Essay

Tatjana Daan

Young poets, packed houses

30 maart 2006

They were on either side of forty, the poets who passed for the ‘young guard’ of Dutch poetry in the mid-eighties. Huub Beurskens, Willem Jan Otten, Robert Anker, Anneke Brassinga, Stefan Hertmans, Luuk Gruwez, Charles Ducal. For many years they had been regarded as the newest generation of gifted poets. But in the late nineties things began to change, and today’s ‘young poets’ are no longer in their forties, but in their twenties and thirties. In another development, the mid-nineties saw a revival of interest in poetry performances in Holland and Flanders. Poems were no longer read in seclusion, which had previously been seen as the only way to enjoy poetry.

While this rejuvenation did not lead to a significant increase in the print run of poetry anthologies, it did result in larger audiences for poetry readings on stage and via the media, both old and new. With the arrival of these young poets and the many new podiums open to them, the public began to revise their image of poets as elderly, sedate and inward-looking. Today poetry is no longer seen as deadly dull or obscure and inaccessible, but rather as an open, lively, and dynamic art form, in which both older and younger poets are given their due.

Street Noise

In the late eighties a group of poets emerged who loudly proclaimed that Dutch poetry had become overly focused on the white spaces on the page. The Maximals, as they were known, felt that poets had become obsessed by a paradoxical longing for the absence of language. For these ‘white poets’, as they dubbed them, language existed primarily as form, having almost ceased to function as a means of communication. The Maximals, in the person of Joost Zwagerman, denounced minimalism and ‘precision still lifes’, calling for more ‘street noise’ in poetry. They wanted to do away with the respectable, reflective, academic and linguistic poetry of the day, which was all about escaping from mortality, and called for a return to what Lucebert called ‘the space represented by life in full’.

Despite the media hype surrounding their plea, it drew no immediate response, and as we entered the nineties, it seemed that little had changed in the landscape of Dutch poetry. In 1993 the Verzamelde gedichten (Collected poems) of Hans Faverey (1933-1990) appeared, and the collection Een geur van verbrande veren (The scent of burnt feathers) by Gerrit Kouwenaar (1923) was published. These two poets served as models for the white poets so vilified by the Maximals. Their countermovement could not alter the fact that Faverey’s collected poems sold a record number of copies, and that not only was Kouwenaar’s collection extremely well received, his star continued to rise in the years that followed, with the publication of such impressive collections as de tijd staat open (Time is open, 1996) and totaal witte kamer (Totally white room, 2003).

Association and the unexpected

And yet something did change in Dutch poetry around 1990. A number of remarkable poets appeared on the scene: K. Michel (1958), Arjen Duinker (1956), Elma van Haren (1954), Tonnus Oosterhoff (1953), and Nachoem Wijnberg (1961). All were around thirty when they debuted, and despite the fact that they never actually constituted a group, these newcomers had an innovative effect on Dutch poetry. They expressed their wonderment at everyday life and everyday language with a mix of gravity and playfulness, often by means of a kind of alienating logic. Their language is not expressly dense; in fact there is an ordinary, even absurd quality to it, while in the structure of the poems an important role is reserved for association and the unexpected. This explains the freshness and openness which is characteristic of their work, no matter how different and individualistic they are. They have been called ‘postmodern’, but they themselves have rejected such labels.

In Flanders a number of poets who made their debut around 1990 do fit into the ‘non-tradition’ of postmodernism: on the one hand, the cerebral Dirk van Bastelaere (1960) and Erik Spinoy (1960), on the other hand, Peter Verhelst (1962), whose language is sensual and erotic. The work of these poets was decidedly less accessible, and in the late nineties other poets also opted for ‘deconstructive’ or ‘poststructuralist’ poetry. In its structure, the work of Marc Kregting (1965), Astrid Lampe (1955), and Miguel Declercq (1976) is conceptually associative, in the sense that associations give the impression of being constructed, even forced, in contrast to the more or less naturally associative poetry of someone like Oosterhoff. The liberal climate for poetry in Holland was in stark contrast to the atmosphere in neighbouring Flanders, where a heated poetry debate was raging in which ideological criticism and cultural politics played a major role. According to Van Bastelaere and the Flemish-oriented Kregting, there can be no true poetry without the battle over ‘schools of thought’, and they denounced the neutralizing nature of criticism in Holland.

The oral tradition

But like the ‘white poets’, the ‘postmoderns’ were unable to attract a wider audience for poetry, and in the course of the nineties a new influence made itself felt. Where poets had increasingly placed their trust in the written word as the prime medium for poetry, the younger generation rediscovered the oral tradition. They recited their poetry from memory, turned their presentations into theatrical performances and, in some cases, even took to improvising their readings. It was around this time that the American phenomenon of the poetry slam first manifested itself in Holland, an event during which poets vie with one another to see who can put on the best on-stage performance. The first poetry slam in Holland took place in two small cafés in Amsterdam and, as in other European countries, the slammers were soon performing throughout the provinces as well. In the early years of the twenty-first century collections of poems by the most successful performers on the slam circuit were already being published, notably Erik Jan Harmens (1970), Sieger M. Geertsma (1979), Daniël Dee (1975).

But even before then, another performer had started giving readings of the work of the new young poets. He was Ruben van Gogh (1967), also known as ‘the Language Man’. And in 1999 Van Gogh, who began his career as a poetry performer in a small circus, published Sprong naar de sterren (Leap to the stars). He is not part of the slam circuit, nor are such other talented poets as Hagar Peeters (1972), Ingmar Heytze (1970), Ramsey Nasr (1974) - also an actor - and Menno Wigman (1966), whose work is inspired by Baudelaire. But all of them share a preference for poetry that is immediately accessible, is presented on stage with considerable verve and reflects a highly personal style. Their work features rhyme or some other play of sound, and is often metric, with a narrative structure or an elaborated theme: in other words, tried and true forms, contemporary content, and an experimental flair.

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer (1968) is a master of the booming presentation, but he has distanced himself from ‘comprehensible’ poets like Peeters and Heytze by insisting that poetry must be difficult. He has a penchant for ‘poems with bulimia’, full of scintillating images. In fact, Pfeijffer is seen as the most successful Maximal après la lettre . But like the battle cries of the Maximals in a previous era, Pfeijffer’s calls have had little effect, although they have evoked considerable response.

Open to many forms

In Holland the various poets appear to be quite happy with the differences between them. Around the turn of the century an impressive list of interesting younger poets claimed a place alongside those mentioned above: Mustafa Stitou (1974), Alfred Schaffer (1973), Mark Boog (1970), Erik Lindner (1968), Victor Schiferli (1967), Erwin Mortier (1965), René Puthaar (1964), Erik Menkveld (1959), Esther Jansma (1958), Anne Vegter (1958), Piet Gerbrandy (1958) and Marjoleine de Vos (1957). Thus far they have not grouped together, but rather followed their own individual programmes. What they have in common is an inventive approach to language and a personal, off-beat handling of grammar and semantics which, internationally speaking, is quite exceptional. Clearly, the yoke of minimalism against which the Maximals railed has been thrown off. Poetry has been transformed into a space in which the lofty and the banal go hand in hand, a space from which no theme and no language register is excluded.

It is noteworthy that this period also saw the publication of a number of collections featuring the work of major older poets, including Remco Campert, Hugo Claus, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Willem Jan Otten, Huub Beurskens, Eva Gerlach, Jan Eijkelboom, Luuk Gruwez, Eddy van Vliet (1942-2002), Toon Tellegen, Rutger Kopland, Frank Koenegracht, Anna Enquist, Herman de Coninck (1944-1997), Gerrit Komrij, Willem van Toorn, Elly de Waard, Stefaan van der Bremt, Leo Vroman, Jules Deelder, Harry ter Balkt and Kees Ouwens. Moreover, all of them were also publishing new work. The arrival of the young poets did not displace the older ones: on the contrary, they have all become performers on the same poetry stage, which is now open to so many new forms.

A tremendous expansion

Today there is enormous interest in poetry on the part of the Dutch and Flemish media. While in France a new collection by a well-known poet attracts notice only in literary journals, an interesting Dutch-language debut is often the subject of several reviews in major newspapers and newsmagazines. Poets are again appearing on stage, and new podiums for poetry are being created, not only in theatres and cafés, but also in the media and on Internet. Without doubt these two - interrelated - facts have contributed to the more open poetry landscape which began to take shape during the nineties.

Moreover, in both usage and subject matter, the art of poetry has undergone a tremendous expansion. As a result of these developments, poetry is no longer relegated to a far corner of the better bookshops. The tradition of an art which focuses on the written word, and which caters mainly to an audience of readers, is moving full steam ahead. But thanks to the poets who have focused on a listening audience, poetry is no longer primarily the realm of literary specialists and academics. It has become more visible and appeals to a wider audience, while the ‘older’ and ‘oldest’ generations of poets are still regular performers. Dutch poetry has entered the new millennium as a refreshing, diverse, and dynamic art which is enjoyed by readers and listeners alike.

About the author

Tatjana Daan (1966) studied Dutch at university, and was the co-ordinator of the Stichting Literaire Activiteiten (Foundation for Literary Activities) in Amsterdam for several years. From 1996 to 2003, she was the director of the Poetry International Foundation. She has been living in southern France since October 2003, and currently carries out freelance assignments for various organizations and publishers in the Netherlands. She also works as a translator of French literature into Dutch.

They were on either side of forty, the poets who passed for the ‘young guard’ of Dutch poetry in the mid-eighties. Huub Beurskens, Willem Jan Otten, Robert Anker, Anneke Brassinga, Stefan Hertmans, Luuk Gruwez, Charles Ducal. For many years they had been regarded as the newest generation of gifted poets. But in the late nineties things began to change, and today’s ‘young poets’ are no longer in their forties, but in their twenties and thirties.