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LIVING SPACE: ExCERPTS

from the Introduction (1979)

Historically, the role of translation has always been catalytic. I emphasize this here because Living Space: Poems of the Dutch Fiftiers is the first major collection of contemporary Dutch poetry to appear in English; and further, because its publication comes at a time when America’s long postwar cultural domination seems on the wane, so that a conscious openness to fresh influences is especially called for. It was, after all, a verse translation of the Odyssey in Latin, made in the third century B.C.E. by the Greek slave Livius Andronicus for his master’s children, that marked the beginning of a cultural revolution in the ancient Roman world. At the same period, no one could have predicted the long-term effects of rendering the sacred books of the Jews from Hebrew—clearly a “dying” language—into Hellenistic Greek.

The Dutch Fiftiers’ movement had its beginnings in the art world of postwar Amsterdam, among the painters who joined together in 1948 to form the Experimental Group Holland (De Experimentale Groep Holland), known internationally as Cobra (COpenhagen-BRussels-Amsterdam). Its birth manifesto proclaimed in part: “A living art recognizes no distinction between the beautiful and the ugly because it doesn’t draw up any aesthetic norms.”

The emphasis was revolutionary, the complete overturning of received aesthetic, social, and intellectual standards, with a special stress on the very physicality of art. The young poets attracted to the group—all born between the two world wars and survivors of the Nazi Occupation—soon applied this attitude to their own literary art. Without subscribing to fixed goals, they sought to make (paraphrasing one of their number, Gerrit Kouwenaar) not so much a “new” poetry as an “other poetry.”

“The poetry of the Fiftiers,” Kouwenaar wrote in 1953, “[has] virtually no precedent in the Dutch linguistic area, that is to say, no previous history rooted in tradition. It came upon the scene quite quickly and on a broad front, and despite rather stiff opposition still managed to be accepted rather fast.”

Postscript (2005)

“America’s long postwar cultural domination seems on the wane....” I find a certain melancholy in reading these words of mine from a quarter century ago. Since then, American pop culture has proved to be an incontestable dominant mass influence worldwide, spreading alongside a reemergent spirit of Manifest Destiny with a compulsion to export American-style capitalist democracy to a not entirely accepting world. The Fiftiers volume of the PIP Anthology of Word Poetry will surely not bring America and its erstwhile friends or their very real enemies to all their senses, but, like the entire series itself, is at least a small act of mediation and sanity in a world once again gone mad.

Copyright © 1979, 2005 by Peter Glassgold

k

Remco Campert

Gerrit Kouwenaar

Unbelievable

Unbelievable
that when I was a boy
I wrote a poem about
the silver whiteness of a birch tree

and all about me
the grand spree of
Liberation:
water turned to whisky.

Everybody boozed and fucked,
all Europe was one big mattress
and the sky the ceiling
of a third-rate hotel.

And I timid youth simply had to
sing the pure birch
and the modest beauty
of its leafage.

—Translated by James S Holmesitem4b

as an object

A poem as an object

a glass revolving door and the chinese waiter
returning steadily with the dishes

a park attendant filing his nails
amid siberian children from maine

a prehistoric venus together with
a spider on the freeway

a glass of mother’s milk, a dinner jacket
starched yellow

a bee, a penknife
both stinging, an airplane
dissolving in a village rain

a poem as object.

—Translated by Peter Nijmeijeritem4c

Lucebert

Paul Rodenko

brancusi

robust ball as a bust
kisses glass bullets
obelisks as flying fish
vague birds as kisses

frivolous wings
play with weighty stones
a game of voice and silence

swans of snow-clad temples
kisses as shaded gateways
thresholds between sky and earth
skittish swans as kisses

—Translated by Peter Nijmeijeritem4d

Bombs

The town is still
The streets
have widened.
Kangaroos look through window openings.
A woman passes by.
Quickly the echo catches
her step.

The town is still.
A cat tumbles stiffly from the window ledge.
The light is like a shifting mass.
Noiselessly three four bombs fall on the square
And three four houses slowly raise
The red flag.

—Translated by Peter Glassgold

Bert Schierbeek

The Ear

Into the donkey’s soft ear
the evening falls
on the walls the rest
of the sun

the shadow stretches longer
and longer
into the slow coil
of night’s rising dark

—Translated by Douglas Messerli
Copyright © 2005 by Douglas Messerli and Peter Glassgold

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