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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

What Poetry Is

Harry Mulisch

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To purchase What Poetry Is

Title: What Poetry Is
Author: Harry Mulisch
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1978 (Eng. 1982)
Length: 39 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: What Poetry Is - US
What Poetry Is - UK
What Poetry Is - Canada
  • Dutch title: Wat poëzie is
  • Translated by Claire Nicholas White
  • This is a bilingual edition, the text presented in both Dutch and English

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Our Assessment:

B : fine but brief

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       What Poetry Is is a seventeen-stanza poem, with each stanza broken into five lines (or parts of lines). Printed in this chapbook edition with the original Dutch text facing Claire Nicholas White's translation, it is a very short text, the English version amounting to less than a thousand words.
       In it, the poet reflects on what poetry is -- and on trying to reflect on what poetry is. One of the fundamental problems he faces is that as:

              with pain
     or with lovely desire

Only when it is there
     do I know what it is.
       Mulisch's approach is fairly straightforward, and often familiar. Thus, for example, poetry is considered: "so unattainable / it is like the rainbow."
       The poem is built up as argument and demonstration. Mere rhyme, wordplay, even emotion don't make something poetry for Mulisch. Indeed, effort is something he wants to stay away from, emphasising early on: "Nothing becomes poetry. / Something is poetry."
       He leads the reader to observations such as:
Nothing is more silent
     than poetry.
       And finally sums up:
Poetry in other words
     is the gilded tongue of silence.

Unimaginable when absent,
     self-evident when present.
       It's a fine piece, and the presentation -- i.e. the inclusion of the Dutch original -- exemplary. White's translation is good; comparison with the original allows readers to see what liberties she has taken (so, for example, the transposition of the final words of the poem, making for a slightly different effect).
       A single poem, What Poetry Is is a bit little, amounting only to a thin chapbook. But, as the only available translation of any of Mulisch's poetry (and also on its own merits), it is certainly of some interest.

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Harry Mulisch: Other books by Harry Mulisch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review
  • See Index of Poetry
  • See Index of Bilingual editions under review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Harry Mulisch was born in 1927. One of the foremost post-war European authors he has written numerous international bestsellers. Ridiculously few of his works are available in English.

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