When in 1993 the Frisian poet Tsjêbbe Hettinga appeared on stage during the Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany, he caused a kind of shock to the audience by reciting, or rather by sing-saying, some of his poems. Although practically no one in the listening crowd understood a word—even the Dutch don’t know Frisian—they were greatly moved by the airs of the unknown poet. No language barrier existed anymore. The people were caught up by the deeper layers of the poetry: the vocals and consonants, the syllables, the melody, the colour, by all of which they could create their own images. Triumph of the archaic, victory of the oral.
In his homeland of Fryslân Hettinga was, until that unforgettable performance, a poet of rather small recognition. He had appeared in the periodical Hjir and had brought out some four collections of poetry. These were published during the seventies and are at the moment virtually out of circulation, a pity.
In Fryslân itself his work was never given the sensational reception it got at the German Fair, nor was it celebrated with great fervour afterwards. He won a couple of local literary prizes, and only in 2001 was awarded the national award for poetry, the Gysbert Japicx Prize.
As his poetry, chiefly the more recent work, is translated into major European languages, it may be helpful to offer a critical review of it up to the present, initially from his homeland and in English to begin with.
Tsjêbbe Hettinga was born in 1949 in the village of Burchwert alongside the canal connecting the town of Boalsert with the capital Ljouwert. The family lived on a farm, raising cattle and horses. He was the second of five sons, Wytske being the only daughter.
For their primary education the children attended Catholic school in nearby Boalsert where boys and girls were segregated at that time.
For his professional training he travelled to the town of Snits where he attended the college of education. Here he met other young people enthusiastic about the arts, such as poetry and drawing. Jelle Kaspersma was one of them. He created the drawings and calligraphy for Hettinga’s first collections and became a productive poet in his own right, also a lifelong teacher.
The family Hettinga was struck with tragedy when the mother died at the end of October 1971 at the age of 55, ‘under fatal circumstances’ as the obituary has it. She had drowned herself in a canal near the village of Reahûs, not very far from the farm. This was not the end of the requiem: brother Arjen, then 23 years of age, died suddenly after a tour of the Mediterranean.
In the DVD made of the poet’s life and work, Hettinga is asked about the influence these tragedies had upon his writing. ‘This is the story of real things that happened,’ the interviewer says. ‘What is yours?’ It doesn’t seem fair to confront the poet with cruel facts of life that he is in no position to deny, and to want an answer in such a matter-of-fact way.
My opinion is that Hettinga has always felt the horror of these events during his whole career as a poet, going from immediate expression to sublimation of it in his long poems of travels abroad.
His first collection, issued in 1973, includes poems that describe with great immediacy his coming to terms with the drama, poems such as ‘when you were dead’ and one without a title beginning ‘can I talk to you for a minute’. The latter piece is like a love poem in which he wants to see someone badly but realizes she is dead.
It is perhaps not usual to comment on the fact that one of Hettinga’s brothers, Eelco (Eeltsje), became involved in Frisian literature as well. The innate talent given to one member of the family may also be evident in another member of the family, therefore making constant comparisons unavoidable. Neither is it common among poetry reviewers and students to pay much attention to local circumstances and bloodlines—as long as one is not Samuel Johnson. While Eeltsje deserves a separate study as a fine and sensitive poet, he is mentioned here only as a member of the same lamented family. He started to publish only in 1998 with the award-winning collection Akten fan winter (Acts of winter) in which he paid due reverence to the deceased, taking more space to do so than did his older brother. The two of them go their own ways but will surely never walk alone. Nor will they go unmentioned.
A further complication came into the physical life of Tsjêbbe Hettinga when he gradually lost his eyesight. He had hinted at this already in his early poetry, some 30 years ago. The illness might be a hereditary one, for another one of his brothers suffers from the same disease which does not seem to result in total blindness.
In an important poem from about 1980, he combines the experiences of loss and diminishing eyesight with a new style which leaves the simplicity of his earlier work behind. The poem, called ‘Bline fynsten’ (‘Blind findings’), tells the tale of a repeating event, that of almost meeting the one he loves who then disappears without a trace. Since one of his first poems about the mother is almost a love poem, this one could hardly be different. The poem may be studied as a statement about his changed sense apparatus. Is what he thinks he sees real or illusion? Because the places where he seems to meet her are widespread, one is forced to conclude that she is a projection, and the ugly places where this happens and where she disappears become a lost world.
Hettinga never thematizes the problems with his sight; no poem such as ‘On His Blindness’ came from his hand. And yet for the onlooker the problem permeates the whole of his poetry. How this can be seen, T.S.Eliot explains in his essay on Milton. The story is that this poet attracted blindness from reading too much in his youth by poor light. In comparing his verse with that of sighted poets, Eliot finds a lack of ‘feeling of being in a particular place at a particular time’. More thinking than observing, more feeling than looking, more I than you.
In a further observation Eliot points to the use of language by Milton ‘as if it was a dead language’. It seems to be more musical ornamentation than vehicle of sense, the latter being what it should be. In comparing our poet with the creator of Paradise Lost, there is at least one way in which they differ. Milton’s last line of the sonnet ‘On His Blindness’ says about the blind ones, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’
The restlessness apparent in the ‘Bline fynsten’ (‘Blind findings’) will not permit Tsjêbbe Hettinga to stand and wait, but to go out and to travel in the flesh and in the mind for years to come.
The collection in which the above mentioned poem appears carries the title Tusken de bedriuwen troch is âlderdom (Between acts is old age). It is not only the title that contrasts with the earlier more simple ones which proclaim adherence to the elements of air, land and sea. The language of the poetry changes completely. There is an unusual expansion of images and sound effects which result in a straightforward story becoming cryptic, almost incomprehensible. There is no line in which he does not try to add niceties like alliteration, inner rhyme and word play. The question as to whether these elements are functional in the whole must be resolved on a level of detail which we cannot go into for this article.
It can happen that a reader of poetry finds in the poems at hand an excess of some kind, as well as realizing that there is something lacking. But there is no way to cure these alleged imperfections since they are an indispensable part of the poem and the poet. Poetry sets a totality, is a thesis of unity. Excess and lack belong to it.
Hettinga in his craftmanship as a poet is not without inspiring examples. Dylan Thomas was widely read and beloved from the seventies onward. There are the poems ‘Fern Hill’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’ and his play for voices Under Milkwood which were popular then, also in Fryslân. Of ‘Fern Hill’ Hettinga once made a translation. He also started the translation of Omeros by Derec Walcott who is perhaps surely a model for his expansive poetry on his travels in the Mediterranean and faraway oceans.
His latest collection, Equinox, starts with an evocation of his childhood at the farm. Although Thomas is not far away, Tsjêbbe Hettinga glorifies this period all on his own, while mixing in some dark notes. Thus, there are more moments in his recollection where all is shining and clear and village-dotted horizons, but not without threat—from the clouds, for instance.
Of special note is the poem ‘De Skûte’(‘The Ship’) where Hettinga tries to identify aspects of himself, opening with ‘Wis, ik bin in skûte’ (‘Sure, I am a ship’) The poem is one of utter loneliness and despair, and one can’t help thinking of the Flying Dutchman. The homelessness makes one shiver (‘de skûte huverje’).
Equinox is a strong title signifying the moment when, across our whole globe, night and day are of equal duration. This is known to occur twice a year, at the beginning of both spring and autumn. In the first case, as time goes by daylight lasts longer and longer, but autumn follows and by and by dark winter, a season Hettinga hates thoroughly. Equinox shows a state of uncertainty: which direction will his world take?
People all over the world are gradually coming to enjoy the poetic sayings of Tsjêbbe, but it may not be obvious that there is more beneath the surface than can be gathered in a moment’s listening. He himself doesn’t give much of a hint about his poetic existence, other than what he says on the DVD: searching and searching and not finding anything. And to the question,
what is it all about, he says ‘Lucht, Lucht ‘(‘Air, air’).