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the very old one sings

After all these landscape odes, here is a Dutch poem that has acquired a distinctly urban connotation, Lucebert's 'the very old one sings' ('de zeer oude zingt', 1954), its reputation depending mainly on a single line.

In fact, most people probably won't be familiar with the source of its famous aphorism, so here is the full poem, in the translation by Diane Butterman:

there is not more in little
nor is there less
still is uncertain what was
what is to be will be will-less
first when it is it is serious
fruitless it recollects itself
and stays in great haste

everything of worth is defenceless
grows rich from touchability
and equal to everything

like the heart of time
like the heart of time

The line that has become immortal is "everything of worth is defenceless", or "alles van waarde is weerloos" in the original Dutch, which for decades has towered over the centre of Rotterdam in red neon. Along with Zadkine's statue 'The Destroyed City' ('De verwoeste stad', 1953), it has come to symbolize Rotterdam's World War II destruction and its postwar struggle to find a new heart. Acting as a kind of 'memento mori', the quote reminds the city of the transience of all things – including its own newly erected futuristic skyline.

Alles van waarde is weerloos

Less well-known but perhaps even more typical for Rotterdam is another red neon artwork that parodies Lucebert with a clever anagram: 'van alles is weer waardeloos' (1997), which translates as 'all kinds of things are worthless again'.

Located in the south of Rotterdam, where a school was brave enough to allow this artwork on its facade, Jack Segher's work brings high-brow poetry firmly back to street level, with a phrase that reflects a local tell-it-like-it-is kind of humor, along with a distinctly Célinian chagrin. It also questions the contrast between the city centre in the North and the traditionally more deprived southern areas of the city.

Van alles is weer waardeloos

But back to Lucebert's rather abstract poem. Poet and painter Lucebert (a pseudonym meaning 'bright light') was involved in two postwar artistic movements, the international visual arts group CoBrA and in poetry the Dutch Fifties Movement (Vijftigers). Both attempted to start with a clean slate after WWII, searching for naïve, experimental and experiential forms of expression.

In Dutch poetry especially, the aim was for an original, uncorrupted language which was to be autonomous, anti-intellectual and irrational - resembling earlier modernist movements like dadaism and surrealism. In Lucebert's poetry this is coupled with a mystical bent, drawing from Christian and Jewish sources and expressing himself in paradoxes to convey mundane divinity, or divine mundanity.

One interpretation (in Dutch) of this particular poem is that "the very old one" refers to Greek philosopher Parmenides, which would certainly fit with its paradoxical and ontological nature. In his work 'On Nature' Parmenides maintained monistically that our world of appearances really amounts to one indivisible whole, the One. Hence, nothing ever changes (in contrast to Heraclitus' statement that everything changes) and time doesn't really exist either. As Lucebert says, the past is "uncertain" and the future "will-less".

All that exists, and this is the unmentioned word in the poem, is now. The repeated "heart of time" is the present moment, echoing the earlier repetition of "it is it is". Only now, in a series of moments, can the infinite essence of the One be experienced. All else is canceled out by paradox, even the promise of the present to "grow rich from touchability" (for Parmenides growth was strictly speaking impossible).

But this interpretation also leads to another paradox. If nothing ever changes, then "everything of worth" is not really defenceless either - its appearance may change, but its essence doesn’t. Here the two statements of Parmenides and Heraclitus seem to touch, in the same way that a river, or a city, constantly changes and always stays the same.

On the other hand, if all that matters is the present moment, then "everything of worth" would seem to refer to our experiences of the moment, which are necessarily transient, and utterly defenceless against time.

Whichever way you turn with this poem, it all ends in paradox.

Parmenides' argument crucially depended on language, and the (debatable) idea that whatever you can put into words, or thoughts, must also exist in the real world. And since words retain their meaning, their object in the real world must also stay the same. It's Plato's theory of ideas in embryonic form. Seen from this perspective, Lucebert's poem, by recasting Parmenides' ideas some 2500 years after he formulated them, seems to prove their immutability. Singing it makes it so.

Still, to mention one more paradox, it's rather ironic that such experiential poetry - aiming for immediate, childlike, universal utterances - should feel so hermetic and need so much philosophical interpretation. Volumes of secondary literature picking Lucebert's poetry apart have led straight back to the stuffy intellectualism that his poetry was trying to avoid in the first place.

Perhaps his answer would merely be that "everything of worth is defenceless", especially against critics.

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After Slauerhoff's sarcastic sketch of Holland's social landscape, here are two more visions of Holland, pitting the idealized landscape of Marsman's ' Memory of Holland ' ('Herinnering aan Holland', 1936) against the dismal 'slough of … Read the full post »

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