Had niets te beweren
te klein voor veren
te nat om bruin te heten
en snavel dicht
ook tegen eten.
Maar werd een hoogst
wezel, een vliegende
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This poem in 60 seconds
Everyone can grow to be beautiful. Newly born, the starling is only an unsightly little creature, barely appearing to be viable. But it does not take long before the bird is proudly flaunting its beautiful, dazzling feathers. It seems that this poem wants to convey that such a triumph is not only reserved for the starling: humans, too, can develop like that.
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.
Amsterdam, 1934 - now
Judith Herzberg is the daughter of Jewish writer and lawyer Abel Herzberg and grew up during the Second World War. In 1941, she managed to escape an internment camp. She survived the rest of the war by going into hiding at several different places, but became marked for life. Talking about this period is impossible for Judith Herzberg, but writing is not. In her plays and poetry, the war is a recurring theme.
On 6 May 1961, Herzberg’s first poem was published in the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland. Two years later, her first collection Zeepost (‘Sea mail’) was published. She showed much attention for the ordinary, just like her contemporaries Rutger Kopland and Ida Gerhardt. It became a common thread in her work: when she received the P.C. Hooft Award, a prestigious Dutch literary achievement award, the jury lauded her for the way her poetry managed to transform the most ordinary things into something special.
Besides a celebrated poet, Judith Herzberg is also a successful playwright and scenarist. She received multiple awards for her works, including the culturally oriented Joost van den Vondel Award (1984) and the literary Constantijn Huygens Prize (1994). In the eighties, Judith Herzberg moved to Israel. Since then, she has alternated living in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv.
What's this poem about?
This poem can be interpreted as an ode to the starling. With ornate language, Herzberg sings of the helpless baby starling, colorless and featherless, that grows up to be an extraordinary, promising bird. As Herzberg herself describes it: a ‘high warm-footed scholar’ and a ‘flying unlettered triumphator’.
People and animals
The animal in this poem is almost presented as a human, something not uncommon in Herzberg’s poetry. After all, a newborn human is as vulnerable as the poem’s baby starling. And just like the starling, every human grows into an independent individual with a future. That is the valuable message of this poem: everyone has the potential to grow into something beautiful or grand.
The use of language in this poem is noteworthy. Creative lexical combinations such as ‘frivolous-throated’ and ‘pearl-splattered’ turn something ordinary such as the starling into something special. Language and content are also tightly interconnected to each other. At the start, when the baby starling still counts for little, Herzberg uses ordinary, everyday words. In the second stanza, when the starling’s development is described, the language changes. It becomes more eccentric and expressive and the words are all but everyday language. Not only the starling has developed, the language has too!
In 1970, the poem Spreeuw (Starling) was published in the Dutch literary magazine Hollands Maandblad along with three other poems. A year later, it could be found again in the collection Strijklicht (‘Slanting light’). Many of the poems in this collection are about nature. Besides the starling, Herzberg also wrote poems about the gull, the jackdaw and the common swift.
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 email@example.com! We would love to add your story to our website.
Judith Herzberg in Leiden
Photo: Anoesjka Minnaard
In 1997, the year Herzberg received the Dutch literary prize the P.C. Hooft Award, the poem was painted on the wall of Boshuizerlaan 5 in Leiden. The wall poem nicely fits the name of the building: Vogelvlucht (‘Bird flight’). The poem was renovated in 2008 and the design was modified: wall poem painter Jan Willem Bruins enriched the wall poem with an illustration of a flock of flying starlings.
Judith Herzberg herself could often be found in Leiden in 1986-87, because she was affiliated to Leiden University as a guest writer during those years. She gave lectures and tutorials on writing poetry, plays and film scripts.
It is the language, and the awareness of it, that makes Judith Herzberg’s poems so ‘ordinary’ and at the same time so surprising.
Literary editor Willem Kuipers in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant
The small and seemingly self-evident gets a whole other status in the Herzbergian world.
Literary scholar Maaike Meijer
- The starling is popular in Dutch-language poetry. In addition to Judith Herzberg, Guido Gezelle and Hanny Michaelis also wrote poems about this bird.
- If Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg had to recommend a Dutch writer for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he would choose Judith Herzberg.
- Judith Herzberg does almost no interviews, because she is ‘interview shy’.
- Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro owes the title of his novel The Remains of the Day to Judith Herzberg. Both of them were at a literary festival in Australia in 1988, where she suggested this title to him.
- In this poem, Judith Herzberg describes the starling’s colors as ‘pearl-splattered’. ‘That stunning glimmer is not caused by pigment, but by the diffusion of light. Those starling colors are comparable to the colors you see when you hold a CD horizontally before your eyes’, Koos Dijksterhuis explains in his book De Spreeuw (‘The Starling’).
- In the fall of 2018, Judith Herzberg received the Dutch Literature Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Dutch-speaking world.
Had nothing to contend
too small for feathers
too wet to be called brown
and beak closed tight
even against food.
But becomes a high
with specialized area of interest
weasel, a flying
Translation: Cliff Crego (reviewed by Emma Knapper)
Hat nichts zu behaupten
zu klein für Federn
zu naß um braun zu heißen
ein Schnabel dicht
auch gegen Essen.
Aber wurde ein höchst
Wiesel, ein fliegender
nicht studierter Triumphator.
Übersetzung: Kirstin Zeyer
This entry was written by Het Taalmuseum in collaboration with Nikki Spoelstra. The translation into English is by Emma Knapper. The following sources were consulted:
- Brems, Hugo. Altijd weer vogels die nesten beginnen. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur 1945-2005. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 2013.
- Fens, Kees. “Doorluchtig glas. Vijftig jaar P.C. Hooftprijs”. Amsterdam, 1997.
- Grunberg, Arnon. “Welke Nederlandse schrijver zou u willen voordragen voor de Nobelprijs?” Volkskrant. 30 January 2018.
- “Judith Herzberg: biografie” via Koninklijke Bibliotheek.
- “P.C. Hooftprijs 1997” via Stichting P.C. Hooftprijs.
- “1970-1979: Strijklicht en andere bundels” via Koninklijke Bibliotheek.
- Judith Herzberg, Strijklicht (Amsterdam: Van Oorschot Uitgeverij, 1971).
- Koos Dijksterhuis, De Spreeuw (Amsterdam, 2016).