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Maurice Carème (Belgium)

Photo: Jeannine Burny
Photo: Jeannine Burny

Maurice Carème was born on 12 May 1899 in Wavre, a small town in Brabant-Wallon, Belgium, where his father Joseph was a painter and decorator and his mother, Henriette Art, ran a small grocery shop cum general store. One of his grandfathers sold goods from a gypsy caravan. His elder sister, born in 1898, only lived a day, his other sister, Germaine, was born in 1901; his younger brothers, Georges and Marcel, were born in 1904 and 1907 but Marcel only lived for eight months.

Maurice had a very happy country childhood, which he often brought back to life in his poems. His first ones, written in 1914, were inspired by Bertha Detry, his childhood girlfriend. In the same year he won a scholarship to a teacher training college, the Ecole Normale de Tirlemont. Julien Kuypers was the teacher who encouraged him to write and introduced him to contemporary poetry.

In 1918 Carème left Wavre to become a primary school teacher in Brussels and in 1924 married Andrêe Gobron, a fellow teacher (Caprine in his poems). The Brabant-style house he had built in Avenue Nellie Melba, is where they lived from 1933. It was known as 'la Maison Blanche' and became the seat of the Fondation Maurice Carème in 1975 and the Musêe Maurice Carème on his death in 1978. He was 78.

Carème gave up teaching to write full-time in 1943. Author of some ninety books, novels, short stories, fables and essays, as well as poems, he published a collection of poems nearly every year from 1947 until 1975. Mère (1935) won the Prix Triennal de Poésie and La maison blanche (1949) the Prix de l'Académie Française. Where Chansons pour Caprine (1930) reflected quite a painful married life, his love poems were more discreet in Femme (1946) and, when inspired by Jeannine Burny, full of youthful vigour in La bien-aimêe (1965).

In Paris in 1972 he was elected 'Prince des poètes' to succeed Jean Cocteau. He won numerous other prizes in Belgium and abroad, including one for his translation of Flemish poets. Even as a very weak 78 year old, he worked till the very last minute of his final afternoon, 13 January 1978.

Défier le destin appeared in 1987 and includes a selection of the poems he felt were finished. He had asked Jeannine (his friend and assistant since 1943 and now the President of the Fondation) to arrange the poems she was sure he had finished and for the cover of this collection she called on their friend, the artist Paul Delvaux. A subsequent collection, rather darker in tone, De plus loin que la nuit, appeared in 1992, and after a collection for the Gallimard Jeunesse series, L'oiseleur et autres poèmes, (2003), another, Et puis après, in 2004, and yet another Etre ou ne pas être in 2008.