Poetry: redressing the unbalanced

Lecture at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce
Bangkok 9-8-2005</P

by Germain Droogenbroodt



The German philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed, that the language is the home of being, of existence and that human beings should learn again to life in it. Unfortunately, nowadays we see that the majority of people abandoned the house they should live in. As a consequence, the poem, by far the purest form of the language, suffers from the same abandonment. Alike the language it remains home but for an extremely small minority, and the poet, the philosopher Diogenes alike, errs with his lantern through the crowded streets of this world, searching for a human, for more humanity. 
According to Aristotle, being is the most universal concept and Heidegger, even more than other philosophers in search of the sense of it asked:  but the being (das Sein), what is being? It is itself, its pure existence, he replied. However, are human beings still their selves, do they still dispose of their own being, of  their own, personal existence, or have they become hardly more than puppets on the New World Order’s string?
Through the ages, the philosophers alike, poets have been in search of the sense of human existence on this planet. And the poem, what else is the poem than the poet´s tool to search for the sense of our being in relation with our fellow-humans? Writing, wrote the Spanish poet José Ángel Valente, is not the reproduction of a pre-existing experience, but the process and the creation of it. Therefore, as a multiplier of emotions, the genuine poem goes beyond all possible human feelings. As yet, one cannot expect the modern poet to be an optimistic visionary, but he can be a contemporary Diogenes, using his poetry as a lantern, a tool to find in the brainwashing light of media & multinationals, the real, the illuminating light.

It is not obvious to speak in a not too pessimistic way about “Poetry and Humanity” in these times where the world is lead – or rather mislead – by liars, demagogues and extremists. The world is full of ice and winter, estranged the god of love and mercy.
Power-mad men opened Pandora’s box, Chaos, the Greek goddess of disorder reigns and her daughter Nyx, the winged goddess of the night rides across the sky throwing her dark shades on the earth.
Poetry, even less than before, cannot make the world more human, it merely can describe the nature of human beings, as Homer, the first great Western poet did. We can but relate the human Odyssey, which hardly changed: in spite of so many ages of apprenticeship and defiant technical progress. Day by day we are confronted with merciless cruelty, with hate, murder and death which irrevocable appears to be human’s destiny. Allow me to recite a poem by the great Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann describing better than any other modern poet today’s reality:

The war is not anymore declared,
but continued. The outrageous
became ordinary. The hero
absents himself from the battles. The weak
has been moved to the firing line.
The daily uniform is patience,
the distinction the shabby star
of hope above the heart.
It is extended,
when nothing happens anymore,
when the drumfire dies down,
when the enemy becomes invisible
and the shadow of never-ending arming
covers the sky.

It is extended
for deserting the flags,
for the bravery towards a friend,
for the betrayal of unworthy secrets
and the rejection
of whatever command.

Ingeborg Bachmann

All poetry did and can do, is to be an obstacle: Do not sleep while the vindicators of the world are busy, warned the German poet Günter Eich,
be suspicious against their power which they pretend to acquire for you! Take care that your hearts are not empty, when they count with their emptiness! Do what is useless; sing the songs they do not expect from one’s mouth! Be sand, not oil, in the driving gear of the world.
These two examples show that poetry can warn, criticize, resist when humanity is threatened. Especially in Latin-America a large number of poets wrote critical, revolting poetry. Although not of mass destruction, the word is a weapon. Leaders know it. As soon as they have grasped power they grasp the writers, imprison, or intimidate them.
Poetry is a mirror in which human life is reflected in all its facets: it’s ugliness but also it’s beauty, its greatness. As in Homer’s Odyssey poetry speaks about death but also about human courage, about love, about hope, about the gods, the universe. Poetry describes what we are, as the Persian poet born in Afghanistan, Maulana Rumi did:
We are the mirror and in the mirror the face.
Continuously, minute by minute, we taste eternity.
We are the pain and what cures the pain. We are
the sweet, refreshing water and the jar that pours it.
Poetry also warns humans to respect the environment as goes in a poem by Günter Grass:
I looked for stones and found
the survived glove
of synthetic material.
Each fingerstall related.
No, not those stupid fisherman’s stories,
but what will remain:
Our garbage
beaches long.
Whereas we, passed away
of no one’s bereavement we will be.
To those in distress, poetry can be companion and consolation as described in a poem by the Austrian poet Christine Busta:

Sometimes, a poem is
a timid hand,
stretched out in the darkness
to a fellow human.
Hello you, I am here.
I rejoice, I suffer,
I am thoughtful just like you.
I am tired
and neither can sleep.

No other art form than poetry can express the greatest of human feelings: love or its loss. I recite a short love poem by the great Icelandic poet
Stefán Hördur Grimsson:


So hard they can be, the shadows of the night
that the heartbeat of my love
becomes heavy and dark
So hard they can be,
the shadows of the night.

But even when the hour comes that we have to leave this vale of tears
and a god - or the cosmos  - calls us back, poetry offers gentle words to depart. The Korean poet Sin Sôk-chông did it with an impressive beautiful poem, entitled:


When you call me
I will come to you
like yellowed ginkgo leaves
float in the autumnwind.
When you call me
I will come to you
like the new moon silently sinks away
at night, when the mist descends above the lake.
When you call me
I will come to you
like the sun of an early spring penetrates the grass
when white herons sing in the azure sky.

Sure, poetry cannot change the world, but how poor humanity would be, without Homer, without Li Po and Tu Fu, without Shakespeare, Dante and Petrarca, without Basho and Issa, Goethe, Baudelaire, Tagore, Mandelstam, Neruda, Lorca and so many other poets who offered beauty, faith, solace and hope, victuals for the human being on his journey to his irrevocable disappearance from this world.
Well, I could recite more poems recalling more humanity. Why not a poem from the Thai poet Prakin Xumai, which I translated into my language already 20 years ago:  

He lies on his back in the grass
under a slow-spreading cloud
bordered with jewelled coils of gold
now rolled free and loosed to unwind.

The pines spire, they yearn for the sky,
branches reach, then retire in the wind,
blossoms beckon, then spurn, then remind
while mist trades pearled sighs with the air.

Wind soothes the rice fields in gold sheets
that ripple and wave, debonair,
tossing back the dazzling sun's stare,
contesting its wide-ranging sway.

He lies on his back in the grass,
around him bright air, gleaming day
yet his smile seems somehow awry,
the smile of a child ill and weak,
even the urgent oath of flowers
cannot reach him, lost in the deeps
of his undreaming, motionless sleep
and songs call him unheard from the pines.

Cold fingers, cold lips, every part
like ice in the strange melting light,
his side flushed, dark red at the site
where the bullet cut through to the heart.

trans. R.C.,D.C.,P.S.

All of you might remember the slaughtering in Beijing at T’ien An Men Square. As the revolting students used poetry by Bei Dao, a leading Chinese poet, he was – and is still not allowed – to live in his homeland. He spoke me about his young daughter who had know him when she was only two years old and lamented that she did not anymore know who his was, each time he phoned her from abroad. I dedicated him a poem, called “Glassless Window” which I would love to recite.

Glassless window

for Bei Dao, Chinese poet in exile

It snows
in the winter of your eyes.
It snows
on peace
on T’ien An Men Square
It snows
on the little Chinese girl who
lost between the driving gear
of the old-
and the new world-order
Looks for the reminders
of a better time
- still


Being a poet myself – if you do not mind - I would love to continue this lecture with a selection from my poetry which I am supposed to know better than any other poetic work. It has – as critics from India, China, Korea and even from Arabic countries noticed - a lot of Asian influence.

My first book of poetry was titled “Forty at the wall” (Veertig aan de wand). According to a Chinese proverb, a man should build a house, have a son and…have written a book. My fortieth anniversary approached as a threatening “Sign at the wall”.

I had a house and a son, but due to my time consuming job at that time, and the material necessities of life, I had written some short- and travel stories, book reviews, but not yet a book. A Flemish poet – his verse became motto of my first book – had written: At forty one should know oneself / if not, it is better to die. Well, I was not so sure of knowing myself, but neither did I have the ambition to die. So Saint John alike, I secluded myself at an island – the Portuguese Island of Madeira – and wrote there my first book of poetry, heavily marinated with melancholy for a gone by youth: I turned my midlife crisis into poetry.
I read first the poem which gave the title to the book.

1st book: “Forty at the wall” (Veertig aan de wand)

Through the suffocating heat
thrusts the crumhorn
the signal:
de sun freezes
scorches the crusty earth

the refreshment
at the source

in front of the herd
- thoughtful now -
strides the man
takes from his shepherds’ purse
the old shawm
and sings
with a soft wavering voice
of his melancholy.




LOTOPHAGUS (The lotuseater)

in its own blood
the tropical sun
showers sparks
over Siam’s temples.
above the scimitars of the roofs
the evening must give birth to the night.
The splash
of girl’s exotic voices
dissipates the remnants of mist
merging with an invisible cricket chorus
singing hymns
to Buddha
into the late night.
my spirit breathes
through a thousand-and one- lotus flowers.

Other poems:  Fragile hope, I plant a
Cocopalm, Productivity

2nd book: “Do you know the country?”, Meditations at Lake Como.

As a teenager I devoured poetry like Americans devour hamburgers: no poet was safe for my voracious poetic appetite: of course contemporary Flemish and Dutch poetry, but also Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Eichendoff, Rilke, Hölderlin and even Schiller and Goethe. I had read all the poetry by Goethe, but especially the “discovery” of Italy by this northern poet had fascinated me. I borrowed for “Do you know the country?”, my second poetry collection, a verse from the German genius: Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen Blüh’n? (Do you know the country where the lemon trees flourish?).

I planned to let the rain, the mist and the melancholy of my native country behind me and intended to move to my Atlantis. Contrary to the first book, in which a melancholic poet, me, lamented the loss of youth, the hope of moving to the South, made me write a collection of “panoramic” poems. Most of the poems written at Lake Como in Italy are contemplating nature poetry. In the former book, personal feelings were subject of the poetry; in the second book nature became the protagonist where the poet is not anymore the suffering object, but a meditating observer. A few examples selected from that collection.


Virgen sail
sliding over de shalewater of the lake
but the jibboom
the seagull’s call

sometimes flying up
- an eagle

with Icarian wings.

Other poems: Verses Lost, Reminiscences, Il lavarello

3rd book: “Conversation with the hereafter”
I very much admired the peculiar, hermetic poetry of Hans Faverey, especially his last book with the precise and beautiful – but impossible to translated title - “Het ontbrokene” (The deprived). Knowing that he had just a few more weeks to live, Poetry International, the International Poetry Festival in Rotterdam, had invited the foreign poets to translate
and to recite two poems of Faverey, as homage. He died two weeks later. His untimely dead (cancer) shocked me and the idea occurred, to write
– as homage – a series of variations on his latest book as a kind of “conversation” with a deceased poet. However, as the saying goes, it is not the poet, but the poem that writes itself. After an unsuccessful attempt at Lake Como, I went to Scotland where I was invited as a poet-in-residence at Hawthornden Castle, where I wrote a series of 20 poems. As Robert Frost wrote: poetry is what gets lost in translation, I therefore would love to read as well the Dutch original of that poem.


          to Hans Faverey

Seldom has the defenceless swan
but the slightest in common
with the defenceless swan which moves
beyond recognition, beyond the horizon.

Not the ship, but the dolphin
swims out, swims out in front of
the ship, until he, tired of swimming
in front of the ship, in the waves disappears.
And thus it will happen:

that he lifts the oars
smoothes the winds out of the sails,
merges with the water
and becomes soft swell
thus resurrecting in the poem.

Other poems: Dutch version of this poem, Return, Borrowed Dawn

4th Book: “Palpable Absence” (Tastbare afwezigheid). But after having lived like a monk at Hawthornden Castle to write “Conversation with the hereafter”, I started to long for home and – switching the logical order - after finishing the poetry about death I wrote a series of poems about life, about the lacking of love. If you do not mind I would love to read a poem from that collection of love poems:

Hawthornden Night

          to Sappho

In the web of this Hawthornden night
I weave my silent moon:
an ardent gold-leaved prayer.

To an unknown and alien god
I offer gold, lotus an myrrh,
but alone I remain
in Drummond’s * tower

Without gold, without myrrh
without lustful flower.

* William Drummond, one of the former owners
of Hawthornden Castle. He was also a poet

5th Book “Between the silence of your lips” (Collected love poems).



Do not come as light
 which all too bright
 blinds the eye

 neither come
 as darkness
 which one cannot grasp

 but rather come
 as a thorn
 who announces

 the rose
 is within reach.

Other poems:  Verzoek, Actaeon, Last verse+Van alle verzen

6th Book “The Road” (de Weg - el Camino).

The East always has fascinated me and I have been there countless times. Being invited by my dear Indian friend Satish Gupta, one of the most famous Indian painters in 1998; I felt a need to write a series of poems, bridging poetically Western and Eastern cultures and philosophies, mixing elements of the Greek mythology with Hinduism and ZEN Buddhism. I had not at all the idea that the book would be successful – meanwhile published in more than twelve languages - including Arabic, Chinese and Hindi – I just HAD to write that book for myself, reflecting in some way the road of mankind: its past, its present and its unpredictable future. But more than anything else “The Road” referring to the TAO, was a lyrical record of my personal experience of various cultures, religions and philosophies. Allow me to recite a short poem selected from “The Road”:


Like an ephemeral flower

like a handful of snow
which for a moment glitters in the sun
and melts

slowly seeps away

merges with
and again becomes
- earth.

OTHER POEMS: Prayer, Resurrection
7th Book: “Counterlight”

In recent years I became more and more interested in Sufism which resulted in my last published collection of poetry, entitled “Counterlight”. Although less “Oriental” the collection remains in the spirit of “The Road”. The poems are in relation with the existence, with the “being” of men, not only as a temporary inhabitant of this planet, but also as a part of the cosmos of which the secrets have not yet been unveiled.


like a poem writes itself
comes the daybreak
from nothing into being
disposes of silence
and brings light
everywhere arise green
victuals for the sun
which from the earth
no other darkness removes
but the night.


Variation on a poem of Rumi

THE SONG of the nightingale
and the colours of the peacock
have enthralled me all my life
don’t tell me, one is only voice
and the other nothing but hue.

Other poem: Plea
To end this reading, I would love to recite one of my newest poems, written last May at Fontaine de Vaucluse, in the South of France,  where Petrarca lived 13 years and wrote his famous Canzoniere, written for his beloved Laura..


What else
searches the word for
in the sediment of the verse
if not for the impalpable
- which exists

just as the water of the river
escapes the hand
but learns in the jar its limits
conserves its form
and refreshes

as sometimes does
a poem.

Fontaine de Vaucluse, 2.5.2005







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