Alfred Schaffer

Challenges, Obsessions, and Fascinations

26 June 2020

These are challenging times for the world – and, by extension, for poetry and the arts. Debates surrounding issues such as climate change, migration, sexual abuse, racism, and discrimination based on sex and gender are taking place at the heart of society, with ordinary citizens actively participating through social media. In other words, citizens have become a political factor – the voice of the individual is being heard.

A term that keeps popping up in this context is ‘identity’: what is a ‘national’ identity, what is a nation? Who or what am I, as a unique individual? Who do I want to be or become, and how fluid is my ‘self’? What are my beliefs, what is my history and what past do I want to be associated with? Many young artists, theatre makers, writers and poets – who aren’t outside observers, of course, but are right in the middle of this rapidly changing reality – seem explicitly to be engaging with these questions in some way.

How do you write poetry that isn’t just about form and style, about language and craft, but that is also relevant and tackles all sorts of urgent issues? A growing number of young poets on the Dutch literary scene are centering their own perspective and lived experiences. It’s no wonder that a genre like spoken word should also be gaining in popularity in the Netherlands. The result is a strongly narrative kind of poetry. Individual poems are thematically linked and together tell a story that is at turns lyrical, prosaic and essayistic. In some cases, collections are even explicitly presented as ‘research.’ This approach doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is autobiographical, but it does mean that the individual and particular is chosen over what are purported to be universal and general truths.

A lot of new poetry seems to be informed by the realization that the power and knowledge of the subject are in all respects limited, but that this quandary can be explored in the work. The reader is encouraged to actively look and think for themselves. It’s a striking tendency in contemporary poetry, but of course that’s not all that’s going on. Poetry is thriving like never before, and the great diversity of the work that is being produced is a testimony to that. Accessible poetry exists alongside the still- flourishing hermetic tradition, politically and socially engaged poems exist alongside apolitical work. A number of young poets are writing long, ambitious, meandering poems full of apt metaphors and similes, while others are pithy and succinct. Some poets stay close to spoken language, while others make everyday language strange again. It’s no longer the case that one approach is more popular, successful, or acclaimed than another – the days of clear, dominant trends are over, at least for now.

At the same time, poetry has long ceased to be the exclusive domain of white men. We are seeing more and more female poets and poets of colour from backgrounds that aren’t exclusively Dutch. This too is resulting in new stories being told and generating exciting poetry that is resonating with a wide audience. Yes, Dutch poetry is in a state of constant flux, but with the emergence of so many new young poets it now seems to be heading in a truly new direction, one that reflects the challenges, obsessions and fascinations of this complex 21st century.

About Alfred Schaffer

Alfred Schaffer (1973) was born in The Hague to Dutch and Aruban parents and has lived alternately in the Netherlands and South Africa. He is regarded by critics as one of the most talented poets writing in Dutch today. Also a translator and scholar, Schaffer currently teaches at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

His poems have been published in Afrikaans, English, French, German, Macedonian, Turkish, Indonesian, and Swedish. For Mens Dier Ding (Man Animal Thing), his seventh full-length collection, is one of the most celebrated Dutch poetry collections of the past decade and has been translated into English, French, and Afrikaans.

First published in 2014, Mens Dier Ding tackles racism, the refugee crisis, and the politics of desire by reimagining the life of Shaka kaSenzangakhona, the 19th century Zulu monarch, in a modern context. The poems deploy a panoply of forms and voices, shuttling between first- and third-person narratives, confessions and gossip, daydreams, and game show transcripts. From spear-sharpening to late capitalist suburbs, royal fratricide to schoolyard bullying, this book reveals the proximity of love and cruelty, of historical colonialism and our postcolonial present.


Marijke Nagtegaal

Alfred Schaffer

Yes, Dutch poetry is in a state of constant flux, but with the emergence of so many new young poets it now seems to be heading in a truly new direction, one that reflects the challenges, obsessions and fascinations of this complex 21st century.