Herman de Coninck: The man who taught his people to read poetry
Herman de Coninck, often referred to as “the man who taught his people to read poetry”, was born in Mechelen in February 1944.
De Coninck came in contact with literature at an early age, as his parents ran a bookstore. He studied German philology at the Catholic University of Leuven, and during his time there, he became involved with Universitas, a weekly student paper.
His first poem appeared on 14 november 1963 in Universitas, under the pen name Van Pimpelgem s.j. He also started working for the magazine Ruimten, in which he published poetry that included a poem he didn’t want his mother to know about, for which he used the pen name Johnny van Tussenbroek.
De Coninck’s first poetry collection, De lenige liefde, was published in March 1969. With this collection, which won several prizes – the Yang prize in the year it was published and the ‘Prijs van de Provincie Antwerpen’ (Prize of the Province of Antwerp) two years later -, he came to be considered as the spokesperson, and even the founding father, of a new literary movement known as New Realism.
This movement’s work is a reaction to the literary generation that came before it, known as ‘De Vijftigers’ (Those of the fifties), which included one of Belgium’s most famous writers, Hugo Claus, who was best known for his book, The Sorrow of Belgium (Het Verdriet van België).
New Realism became more accessible, more tangible than the work of Those of the fifties. The artists of this new artistic stream used a direct and simple language, describing ordinary things and occurrences while subtly showing the unusual things of life.
Within new-realistic poetry, De lenige liefde stood out for its relativising humour. The poem that lends its name to the title is one of his most famous pieces and, like the majority of his work, is light and playful in tone.
Besides his poetry, Herman de Coninck has also published prose, interviews, and a number of essay collections. In addition, he has translated Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry into Dutch.
De Coninck passed away unexpectedly from heart failure, on his way to a literary congress in Lisbon, Portugal. He was surrounded by several prominent colleague poets including the aforementioned Hugo Claus. Herman de Coninck died on 22 May 1997, aged only 53 years old.
A prize for poetry was launched in his name and memory in 2007. Winners of this prize include Belgian poets Miriam Van hee and Peter Verhelst. The Herman de Coninck prize is considered the most important Flemish prize for poetry.
His poetry has also been immortalized throughout Belgium with poems in public places, notably in his native Mechelen and on the Cogels-Osylei, a well-known street in Antwerp, where he used to live.
Did you know that Herman de Coninck also used his pen to write letters? He has sent a great deal of letters – he had a collection of 15,000 letters when he passed –, over 400 of which were collected in the book Een aangename postumiteit (A pleasant posthumousness).
Photo: © Antwerpen City Collection, Letterenhuis