Rutger Kopland is convinced that scientific research is fundamentally no different to the process of writing a poem. “Like Leonardo,” as Noble Prize Winner J.M. Coetzee puts it in his ‘foreword’ to Kopland’s Memories of the Unknown, “Kopland is an artist who does not regard the world-view of the scientist as inherently shallow or misguided.” Perhaps it’s this similarity that made Coetzee chose Kopland as one of the six poets brought together in his anthology Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands.
The poet Kopland made his debut in 1966 and has published over fifteen volumes of poetry, three essay collections and a collection of travel and translation notes. He has won numerous prizes for his poetry, including the prestigious VSB Poetry Prize 1998 and the P.C. Hooft Prize 1988, one of the Dutch-speaking world's most important literary awards. Kopland ranks high as one of the Netherlands' best-loved poets. He speaks to his readers in a quiet, conversational style, using ostensibly simple phrases. His poems seem to evoke a wistful, almost nostalgic atmosphere of a lost paradise, happiness beneath an apple tree or in the grass, Among the Cattle, to quote the title of his 1966 debut volume. Kopland addressed the issue in a series of notes from his diaries that were added as an appendix to one of his volumes: "Everyone finds a lost paradise in my poetry, a longing for it. I don't long for the past, I long for experience (...) and experience is new, now." These diaries also reveal that Kopland has long wrestled with the problem that the obvious words for the proverbial 'major emotions' have a steamroller effect, flattening everything before them. Those words might have been worth something in a world that was still whole, but that world no longer exists for Kopland, neither does he long for its return.
Kopland's poetry is constantly balancing on the borderline between language and what it evokes. Irony is a common device in his early work and he is a master at using subtle exaggeration to steer a path between cliches. He once elegantly described the clash between his nostalgic tone and the far-from-nostalgic meaning of his poems as "memories of the unknown". Through creation, through writing and slashing, something completely new emerges and turns out to be a memory: the memory of what and who you always were, irrespective of all the ideas you've always had about yourself: a stranger, someone else, an emptiness, "a hole in the form of / a man in the landscape."
In his later volumes, from the eighties onwards, Kopland's poetry seems to have become more philosophical. He wrote a series entitled 'Die Kunst der Fuge' in which a non-specified 'it' wanders, merges, dissolves, disappears, "and it went on, as if there was always something else / that has to be sought, found, lost, sought, / as if there was always something, something that has to be / before it disappears and after." The poems seem to provide the basic pattern for the kind of movement Kopland makes in all his poetry. They demonstrate the 'mechanics of emotion'. The continuing presence of these mechanics in his latest volumes guarantees that Kopland is still a poet whose work evokes the response: yes, that's it exactly! – and that feeling is immediately reassuring, almost comforting. But what it exactly is is rather disturbing: the 'now' in which you are who you are is already over, a memory, the essential unknown, intangible.
"One wonders how long it will take the Nobel Prize committee to consider Rutger Kopland, clearly an exceptionally gifted poet, and a very proper focus for their liberations."
Poetry Nation Review
"The quality of his lyrics and elegies, alpha and omega of the poet's trade, indicate a warm and intelligent man who tackles the big subjects with economy and tact."
Articles on Rutger Kopland
Introduction to Memories of the Unknown by translator James Brockway
Websites on Rutger Kopland
On Souvenirs de l'inconnu (Editions Gallimard 1998)
On J.M. Coetzee's Landscape with Rowers (Princeton University Press 2004)
One poem in Swedish, translated by Lasse Söderberg
Interview with Kopland by Tjitte Faber, January 2004, in Dutch
Onder het vee (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1966)
Het orgeltje van Yesterday (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1968)
Alles op de fiets (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1969)
Wie wat vindt heeft slecht gezocht (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1972)
Een lege plek om te blijven (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1975)
Al die mooie beloften (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1978)
Dit uitzicht (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1982)
Voor het verdwijnt en daarna (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1985)
Herinneringen aan het onbekende (Anthology, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1988)
Dankzij de dingen (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1989)
Geduldig gereedschap (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1993)
Tot het ons loslaat (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1997)
Verzamelde gedichten (1966-1999) (Collected Poems, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1999)
Geluk is gevaarlijk (Anthology, Maarten Muntinga; Rainbow Pocket, Amsterdam 1999)
Over het verlangen naar een sigaret (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 2001)
Wat water achterliet (Gedichtendagbundel, Poetry International/Van Oorschot, Rotterdam-Amsterdam 2004)
Een man in de tuin (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 2004)
Verzamelde gedichten (Collected Poems, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 2007)
Toen ik dit zag (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 2008)
Essay collections on poetry
Het mechaniek van de ontroering (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1995)
Mooi, maar dat is het woord niet (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1998)
Twee ambachten (Van Oorschot Amsterdam 2003)
Collection of travel and translation notes
Jonge sla in het oosten (Van Oorschot, Amsterdam 1997)
Translated collections (selection)
An Empty Place to Stay (Twin Peaks Press, San Francisco 1977. English translations by Ria Leigh-Loohuizen)
Songer à partir (Gallimard, Paris 1986. French translations by Paul Gellings)
The Prospect and the River (Jackson's Arm, London 1987. English translations by James Brockway)
A World Beyond Myself (Enitharmon Press, London 1991. English translations by James Brockway)
Wybór poezji (Leopoldinum, Wroclaw 1992. Polish translations by Andrzej Dabrówka)
Ha-lo yadua she-nizkarti bo (Carmel, Jerusalem 1997. Hebrew translations by Shlomo Gnor and Assi Degani)
Souvenirs de l'inconnu: poèmes (Gallimard, Paris 1998. French translations by Paul Gellings)
Memories of the Unknown (The Harvill Press, London 2001. English translations by James Brockway)
Ei verd utanfor meg sjølv (Det Norske Samlaget, Oslo 2005. Norwegian translations by Finn Øglænd)
Prima della scomparsa e dopo (Edizioni del Leone, Spinea 2005. Italian translations by Giorgio Faggin and Giovanni Nadiani)
What Water Left behind (Waxwing Poems, Dublin 2005. English translations by Willem Groenewegen)
Dank sei den Dingen. Augewählte Gedichte 1966-2006 (Hanser, München 2008. German translations by Mirko Bonné and Hendrik Rost)
A choice of Kopland's poetry was published in The Vintage Book Of Contemporary World Poetry (Vintage Books, New York 1996). Noble Prize Winner J.M. Coetzee translated Kopland's poetry for his anthology Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands (Princeton University Press, Oxford 2004). Poems by Kopland have also been translated and published in Spanish, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Servo-Croatian, Macedonian, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese, Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese.