Emma van Meyeren is a graduate student of Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She is interested in feminist, queer and decolonial studies of prose and poetry. She graduated from the Liberal Arts and Sciences program at Utrecht University and spent a semester studying feminist and black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Currently she is working on an analysis of water metaphors in the work of Astrid H. Roemer, forthcoming in the Routledge publication “Women and Water in Global Literature.”
Metaphor’s most famous critic, Susan Sontag, argued that the metaphorization of illnesses strips them from their real and serious meanings and transforms them into moral judgments. “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning – that meaning being invariably a moralistic one” (62), she writes in Illness as Metaphor. Some language doesn’t benefit from its abstraction into a metaphor because it conceals dominant ideologies in deceptive and effective ways. Through similar encounters with the entanglements of language and ideology, modern poets have experimented widely with plain, common and everyday language. This essay will consider how the Dutch poet Judith Herzberg resists the exploitation of trauma with common language poetry by analyzing the relationships of concrete language with metaphor and melancholia. In turn, creating a poetics of soft resistance that shows the magic of the mundane and vice versa.
Metaphor, Melancholia, and Soft Resistance in Judith Herzberg’s Common Language Poetry
1. Judith Herzberg and Parlandism
In 1963, at the age of 29, Judith Herzberg published her first collection of poetry, Zeepost. Over her decades spanning career she published over fifteen different poetry collections and several plays. She won almost every Dutch literary price and her verse can be found in public spaces around the Netherlands, such as on the facade of the Amsterdam Academy of the Arts.
Her poetry has been categorized as ‘parlandistic’ (Reitsma 274), a poetic genre named after the French verb ‘parler’ meaning ‘to speak’. According to the Dutch lexicon of literary terms the parlandistic approach is known for the desire to create an “understandable style” that is created by everyday, plain language. Moreover, parlandistic poetry is generally “suspicious of pretty words or strongly metaphoric use of language known as ‘experimental’ poetry” (Parlandopoëzie, parlandisme). Parlandists instead prefer to use realistic and concrete language. In Herzberg’s poetry, the use of plain language often results in short poems with narrow sentences, that are created through a slow and precise process, about which she said: “I once saved the drafts of one poem. About one kilogram in paper, I think” (Het maken 41).
Herzberg’s father, Abel Herzberg, is the author of Tweestromenland, a diary that chronicles his experiences in the concentration camps during the Second World War. Judith says she has never been able to finish it, “it makes me too angry, to read what has happened.” (VPRO Marathoninterview). While references to her Jewish identity and the trauma of the Second World War can surely be found in her work, most of her poetry is distinctly devoid of direct references to such personal experiences or its political implications. This does not mean her poetry lacks an introspective sensibility. Her style can feel deeply personal and intimate. By zooming in on small details and everyday occurrences she creates a unique mix of the mundane and the magical, such as in the following poem, taken from her debut:
THE FULL LIFE
in a large bed
in a hotel-
go lie down
ask the servant
cake? (Zeepost, 1963).
Beginning with her first publication, one of Herzberg’s preferred forms is to divide the words of a single sentence over several lines, creating a short concise poem. ‘The full life’ is an example of the way she creates harmony through the sentence divided over several lines, in this case forming a question. Spaces like ‘room’ and actions like ‘lying down’ are carefully considered in such lines. Their images can present themselves independently. The poem could have been an ordinary sentence in a novel, but finds completely new meanings in this form, by radically zooming into detail. It is unbelievable at times how such few words can open so many worlds in the imagination. Herzberg’s later poems are almost indistinguishable from her early work (Wetzel 197), as themes, concerns and forms continue to return. Although a consistent style runs the risk of becoming formulaic she avoids expectations, cliché’s and formulas, to develop a distinct voice that continues to surprise.
2. Metaphor and Concrete Language
Indeed, much of Herzberg’s approach is characterized exactly by an aversion of formulating an overarching poetics. She is known for refusing to put her general attitude towards poetry into words (Burger 244). A good example of this can be found in the notes she published of a poetry writing course she taught between 1976 and 1977 in The Hague, titled Het maken van gedichten en het praten daarover [The making of poems and speaking about it]. While generally ambivalent about the possibility of teaching poetry, she is genuinely intrigued by the varying motivations of her students to join. An interesting reflection that speaks to her wider attitude on poetry happens when she is critical of a student that uses ‘Auschwitz’ in one of their poems. She writes: “I ask her to write the poem again but instead of using Auschwitz using a very exact description of what she tried to summarize with that word. I’m not sure what I should do and I try to be very careful in explaining to her that I find these words “too easy”, however difficult the meaning of the word is” (12).
While Herzberg is generally against expressing an overarching view on poetry, she is very outspoken about this specific example. It seems that Herzberg, in a similar way to Sontag, recognizes a word that we would not necessarily consider a metaphor, through its metaphoric effect. Auschwitz, in Herzberg’s reflection, is a word that summarizes, while in order to convey the seriousness of what it summarizes, it deserves a more exact, more direct wording. What is already felt through Herzberg’s poetic sensibility is in such reflections also made explicit: the refusal to use certain forms of political language, in Herzberg’s poetry, should not be mistaken for a desire to write apolitically. In fact, her poetry is highly political exactly because it refuses to use summarizing language such as the metaphor.
Metaphor, in this context, is not limited by language we instantly recognize as metaphoric. The instant and formulaic language created by cliché’s like birds as symbols of freedom, heat predicting desire and lions standing in for strength, are only the tip of the iceberg of the domain of the metaphor. With wrong intentions and unskillful placement any word can be a suspect of metaphor. In her notes on the poetry workshop Herzberg reflects on her drive to continue to find words that can defy this, and the role plain language plays in her search:
Often I have doubts about the use of the workshop. I wonder why looking for the right word, for the word that comes closest to the intention, is useful. Suddenly I know very sure that it is useful, and I also know why the concentration of the students moves me so much: it is an homage to the world, to reality, it is a way to become intimate with that reality. Even if poems don’t succeed in doing that, or don’t work in other ways, they are still attempts at “working on” an effort I find worthwhile. How do we distance ourselves as much as possible from the cliché’s that obstruct our view? (44)
The concrete and common language of her poetry is thus by no means an impersonal style or concerned only with small or everyday topics. Rather, Herzberg’s language shows that any concern, big or small, can be accessed and described through the everyday. Which in turn shows that the everyday itself is complicated and political. She questions deeply the dichotomies between personal and political, between abstract and concrete, between the everyday and the extraordinary.
3. Deceptive Simplicity
Almost never you see a bird in the sky
changing its mind, swing, back.
From: Dagrest (1984)
Take for instance the poem “Almost never.” The observation about birds never suddenly turning is seemingly simple. Critics have described this simplicity as deceptive (de Conick 550, de Boer 10). However, such a claim might take the general deceptive power of all language for granted. Rather than suspecting Herzberg’s common language of having hidden layers of meaning, her poetry sets the terms for a general suspicion of the capacity of language to have a singular and clear meaning. It questions the opportunity of any form of language to express meaning directly and transparently.
Poems like “Almost never” gently propose the possibility of several meanings. Gently, because the poem can also be read and enjoyed at face value. It is not forceful about its complexity. Indeed, the motions of birds in itself are worthy of humble observation and description. At the same time, there is more happening in this tiny poem than just an observation. The title of the collection Dagrest [Dayrest] comes from Sigmund Freud’s work on Tagesreste. Tagesreste are the memories that come back in every dream about the “experiences of the day that has just ended”. Freud believes those recent memories, the “leftovers” of the day, are of essential influence on the subconscious wishes that formulate dreams. They create subconscious desires, are activated by the residue of the day and always remain unfulfilled in the dream. This gives them an especially big psychological intensity. Even if they are relatively irrelevant frustrations, according to Freud their innocent impulse can trigger more deeply hidden desires and disappointments. Building a plain language collection of poetry on such a theory instantly shows that it is not uncalled for to dig deeper when we encounter something as innocent as an observation of birds.
“Almost never’”allows us, gently, to think about flocks and individualism. About free will and directions. About flying, floating, tilting and keeping course. And about returning, coming home, either finished and accomplished or not at all. Simultaneously, none of these associations allow a singular allegorical reading of the original observation. If the poem represents hidden desires or deeper meanings, it rather portrays the general feeling of such desires than any desire in particular. If the everyday, concrete and common observations of Herzberg’s poetry are understood as the tagesreste, the residue of the experience, then it is up to the reader to figure out which subconscious desires they trigger, rather than figuring out what the subconscious desires of the poet might be.
This is not to say that there is not any possibility of reading Herzberg’s poetry autobiographically. Indeed, the author is not dead and Herzberg’s experiences with second-generation trauma can be read into her work. It is not a pretension of absence of such realities that cleared most explicit references to these traumas from her poetry. It is rather the abundance of them that gave way to this style. As Herzberg explains in an interview: “My mind is almost always occupied with the war and fear. My aversion of generalizations, generalization, generals, masses, ceremonies, ideology, probably has something to do with that. I can never forget the fear, and I think that’s a stupid preoccupation, that I would love to get rid of” (Burger 245). Maybe her poetry is dedicated to the common and the concrete exactly because her mind is preoccupied by the exceptional and the abstract. In any case, the two are shown to be in complex and intimate relationships with each other, not as hierarchical or as a solution to each other, but as each other’s necessary companions on the road to observation and interpretation.
4. Metaphor and Melancholia
In her study of Dutch women poets and the literary system, Maaike Meijer interprets allegorical readings of Herzberg’s poetry as readings that “put a halt to [the poems] meaning” (88). Instead of simplifying the meanings of Herzberg’s poetry in this way, she argues that Herzberg “complifies” meaning: a neologism she introduces to describe the opposite of simplification. Meijer calls for a reading of her poetry that resists interpretation through the deduction of a singular, hidden meaning. Instead she proposes a reading that allows multiple meanings provided by continued contemplation so that the poem is “not abstracted into an ‘idea’ but keeps its images in full tension. So the poem is not frozen into a ‘thought’ but instead “heated up and pulled out of the realm of the normal” (94).
The common language of Herzberg’s poetry thus demands to be read in a straightforward manner. If it stays clear of any obvious metaphors then this might highlight how a replacement of meaning can cause a reduction of meaning. In Herzberg’s poetry, reduction is made impossible. In that sense, despite her own wariness of such grand statements, her poetry does seem to take an ethical position towards her personal trauma and the political ramifications of both past and present forms of anti-Semitism. Even beyond the obvious observation that not describing such personal and political issues might be a comment on the inability to put them into words, more specifically the non-metaphoric everyday language resists the reduction of meanings into meaning. Take one of her most recent works:
unites. (Vormen van gekte, 2019).
Exactly because the boundary between metaphoric and non-metaphoric language is unstable, Herzberg’s common language poetry benefits of extreme concreteness. In this poem from her most recent collection Vormen van gekte an allegorical reading would associate fists with violence and order. However, due to the very concrete style, bound in the present and singular tense, the poem still manages to steer away from complete allegorization. Its specificity demands a literal reading, one that keeps metaphorization at bay.
The concreteness of Herzberg’s language is not only characterized by everyday objects and observations, they are equally created through a temporality that binds the language to the “now”. They are observations that would never reveal their origins in memory, instead always described as something that is observed in the moment. In his study on the origins of German tragic drama, Walter Benjamin describes the relationship between symbols and allegory through similar temporal terms. His analysis of metaphorical language is concerned with how “the mystical instant becomes the ‘now’ of contemporary actuality” (183). In turn, he describes how the gaze of melancholy drives life out of allegories, how through melancholy the allegory is “quite incapable of emanating any meaning or significance on its own” (183). Benjamin describes a relationship between metaphorization and melancholia that takes the deadening effect of metaphor as serious as Sontag did. Not only are cliché metaphors unable to let complex meanings flow, they also give far too much power away from the language towards the reader. It seems that language that resists allegory doesn’t just resist its simplification but resists a more comprehensive form of power. Concreteness becomes a matter of language’s independence. It sets the writing free.
By sticking to current observations and staying away from (overt) memory, Herzberg’s poems are grounded in the present. In an interview, Herzberg said that “writing about the past had always been my father’s task: it was his terrain. Knowing that someone else was taking care of the past, I could occupy myself with different things” (de Boer 9) Herzberg’s plain language is incredibly loyal to the now. It refuses to be stuck in metaphoric language, rejecting a melancholic gaze.
5. A Poetics of Soft Resistance
This is not to say there is no affective relation to the future or past in Herzberg’s poetry. Even if the poems are dedicated to the present—when they speak about such common and detailed issues as cake and pajamas, flying birds and fists—her clever and brave observations about these details of everyday life makes both the writer and the reader an active observant.
As Herzberg’s commitment to the now has been illustrated by her non-metaphorical and non-melancholic language, and her commitment to the reader is described through her aversion of explicit personal or political references, her poetry can be understood as resisting the exploitation of personal or shared trauma as a way to assert the severity and reality of systematic pain and oppression by insisting on concrete observations. By sticking to those details that can be observed and described.
There is no hiding in the thickness of a metaphorical abstraction, the spaces of Herzberg’s poetry are minimalistic and offer no place for cover. In that sense, the concreteness might obstruct interpretation in general. If, like Susan Sontag, we understand interpretation to be “based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content” (Against Interpretation 10), then Herzberg expands on details so we are forced to continuously encounter this problem. We remain at its edges.
A reading that limits to the content of the poems would find them to be innocent and aloof. It cannot be denied that the ordinary and sweet observations of everyday life that abound in Herzberg’s work are not explicit about her attitude to the political realm of her life and work. It would be too easy to claim that Herzberg defies such expectations entirely through her dedication to the non-metaphoric. Although her bright use of language does question such expectations, and surely creates space to consider common, soft and sweet occurrences as heavily defiant of social or political norms.
Instead, I would propose to approach the relationship between her poetry and the political in a similar paradoxical way as her approach to metaphor. Instead of seeing her language as specifically suspicious of direct meaning, all language is incapable of meaning one thing. Likewise, instead of approaching the common, concrete and everyday as specifically aloof or apolitical, all ideas and observations are both political and personal, magical and mundane. After four decades of thinking with and through that paradox, Herzberg has created a unique, soft poetics of resistance.
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