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A Paradise of Girls22 June 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
I was on my way to a symposium about poetry and religion at Radboud University in Nijmegen, less than a kilometre from where I was born. It all began in the shuttle bus from the station to the campus, which was full of girls.
They were students, of course. Don’t stare or it will get noticed; pretend you haven’t seen the girls and you’re sitting next to your mum.
I am always far too early, so I had half an hour to spare on the landscaped campus with its beautiful modern buildings. I settled down at a picnic table next to the library and looked around.
Do they only have female students? I wondered. Besides, they were much prettier than thirty years ago and the few young men I spotted seemed to be ‘just tolerated’.
One of the girls came over to ask for a light. Maybe she thought I was a professor; at 48 I am the right age. After all, when I was fourteen, Aunt Annie remarked after seeing my desk in my little attic room, ‘Is this adequate to become a professor?’ On the other hand, the student may simply have asked for a light because I was smoking a cigar.
Suddenly I pitied greying professors facing an auditorium full of young women. Likewise, as a teenager I thought it was almost cruel to give us a beautiful teacher of Dutch literature. Not to her but to us.
To cut a long story short, I was increasingly looking forward to the symposium! It was due to begin with a reading by the famous Australian poet Les Murray and the auditorium would, of course, be filled with girls. How often can you listen to a famous poet at Nijmegen University? Moreover, the modern language departments were across the road from the University Church, the symposium’s venue.
On arrival it was crystal clear, the target audience for ‘poetry and religion’ consisted mostly of pensioners. Although it was busy, most of the attendees in the entrance hall could be classified as ‘religious and elderly’.
Their shoes gave the game away: an absence of high heels, comfort shoes reigned supreme. But it is a generation that reads books. A few had brought their daughters along, and they tended to be my age. Undeniably a most rewarding audience; Baby Boomers buy books. It was such a shame that Les Murray’s books ‘hadn’t made it’ into the symposium bookshop. I didn’t want to curse in a church, otherwise I would have done so.
One of those present looked in awe at the poet and whispered, ‘He would never have come here without Poetry International.’
Afterwards in the workshop they discussed the poems of Nelly Sachs. The lady sitting next to me was eighty-three, she burst into tears when the lady leading the workshop recited in a trembling voice: ‘Which of us may comfort?/ We are gardeners who have no flowers/ And stand upon a shining star/ And weep.’
But in the bus on the way back I mainly felt sorry for the young female students, who had been so close to a wonderful reading by Les Murray. In addition they missed out on an impressive workshop about Nelly Sachs. They were unaware of these events and this could well have been due to its theme: poetry and religion.
They would have fought for tickets to Poetry and Justin Bieber or Poetry and Brad Pitt. Les Murray isn’t a singer, actor or model. Well, by his girth he is worth three models, but he has six times more to say.
When a world-famous poet has no students in the audience, even at a university, we are doomed. ‘Dear God, be with us!’ I muttered before being distracted yet again by the girls on the bus. Poetry and girls, a heavenly combination, I am going to advertise it straight away.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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