Paul Demets

A Walk on the Wild Square

30 May 1996

In the essay ‘A Walk on the Wild Square’ Paul Demets strolls around in the poetic landscape of the 1980s and 1990s. Demets is a poetry critic for the Flemish daily De Morgen. He contributes regularly to literary journals (Awater en Ons Erfdeel) and writes poetry (De papegaaienziekte, Meulenhoff, 1999 and De bloedplek, De Bezige Bij, 2012.

In the poem ‘Carillon’ from Het wilde plein (‘The Wild Square’, an anthology of the work of Tomas Tranströmer translated by J. Bernlef) the poet stays in a filthy hotel in Bruges, the Flemish Venice of the North, and looks out the window:

Outside a pedestrian street moves past with slow tourists, quick schoolchildren, men in working clothes, pushing rattling cycles. Those who think they make the world revolve and those who think they’re spinning helplessly in the grip of the earth. A street we all walk down, where does it lead? The room’s only window looks out on some thing else: The Wild Square, a seething patch of ground, a great trembling expanse, now full of people, now empty.

This poem could serve as a metaphor for the colourful turmoil found in Dutch-language poetry at the moment. Poets of all ages, with widely differing poetics, move past, wander round the square, sit on a terrace to get a better view. Others seem to be absorbed in animated conversation with themselves or prefer to survey events from behind glass.


Oddly enough, we see intense interaction between Flemings and Dutchmen. Things - so they say - were different at an earlier stage in the history of poetry: the differences that many critics are so fond of quoting manifested themselves at the end of the 1970s and particularly in the 1980s. After all, Flemings live in Belgium, a country that did not become independent until 1830, and besides, it is only more or less since the Second World War that Flemings have been able to speak their own language at school and at work. Before that it was bon ton to speak French, if one had any intellectual pretensions. Consequently the Flemish use a slightly different idiom from their northern neighbours. Flemings have a more plastic, more ‘baroque’ style because they admit more dialect influences. The Dutch generally speak and write the standard language. At the same time the spirit of Calvinism pervades it: sobriety is king. From this, in the view of the critics, there evolved a different approach to and use of language in poetry.

At the end of the 1970s and particularly in the first half of the 1980s Dutch poets like T. van Deel, J. Bernlef, Ad Zuiderent, Ed Leeflang, J. Eijkelboom and Eva Gerlach published collections which were formally striking: short, measured lines, with frequent use of rhyme. Meanwhile some of the prominent Flemings (Eddy van Vliet, Luuk Gruwez, and particularly Leonard Nolens) were producing much wordier poetry, and were not bothered about an adjective more or less.

In the second half of the 1980s the latter poets became less interested in publishing their work in Flanders - in fact Eddy van Vliet had long since decamped to a Dutch publisher - because some companies discontinued their poetry lists or were simply forced out of business. (At this moment, apart from the Poetry Centre - which is based in Ghent and besides a publishing business houses a marvellous documentation centre for Flemish and Dutch poetry and foreign poetry in translation - there are only three publishers in Flanders still concerned with poetry.) This is why the most important authors switched to the Netherlands. Some critics in Flanders were upset, because they felt that these poets were adapting too far to northern ‘norms’ in their work. Leonard Nolens did indeed begin writing in a more disciplined style, but that only enhanced the confessional tone he aims for. Moreover, the playful, ironic quality and rich imagery of Flemish poetry thoroughly penetrated Dutch writing, as is clear from the work of the poets to be found in our square.


Let us begin by asserting that the whole question of differences between Flemish and Dutch poetry is in fact incidental and can often be reduced to a matter of form. We shall say nothing more about the resurfacing of the square or landscaping. Certainly at present Flemish and Dutch poets are walking along in fraternal harmony. Anna Enquist, currently one of the most popular Dutch-language poets in our language area, writes more baroque and hence more fundamentally Flemish poems than anyone dares to write in Flanders nowadays. She made her debut in 1991 with Soldatenliederen (Soldiers’ Songs), when she was already forty-six, and it was as if that language had been locked up in her all that time, and simply had to find a way out in all its intensity. They are often reports from an ‘unbridled home front’ and for that reason her poems speak directly to the imagination. The ‘birthday girl’ from the collection Jachtscènes (Hunting Scenes, 1992) seems to be a metaphor for her poetic method:

A birthday girl stands guarding her language,
feet in grass. Wind thunders by, blood
stands still, the candles burn straight. A breathless
wait till the storm subsides in her.

Eddy van Vliet, in contrast to his earlier work, certainly since the collection Jaren na maart (Years After March, 1983), has begun writing in a more sober vein. Indeed, in his Zoals in een fresco de kleur (As in a Fresco the Colour, 1996) he achieves a classical, symbolist tone which makes his most recent volume a highpoint in contemporary Dutch-language poetry. In it we see a true melancholic at work: the poet is Icarus, as in the poem by the same name from Zoals in een fresco de kleur, who can spread his wings for a moment but is irrevocably shrivelled up by that pride:

He greets the bearer of light. For a moment.
And he dances, dances till his remains
stick to the candle. Luuk Gruwez has evolved from emphatically stylized poetry to a more subdued aestheticism, in which he writes compassionately about people and places ravaged by time. His poems, collected in Bandeloze gedichten (Boundless Poems, 1996) are sometimes reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht.

Rich Flemish imagery

The influence of rich Flemish imagery and wayward form can certainly be felt in young Dutch poets like Pieter Boskma, Arjen Duinker, Benno Barnard, Nachoem Wijnberg and Elma van Haren. Their poems are often long, expansive, with lines that seem to roll over the page, or sometimes fan out in fragments across it. Their main objective seems to be to evoke the mythical and mystical dimensions of reality. With them one finds no neo-Symbolist perspective, as in the verse of T. van Deel, Ed Leeflang, J. Eijkelboom, Willem van Toorn and Eva Gerlach, who proceed from close observation of the real world and go on to recreate those elements in a poetic reality. Perhaps Boskma, Duinker, Wijnberg and Van Haren took their cue from the baroque poetry of the Flemings Hugues C. Pernath and Leonard Nolens.

Leonard Nolens (photo Ludo Geysels) Leonard Nolens (photo Ludo Geysels)

In the 1960s Pernath was the leader of the Antwerp Pink Poets’ Society, a group of artists who favoured a dandyesque lifestyle. He wrote unruly poetry, using overblown sentences to express his misanthropy and preoccupation with the thought of death and the impossibility of harmonious communication through language. Leonard Nolens was certainly influenced by Pernath: in his work too we find a pessimistic view of life and existential impotence, which - until his debut with his Dutch publisher, De gedroomde figuur (The Dreamed Figure, 1986), after a number of under-valued publications in Flanders - he celebrated in swelling imagery, obstinately allowing rhetorical devices like paradox to clash. He still invokes ‘a singing, sobbing voice’, but his recent verse is more restrained in tone. Nevertheless he is one of the most impressive poets writing at the moment, as the anthology Hart tegen hart (Heart Against Heart, 1992) proves.

Foreign colleagues

The poets walking around the Wild Square often meet foreign colleagues. They seem to have derived their philosophising tone, the juxtaposition of seemingly unconnected images, the length of their poems and the changes in perspective from the Swedish poets Tomas Tranströmer and Lars Gustafsson, from the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade and the most important contemporary American poet, John Ashbery.

Benno Barnard has certainly undergone the influence of Flemish expansiveness. Since this Dutch poet settled in Flanders, he has gradually abandoned the formal constraints and the sparing use of language, which nevertheless made his collection Het meer in mij (The Lake in Me, 1986) such an event. De schipbreukeling (The Shipwrecked Sailor, 1996) is a long, haunting poem in which Barnard encounters the Odysseus-like seaman Garcia and the city of Antwerp. Both become alter egos, which he must use to sharpen his sense of his own existence. The poet enlarges everything:

Further, further south a gigantic wheel shovelled
sons of men full of chips
fear of death and fruitfulness:
the fair had descended on its annual quays and the heartbeat of pop songs excited Antwerp.
And I, a man of forty, rode
around on my flying horse and surveyed the world without feeling love - I acted like a child
and left a tail behind.

Barnard is well underway to become the T.S. Eliot of the Low Countries.

Boskma and Duinker

Pieter Boskma’s 1997 collection In de naam (In the Name) comprises poems of varying length that he himself calls ‘songs’. At any rate the language sings and flows, in an attempt to confront the acute lack of love, which blossoms in all its intensity for just a moment. He does admit some irony, rhetoric and contemporary images:

He heard the syncope of the chorus of high heels
in the foundation of the gables which had been silent for centuries, proudly leaning, to see their golden shapes in the canal water. Theodorus knew better.
Gold was exchanged for silver, the ducats chattered behind each pair of sunglasses in the blond-dyed Porsches
and on bikes the bronze of levelling jingled. A universe of possession and the whole world a usurer.

‘De uren’ (The Hours) from Het uur van de droom (The Hour of the Dream, 1996) by Arjen Duinker is a similar long poem which with broad wing beats glides between contemporary realism and a reality with a mythical and mystical feel. An anonymous figure observes life in a square and eagerly absorbs all the influences. It produces at once an unbridled self-awareness and an ecstatic feeling of detachment in the narrator:

There I go,
that I stroll
As never before, proud
Of the necessity outside me.

Past reality

Elma van Haren also makes a slightly exalted impression in her poems: she fights for the protection of the poetic space which brushes past reality. It makes reality sparkle in a mysterious way, embedded as it is in a world of associations, assonances and alliterations. It is the ‘sing-kiss of words’ that gives Grondstewardess (Ground Stewardess, 1996) wings. So the poet moves between nature and culture, but that does not bring permanent liberation. Elma van Haren knows that poetry, like a match flame can only light things up for a moment, till one looks transience in the eye.

I have a box of matches in my hand.
It’s in there,
straight, enslaved, in straight ranks,
a tiny field of poplars.
I stand under the dripping trees,
strike one
Light! I salute you.

Nachoem M. Wijnberg writes the strangest poetry of the young poets who use an anarchic form in pursuing a heightened course beyond reality: in the space of a few years he has built up a world of his own which generates a web of thought patterns full of melancholy. The lyrical ‘I’ splits itself into all kinds of characters, as if wishing to celebrate the death of the subject. Figures are given only outlines and seem to want to escape even those. In his very first collection De simulatie van de schepping (The Simulation of Creation, 1989) Wijnberg noted:

If a man has travelled
on a train with a second man and that
second man dies the other
receives the rest of his life.

Judith Herzberg (photo Chris van Houts)Judith Herzberg (photo Chris van Houts)

What is striking about Judith Herzberg’s work is the almost complete lack of normal logic which she displays in her poems. Through linguistic intervention, which sometimes assumes a stubborn, stuttering quality, she constructs a world of her own: ‘First comes the waiting, the looking forward’, leaning against low walls, / then comes a premonition of /what-next / / then the what-next / itself.’ In this way Herzberg writes highly individual poetry which is hard to categorise and contains echoes of foreign influences. Last year, Judith Herzberg was awarded the P.C. Hooft Prize for her poems, one of the most prestigious prizes to be awarded in the Dutch language area.

Cees Nooteboom (photo: Simone Sassen)

Cees Nooteboom (photo Simone Sassen)

Cees Nooteboom is hard to pin down, because he has the reputation - especially as the author of brilliant philosophical travel essays - of being a mellifluous, rhetorical poet, while as an observer he constantly complicates what he sees. He distances himself in an idiosyncratic poetic universe and from that distance lets one image evoke another, as in his wonderful collection Het gezicht van het oog (The Face of the Eye, 1989):

Whoever does not
repeats what is seen
lays an egg in the nest
of the dove
as nature does.
I am not nature
my ragged stockade
has no law
than what I have found.

Linguistic worlds

Another argument to prove that the traditional division between the characteristics of Flemish and Dutch poetry seems to be a thing of the past: under the influence of the pioneering work of the Dutch poet Hans Faverey (1933-1990) a generation of poets developed in Flanders and the Netherlands which could be characterised as post-modern. Faverey created an impressive oeuvre in which he emerged as a poet of immanent language who broke through the linear, communicative character of traditional poetry by using paradoxes - the pre-Socratic natural philosophers left clear traces in his work - tautologies and ellipses. In his laconic way he attacked the disappearance of space and time, while he built an almost music al structure into his poems, making his poetry increasingly open and hence simpler to interpret. But Faverey remained suspicious of a one-sided recovery of reality:

There’s not much more than here
Ideas are much like memories;

and most memories go up in smoke,
long before their foretaste.

Precisely the thing-ness in the fleeting
deceives. Even the real does not exist as it occurs;
as when I get up and walk over to you
and become elapsed in the scent of all that dark hair,
a plume of smoke, an echo
of nothing but this same once, this never
this then from before you existed.

One could describe the poems of Faverey as one of the most recent hinges between reality-oriented and autonomous poetry: because of the evolution he completed, it is in fact pointless to pin him down to one of those two directions.

The pendulum swing

In fact for the last century the grandfather clock in the living room of Dutch poetry has seen the pendulum swing between l’art pour l’art (the 80s Movement at the end of the last century) and the central focus on commitment and personality (the magazine Forum in the years before the Second World War); between modernism and experiment (the 50s Movement) and the restoration of tradition (the return of the sonnet in the 1970s).

Lucebert (photo Chris van Houts) Lucebert (photo Chris van Houts)

Faverey and the other poets presented here as prominent - Hugo Claus, Christine D’Haen, Rutger Kopland, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Lucebert, Leonard Nolens and Kees Ouwens - are innately suspicious of the reality in their poems. That reality is present, but as an undercurrent in an autonomous linguistic world. However, with the exception of Claus and Ouwens these figures are not post-modern poets, because they still believe in the homogeneity of the linguistic worlds they create. The reconciliation between reality-oriented and autonomous poetry meant that Rutger Kopland and J. Bernlef increasingly relegated the narrative character of their poems to the background. An excellent translator, Bernlef introduced such figures as Tomas Tranströmer, Lars Gustafsson, John Ashbery and Francis Ponge to our language area, and that has certainly influenced his work. From a realism that admitted only minimal dislocations, it evolved into a poetry about the constant dislocations in thought, action, speech and the alienating way in which things present themselves to us. That evolution can be nicely traced in Bernlef’s collection Achter de rug. Gedichten 1960-1990 (Over and Done. Poems 1960-1990, 1997). Rutger Kopland combines in a unique way the laconic, hesitating and thoughtful - all characteristic features of contemporary Dutch-language poetry - in the volumes Dankzij de dingen (Thanks to the Things, 1989) and Geduldig gereedschap (Patient Tools, 1993).

Herman de Coninck Herman de Coninck (photo Herman Selleslags)

Even Herman de Coninck (1944-1997), who especially in Flanders owed his reputation to the realistic poetry of his early years, became increasingly interested in the tensile strength of language. Especially since his collection De hectaren van het geheugen (The Hectares of Memory, 1985), his poetry became a striking investigation of how words undertake their own search for meaning. In that way he tried to fit the large into the small, eternity into the present ‘[…] as water swims to beat itself / in the sprint, an arm triumphantly aloft, and then another and another; / just as all the water in the world rushes/ to finish before the time limit / of eternity: like now.’

Gerrit Kouwenaar and Kees Ouwens, two typical ‘language’ poets distanced themselves in turn from the objectiveness of their earlier work. Kees Ouwens uses the language to describe the indescribable in an expansive, virtuoso manner. He offers the reader a range of impressions and personal sensations in an imploring idiom that is all his own. His two collections Afdankingen (Dismissals, 1996) and Van de verliezer & de lichtbron (Of the Loser and the Light Source, 1997) tower above the contemporary poetic landscape as strange, static monuments of fascinating brilliance.

Hugo Claus (photo Gerald Dauphin) Hugo Claus (photo Gerald Dauphin)

Hugo Claus and Lucebert are the authors of such stubbornly individual poems, which expose a permanently intriguing masquerade, that they seem elevated far above the traditional dichotomy. The poetry of Claus in particular is an unparalleled monument to the defiant, self-relativising nature of poetry in Flanders and the Netherlands. Confessional poetry full of imagery, classical poems full of erudite references to other authors, styles, art forms or doggerel in which he toys with his own virtuosity: you name it and we’ll do you a collection. In the hands of Claus, reality takes on the strange glow of a beautiful lie.

Frankenstein poems

The notion that poetry cannot be a carbon copy of reality brings us by way of Faverey’s legacy to the post-modern poets. They are the figures behind glass surveying the square. Because of their interesting vision, they are dearer to my heart than the Maximalist or the house poets. A few years ago the Maximalists were striving for more street noise in poetry, but they also showed that even the linguistic reality of poetry is not homogenous. Impurity and fragmentation open the way to the public, the absent and the sublime.

In the collection Susette (1990), Erik Spinoy stages an intellectual game with Hölderlin and his beloved Susette Gontard in order to arrive at an alienating, melancholy positioning of himself. The earthly and the sublime alternate, as in Fratsen (Whims, 1993), in which he makes visible ironically that which never can be: ‘The word dies / and then gives light / just as the scales of the fish / only shine / when it’s on dry land.’

Dirk van Bastelaere made an immediate impression when he evoked a fragmented sense of life in his debut collection Vijf jaar (Five Years, 1984). In Pornschlegel en andere gedichten (Pornschlegel and Other Poems, 1988) he demythologised the subject, and in Diep in Amerika (Deep Inside America, 1994) ended up by undermining language itself. Here the meaning of the words seems to be directed inwards, but they are rescued by their formality. The poetry of Dirk van Bastelaere and more generally that of all post-modern poets met with considerable resis tance a few years ago. At the beginning of the 1990s publishers and critics were not yet reconciled to a poetry which creates a distance from itself and from the reader.

Benno Barnard, who in 1987 wrote an enthusiastic introduction to the anthology Twist met ons (Argue With Us), in which Van Bastelaere, Spinoy, Charles Ducal and Bernard Dewulf were introduced as a new, promising generation, was suddenly scathingly critical of Diep in Amerika: ‘a manual for constructing monsters, zombies, Frankenstein poems.’ For Barnard post-modernist poetry is a haunted castle, because this approach evokes emptiness. ‘Because there is absence / there is // poetry,’ writes Van Bastelaere.

It is not surprising that the poetry of Peter Verhelst should meet with even greater resistance: in Master (1992) and particularly in Verhemelte (Palate, 1996) he makes language sparkle like a glitterball in a discotheque scattering random beams. Destruction and seduction are intended to lead to a sexless body. With a reference to Icarus and the Dutch artist Rob Scholte, who lost both legs in an attempt on his life, the poet explodes all meaning in language in anarchic lines. In doing so Verhelst may have gone beyond the post-modernist poem, as appears from this ironic fragment from Verhemelte: ‘Look, you say, / and you point; a Rohrschach test, a post-modernist poem / swims out across the floor.’

Stefan Hertmans Stefan Hertmans

The poetry of Stefan Hertmans, like that of his Dutch kindred spirit Huub Beurskens, has already begun to receive critical and popular recognition. From the collection Bezoekingen (Ordeals, 1988) onwards Stefan Hertmans’ poetry has become more transparent, certainly in comparison with the concentrated poetry of his debut collection Ademzuil (Column of Breath, 1984). Still he remains preoccupied with reconciling paradoxes - it is no accident that his last collection but one, a positioning of the poet in relation to sensuality, love and parting, is entitled Francesco’s paradox (1995) - and with formulating the ineffable. Stasis and movement, coagul ation and fluidity, vitality and transience, are the themes which have always dominated his work. His unique combination of revel ation and suppression, rapprochement and distance in relation to his themes, make him one of the most important younger poets in our language area.

Huub Beurskens Huub Beurskens (photo Roeland Fossen)

Huub Beurskens can be regarded as Hertmans’ equal, because a ‘vital melancholy’ has permeated his work, produced by lines of great physicality which are imbued with allusions and suggestions, which refuse to yield their secrets in an unambiguous way. Beurskens’ poetry, which reached a high point with the collection Iets zo eenvoudigs (Something So Simple, 1995), is strongly reminiscent of the baroque language of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with images tripping over each other. Chaos theory with its fractals and catastrophes peeps over the poem’s shoulder. The Dutch writers Tonnus Oosterhoff, Anneke Brassinga and Marc Reugebrink are also striking because of the melancholy attachment to things which echoes in the linguistic material, by subverting unambiguous mean ings and particularly through the sometimes hidden and angular musicality.

Poetics of disappearance

Irony is perhaps the feature which provides the most powerful proof that Flemish and Dutch poetry are more closely linked than one might imagine at first sight. Our poetry is not arrogant, static or purely reflective. Most poets incorporate shifts in meaning and prefer to state things with reservation. That may have to do with the fact that Flemings and Dutchmen do not make a big deal of their identity: except when their national team has won an important match or if they run into one another on a foreign camping ground, they are quick to relativise themselves.

Gerrit Komrij (photo Chris van Houts) Gerrit Komrij (photo Chris van Houts)

I should therefore like to end this article by signalling a number of poets who satirize themselves, their themes and their forms and those of others. Since his debut in 1968 it has been impossible to ignore Gerrit Komrij. In the 1970s he revived elements from black romanticism and surrealism. His work, which was collected in the hefty volume Alle gedichten tot gisteren (All Poems Up Till Yesterday) in 1994, contains many ironic elements but above all the poetics of disappearance: time and again Komrij at the end of his poem gives it the fatal blow in the form of an unexpected twist; his poems are forever slipping out of the reader’s hands just when he thinks he has got them.

The Fleming Gust Gils originally wrote quite capricious poetry, full of startling images which testified to a weird imagination. Objectivity and grotesque masquerading predominated. Not that those elements have completely disappeared, but in his more recent work there is greater scope for a more personal tone, an aphoristic style and particularly for striking rhythm.

The Dutchman Leo Vroman, a biologist who since the Second World War has lived in the United States, has built an oeuvre which is striking because of its combination of a laconic conversational tone and a seemingly classic use of metre and rhyme. Not only in his professional life, but in his poetry too he views human behaviour with utter bewilderment and tries to get a handle on it by viewing it as a biologically and physiologically determined whole.

A few more examples, this time from younger Dutch authors: in his poems Rob Schouten mixes high and low culture. Poetic reflection is occasionally interrupted by channel-hopping on TV or munching crisps. Toon Tellegen gives the Great Emotions human characteristics in what resemble unfinished fables, proving that those feelings, despite his constant efforts, remain elusive. And Flanders? Its contribution is the young poet Peter Ghyssaert, who situates his poems in a rather elderly, frivolous, transient and hence decadent sphere. But here too the world the poet evokes is full of barbs, as when he writes about his own poetic activity:

His poems were read aloud
and torn up by his family,
who had burst into tears.
He went round with handkerchiefs
and consoled where he could
and sometimes offered a shoulder to a cousin
who had burnt a cycle.
Finally he took round nuts and drinks and picked up
the empty covers of his books

But this has brought us into the poet’s sitting room whereas I’d promised a tour of the Wild Square. It’s time to go outside and have a look around.

About the author

Demets is a poetry critic for the Flemish daily De Morgen. He contributes regularly to literary journals (Awater en Ons Erfdeel) and writes poetry (De papegaaienziekte, Meulenhoff, 1999 and De bloedplek, De Bezige Bij, 2012.

Irony is perhaps the feature which provides the most powerful proof that Flemish and Dutch poetry are more closely linked than one might imagine at first sight.