Judith Herzberg

The Poetry of Judith Herzberg

She Paints What She Can’t

Although Herzberg’s poems find their inspiration in nature or everyday life, the poetic transformation of that experience remains her essential concern. The poems’ sophisticated form raises them above their immediate cause. ‘Ultimately it comes down to language and emotion and sound,’ she explained in an interview. ‘Writing is like a magic spell: you have to say it just like that or it will not work.’ The poet adjusts the ends of her lines and her spacing to obtain what she calls ‘dancing poems’.

The work is rooted in life itself, and the intensity of the perception in the poems heightens the experience. Especially because her view of the world is neither direct nor unambiguous. A title of a collection like Strijklicht (Skimming Light, 1971) indicates the kind of observations on offer. The object of perception is not in the floodlight; the poem only sheds light from one side to reveal textures. This gives the reader ample opportunity to apply his or her imagination to all that has been left in shadow. In the volume Vliegen (Flies, 1970) the poet seems to provide explicit guidelines:

Fly, this is your way:
if you can’t grasp it
circle. Nothing but
no fixed itinerary
feeling and tasting
small conclusions
never digging.

Herzberg thinks her biggest problem is to reduce the symbolic ballast. Whereas other poets seek metaphors, she tries to get rid of them.

Herzberg’s poetry is no attempt at reconciliating the intangibility of life. She is aware of the unavoidable inconstancy. At the same time poetry seems to offer a temporary solution by suggesting an inner consistency within a fragmentary world, by not evoking a harmonious world. But time and again a nostalgic return to the past proves to be in vain. With Herzberg we have to make do with the incomplete present.

She has a rare poetical voice, a characteristic and amazing vision, with comforting lines. Like no other she has the eye for everyday reality and a melodic language which is easily mistaken for everyday speech.

Jury Report P.C. Hooft Award 1997

Her work, which is much-loved and well-known, consists of rich and complex poems. Everything is tied together: irony and sorrow, sweetness and bitterness, comment and charm, desparateness and protest, naivety and precise thinking, everyday experience and visions.

Christoph Mecke

What She Meant to Paint

She paints what she cannot swallow
cannot claim can’t explain.
She paints what she can’t stay put
doesn’t follow stay
the same. She paints what she
cannot plant cannot tame
forget about. She paints
what she cannot guess or get
or figure out. What she can’t
embrace or break can’t
blame. Let slide
run wild. Chop down
or tear. Incinerate.
Repair. She paints
what makes her sleepless
what she can’t recall
in colour, not at all. What she can’t
sing of cannot praise.
The itch of blankness
blankly stays.

Translation © Shirley Kaufman

Judith Herzberg

Judith Herzberg (b. 1934) is a celebrated poet and playwright. She made her debut in the 1960s as a poet and has been writing and translating drama and screenplays since the early 1970s. For the volume Botshol (1981) she received the Jan Campert Prize; for her oeuvre she has been awarded the Joost…

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De poëzie van Judith Herzberg . Poetry.


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