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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
14-and-under, commended

Read the judges’ comments
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Max Birkin

Thinking of Holland

Thinking of Holland
I see broad rivers,
Slow and never ending,
Flowing through the lowlands,
Lined with long rows
Of proud and thin poplars,
Like the tall plumes of a hat.
And in the sunken space, magnificent,
The sprawling farms,
Scattered throughout the country,
Surrounded by clusters of trees –
Villages with knotted towers,
Ancient churches and elms,
In a broad alliance.
The sky there hangs low,
And the sun is slowly being smothered
In grey multicoloured dampness.
And in all corners of the land,
Is apparent the voice of water,
With a constant loom of disaster,
Feared and heard by all.

Translated from the Dutch by Max Birkin

Herinnering aan Holland

Denkend aan Holland
zie ik breede rivieren
traag door oneindig
laagland gaan,
rijen ondenkbaar
ijle populieren
als hooge pluimen
aan den einder staan;
en in de geweldige
ruimte verzonken
de boerderijen
verspreid door het land,
boomgroepen, dorpen,
geknotte torens,
kerken en olmen
in een grootsch verband.
De lucht hangt er laag
en de zon wordt er langzaam
in grijze veelkleurige
dampen gesmoord,
en in alle gewesten
wordt de stem van het water
met zijn eeuwige rampen
gevreesd en gehoord.

Hendrik Marsman

Translation commentary

My grandfather, who is Dutch, suggested this poem for the competition – it was voted poem of the century in The Netherlands in 2000. I like the poem an awful lot – it's simplistic, but captures The Netherlands perfectly in my view, and I love how the poem neatly encompasses both the beauty and underlying dangers of the canals and rivers in Holland. I know a few Dutch words thanks to numerous stays with my family in The Netherlands, but had to get my mother to help with the translation into literal English. I wanted my translation to still stay very true to the literal translation, and the original Dutch version, and not much correcting was needed – the poem flowed well even with the literal translation, but after a few strange parts were ironed out, it began to roll smoothly off the tongue.

Once I had the literal translation I went through it just making sure that every line worked in a way that I wanted it to. There were a few problems, but not too many. In line 14 the original version says 'in a large amnesty' which didn't sound quite right, however the word 'alliance' sprang to mind and brought the positive, happy feeling I wanted for that particular description. Line 8 was also difficult – the literal translation read 'and the magnificent space sunken' and obviously was not right, and so I changed it to 'and in the sunken space magnificent', which I think has a certain majesty and peculiarity about the line itself, which lends itself to the description brilliantly. I spent some time thinking about how to get the last few lines right. They do, in a way, make the poem unique – if they were not included, the poem could be just any other poem describing the beauties of the Netherlands. The phrase 'loom of disaster' was in my first rough version, and after some brainstorming and thinking, I came to the conclusion that actually, loom was the correct word, with the right feeling.

Max Birkin