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Word of the day: dichter (poet)

Do you like poetry? Then you’re probably a poet or someone wishing to be a poet. Most people who don’t write or recite poetry hate poetry and poets. Teachers or literary scholars are the exception but I suspect that they can’t really stand this art form either.


Poetry is difficult. If it rhymes, it is usually flat or trite or a nursery rhyme or a love song or a laughable lyric or occasional or Sinterklaas doggerel or a nonsense. If it is free verse, the text is probably obscure and pretentious…

If the poem is three lines, it must be haiku. Five lines a limerick. Fourteen lines a sonnet. Hundreds of lines an epic. Thousands of lines boring. Most people give up after five lines.

Those who don’t give up, usually write poetry themselves. They claim they love it and very often they have the nerve to call themselves DICHTER (poet). There must be thousands of DICHTERS who populate the cities, polders and dikes of the Netherlands.

DICHTERS are boasters, bluffers and snobs burdened by a sense of inferiority, a longing for uniqueness, a hunger for attention and a deep love of words. And yes, you guessed right, I have just sketched a portrait of myself.

If you ask me now to name one European poet who does not fit the above descriptions, the first person who comes to mind, is Seamus Heaney.

Yesterday, Friday, 30 August 2013, Seamus Heaney died. He was only 74. He was Irish and a true DICHTER.

What is a true DICHTER? Someone who writes memorable GEDICHTEN (poems) is the obvious answer. And what is a memorable GEDICHT (poem)? A text written by a WARE DICHTER. A text you want to read and read again.

The word GEDICHT (a ‘het- word’ of course) comes from the verb DICHTEN (‘write poetry’). And now you think, aha, the word must have some connection with the Dutch adjective and adverb DICHT (close, tight) as in ‘een dicht bos’ (a dense wood) or ‘dichte mist’ (thick fog) or ‘de winkel is dicht’ (the shop is closed). DICHT (dense) -> GEDICHT (poem)! How interesting! The word GEDICHT is a GEDICHT in itself…

Now you visualize a hunger artist in his attic who is scribbling dense words on a small piece of paper, trying to compose a poem by candle light, scratching away until the absolute essence of the intense emotion is achieved. You realize that DICHTKUNST (the art of poetry) is the art of creating the densest possible meaning.

But you’re wrong. Etymologically speaking the words GEDICHT or DICHT (poem) have nothing to do with density as included in the other word for DICHT (tight, close, dense). Poetic DICHTEN comes from Latin ‘dictāre’ (say things emphatically, say often, prescribe).

In Old English ‘dihtan’ meant ‘dictate’ or ‘appoint’ or ‘compose’. Modern English turned to French, Latin and Greek with the word ‘poem’. ‘Poetry’ had replaced ‘poesy’ in the 16th century. The Latin noun ‘poema’, meaning composition in verse, came from the Greek word ‘poiesis’ (making).

I prefer Dutch DICHTEN, which stresses the aspect of ‘dictation’ (the ‘saying’ of verse) to English ‘poem’ and its makeable manipulability. Seamus Heaney was both a sayer and a maker. He was a bard, and a maker, a verbal craftsman, an artist obsessed with words.

But he was also a family man and a friendly guy, modest, funny, sincere and erudite. Heaney was not only a poet, he was also a translator, a fascinating essayist and an enthusiastic teacher. Apart from his own poems and essays his translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is magisterial.

When my friend Adriaan and I lived in Ireland and studied Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College in Dublin in the late seventies, we fell in love with the wordcraft of the Irish storytellers and compiled the first anthology of Irish literature for a Dutch readership, called ‘Ierse stemmen’ (Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Den Haag, 1980). Heaney contributed several poems to our anthology that had not yet been published then.

Heaney was a true poet in my view, but I suspect that he always felt uncomfortable with the title of DICHTER. This paradox can be sensed in the poem that he dedicated to the Finnish poet Caj Westerberg and that I post here as a tribute to this worthy Irish wordsmith.

New Worlds

In the country poetry has deserted
life falls to like the plate-glass door in banks.

There is a great calm.
The restored churches are cool at noon,

the good life hums and clinks in sidewalk cafes
to equable footsteps and bursts of laughter.

In the country poetry has deserted
there are many poets

calling themselves poets, and insisting
their poety brings new worlds into being.

Nieuwe werelden

In het land dat door de poëzie in de steek is gelaten
valt het leven dicht als een bankdeur van plaatglas.

Er heerst een diepe rust.
De gerestaureerde kerken zijn koel in de voormiddag,

op terrasjes neuriet het goede leven en toost
op bedaarde voetstappen en vrolijk gelach.

In het land dat poëzie in de steek heeft gelaten
zijn veel dichters

die zichzelf dichter noemen, en volhouden
dat hun poëzie nieuwe werelden in het leven roept.

(vertaling ©1980 Hisgen van der Weel)
Photo: Adriaan van der Weel