because he always manages to turn something personal into something of universal appeal. Actually he writes about the transient nature of things.

As Kouwenaar puts it himself: ‘Art only deals with a couple of simple themes: life, death, injustice, beauty. You want to create something that will withstand time. Nothing is present forever. A good work of art has been stolen from time, it has outwitted merciless time.’

The odd thing is that, now towards the end of his career, Kouwenaar writes his best work, for example the title poem of his collection Totaal witte kamer (Totally White Room), which is partly a requiem for his deceased wife.

Just to focus you, from time to time they used to paint the rooms of his house in France white. But now his wife is no longer alive. Look out for the rhythm, Kouwenaar has his very own use of rhythm which is very catching.

So here are the opening lines of his poem ‘Totally White Room’ published in the collection with the same name in 2002:

Let’s make the room white one more time
one more time the totally white room, you, me

it won’t save time, but one more time
make the room white, now, never again later

You can read the entire poem and watch a video of the author reciting the poem in Dutch on the Poetry International website.

Gerrit Kouwenaar’s Dutch publisher is Querido.

Holland Park Press’s publisher commented, ‘I still relish the fact that I met Gerrit Kouwenaar in De Balie, Amsterdam during the launch of Vrede is eten met muziek (Peace is Eating Accompanied by Music), he is an inspiring and courteous gentleman.’

Lloyd Haft
Lloyd Haft

Lloyd Haft (1946) is an American-born Dutch poet, translator and sinologist. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and moved to Leiden to complete his MA in 1973 and his PhD in 1981. From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chines language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden University.

He has widely translated poetry into English from the Dutch and the Chinese, including works by Gerrit Kouwenaar, Anna Enquist, HH ter Balkt, Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Vesuvius in 2011).

His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published on his blog.

Dutch Centre

It is very fitting that we celebrate Gerrit Kouwenaar at the Dutch Centre, which opened on 30 April 2013, the day Willem Alexander was inaugurated as the new king of the Netherlands. The Dutch centre is located underneath the Dutch Church, where in 1550, King Edward VI granted the Dutch and French speaking refugees shelter.

The Dutch Centre is just a few minutes’ walk away from Liverpool Street railway & tube station or Bank tube station, map.


Holland Park Press

Poetry & Translation is organised by Holland Park Press, a privately owned publishing house specialising in literary fiction and poetry: contemporary English, contemporary Dutch (in English & Dutch) and classic Dutch literature in translation

Contact: Bernadette Jansen op de Haar, +44 (0) 77 926 11 929,