The poetry of Martinus Nijhoff
Enigmatic worlds concealed behind simplicity
The poetry of Martinus Nijhoff possesses an intoxicated clarity that conceals enigmatic worlds behind its ostensible simplicity. His debut collection De wandelaar (The Walker, 1915) appeared during the First World War, which the poet experienced as a mobilized soldier in the neutral Netherlands. The book was immediately received as being different and modern.
Without actually mentioning the war by name, the poetry radiates an ambience of upheaval, anxiety and alienation, restrained by all kinds of masking mechanisms and artificial poses. The poems are extremely expressive: a world is sharply drawn in the space of a few words: a factual account. The verse form is traditional but experiments with bold dissonants and refined counterrhythms are taking place within. We find a neo-classic modernism akin to that of Stravinsky (Nijhoff translated l’Histoire du soldat) and Picasso. Nijhoff was familiar with international modernism: he stayed in Paris regularly in the 1920s and followed artistic developments there closely. As an influential critic he developed an anti-romantic, modernist outlook on literature that displays a correspondence with the poetics of Paul Valéry and T.S. Eliot: poetry is not an expression of emotion but rather an autonomous organism that the poet constructs with the application of all his or her technical ingenuity; the substance is generated by the language itself during the creative process. In his second collection Vormen (Forms, 1924), Nijhoff examines the limits of poetry itself: it is the only instrument that can say more than is possible in normal language and thus functions as an alternative religion in a world in which every bond has disappeared. At the same time, there is the paradox that once the indescribable has been touched upon in a poem, it evaporates. His third book, Nieuwe gedichten (New Poems, 1934), written during the great economic crisis, wishes to redirect poetry to more earthly matters and give it a function there: the secret can only be found here and now, but it remains intact. The highlight of the collection is the narrative poem Awater, which can be regarded as a response to Eliot’s The Waste Land. The poem evokes a surrealist atmosphere and is full of references to world literature. It is an exploration of the modern world, but the purport remains ambiguous, as if often the case in Nijhoff’s work. Nijhoff is a master in presenting a vivid mystery that, in an apparently self-evident articulation, consistently challenges one to formulate new interpretations. His poetry has continued to fascinate readers right down to the present day and seems to function time and again as a point of orientation for new poets.