Diary note 5: Breytenbach

18 April, 2017  

Launching a book of poetry

I went to Amsterdam because of old friends. Nowadays I will seldom go to Amsterdam without good reason. But I knew the poet Breyten Breytenbach and I knew the poet who translated his Afrikaans poems into Dutch, Laurens van Krevelen, and I knew another poet would be there whom I had not seen for long: Remco Campert. When would I see them together again?

The address was unknown to me, but I remembered that it had South Africa in its name and was at number 141c. I did not bother to print out the invitation or take my cell phone with me, because of its irksome presence at the reunion. So I was completely bewildered when I knocked at a closed door at number 141 and it did not open. No one was waiting outside, and not one of the faces passing by had an inkling of literature on them. I finally approached a neighbour for clarification, but he told me he was just there to pick up an outboard motor along the canal. Then I saw a place called Amnesia and was so convinced that I had the number right that I was not aware of what that meant. Only when I stood inside surrounded by pot-smoking strangers I realized I would get no clarification at Amnesia. It dawned on me that neither Amsterdam was wrong nor my memory of the number, but that I had mistaken one canal for another. I am not an Amsterdammer.

When I arrived ten minutes afterwards the room was already thronged, but I was recognized by my friends and seated beside the wives of two poets. I was happy to see them too and happy to speak French with the Vietnamese wife of Breyten. One has few chances nowadays to intimately use that language. Perhaps because of that moment of virtuality or because I had just returned from Asia, I found the Dutch introductory speeches enormously cumbersome. The Dutch, I thought, are well meaning and do great things like publishing foreign poets, but they do not know how to turn a polished phrase, they seem to avoid elegance, and while afraid of being perceived as presumptuous, they stumble into awkwardness.

But then the poems were read and one suddenly found oneself unburdened. I had forgotten how hard it is to follow Afrikaans, even as one catches the drift of the poem. The sonorous but muffled diction of Breyten was like a drum in a procession, very à propos, but somewhat monotonous. Only when Laurens read the translation the full sparkle of meaning began to play its own melody and the poem came into its own. And moved me. The very heterosexual eroticism of his images, the painterly unfolding of his situations, was in the end supported by the authenticity of a personal emotion.

Both Remco and Breyten had aged, but in a different way. I was, for a short while, afraid that the ease of Breyten would swallow the reticence of Remco. But I was reminded of something Breyten had told me twenty or more years ago about the French word essence. He was fascinated that it meant the smell that is left over of a herb like lavender after one has eliminated the, yes, non-essentials. This seemed to have happened to RC. His catlike physical grace had disappeared, but his mixture of humility and precision in the use of words had produced an essentially refined face, once he spoke. Breyten had not at all lost the fluid that carries the perfume. As the discussion progressed, he seemed to become more physical, like an opening flower, with his body and head and voice turning into a fluid space, instead of a form. He seemed to invade the non-essential.

During the discussion he mentioned the genealogy of poetry, how time changed it but also simplified the essential message. This may be true, when out of poems, or even a whole body of work, only a few sentences survive. But more or less forever, I thought.

It also made me reflect on the genealogy of festivals, that had brought these, or some poets together. My festival had, he said, brought poets together, not to discuss poetry, but to know of each other’s existence.

I was thinking, while he spoke, about the genealogy of my Rotterdam festival that had been such a meeting place of poets to him. It had not just been a form of audience participation, by having the poets read aloud, though that had proved important. It had not been the city of Spoleto or Rotterdam as a setting. It had basically been a genealogy of poets. If in Spoleto in 1965 I had not heard John Ashbery, Giuseppe Ungaretti or Ezra Pound read aloud as they did, I would not have believed in poetry as the human voice, as saying something that was neither of the poet nor of the audience, but something they had in common somewhere. The meeting of Laurens, Remco, Breyten in 2017 had a predecessor in the meeting of Pound, Ungaretti and Ashbery in 1965. It was a pedigree of poets performing.

I went back to Leiden with a train full of migratory workers, probably employed in the tulip fields this spring. This was prose. But for an hour or two this evening in Amsterdam I had heard the voice of poetry again. These poets had not changed the world, but they had kept the fire burning.