I love reading poetry but I have to admit that since university and grad school days I haven’t spent so very much time doing close reading and analysis. Not that I haven’t, or don’t, but most of the time when I read poetry I don’t dig all that deeply into it unless there is something about it that especially resonates. Then I will reread and mull over and spend some time with it. And, for the most part, this is satisfactory. It’s only me, reading for pleasure not for a class discussion, test or in order to write an essay.
But there is a certain pleasure and extra enjoyment putting in the effort to read closely and analyze, to figure out what is going on more deeply. When I don’t do it very often I forget about how gratifying it is. And it is even better when there is someone else reading and analyzing the poems along with you.
My friend Cath, who lives in the Netherlands, recommended the collection Landscape with Rowers edited by J.M. Coetzee. Six poets, six longish poems. A sort of introduction to Dutch poetry. The book has the Dutch on one page and the English translation on the other and Cath decided to read the book along with me. I am glad she did. Not only was she able to provide extra information about the poets, their styles and their place in Dutch poetry, it was a wonderful experience talking about the poems with her. So often we approached them from different angles, made different interpretations, noticed different things. And when we shared what we had found, each poem would open up just a little more, revealing more of its secrets.
I was baffled by Gerrit Achterberg and “The Ballad of the Gasfitter” and Cath helped me make more sense of it. She had had a difficult time with Sybren Polet in the past and I liked “Self Repeating Poem” very much, the repetition, the rhythm, and how it was always being slightly rearranged to form new meanings. She liked Hugo Klaus and his poem about Shelley more than I did but we both very much liked Cees Nooteboom and his poem about Basho.
Hans Favery was new to both of us and we both liked “Chrysanthemums, Rowers” very much. We decided that the pivot of the poem is in part four:
The utter void
in each thing, that is
real, and as such operative,
and mingles itself with the echo
of the last word:
which is no longer ready to pass
the lips; that at first still caresses
lips, then does not hesitate
to touch them: this hopeless lack
that everywhere leaves knots in water
and is a needle in bread.
But the interesting thing, at least to me, is how we both got there from different understandings of what came before and after.
Both of us declared Rutger Kopland’s to be our favorite poem in the collection. “Descent in Broad Daylight” in which
You see it happen
it is broad daylight — and behold
before your eyes the body
of a man
plummets living into the earth.
These lines and several others are repeated in each section and each time are just slightly different. It is a beautiful poem full of life and longing and grief.
Our only quibble with the collection is that no women were included. Other than that, if you are interested in an introduction to Dutch poetry, Landscape With Rowers is a good place to start. It’s a book I won’t be forgetting any time soon thanks to the excellent poetry and Cath and her careful reading.