Tsjêbbe Hettinga
(The Netherlands, 1949–2013)   
Tsjêbbe Hettinga

Hettinga was born in Burchwert, a small village in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands. His father was a dairy farmer and horse breeder. After teacher-training college he studied Dutch and Frisian language and literature at Groningen State University. He lived in Ljouwert/Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland, from 1982 until his death.

Hettinga made his debut before an international audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 1993, where there was a special focus on literature from the Netherlands. The resounding, musical performance of the Frisian poet came as a surprise to many and made a great impression on the public. In the following years he was invited to present his work on important occasions, such as ‘De nacht van de poëzie’ (The Night of Poetry) in Utrecht, the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, the Barcelona Book Fair, a Swansea festival celebrating the UK Year of Literature and Writing, the Writers’ Week in Listowel and, in March 1999, the London Festival of Literature. He recited his poetry by heart, not just because of his poor eyesight, but to create the maximum amount space for the expression of his emotions. Hettinga was also a saxophone player, and liked to compare his poetry recitals with solo jazz performances.

In Friesland Hettinga’s name as a poet was already established in 1971. As can be gathered from the titles of his books, the landscape of his own region, but also that of Wales and Greece, plays an important role in his poetry, where it is presented as a vivid experiential and symbolic environment for the expression of inner life. The poet celebrates the sea, the sky, the seagulls, the cattle, the grass, but most of all the coast, the line where two worlds meet. His poetry is about great romantic themes, such as love, decay and death, about longing for strange shores and the longing to be back home. It is not a poetry of fine-spun reasoning but one of images.

Hettinga’s early collections sometimes contain small poems, focusing on casual events or ideas, but in the later collections the texts are more elaborate and lack reference to specific real events. The images Hettinga evokes seem to be prompted by the sound patterns of the Frisian language, or by previous images, and this sometimes results in their baroque enumeration, kept in control by a regular syllabic pattern in regular stanzas. His strongly expressive musical language carries the reader away, and the listener even more so. Attending a recital by Hettinga is a unique experience and one to which T.S. Eliot’s words “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” certainly apply.

In 1995 Hettinga’s bilingual book Vreemde kusten / Frjemde kusten was published, along with the CD De foardrachten (The Declamations). It was generally hailed as a success and sold thousands of copies. Four years later – on the occasion of the poet’s performance at the London Festival of Literature – an edition of this book was published in English and Frisian, entitled Strange Shores / Frjemde kusten. In 2001 his Frisian collection Fan oer see en fierder was awarded the most important prize in Frisian literature: the Gijsbert Japickx Prize. Three years later, during the Maastricht International Poetry Nights of 2004, Hettinga was the second poet ever to receive the Hans Berghuisstok award, an international poetry prize celebrating his complete oeuvre.

His last publications include the multilingual DVD La Luz del Mar (2007) and the Frisian book of poems Equinox (2009). Hettinga was commissioned to write Aan schor en Stad Niks voorbij / Oan leech en Stêd Niks foarby, the 2010 ‘Gedichtendagbundel’: a small collection with a print run of 15,000 copies, published to celebrate the Dutch and Flemish National Poetry Day on 28 January 2010.

This text was originally written in 2009, and was updated on 8 March 2013 following Tsjêbbe Hettinga’s passing.

© Teake Oppewal & Thomas Möhlmann

Courtesy of the Frisian Historical and Literary Centre

“Hettinga is not an oracle-spelling, blind visionary whose poetry happens to make some sense on paper only occasionally. On the contrary, it is the other way round: he is a very special poet, a lyricist and a constructor rolled into one, a poet who can make the language of speech sing, a colourful painter who is very conscious of what he is doing.”
Guus Middag in NRC Handelsblad

“We will have to get accustomed to this broad and mythic style, as if reflection, irony and conciseness had never existed, and to the fact that poets can be visionaries again unashamedly. [ . . . ] Hettinga is an exceptional poet in our country, someone who honours the legacy of Slauerhoff and Marsman and, more distantly, reminds one of Baudelaire.”
Rob Schouten in Vrij Nederland


Frisian poetry
Yn dit lân (with drawings of Jelle Kaspersma), small press, 1973
Loft, lân en sé (with Jelle Kaspersma), small press, 1974
Fan lân loft en leafde (with drawings of Jelle Kaspersma), Koperative Utjowerij, 1975
Tusken de bidriuwen troch is âlderdom, Koperative Utjowerij, 1981
Under seefûgels – De kust, Frysk en Frij, 1992
Fan oer see en fierder, Montaigne, 2001
Equinox, De Friese Pers, 2009

With Dutch, German, Spanish and/or English translations
8 Gedichte/ Gedichten (with German translations by Babs Gezelle Meerburg and Ronald Noppers), Frysk en Frij, 1993
Fryslân! De wrâld! Friesland! Die Welt! (an anthology of poems of Obe Postma and Tsjêbbe Hettinga, with German translations by Ard Posthuma, Babs Gezelle Meerburg and Ronald Noppers), Attempto Verlag, 1998
Vreemde kusten/ Frjemde kusten (with Dutch translations by Benno Barnard; includes a CD) Atlas, Amsterdam, 1995
Strange shores/ Frjemde kusten (with English translations by James Brockway; includes a CD), Frysk en Frij, 1999
It doarp Always Ready/ Het dorp Always Ready/ The Town Always Ready (poem on a CD with Dutch translation by Benno Barnard and Tsjêbbe Hettinga, and English translation by Susan Massotty), Montaigne, 2000
Platina de zee (Frisian-Dutch publication by Tsjêbbe Hettinga and Benno Barnard; includes a CD), Atlas, Amsterdam, 2003
Het licht van de zee (Frisian-Dutch publication on DVD), De Friese Pers, Leeuwarden, 2007
La Luz del Mar (DVD including a documentary and Dutch, English and Spanish translations), De Friese Pers, Leeuwarden, 2007
Aan schor en Stad Niks voorbij / Oan leech en Stêd Niks foarby (Gedichtendagbundel in Frisian and Dutch), De Friese Pers & Poetry International, Leeuwarden & Rotterdam, 2010

Hettinga’s poems have also been selected for anthologies of Dutch poetry in Spanish, English and German translation.

Among other works of poetry, Hettinga translated Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’ and Derek Walcott’s ‘Light of the world’ into Frisian. For the Frysk Festival in 1995 he translated Walt Whitman’s ‘Salút au Monde!’ into Frisian.


Information about Hettinga on Tresoar, the website of the Frisian Historical and Literary Centre
Information and more translations on the NLPVF website (in English)
Hettinga on VPRO-radio (in Frisian and Dutch)


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