Kees Ouwens

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.

It is his uncompromising authenticity which makes him an odd man out on the Dutch literary scene, but one who has fascinated poetry lovers for decades already.

Rob Schouten

I love his precision, his unflinching language. He drills down with his words, cutting right down to the bone. Stunning, circuitous and yet entirely purposeful, his writing is dazzling in its scope, evoking the smallest details from everyday life, the most minute ripples in our consciousness and the greatest unfathomables of human thought.

Erik Menkveld

I was a man, not a boy any more

So I was a product of the final year of the war and grew
up during reconstruction
Later I dwelt in abundance’s house of cards
Beneath the roof of illusion I took shelter
In the lee of the affluent state I frittered away my time
till I wasn’t a boy any more but a man and
although I rejected the latter state
the cards were shuffled once more
the house was demolished and my mature self grew

(Translated by Paul Vincent)


Kees Ouwens

Kees Ouwens (1944-2004) is one of the most important and distinctive Dutch poets from the second half of the 20th century. No biography of him exists, and we don’t know much about his life. Ouwens grew up in Zeist and spent much of his life in relative seclusion in a suburb of Utrecht. When he…

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De poëzie van Kees Ouwens . Poetry.

Themes: classic


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Meulenhoff Boekerij

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NL - 1096 BC Amsterdam
The Netherlands
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