Hester Knibbe

The poetry of Hester Knibbe

Simultaneously austere and elaborate, her poems investigate contradiction and ambiguity

Een dunne duurzaamheid (A Thin Permanence) is the title of one of Hester Knibbe’s collections. The title says much about her poetry: a poetry in which the attention for things perma­nent invariably combines with themes like vulnerability, fragility, transience.

Permanence, says Knibbe, is only appearance, in a sense, because all those things that seem to have stood the test of time – classic art, Greek mythology, Chinese temples – have not always remained the same:

‘Change has always been

It is change, the motion of life, which Knibbe tries to come to grips with in her poems. Not to understand it unequivocally, but to probe it, give it a form by which to get hold of it. Her subjects may be foreign, distant, or highly intimate, as in the incisive cycle ‘Antidood’ (Antideath), about a mother whose son falls seriously ill.

A perilous subject for someone inclined to the pathetic, but not for Knibbe, who knows how to transform it into strong, unsentimental poetry. She keeps her distance, finds images that represent the actual events as well as her personal experience of them. Emotions are expressed in subtle, mostly indirect ways, as in a moving dream about a small child which, warmly wrapped up and firmly held, slowly freezes –

‘a film of ice
coated its eyes, its mouth. I cried out’.

Since 1982, Knibbe has published over a dozen volumes of poetry. In 2001 she received the Anna Blaman Prize for her work. The jury report emphasized the development that is so apparent in this oeuvre: a development ‘from tentative, groping poems to an effective, sure­footed poetry which stands as if it has always been here.’ In 2015, her collec­tion Archaïsch de dieren (Archaic the Animals) won the top Dutch-language poetry prize, the VSB Poetry Prize; she was also appointed as the Rotterdam City Poet Laureate.

Comparing the poems from her earliest collections, Tussen gebaren en woorden (Between Gestures and Words) and Meisje in badpak (Girl in a Bathing Suit) with those in the latest volume, we find much similarity, especially in form – frequent use of internal rhyme and enjambment, flowing rhythm – but striking differences and an ongoing poetic evolution.

Simultaneously austere and elaborate, her poems investigate contradiction and ambiguity: the ‘flexibility of stone’, the Persephone who is complicit in her own kidnapping, the fluidity between dream life and the waking world.

London based American poet Kathryn Maris

Knibbe’s voice can be harrowingly clear and dreamily disorienting, often in the same poem - but it’s a fortifying and ennobling one nonetheless.

American poet and critic Christian Wiman

Hester Knibbe

Hester Knibbe (b. 1946) was the poet laureate of the city of Rotterdam in 2015 and 2016. She chaired the Dutch PEN between 2008 and 2010, and published fifteen books of poetry to date, earning her a number of prestigious Dutch prizes, among which the Herman Gorter Prize (2000), the A. Roland Holst…

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De poëzie van Hester Knibbe . Poetry.

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