The poetry of Toon Tellegen

‘Someone told me I was a room.’ This is how one of Toon Tellegen’s poems begins. It is a typical beginning for him, nothing is explained, we have to assume that this is now the reality within which the poem will unfold. And indeed, the person in question seizes the opportunity to look at himself as a room: ‘A room! I thought. Perhaps even a drawing room!’ He elaborates on this insight and concludes: ‘but when I pursued this thought, there were walls missing in me, and doors and slanting rays of light.’

Original title
De poëzie van Toon Tellegen
Toon Tellegen

Tellegen experiments with human identity and the poem is the ideal place for reflecting on the subject. This could easily be heavy-handed, except that his poetry stands out for its light-hearted, lucid tone and its unphilosophical, indeed extremely evocative narrative style. Most of the poems are miniature stories, written in free verse that resembles prose but for its line distribution.

Anything is possible in the world of these poems. Round a street corner, for instance, lives a cannibal, who is so incredibly hungry that he eats people by the dozen. ‘Hear how he eats, how he cries out for new people!’ A grave situation for all those thousands of people hiding in the reeds, just round the corner. One can only deduce that man is as fragile as a reed.

The biggest surprise in this work is that Tellegen takes everything literally, thus creating a wealth of meanings. Take for instance this very immediate and intriguing opening: ‘A man falls prey to doubt from time to time, decides to split in half, and moves in two directions.’ After having been split in two for a while, he goes looking for himself again, carefully sneaking up on himself from two different angles. The poem renders a state of mind in the form of a story. Tellegen is a master at projecting emotional states such as fear, helplessness, alienation, surrender, delight in narrative poetry. Strikingly often, he is concerned with disappearance, grief, death. He lets an apple rot slowly, he kills a mosquito, conscious of guilt, he discovers a bull in the china shop of his soul, he watches himself climb a wall on the edge of his thoughts.

Each of these poems - and there are many - is a stunningly sharp and telling parable about human feelings and behaviour. They are never realistic, always grotesque, exaggerated, surreal, absurd (here Tellegen owes a debt to Daniil Charms), and always busy with language. His verse inevitably draws the reader into the poem: ‘Life is a side branch of love’, ‘A man discovered that love does not exist’, ‘Shall I give you a lethal kiss?’

Toon Tellegen’s poetic universe is a densely populated one and literally covers every aspect of our inner and outer worlds. His poetry is simply unparalleled.

Tellegen’s poems are parables for grown-up children. Their world is stripped-down, urgent, playful, quirky, familiar as children’s games yet strangely disorienting. They induce a mini-millennial fever, the disquieting excitement of being about to pass through the needle’s eye.

Philip Fried, Founding Editor at The Manhattan Review

Tellegen’s poetry is full of cheerful human misunderstanding. With their fairytale speed, his poems encompass entire novels.

Herman de Coninck, Flemish poet, in Intimacy Under the Milky Way
Toon Tellegen
Toon Tellegen (b. 1941), a GP by profession, became famous primarily for his poetic, philosophical animal stories about Squirrel, Ant, Mole, Hedgehog and the other animals, who are carefully trying to find their way in an incomprehensible world.
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