Jacob Groot translation workshop

Jacob Groot

To complement my earlier post about translating Jacob Groot’s poetry, I’d like to give you a short introduction to his work. Reading reviews of his work through the years – he’s written 12 volumes of poetry to date, besides collections of essays on poetry and music and a couple of novels – I found reviewers have had a similar reading experience to mine: his poems do not open up to you on first reading: mixed-up syntax, protagonists identified by seemingly generic personal pronouns and imagery that appears to stand on its own, all make for a confusing first read-through. Groot does not make any concessions to the reader. While all this may frustrate your understanding of the poem’s content, the poems do force you to keep reading through their intricate rhythms, internal rhyme, word association and assonance combined, even onomatopoeia, sound-words. In his first volumes Jacob Groot wanted to capture ‘an emotion’, not ‘one’s own emotion’, but as concrete a representation of ‘an’ emotion as possible.

“Abstract reflection only gets in the way if you want to achieve this”, as he said in an interview back in 1978 – a credo he appears to have maintained to this day, as the first poem in his latest volume Divina Noir reads: “There is no need for a mirror-image.”

There is a recurring motif in his work: ‘an end’ meaning a goal or purpose and ‘the means’. Is poetry a means to an end, or is a poem just meant to result in itself? There are a few poems within the festival selection that mention this: ‘Local Universe’ and ‘Her Legs’.

to me the task
(an end) of sticking it to the wall like a ring
around the fleshy finger of the means.

(from: ‘Local Universe’)

The poem may be more about the journey – through language – than its conclusions. Groot doesn’t provide any solutions in his poetry, on the contrary, he reveals, displays. In the end, it all comes down to what you read into what he portrays. His poetry has been called metaphysical or religious by critics. Certainly, the celestial spheres sometimes drift into his poems and he knows how to play with biblical phrases. Mostly, though, I feel his work is experiential. His poetry wishes to incorporate as much of reality and precisely formulated experience as it can and all of life’s contradictions, be it in colloquial speech, expletives, quotations, pop lyrics, etc. As he said in an interview: “discovering and incorporating contradictions and paradoxes is something you discover naturally during the writing process” (paraphrased). Once you understand these contradictions are a natural part of his work, you may relax into them.

Aside from the more philosophical nature of his work, many critics have noted his poems’ lyrical quality. ‘Release me, the time has come’ is a good example of the driving rhythms in his work, accompanied by profoundly disturbing imagery from Artaud, whom the protagonist is reading quietly upstairs while his parents are downstairs watching television:

and takes the lid off the hell
you then get to see and he passes
it on: my hole as arse, my sour hollow
arse, in which the red lice cycle

splatters to pieces

The italicised latter part is taken from ‘La culture indienne’ (Indian Culture) by Antonin Artaud, the surrealist playwright and poet who wished to lay bare man’s baser nature, his impulsive desires. Which is another theme in Groot’s poetry. He can be as direct as Artaud in phrasing the sexual preferences of his protagonists, and he can be equally passionate about the act of screwing (as opposed to making love) or more onanistic sexual fulfilment. Many of the selected poems bear witness to this. In fact, all but two of the festival selection poems contain some form of fleshly gratification or the desire to achieve this.

The above was part of my introduction to the festival translation workshop, where one (Dutch) poet, in this case Jacob Groot, is translated into as many languages as there are poets voluntarily taking part in the workshop. This year’s participants: Erin Moure, Eduardo Espina, Truong Tran, Daljit Nagra and Draga Rinkema. The workshop is primarily aimed at the festival poets and translators, but is also open to the public. Would you like to know how the festival poets translated Jacob Groot into American, Canadian and British English, Spanish, Slovene and German? The presentation is today, Sunday 19 June at 16.00 in the afternoon, in Café Floor’s garden (next to the theatre).


Jacob Groot: ‘WIMPLED ONE’ from Poetry International on Vimeo.

  1. [...] Willem Groenewegen over Jacob Groot: “his poems do not open up to you on first reading: mixed-up syntax, protagonists identified by seemingly generic personal pronouns and imagery that appears to stand on its own, all make for a confusing first read-through.” (het blog van Poetry) [...]

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