Lifesaving Poems: Rutger Kopland’s ‘I Cavalli di Leonardo’

Rutger Kopland

I was sad to read yesterday via Twitter that the leading Dutch poet Rutger Kopland has died, aged 77.

He is frequently referred to as Holland’s ‘most beloved poet’, his books having sold more than 200,000 copies in his lifetime. Born Rudi van den Hoofdakker, he wrote under a pseudonym, working first as a psychotherapist, then as a psychiatrist at the Department of Biological Psychiatry, Groningen University until his retirement in 1995 . In 2000 he polled the largest amount of votes in elections to appoint a Dutch Poet Laureate. He declined the honour.

I first came across his poetry at a meeting of writers in education at the Arvon Foundation writing centre at Totleigh Barton, in Devon, in December 2006. I remember the occasion for many reasons: the stimulation of being with writers who loved to talk about teaching writing as much as I did; the joy of being placed in the position of learner in their workshops; plus, I was physically and mentally shattered.

I had spent much of that year being treated for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and had been told in October that I ‘had reached a state of remission’. Not knowing what was around the corner I decided to take up the invitation to join the retreat and leave my house, in part to see if, after all those months of treatment, I could actually remember how to engage with a wider circle of people again. Totleigh Barton, I should say, is one of my favourite places on earth, but this does not mean I am blind to the attractions of staying there in mid-December. It was filthily cold and dark.

Aside from the welcome of my fellow practitioners, my chief consolation during my stay was the discovery in the Totleigh library of Rutger Kopland’s Memories of The Unknown (The Harvill Press, 2001), a selection of Kopland’s work translated by James Brockway. If you do not know this book, I urge you to get hold of it. For one thing it is a beautiful object. It is a bilingual edition, with Dutch text facing its English mirror image on every page. It has a stunning Foreword by J.M. Coetzee, followed by an Introduction of clarity and authority by the translator. The paper and hard covers seem to have been chosen with great care; never in a hurry, the poems have plenty of white space in which to breathe.

If I am honest, I would have known none of this were it not for the power of the front cover image, a detail of Hunters in the Snow by Pieter the Elder Breughel. If ever the wrapper of a book spoke to me on a pre-verbal level, this was it. I snuck off with it to my room, returning it reluctantly on the final day. (You can read more about the book on Michael Murray’s blog, here).

I chose ‘I Cavalli di Leonardo’ as one of my Lifesaving Poems because it was the first one I turned to, having been directed to it by Coetzee’s Foreword: ‘Kopland imagines Leonardo da Vinci sitting down to analyse the muscular system of the horse and thus works out how horses move. …At a certain moment Leonardo comes to the realization that his procedure of rational analysis and description is bringing him no closer to seeing how a horse is put together: under his pencil-point the secret of the horse continues to spread.’ Later Coetzee describes the moment of realisation of the limits of representation as the fulcrum on which an artwork turns. This includes the poem at hand.

As the above argumentation testifies, this is a book of complexity and simplicity. Ever a materialist, things, in Kopland’s world, are what they are. When this gaze is softened ‘the mystery of the thing itself emerges’, ‘almost invisibly gently’ as the poem has it. I love how the poem seems to shrink as the enormity of this discovery dawns on poet and artist at the same time as it were, dwarfing even the vast quantity of discarded paper which went into its making and which we never see.

I Cavalli di Leonardo


All those sketches he left behind –

endless series of repetitions: bunches of muscles, sinews,

knuckles, joints, the entire machinery

of driving-belts and levers with which

a horse moves,


and out of thousands of hair-thin little lines, the skin

almost invisibly gently disappearing into the paper

of ears and eyelids, nostrils,

skin of the soul –


he must have wanted to find out how a horse

is made and have realized

it can’t be done,


how the secret of a horse grew and grew

beneath his pencil.


Made the most splendid designs, studied them,

discarded them.


Rutger Kopland, from Memories of the Unknown (The Harvill Press, 2001), translated by James Brockway.

Lifesaving Poems


  1. Thanks for another inspiring post, Anthony. Trying to remember if that was the group pulled together by Rupert at which I also was, or not… Seems like ages ago. Much water, etc. Rx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.