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Christine D’haen
(Belgium, 1923–2009)   
 
 
 
Christine D’haen

Christine D’haen was undoubtedly the most important female poet of post-war Flemish and Dutch poetry. Her poetical work is unique in its voice, remarkable in its wide spectrum and incomparably rich in its content and form. As the first woman in the list of illustrious predecessors to that date, she was awarded in 1992 the highest literary prize possible to obtain in the Dutch-speaking area, the three-yearly Prize for Dutch Literature.

Christine D’haen studied Germanic Philology, used to teach in Bruges and later on became curator of the Guido Gezelle Museum. She translated poems by Gezelle into English and wrote a fascinating biography on this great Flemish poet of the nineteenth century. Her interest in English literature resulted in the translation of a poem by Milton, but she also much admired Edmund Spenser, Robert Browning and Edna St. Vincent Millay. She quoted with great ease Gertrude Stein or James Joyce as well as ancient Greek and Roman poets. Critic Hans Vandevoorde used a reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins to illustrate the experimental way in which she handled the traditional verse forms. He also linked her preference for the elegy to that of Stephane Mallarmé and compared some of her compositional methods to those of Ezra Pound. In addition to poetry, Christine D’haen wrote autobiographical prose in which the construction of a life through writing was more important than the actual biographical information.

She made her début in 1943 with the publication of the long, narrative poem ‘Abélard and Héloïse’ in a literary review. Her early poems at first sight looked like pre-war neo-classical poetry, with their refined ideas about form and their common theme of conflict between a sensual eroticism and an intellectual desire for spiritualisation. Her early poetry was well respected, but the breakthrough of experimentalism in Flemish poetry during the 1950s outshone her work. Not only did her oeuvre become a symbol for all that was traditional in experimentalist eyes, it also made critics and readers blind to the personal and experimental way in which she was to handle fixed forms for a long time to come. In later work, for instance, she used highly restricted structures such as neuvains, dizains and douzains, which consist of nine, ten or twelve lines of nine, ten or twelve syllables, but also experimented within these traditional forms with surprising enjambement, striking assonance, contrastive themes and motifs and semantic ambiguities. “The renewal of the old”, as she concluded a poem from the collection Mirabilia, was one of her guiding principles.

From the beginning, time has been the central theme of her poetry. Christine D’haen has always been fully aware of the short time people were given during their life span. With her poems she sought to erect little monuments of perfection that could withstand time. About her favoured form, the elegy, she once said in an interview: “Every elegy is a sort of eternalisation.” At the same time, she was convinced that nearly all her poems were in fact imperfect, and therefore could be affected by time.

Although time is at the core of her poetry, and although her poems are temporally rooted through the use of quotations from and references to mythology, art, science and literature, her work is also characterised by a certain timelessness. This explains the large number of ‘classical’ poems that are anthologised again and again. This timelessness also allows the possibility for different eras to revive certain aspects of her poetry. For instance, the postmodern poetry which arose in the late 1980s evoked a renewed interest for intertextuality and brought her poems again to prominence. It is certain that the oeuvre of Christine D’haen will be read by different generations for many years ahead. This dense and highbrow poetry asks much from its readers, but in return they enjoy broad vistas that invite reflections on life and culture.

© Patrick Peeters

Selected bibliography

Poetry
Gedichten 1946-1958 (Poems 1946-1958), J.M. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam, 1958
Onyx, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam, 1983
Miroirs. Gedichten vanaf 1946 (Mirrors. Poems since 1946), Querido, Amsterdam, 2002
Mirabilia, Querido, Amsterdam, 2004
Innisfree, Querido, Amsterdam-Antwerpen, 2007

Prose
Uitgespaard zelfportret. Verzameld proza (Saved selfportrait. Collected prose), J.M. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam, 2004

Literary prizes (selection)
Arkprijs van het Vrije Woord (1951)
Lucy B. and C.W. van der Hoogtprize (1960)
Interprovincial prize for poetry (1961)
Henriëtte de Beaufortprize (1989 en 2007)
Anna Bijnsprize of Dutch Literature (1991)
Prize of Dutch Literature (1992)

 




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