The Poetry of Willem Jan Otten
It Was Missing At First Sight
Willem Jan Otten has a preference for programmatic titles. His first volume of poetry in 1973, for example, is titled Een zwaluw vol zaagsel - roughly translated, ‘A Swallow Stuffed with Sawdust’, an image which epitomises his early work. By selecting a single aspect of the natural world and fixing it in verse, the poet takes his lead from nature whilst never losing sight of the fact that his own work, once created, can no longer change.
This image forms the title of his next collection Het keurslijf (Straitjacket). Slowly, however, the poet comes to realise that movement cannot be banished from his poetry:
There’s no stopping life:
it burgeons every
while I write.
Or, in the collection Het ruim (The Hold) of 1976:
No form too balanced
to vanish, no splash too elegant
to fade away.
Absence, the vanishing, gradually takes on an autonomous role in his poetry; and the burgeoning, it seems, happens not in spite of but because of the vanishing. The poet’s task is to wait - just like Penelope, whose love exists not in spite of but because of Odysseus’ absence:
I’m only a match as long as
he hits my guesses back out of the darkness
of his ocean.
Penelope, like a poem, is the one who misses the other, the one who lacks. She again figures prominently in Paviljoenen (Pavilions, 1991): ‘Her being was that something was missing’. But Odysseus’ wife is not the only player in Otten’s poetry. His love of the stage reveals itself in Na de nachttrein (After the Night Train, 1988), where, together with more figures from Greek mythology, Hamlet makes his entrance. What makes Hamlet so fascinating is that he too is an actor, forcing the actor who plays him to chase his own identity down a hall of mirrors:
Though acting, he was not the one
he was acting. He was pretending to act.
This balance between acting as action, as creating one’s own identity, and acting as playing a role, has come to play an increasingly prominent role in Otten’s poetry. Over time, the fascination with nature which marked his early verse has turned inwards in an effort to solve the riddle of identity, the riddle of thought itself. Otten always focuses on the cusp, the threshold, the ungraspable instant a hair’s - breadth before awareness. In a famous formulation from Ik zoek het hier (I Seek it Here, 1980), he called it:
The virgin thought
that comes before the idea,
and survives it.
He is interested not in thought not as product, but in thought as process, ‘the mulled indecision of thinking’. Its fascination lies in the very fact that it cannot be grasped: ‘poetry, my poetry, is based on a basic lack of understanding inside the head’. Hence Otten’s work also has a social dimension. What he says about poetry also holds true for art in general: ‘Poetry’s rationale lies in robbing people of certainty. Anything that complicates things makes them uncertain.’ Hence he resists easy solutions, looking instead at the spaces in between: the spaces between ourselves and our selves, between our thinking and our thoughts, between what seems and what we see.