The poetry of Kees Ouwens
Exceptional, uncompromising, lyrical: a solipsistic universe of wonder
At the time of Ouwens’s debut, Arcadia (1968), his poetry was neoromantic in tone. Using simple language, it revealed a sardonic young man – obsessed with his body and having almost completely shrugged off his Catholicism – wandering around in the vicinity of his childhood home in search of meaning. But in the collections that followed, his language became increasingly complex, his idiom increasingly rich and distinct, until ultimately he emerged as a fully-fledged experimental poet.
God disappeared from his work – just as he was also being eclipsed elsewhere in the secularizing Netherlands – and gave way to light, for example the light above the Scheldt River near Vlissingen: ‘…the water that runs away to the sea green / like an Eden, the upstreaming light carried / by the water which is light.’
The exploration of nature as an attempt to counter an existential feeling of rootlessness remains a constant in his work, along with rapt attention to sensory detail and physical sensations. Ouwens developed an exalted, cerebral, almost Testament-like language for his rigorous self-enquiry, a language filled with nominalizations – one of the hallmarks of Ouwens’ style.
He manipulates language expertly, creating something potent and entirely new. Every time you think he’s run up against the limits, he manages to come up with a brilliant turn of phrase – as if a dead- end road is torn up by sheer force of will. It makes you want to keep coming back to this exceptional, uncompromising work.