In 14 boeken
In veertien boeken verstenen
even beneden mijn naam
ook mijn woorden - wijs mij degene
die nu iemand op doen staan
de gordijnen traag openen, het raam,
om eindelijk! weer eens graag
te lachen, naar buiten te gaan?
desnoods met de kop omlaag
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Voiced by: Leo van Zanen
This poem in 60 seconds
Writers publish books to share their work, to spread their name and to immortalize their words. But how do these words affect the reader? Do they stir up certain emotions or encourage the readers to act? Leo Vroman thought about this in 1964, when he had already published fourteen books yet remained humble. He was always pleasantly surprised when someone ended up slightly more cheerful after reading his work.
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.
Gouda 1915 - Fort Worth (Texas) 2014
Leo Vroman is one of the most famous Dutch poets, but has only lived in the Netherlands for a small part of his life. Vroman was Jewish and fled via England to the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) four days after the Nazi invasion in 1940. He hoped to continue his academic degree in biology, but instead ended up in an internment camp when the Japanese conquered the country. Vroman eventually survived four camps spread throughout the Dutch East Indies and Japan. Poetry helped him to endure this awful period; he wrote a large part of his works between 1940 and 1945. World War II is also a significant theme in his subsequent work.
Dutchman and American
In 1947, Leo Vroman emigrated to the United States. Even though he lived in the US for most of his life, he continued to write in his mother tongue. Vroman was the youngest poet ever to receive the P.C. Hooft-prize in 1964.
Poet and scientist
Vroman became a well-known poet in the Netherlands, but in the US he primarily worked as a scientist. He obtained his doctorate in biology and did a lot of research on phenomena of blood clotting. One of these phenomena was even named after him: the Vroman-effect. Vroman was convinced that poetry and science both involve examining and discovering. He often tried to reconcile poetry and science in his works, for example in his poems Biologie voor de jeugd (Biology for the young) and Mens (Human).
What's this poem about?
The poem In veertien boeken (In fourteen books) is about authorship. When Leo Vroman wrote it he had already published fourteen books. Obviously, his name was written on the cover of these books, and the words that followed - the content - were also “petrified,” or immortalized. Of those thousands of words, which were the ones that truly affected the reader? Leo Vroman poses this question in the poem.
Poet and reader
Vroman wonders which words contain the power to rouse emotions. To open the curtains or even to laugh again or to go out. “Even with heads hanging low” indicates that the tiniest effect will feel like a reward to the poet. It is the reaction every poet secretly dreams of.
In 1965, the Dutch leading literary magazine Maatstaf released a special issue on short poems. This issue could, of course, not be published without a poem of the fifty-year old Leo Vroman, who received the P.C. Hooft-prize shortly before this issue of the magazine was composed. Among other poems, he sent in the poem In veertien boeken (In fourteen books). He presumably wrote it not long before.
The editor of the special issue wrote in his introduction: “I am convinced that whoever will look back in the year 2065 on these grubby, fuzzy, grimy times, will recognize a peculiarly strong desire for purity.”
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Leo Vroman in Leiden
Photo Inge Harsten
This poem was realized in 1998 on the facade of Plantsoen 1, located on the corner of Levendaal in Leiden. The word “fourteen” in the title has not been written in letters or numbers, but has been illustrated above the poem. In other words, the title of the poem is an illustration of fourteen books on a bookshelf. Unfortunately, the wall poem disappeared due to a renovation in 2017.
Note: unfortunately, this poem is no longer on the wall, though may be restored in the future.
Leo Vroman and his readers
To Leo Vroman, poetry was primarily autobiographical. He saw his poetry as his diary. Only after his wife Tineke and his friend Max de Jong insisted on sharing his work, he decided to publish it. Vroman has always been honest and sincere about the fact that he needed the appreciation of his readers to continue writing. In the 1970s, he even stopped writing for a short period of time. Only when a young man in a restaurant complimented him on his poetry did he pick it up again.
Poems on authorship and poethood are therefore not exceptional in Vroman’s oeuvre, take for example the poems Publiek (Public,1960) and Over de dichtkunst (On poetry, 1961). His well-known poem Voor wie dit leest (For those reading this, 1945) contains a desire to observe the responses of readers: “I would like to be under this page / and look through the letters of this poem / into your reading face / and the melting of your pain is what I crave.” The crux of these poems is that poet and reader are interdependent. They need each other.
And guess, what would I be
Too bad, you are wrong about me:
Leo Vroman, Uit Slaapwandelen (Sleepwalking), 1957
I think I am crying poems.
Vroman’s mind has given Dutch poetry one of the most wonderful and beautiful oeuvres. It seemed as if Vroman was writing to seize the world, to be able to touch things, to taste them.
I do not fear what is coming next. Everything is one big mystery; we don’t know what living actually is, but we have no clue what it’s like to die. I am quite curious about it, to be honest. Although I easily say that, of course. I will leave all those books behind; I can always imagine myself not being really gone.
I don’t like to be called a ‘poet.’ To me, writing poetry is as much a job as digesting.
- Leo Vroman did not regret leaving the Netherlands. He wrote, determinedly: “Rather homesick than in Holland.”
Leo Vroman continued to write poetry until his death. A few days before his death on 22 February 2014, he wrote a poem with the striking title Einde (Ending).
Almost every evening, Leo Vroman placed a new poem on his wife’s pillow. Tineke was his greatest muse. She was also a biologist and she also wrote poems from time to time.
Literary critic Kees Fens called Leo Vroman ‘the closest poet in the Netherlands.’ This sounds quite paradoxical since Vroman lived in the US, but it mainly referred to his poetry, in which the poet tries to get closer to the reader.
- Leo Vroman made many drawings for his poems. In addition to being an established poet and biologist, he was also a illustrator. He made this drawing for In veertien boeken (In fourteen books).
Fourteen books petrify
My name just below
And also my words - show me the ones
Which make someone rise and go
The curtains open slowly, the window,
To finally! Be able to
Laugh again, to go outside?
Even with heads hanging low
This entry was written by Taalmuseum in collaboration with Nikki Spoelstra. The translation into English is by Rianne Koene. The following publications were consulted:
- Brems, Hugo. Altijd weer vogels die nesten beginnen. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur 1945-2005. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 2013.
- Fortuin, Arjen. ‘Twee weken geleden schreef hij z’n laatste gedicht’ In: NRC, 24 februari 2014.
- Geuns, Suzanne van, en Emy Koopman, ‘Ik geloof dat ik gedichten huil. Interview met Leo Vroman’. Tijdschrift Vooys 29.4 (2011).
- Hengel, Mirjam van, Alle malen zal ik wenen. Het mooiste van Leo Vroman. Amsterdam/Antwerpen: Querido, 2015.
- Het Literatuurmuseum over Leo Vroman.
- Visser, Arjan. ‘Leo Vroman: Jezus leek mij wel een aardige vent’. In: Trouw, 22 februari 2014.
- ‘Leo Vroman’, Maatstaf 1965, via dbnl.nl
- Ben Peperkamp in Vooys.