Five Times Two Picture-Poems

It’s inevitable – a language-area famous above all for its painters is bound also to produce a good many poets who allow themselves to be inspired by paintings. And it does. The Almanac of Contemporary Dutch and Flemish Literature (Almanach zur niederlandischen and flamischen Literatur der Gegenwart), published in August 1993 in connection with the Frankfurt Book Fair in October of the same year, which had the Dutch-speaking area as its focal point, includes some sixty poets; and more than half of them write, or wrote, picture-poems. That is a very high proportion. Their favourite painters are Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Brueghel, Hercules Seghers, Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer and Vincent van Gogh; noticeably rare, by contrast, are celebrations of works by Jan Steen, Frans Hals and Piet Mondrian. Poets with a particular feeling for the visual arts are, from the past, Albert Verwey and especially S. Vestdijk; and from the present generation Willem van Toorn, Hans Faverey, C.O. Jellema and J. Bernlef. The picture-poem is a popular genre, and some masterpieces are particularly favoured by poets. Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, for instance, inspired not only W.H. Auden in his famous ‘Musee des Beaux-Arts’, but also at least ten of his Dutch-speaking colleagues; while Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride has provided us with eight poems. Yet the best-known Dutch picture-poem by a long way derives not from the obvious source, our own Dutch Golden Age, but from a watercolour in Vienna’s Albertina by the German Albrecht Dürer. This is ‘The Columbine’ by Ida Gerhardt, the grand old lady of Dutch poetry:

When that little plant he found,
he thoughtfully stooped to the ground
and then, around the roots and moss there,
he dug out the fine earth, with care,
to do no damage with his hand …

A good second in the popularity stakes comes Lucebert’s ‘Fisherman of Ma Yuan’ – again, a far from indigenous subject:

under clouds the birds sail by
under waves the fishes fly
but between the fisher rests

waves to lofty clouds do turn
clouds turn into lofty waves
but meanwhile the fisher rests.

No poem about Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, Paulus Potter’s Bull, Vermeer’s Little Street or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers approaches the popularity of these two poems inspired by works of art from elsewhere.

It is also striking how very rarely poets provide illustrations of the works of art to which their poems owe their existence. The most notable exception is S. Vestdijk; in 1956, Rembrandt Year, he published a volume of poems (his last) on works by the Master, with his source pictures reproduced at the end of the book. Poets evidently consider that the reader should be satisfied with the poems themselves.

However that may be, it is worth the reader’s while to compare the source (the painting) with the result (the poem) and so try to work out to what extent, and in what way, the poet has bent the picture to his own theme. For that is what, if he is successful, the poet does with the painting. He does not describe it, he looks at it with a poet’s eye and re-creates it in words; if not in his own likeness, at least tailored to fit his own view of the world. In the last resort, after all, what he sees in the painting is what he himself is and what he stands for. And that is what he extracts from it.

By Anton Korteweg
Translated by Tanis Guest

First published in The Low Countries, 1994