als dunne bomen.
kan zo mager
met de taal
is mijn vader
met het zaad.
een echt woord gehoord
of het deed pijn.
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Voiced by: Lex van Iterson
This poem in 60 seconds
Jan Arends’s writing style reflects the way he felt: meager, hollow. In this poem, he wonders why his language is so stripped down. The answer might lie in his childhood. Would recognition have brought a richer life and thus a richer language? In any case, the language he possesses now is particularly fit for describing sorrow, pain and hollowness.
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.
Den Haag 1925 - Amsterdam 1974
Jan Arends had been admitted to mental institutions and rehab multiple times. Many of his acquaintances have stated that his insanity was not that bad in real life, and he pretended to be mad precisely in order to be hospitalized. He had a need for the benevolence and social services in the clinics. It is possible that need stemmed from his childhood: he was a child born out of wedlock, was bullied by his classmates and grew up at a boarding school.
In between all those hospitalizations, he earned a living as a copywriter. This job often alternated with his career as a butler. When he worked as a butler in a Belgian castle, Arends wrote a play about his life in the copywriting world, called Smeer of de weldoener des vaderlands (‘Smear or the motherland’s benefactor’). He sprang to fame when his short story collection Keefman was published in 1972. Keefman, a book with clear autobiographical references, is about a man who is constantly clashing with his attending psychiatrists and the rest of the outside world.
In 1974, Arends committed suicide. He left behind a large number of unpublished poems, that have been released since then. The short story collection Ik had een strohoed en een wandelstok (‘I had a straw hat and a cane’) was also published posthumously. The interest in him has not ceased: in 2014, his complete works were published again. He has also become quite the literary cult figure. Moreover, Arends is a hero for supporters of the anti-psychiatry movement, who are of the opinion that psychiatric treatment is often more damaging than helpful.
What's this poem about?
‘I / write poems / like thin trees’, is this poem’s first sentence. The collection Lunchpauzegedichten (Lunch Break Poems) contains various trees. They symbolize language and poetry. These are meager and stripped down, exactly how Arends felt.
His language being meager stands for the hunger that he experiences in his life as a writer - not only the literal hunger caused by a lack of food, but also a feeling that can be described as a never-ending hollowness, a loneliness that cannot be tamed. At the same time, the meagerness allows him to define what language and poethood mean: ‘To write about pain you only need a few words.’ The pain is exactly the thing that is symbolized by his minimalistic style and clear phrasing. Language is something that does only harm, but also the thing that had to earn his daily bread. Bread that Arends did not want to eat.
A father figure is mentioned in the poem as well. It is known that Arends was born out of wedlock. His mother did get married later, presumably to his biological father. In this poem, Arends reproaches his father for being stingy with his seed - the seed that could have thickened the tree or even made it blossom. We can also read that the father figure is to blame for the meagerness of this poem. In other works, Arends keeps asking the same question of who is to blame.
Jan Arends probably wrote this poem between 1965, the year his first collection Gedichten (‘Poems’) was published, and 1974, as in that year, his collection Lunchpauzegedichten (Lunch Break Poems) was published, which included this poem. On the day the collection came out, Arends jumped out of the window of his apartment in Amsterdam.
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Jan Arends in Leiden
Photo: Anoesjka Minnaard
When in 1997 Leiden bookstore De Kler organized a contest for residents’ favorite poems on the walls of Leiden, Arends’s piece was sent in by T. Olijerhoek. It was his favorite poem from the collection Lunchpauzegedichten (Lunch Break Poems). It was painted in the Chloorlammersteeg, on the corner of the Botermarkt, in March 1998. At the time, the corner shop was occupied by Italian sandwich shop Michelangelo; the owner had preferred an Italian poem about coffee, but was pleased with this poem as well.
In 2005, the poem was removed, but four years later, it was repainted in the current design. Passers-by may not notice the poem at first glance, because the alleyway is almost as narrow as the poem itself.
Arends writes pain, which is different from writing about pain, just like screaming sorrow is something different than writing about sorrow.
Reviewer Anton Korteweg about Lunchpauzegedichten (Lunch Break Poems)
Arends’s language is so unadornedly ordinary and direct that, just like the contents, it is utter reality. Utter misery. Exactly what Arends wanted.
Biographer and writer Nico Keuning
- Arends did not belong to a literary movement or a poet association. He was as alone in literature as he was in life.
- His break-through book, Keefman, was apparently supposed to be called ‘Leefman’ (‘Alive man’). Arends made an error on his typewriter and did not correct it.
- Arends had the habit of calling up publishers at night, asking them why his work did not get published. He then also proceeded to recite new poems. Publisher Geert Lubberhuizen changed his telephone number because of this.
- That same Geert Lubberhuizen invited him to a meeting of his publishing company, De Bezige Bij, but every time someone addressed Arends, he yelled: ‘You still owe me money!’
- Jan Arends was often mistaken for a homeless person. It is said that his odor was intolerable; more than once, he was asked to shower before an important client would visit one of the advertising agencies he worked for.
like thin trees.
can speak so
as I do?
with his seed.
heard a real word
that didn’t cause pain.
a few words.
Translation: Donald Gardner
This entry was written by Het Taalmuseum in collaboration with Yavne van der Raaf. The translation into English is by Emma Knapper. The following sources were consulted: