The poetry of Alfred Schaffer
Cool recording of unsettling observations
Unrest. Anxiety. Suspicion. Curiosity. This was the young Dutch poet Alfred Schaffer’s response to the question as to what motivated him as a poet. Schaffer is rightly regarded as one of the most interesting young poets in the Dutch-language region.
His poems are characterized by the cool, business-like tone with which he records unsettling observations. It is seldom that one idea or one observation is elaborated right to the end. ‘It is not my aim to work out a line of coherent thought in a poem,’ he says in the same interview. ‘Life itself is not coherent, my poetry is oriented toward articulating something of this diffusion.’ He achieves this by describing several fragments and details of scenes and situations. ‘You could refer to my poems as “collages?.
I’m concerned with the experiment with language and significance, with the way in which words influence one another when they are placed in a certain context.’ Schaffer provides a snapshot but never an entire panorama. As a consequence, his poems have a strongly alienating effect. They offer the reader little to hold on to in an attempt to formulate a sound interpretation (in the traditional meaning of the word) and thus often evoke a feeling of unease.
Nevertheless, the rapid switch between apparently incoherent fragments does not lead to a kind of non-committal poetry. The procedure applied by the poet does result in a coherent whole. This is not narrative poetry but rather expressive poetry. Although the things described have a positive correlation with our own everyday lives (many lines have even been adopted from everyday language use, including sayings and jargon), Schaffer creates a completely strange and alienating language in his poetry. It is a world in which people are frequently watched or monitored, and one in which it is impossible to clarify the surroundings. It is a world that most resembles a claustrophobic nightmare.
In Schaffer’s first two collections, this world is primarily described via various characters who are helpless playthings of events and circumstances. In his oppressive last collection Geen hand voor ogen, where the poems have become more austere in their form, the focus is shifted from the characters to the reader (and perhaps the poet himself), so that this confusion and despair are given shape in a very direct manner.