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Hanny Michaelis at the Poetry International festival 2003



Hanny Michaelis published her first collection, Klein Voorspel (Little Prelude) in 1949. What followed was not a voluminous oeuvre, but a small, sensitive, indispensable body of poetry, accumulated slowly over the years. Hanny Michaelis has published six books of poetry, the last one in 1971.

In 1996 she received the Anna Bijns Prize, and her collected poems appeared later that year. At seventy-seven, she didn’t expect to publish many more, saying: “People find my work melancholic as it is, and you’re not exactly jumping for joy knowing you’re going to die.”

Melancholy is, indeed, the prevailing mood in Michaelis’ poems. Her themes are love and loss, loneliness and death. If in the début volume the poet was still “waiting for the wind to play on me / and for the storm to disrupt me”, in the later work, disruption appears to have struck home. In the volumes Water uit de rots (Water from the Rock) and Tegen de wind in (Into the Wind) speaks the raw voice of loneliness and the inability to partake of the warm - and fruitful - life shared with the other. She expresses her disenchantment in crass images: “waking up retching”, “charred brushwood”, “dead-end valley”. All is coldness and fear until, in the latest collections, a subtle form of social commitment emerges, ushering in a feeling of acceptance, of relativity, even humour. Even if suffering continues to be “the bottom line of existence”, the poetry becomes lighter in tone, more prone to lapsing into everyday speech and the occasional joke slipping in, to being moved by an orange-coloured plastic giraffe, or by a name embroidered in three colours on a laundry bag.

Michaelis’ poetry is a journal, a true, unsparing, unflinching account of her struggle with life. Unsentimental and exact, because, she said, poetry must, if anything, be exact. “For me, poetry is not, as Martinus Nijhoff called it, singing the word loose from its meaning. I don’t think language was made for that purpose. Language is inadequate, but if you’re using it, you’ve got to put a little trust in it.”

© Mirjam van Hengel (Translated by Ko Kooman)  
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