Het is zo lang geleden
Dat het vergeten had moeten zijn,
Het is zo vers
Als een voetstap in het gras,
Als rook die wegtrekt uit een open raam,
Dauw die druppelt langs gewas
Door aarde en stof,
Een gedachte die er niet meer was.
Listen to this poem in Dutch.
Voiced by: Lex van Itterson
This poem in 60 seconds
The foundation of all Jan Wolkers’s poems are memories. In the poem De herinnering (The memory) he describes their effect. Even if the memories seem to have faded, they are suddenly revived and fresh in one’s memory like never before. This was especially true for the memories which prompted him to write this poem, the ones of death.
Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.
Oegstgeest 1925 - Den Burg 2007
As a child, Wolkers’s favorite activities were drawing, painting and clay modeling. During his adolescence, he lived in Leiden where he took painting lessons, after which he followed an art course in The Hague. After this course, he further developed his skill as a sculptor in Amsterdam and Paris. He also started writing in 1957. Even though Wolkers was widely known as a writer, poet and painter, he considered himself a sculptor in the first place.
Wolkers himself said: “No one has stayed closer to the truth than I have. My life and work are one and the same.” The line between his life and his work was paper-thin and he often wrote about sex and death unambiguously and without regard for taboos. Partly due to this, his books often made a big impression when they were published. They were maligned, applauded, filmed and awarded. Especially Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight, 1969) and Terug naar Oegstgeest (back to Oegstgeest, 1965) became Dutch classics.
Jan Wolkers grew up in Oegstgeest, settled in Amsterdam as an artist, and found his ‘home’ on the Dutch island of Texel in 1980. He lived there until his death in 2007. Wolkers’s legacy consists of several novels, poems, collections of stories and essays, sculptures and paintings. In 2017, the biography of Wolkers was published, written by the Leiden-native Onno Blom.
What's this poem about?
This poem describes a memory from the past being revived. It seemed to have faded, as we read in the last line: “A thought that no longer was.” But now the memory feels alive and ‘fresh.’ How is this possible? Wolkers gives a hint with the line ‘through earth and dust’ which conjures up images of a funeral. When he lost several friends and relatives in a short period of time, it recalled the memory of earlier loss. It immediately felt as fresh as ever before.
Wolkers’s greatest source of inspiration was his own memory. Few writers left as many diaries behind as he did. Wolkers incorporated his memories in his books, poems, sculptures and paintings. Sometimes these memories covered his childhood in Oegstgeest, and death often played a role. The death of his favorite brother Gerrit, his father, his mother, and his daughter Eve remained ‘fresh’ memories his entire life. In Wolkers’s biography, Onno Blom proposes to regard his oeuvre as a form of grieving.
The poem De herinnering (the memory) is one of three poems from a triptych that Jan Wolkers wrote in early 2001. He was inspired to write the triptych after two good friends and a relative had died in a short period of time. According to Onno Blom, his biographer, De herinnering is the most universal poem of the triptych. In this poem, Wolkers focuses - as in many of his works - on the memory and contemplates the value of the memory, the (im)possibility to present your past in a pure way.
Stories from Leiden
Jetteke Bolten, who played an important role in the realization of this wall poem, shares her story.
Filmclip: Leendert Beekman, Michiel Keller
Share your story
Does this poem hold a special place in your heart? For example, do you remember when you first read the poem? Or did you come across it someplace unexpected? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org! We would love to add your story to our website.
Jan Wolkers in Leiden and Oegstgeest
Photo Anoesjka Minnaard
Jan Wolkers was born on 26 October 1925 at Deutzstraat 7 in Oegstgeest, above the grocery store of his Protestant parents. The successful novel Terug naar Oegstgeest (back to Oegstgeest, 1965) covers the writer’s childhood. The neighboring city of Leiden has also played an important role in Wolkers’s younger years. He took painting lessons there, worked in the laboratory of Leiden University and lived in the city. The artistic legacy of Jan Wolkers will be housed in the Leiden University Library and Museum De Lakenhal.
Back to Oegstgeest
On 26 October 2017, what would have been the 92nd birthday of the writer, ten years after his death, the wall poem De herinnering was unveiled on Deutzstraat in Oegstgeest by his wife Karina Wolkers and his biographer Onno Blom. The poem is painted on the wall opposite his birthplace. It is the first wall poem in Oegstgeest, and honors its most famous resident.
The design of the wall poem is created by Ben Walenkamp in collaboration with the initiators from Oegstgeest.
Dying is the climax of life.
Wolkers lived to pulverize death.
Look, death is very important in my work, but no one’s ever nagging about it. It’s the nature of things that everything disappears, that we dissolve into mist.
Atypical of this poem by Wolkers is the lack of sex and eroticism.
- The funeral of Jan Wolkers in 2007 began with an audio recording of Wolkers reading a poem from Een drieluik van herinnering en dood (a triptych of memory and death).
- In another poem of the triptych, Winterslaap (hibernation), Wolkers seems to predict his own death. “[as] A sandwich with double jelly / The mouth does not open” is what he wrote. Six years later, he woke up in the middle of the night asking for something to eat and drink. He chewed long on some pieces of bread with berry jelly, but did not eat them. Then he fell asleep and never woke up again.
- Jan Wolkers is considered one of the ‘Big Four’ of Dutch post-war literature, together with W.F. Hermans, Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve. Incidentally, Wolkers called himself the ‘Big One’ without batting an eyelid.
- In 2002-2003, the Dutch program Villa Achterwerk released a series called ‘De achtertuin van Jan Wolkers’ (the backyard of Jan Wolkers), in which Wolkers explored his own backyard on Texel. Due to his fascination for nature, the Jan Wolkers-prize was introduced in 2013 and awarded to the best nature book created that year.
- Jan Wolkers is the creator of the Auschwitz monument in Amsterdam. In 1977, the monument was unveiled with the famous inscription Nooit meer Auschwitz (Auschwitz never again). Wolkers also made a commemorative monument for the North Sea Flood of 1953.
- In 2007, Jan Wolkers wrote the text for the 'Grand Dictation of the Dutch Language'. Two months before the Grand Dictation, Wolkers died, and no longer could recite it himself.
It was so long ago
that it should have been forgotten,
It is so fresh
Like a footstep in the grass,
Like smoke lifted through an open window,
Dew dripping along crop,
Through earth and dust,
A thought that no longer was.
Translation: Rianne Koene
This entry is written by Nikki Spoelstra in collaboration with het Taalmuseum. The translation into English is by Rianne Koene. The following publications were consulted:
- Blom, Onno. ‘Terug naar Jan Wolkers.’ De Volkskrant, 17 oktober 2008.
- Blom, Onno. Het litteken van de dood. De biografie van Jan Wolkers. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2017.
- ‘Muurgedicht Jan Wolkers in Oegstgeest onthuld: “Buitengewoon fraai.”’ Omroep West, 26 oktober 2017.
- Wolkers, Jan. Verzamelde gedichten. Ed. Onno Blom. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2008.