Essay

Jelle van der Meulen, Thomas Möhlmann

Voices from the North

14 maart 2019

In Friesland, the most northwestern province of the Netherlands, everyone speaks Dutch, but a large portion of the population also speaks Holland’s second official language: Frisian. For writers and poets using Frisian, the potential reader- ship is limited, as no more than approxi- mately half a million people consider it their mother tongue. But the sensuality and powerful imagery of the language, as well as its unique idioms and humour, have an appeal that refuses to tailor itself to practical considerations. For many poets, Frisian is simply the best language to express what they want to say.

There have always been Frisian poets who reached a Dutch audience, but over the last decades the number of Frisian poets being translated and read in Dutch shows a remarkable rise. The four poets selected here, each with a distinctive personal voice, publish both in Frisian and in Dutch.

The poet-performer is easily recognisable in the resonant, rhythmic poems of Tsead Bruinja (b. 1974), and the poet often tells stories about earlier times. At the same time, there are also a great many lines that point towards the present in his poems, which bear witness to a strong social involvement. His bilingualism finds eloquent expression in ‘Bed’, one of his magnificent love poems. This poem plays with the two languages in which the poet lives and loves.

Music is an important source of inspiration for the poetry of Albertina Soepboer (b. 1969), as is the empty and – in her poetry – often somewhat depressing landscape in which she grew up. Her poems display great poise in their construction – in De fjoerbidders (2003) they are even all made up of four stanzas of two lines each. The style of the poems in the later collections is slightly more subdued, but always rich and telling. In ‘Pigeons’, for example, the sugar (refinery) contrasts cynically with the narrator’s experience in a rainy atmosphere.

The poems of Elmar Kuiper (b. 1969) provide ample evidence of originality, nerve and a strong associative flair. They deal with large themes: longing, love and death, power and impotence. In his most recent Frisian collection, Granytglimkes (2011), the poems are somewhat more accessible than in his previous work, with still rich but perhaps less fanciful images and with emotions that are simultaneously personal and universal. The poet displays his vulnerability and uncertainty towards a loved one in the poem ‘closed’, which begins with a beautiful image of the evening that smears a layer of lipstick on the clouds.

Musician/writer Nyk de Vries (b. 1971) wrote two novels before starting to publish poetry. As a poet, he applies himself to ‘prose poems’: poems in the form of super-short stories. These poems have a distinct, apparently realistic, but sometimes almost fairy-like and even uncanny feel to them. The absurd or intriguing punch line is characteristic of these poems. The writer succeeds every time in drawing the reader into a small world and, via an unexpected turn, leaving him there with a smile and/or a look of surprise.