How to write an intermezzo in the style of Willem Wilmink

With translations of “Een jongen krijgt een meisjesbrief” and “Bacteriën”.

Willem Wilmink (1936-2003), perhaps the best Dutch poet of the late 20th century, used to drop in for a drink in one of my favourite bars – Café ‘t Bolwerk in Enschede in the old textile district of the eastern Netherlands – and in that fashion and others I got to know several of his colleagues.

Fred van de Ven, neighbouring Hengelo’s first municipal poet and a long-time collaborator with Wilmink in the group Quasimodo, recalls that the KIWI (Kort (short) Intermezzo (interlude) Willem) came into existence during rehearsals for the show Achterlangs, which consisted mainly of settings of texts by Willem performed by Quasimodo and sometimes sung by Willem.

These were punctuated by short readings of poems given by Willem from behind a table – the KIWIs – often with the following form three verses with rhyming scheme aabccb, where the first, second, fourth and fifth lines are are iambic tetrameters and the third and sixth iambic dimeters (all rhymes are thus masculine), and typically with a sharp twist in line five or six.

The genre was also used by the Dutch Broadcast Foundation for the educational programme, Het Klokhuis, with various lyrics by Willem, one tune by Harry Bannink (the broadcasters were too mean to commission more), and Edwin Rutten as the organ-grinder. Here’s one:

The original poem and my translation:

Een jongen krijgt een meisjesbrief (Ernstig genoeg, 1995)

Ik wist al wat voor brief het was
voordat ik maar een woordje las
van wat er stond:
een jongenshandschrift is altijd
zo hoekig als de puberteit,
meisjes zijn rond.

Handschrift met meer betekenis
dan alles wat de inhoud is
van deze brief:
de letters, krullerig en fijn,
ze zeggen: “‘k Wil je meisje zijn,
ik heb je lief.”

Ik heb vandaag een brief gehad
die maakt dat ik in deze stad
de koning ben.
In mijn paleis, voor ‘t hoogste raam,
lees ik steeds weer die ronde naam:
Eva Cohen.


A boy receives a girlish note

Your letter in my head I heard
Before I read a single word
Of what you wrote:
The angles of a boyish hand
By puberty are still unspanned,
A girl is round.

The subtle curlicues you trace
Mean more than all the words they chase
In what you tell.
But all those words have substance too,
And say, “Dear Willem, I love you,
Make me your belle.”

The letter I received today
Makes me of all that I survey
The king, so in
My palace, in the tallest tower,
I read that round name, hour by hour:
Eva Cohen.

And here (with subtitles) is a translation of Wilmink’s “Bacteriën” as “The Virus Song”:

Update 16 May 2020

Fred is dead. Here he is commemorating Café ‘t Liepke on the Breemarsweg, Hengelo to a different beat:

I hope that something will happen with my choral setting, done at his request just before he died, of “De beken”, his marvellous poem about the streams of Hengelo, the Venice of Twente. As well as the SATB arrangement, I have done a version for two-voice children’s choir with brass band accompaniment, which I imagine being sung annually along the streams in question.

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