Poetry Review — Selected Poems by Herman Gorter

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Selected Poems by Herman Gorter (translated by Lloyd Haft) is a collection of poetry from The Netherlands greatest poet, and presented for the first time in English. Gorter was a Dutch poet and socialist. He was a leading member of the Tachtigers, a highly influential group of Dutch writers who worked together in Amsterdam in the 1880s, centered on De Nieuwe Gids. Haft is an American-born Dutch poet, translator, and sinologist. He has been living in the Netherlands since 1968. Haft was educated at Harvard College and Leiden University.

This is a bit like an archeologist discovering a new civilization or physicist discovering a new particle. Gorter has been mostly hid from the non- Dutch world until recently. The reason for his obscurity is because of the language he wrote. The Dutch language is filled with words that have multiple meanings (that can play on each other) and don’t readily translate into English. If that is not difficult enough Gorter also liked to distort his own language to make things fit. Haft explains this in great detail in the introduction to the poems. He also tries to capture the original intent of the poems at the price of rhythm schemes. Haft also gets creative with English words that actually expand their meaning.

This collection comes in three parts outside of the introduction. The first part is from Gorter’s Verses (1890). The second section is from his political work Pan. The final section in titled Lyrics. Verses provides a welcoming introduction to Gorter’s style of poetry. The words paint a complex picture of the poet’s experience. Here, the reader, will see the difficulty of the task that Haft faced in this undertaking. Like Gorter, Haft had to become creative with his language. The result amazing. Haft pulls out archaic words and when that fails, he makes a few of his own — clingleafed up and down, her golden eyes of daydawning, and the twigtrees draw back to their meager leaning. The newly coined words are poetic in themselves.

Gorter is also a man of themes. The word gold (as a metal or meaning precious) is used fifty-six times in the collection. Eyes are also used fifty-six times in the collection. The “all of All” appears twenty-five times in the collection, and has several forms but mostly it is light or the divine.

Someday you’ll be one
with the all of All,
your golden limbs extending through the knowledges of all the
shores….

This is a collection of poetry that the translator must be given a great deal of credit. It was said translating Gorter wasn’t difficult, it was impossible. Gorter’s words of nature and self are incredible and relayed to the reader in what must be a near perfect experience. When Gorter turns to Marxism the change is as sudden as a gunshot:

You died, And why? because you were murdered by capital
But by the workers
Who left you alone with your attackers.

Gorter also has a softer side for revolution. In a long four-part poem Rosa Luxembourg is Beatified in verse that rivals the Assumption of Mary. For poetry lovers looking to discover something new that rivals the greats of the past look to Gorter.

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