Poet Jacques Hamelink, who died on Wednesday at the age of 82, said he had “very slowly reached his poetic maturity”. On the back cover of his latest bundle Solitudes, songs, which appeared last year, he presented a clear-cut literature view: “Just as there is an abstract and a figurative visual art, so there has been the abstract (primarily that of Mallarmé and his followers) and the figurative art for many years. or, perhaps more appropriately, natural poetry.” Hamelink said in a recent interview about his poetry, in a variation of the well-known phrase of Martinus Nijhoff: “Read it, it says what it says.”
That was not to say that the thirty collections of poetry and twelve prose works – novels, stories and essays – that Hamelink wrote in more than half a century left nothing to conjecture. From his debut, Hamelink was regarded as a ‘difficult’ poet, his work became fodder for academics and diligent sleuths. A substantial cultural-historical frame of reference, a dictionary: not an unnecessary luxury when reading Hamelink. His poetry was always a wealth and abundance of words, archaic and exotic. As poetry critic Arie van den Berg once wrote: “Reading Hamelink’s poetry is a bold ride on the roller coaster of language.” He called Hamelink the “word richest” among Dutch poets.
Jacques Hamelink, born in 1939 in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, worked in education for some time, until he made his debut as a poet in 1964 and received prizes for it, after which he could always live on his writing. In 1988 he received the Constantijn Huygens Prize for his oeuvre. Not that the general public embraced him – perhaps apart from the highly poetic cult novel ranunculus (1969), an evocation of his main theme: the threat posed by nature. Man is subordinate to The vegetable reign, as Hamelink’s first collection of short stories was called. As a result of this theme, literature, poetry, was in the service of the ‘higher’ and ‘ineffable’. Poetry was “trying to bring what was not conscious into consciousness,” he once said. A poem functioned “as a connecting sign between the ego and the unknown.”
After the 1970s, in addition to the metaphysical, reality was also allowed to participate in his work, and his language also became more open and accessible or, indeed, more ‘natural’. This gave it personal space in its verses. While Hamelink as a young poet had strongly opposed self-expression – he believed in “the most individual expression of the most collective emotion” – this had turned in the eighties: “Apparently a lot of time had to pass for me before I could integrate personal matters and I could maintain the poetic hardness.”
His latest bundle Solitudes, songs shows how broad Hamelink’s palette has become. It contains both reportage-like verses from the Ardennes and the North Overijssel Reestdal, as well as poems related to current events (MH17, the Hedwigepolder and two missing young Dutch women in Panama), and baroque, savage, blissful nature poems. Those who looked through the wealth of words indeed saw that what it simply said was there. Ducks fly up and alight, but in their own Hamelink way:
Their fan-tipped wing soaring does good,/ It flaps the water with their wings flapping/ Dotting, forward-pricking the race to their inhibition,// Of so female as drake perch the halting.
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