The poetry of J.H. Leopold
O richness of the incomplete
From the outset, in the ‘Six Christ poems’ series that marked his debut in De Nieuwe Gids in 1893, J.H. Leopold called for a new attitude towards reading. The very first line, ‘Stammen vragen naar een vreemd ding’ (‘Trunks are questioning a strange thing’), was something readers found it hard to make head or tail of. And the series as a whole was characterised by ambiguity and a complex wealth of linguistic components.
Leopold saw the light in poetry thanks to the experiments made by Herman Gorter in his Verses 1890, but against Gorter’s ‘life of sensations’, Leopold – although also a master in the evocation of sensations – set a ‘stream of thoughts’, something he himself referred to as ‘dreaming thinking’. As such, his longer poems in particular are related to Keats’ odes and to Wallace Stevens, who is close to Leopold in his examination of solipsism.
Especially in his monumental but always still fluid longer poems, such as ‘Of wine a drop’, ‘Cheops’ and ‘Child’s Party’, Leopold is first and foremost a poet, sensual and musical, plastic and keenly sensitive, although he also develops notions to do with the relationship between the I and the world, language and thought, order and chaos that foreshadow poststructuralism.
The distinctive and intriguing thing about Leopold’s use of language is the fusion of music, eroticism and philosophy that makes practically every word brim over with meanings. Against this fluid nature of his poems, Leopold, in his adaptations of Persian and Arabic poets, placed more rigid forms in order to support his vision of the futility of existence. Despite this futility, the poet in his last period – as the magnificent uncompleted poems show – still sought for epiphanies, by the grace of language.