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Poetry from a detention clinic

Poetry from a detention clinic

Required reading

Who: Herco Fonteijn, psychologist

What: Blauwzuur (Acid), by Gerrit Achterberg

Target group: psychology students

En de hoop is een krijtwit kind, dat lacht

tegen den roover, die het slacht

(While hope is like the pallid child,

that smiles, as it is butchered)

These are lines from Spreekuur (Consultation), one of the poems from the collection Blauwzuur (Acid, 1969) by Gerrit Achterberg. “Maybe the most quoted lines,” says psychologist Herco Fonteijn. Achterberg wrote the collection when he was in a forensic psychiatric treatment clinic, for killing his landlady, and lover, and attempting to rape her sixteen-year-old daughter, in 1937. The collection was published posthumously.

“Compulsory reading for psychologists and psychiatrists,” says Fonteijn. “He writes about his experiences in the institute, how he deals with people who are trying to cure him. It is an insight into the mind of someone who has a brilliant feel for language. It is difficult to imagine that this is a terrible man. A murderer, a rapist, and a stalker. He frequently threatened people with a revolver and after the war, he married the love of his youth, a member of the fascist Dutch National Socialist Movement. The poems seem to be at odds with this. So fascinating.”

Fonteijn read Achterberg’s poems for the first time in secondary school. “His poetry immediately appealed to me, thanks to a teacher of Dutch who was a fan too. At that time, Achterberg was idealised as the perfect example of someone who could use the Dutch language at its best. From time to time, I stand in front of my bookcase and take out Achterberg again.” Fonteijn loves reading poetry. “When you read poems, you can sense the intensity with which the poet tried to wrap ideas and emotions in words. It is consumed at a different pace. It is almost a multimedia experience. You also see images and hear sounds and rhythms. The message therefore hits home more forcefully.”

Although Blauwzuur has been translated into English (and various other languages), Fonteijn advises foreign students to read it in Dutch. “Experience the rhythm and the sound. That is how you get to know a language. It is a rather accessible collection, but you will need a dictionary. It was written in the nineteen-forties and therefore contains some old-fashioned words.”

In this column lecturers recommend a novel that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do

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