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Joris Lenstra

Contemporary Poetry in the Netherlands: An introduction


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Poetry is thriving as never before in the Netherlands. It can be found everywhere: at public schools, on the street, at festivals, in the subway and on garbage trucks. One might even find a poem at the opening pages of an annual report. Poets can live of their art easier than before. This article will give you an overview of the Dutch poetry scene and name some of the most interesting contemporary poets around.

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Dutch is spoken by only a small percentage of the people on this planet. According to the latest figures, there are about 23 million native Dutch speakers. It is mainly spoken in the Netherlands and Belgium where it is called Flemish. Dutch can also be heard in South Africa, Suriname, Aruba and the Dutch Antilles. Despite these meagre statistics, a thriving, lively poetry culture exists. Listening as an outsider to Dutch people speak, one could question whether the language is capable of producing the musical sounds often associated with poetry. One would notice a preference for guttural sounds, especially the ‘g’, which is pronounced as if gathering saliva for spitting. Maybe this sound originated with the clay-ploughing farmers who once worked the soggy fields of the Lowlands.

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However, it ís possible to write beautiful poetry in this language. Moreover, recent decades have seen the maturation of a poetry scene together with a cohesive infrastructure to what it is today. I will address mainly the situation in the Netherlands, since it has by far the most interesting and thriving community of Dutch language poetry.

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Special mentioned should be of the Fries language. Friesland is a small province in the Northeast of the Netherlands and also takes up part of Germany. It has its own official language and also its own poetry. The most well-known contemporary Fries poet is Tsead Bruinja (1974), who was runner-up for the position of Poet Laureate of the Netherlands this year and who publishes both in Frisian and Dutch.

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At the centre of all Dutch literary activity there still is good-old Amsterdam. Almost all the publishing houses are based there, situated at the so-called ‘Girdle of Canals’ (‘Grachtengordel’). But not only the publishing houses are there, also the poets can be found in Amsterdam. For this article I conducted a small survey among 45 well-known poets regarding their place of residence: 47 percent live in Amsterdam; a percentage unrivaled by any other city. The publishing houses publish a considerable number of poetry books every year. This is surprising because there exists only a small market for poetry books and there is next to no money made from the sale of such books.


Poetry in the Netherlands

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The flourishing of poetry is due in large part to the excellent infrastructure. This includes bookstores for poetry, independent publishing houses for poetry, poetry mikes in various cities, poetry slams and courses on writing poetry. Most of these rely on the commitment, perseverance and enthusiasm of the volunteers involved. Local government and independent funds also chip in with subsidies for general expenses and poets’ fees.

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A major centre for poetry in Amsterdam is Perdu, a bookstore entirely devoted to poetry with an adjoining theater for readings, interviews and book launches. The Professional Writing School (‘Schrijversvakschool’), also in Amsterdam, organizes a training program exclusively for the writing of literature. The Poetry International Institute in Rotterdam holds its well-know annual Poetry International Festival and organizes other poetry festivities throughout the year. Other festivals where poets can read their work before an audience include the Wintertuin Festival in the cities of Arnhem and Nijmegen, the Prinsentuin Festival in Groningen, and the Winternachten Festival in The Hague. Poets also feature in Music Festivals such as ‘Crossing Border’ in The Hague and ‘Lowlands’ in Biddinghuizen, Flevoland. Smaller scale poetry readings are organized as well: readings at art galleries, local festivals, organized by local poets or poetry societies (‘dichterskringen’), and open mike poetry cafés.

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The only thing the Netherlands lacks is a National Centre for Poetry. Perdu in Amsterdam is the closest thing. The Belgians, however, have the Poetry Centre (‘Poëziecentrum’). It is located in Ghent and hosts a small book store, a publishing press and a highly acclaimed magazine: the Poetry News Paper (‘De Poëziekrant’). This has a very good reputation and receives a subsidy from the Belgian Government.

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Typical Dutch is the absurdly high number of poetry prizes. There are the major prizes, such as the VSB Poetry Prize and the P.C. Hooft prize. Then there are prizes for lesser known poets, such as the SNS-Lux Poetry Prize of Nijmegen and the Literary Prize of the province of Gelderland (which is not limited to those living in the Province of Gelderland). For children there are the Write Now! poetry prizes. The Art Gang (‘Kunstbende’) organizes competitions in writing and other art forms for the ages of 13 to 18 years old. And then there are the inevitable poetry prizes of various bookstores and newspapers. And this is just part of the story. Almost every library and every village with more than five inhabitants is bound to either host its own poetry prize or contemplating doing so. Somehow, somewhere, poetry for us is connected with prizes: a habit picked up from the ancient Greeks perhaps?

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The Internet is extremely important for Dutch poetry since the Dutch have a relatively high percentage of people on-line. There are many E-Zines where poems can be published and read. Poets keep their audiences informed about their lives and work through blogs. Special mention should be made of Meander, the longest existing literary magazine on the Web, which has over 5000 subscribers, offering poems, poetry reviews and analytical articles. Other Dutch web-based magazines of interest include ‘Krakatau’ and ‘Blue-turns-grey’. Many literary magazines of the elder generation are still limiting themselves to the printed form, using the internet solely for advertising. It is not surprising then that these magazines are being read less and less and would not survive if they did not receive government subsidies through the ‘Fund for Literature’ (‘Fonds voor de Letteren’). The same fund also provides financial support for poets, publishers and translators.

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Despite the fact that poetry books will never be best-sellers, poets and their words seem to be everywhere. Poems can be read on walls in trains and subways. There are poems on houses in cities such as Leiden and Utrecht, and possibly also others (I have not been to all). Poems are given a place in public buildings comparable to the status of a work of art. For example, the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam has lines of poetry spread over the floor of the main entrance.

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Poets receive only little money from the books they so consciously write and try to sell in small print runs. Their main income comes from readings and projects. One of the major actors in this area is the organization ‘Writers’ School Society’ (‘Schrijvers School Samenleving’), which operates as a booking agent for writers and poets. Some organizations have special positions for poets. For example, the government organization ZonMW (which provides subsidies for research and education) has created the position of resident poet. Several cities now have a specially appointed City Poet (‘stadsdichter’). A City Poet has to write poems when requested by the city government. And for a few years, there exists the position of Poet Laureate of the Netherlands (‘Dichter des Vaderlands’). The Poet Laureate is chosen democratically from a short-list. In 2008 the candidates were promoting their own poetry improvement programs, trying to win votes. Whatever your particular opinion may be about the ‘unfreedoms’ of such occupations, they are, in general, paying jobs.


Poets in the Netherlands

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Poetry is thriving in the Netherlands. We have a National Day of Poetry (every year in January), a Week of Poetry (every year in April), and many more events featuring poetry and poets. The high visibility of poetry has made many people aware of its existence. Thanks to its popularity, more poets than ever before can make a living from their craft.

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The poetry being written in the Netherlands varies greatly. To describe all the various poets and styles involved is an impossible task, but it is possible to notice certain trends. Traditional forms, such as the sonnet, are still being used; but most prevalent are poems set in free verse. One of the most important elements is the homage they pay to the influence of an historical poetry movement called the ‘Fiftiers’ (‘Vijftigers’). In the forties and fifties of the twentieth century a group of friends and fellow-poets formed in Amsterdam. They collaborated with the international art movement Cobra (COpenhagen, BRussels, Amsterdam). This group included the poets Lucebert, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Jan Elburg, and Simon Vinkenoog. They wrote radically different poetry in the aftermath of the Second World War. They cut out the personal voice in a poem, deliberately destroying the narrative of the poem. Their verses often lose coherence, setting free associations beyond the rational in their readers. This will sound familiar if you know the Surrealist movement, from which they borrowed heavily. Lucebert is the most famous poet in this group; his nickname is the ‘Emperor of the Fifties’. He composed his poems with the aid of a dictionary, looking for inspirational words and combining words with similar sounds. ‘I reel off a small revolution’ is one of his best-known poems, as well as his statement that: ‘Everything of value is defenseless’.

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I reel off a small revolution

I reel off a small lovely revolution
I am no longer of land
I am water again
I carry foaming crests on my head
I carry shooting shadows in my head
on my back rests a mermaid
on my back rests the wind
the wind and the mermaid sing
the foaming crests murmur
the shooting shadows fall

I reel off a small lovely rustling revolution
and I fall and I murmur and I sing

Translation © Diane Butterman

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The absence of a coherent narrative, the preference for images aimed at associations beyond literal meaning, and the disruption of the personal can still be found in many of today’s poets, such as the young Bas Belleman (1978):

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DRAMA SCHOOLGIRL

spotlight / the sun
she steps out of the supermarket
into jodenbree street; from the side wings.

just as a bucket can blindingly
block the way
without suds and

yet with a touch of
cleanliness, hygiene, such an
attentive, attractive girl.

such a made up divisible
mirror-image cleavable
girl in droplet dress.

men stare like cherries.

© Bas Belleman
Translation © Willem Groenewegen

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The combination of striking images gives this poem its quality. The influence of the Fiftiers can also be seen in the poetry of Leonard Nolens (1947) and Alfred Schaffer (1973). Alfred Schaffer’s work seems to aim at forming a coherent narrative structure based on reality, but it never tells the whole story. Instead hidden meanings are suggested in his poems:

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There we hear angels singing

Nobody is alive, an old complaint. You have to chew and swallow
hard, the commandments are tough. Thou shalt not lie nor steal,
thou shalt not be a stranger, nor be welcomed and must always be able
to identify yourself. Even here, where you pine away, somewhere

in a far corner of the world, where little machines make happy
sounds, where every tremor is registered and where mirrors
reflect. Where no wind can get through, no natural light, you
love the elements. Wind erodes, water causes weathering.

Water, frozen, is not transparent but greyish-white, ink-black
when committing violence and there is your heart muscle, there
your liver. You’ll get to murder someone once, point to your head:

‘I am a sign.’ You laugh, zigzag most terribly, flowing
water is without mercy, but sometimes a river is impeded
in its course. By harder layers of rock, across the channel.

© Alfred Schaffer
Translation © John Irons

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Postmodernist influences can also be found in Dutch poetry, as in the work of the poets Peter Verhelst (1962), Pieter Boskma (1956) and Erwin Mortier (1965). Mortier focuses on the human eye and takes observation as the basis for his poetry. Pieter Boskma and Peter Verhelst try to involve reality into their work. Reality for them is, at best, a kaleidoscope of senses creating an incoherent picture. This is akin to Chaos Theory: a simple butterfly beating its wings in China will start a hurricane somewhere else. The coherence of the world is beyond everyday human perception.

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When we stood by the hotelroom window…

… palms against the glass. In the darkness of night
we look at the glacier: two smoke plumes that needed centuries
to freeze entwined on the mountainside. But
what we see, what we wish to see, is lava in its slowest,
most enviable form. We stand side by side, my cheek
a few millimetres from yours, and you tilt your head
as though lifting your face to the first sun. Two boulders of soft flesh,
rubbing together, infinitely slowly, in the hope one day
of the single spark, the minuscule throb, the opening and closing of
an ethereal heart breathed from the ice. That this should be
our heart, this breathing, this pumping from one to the other,
this centuries-long waiting, who would be the first to stir,
to smile, the drinking of the air, this filling of lungs
and emptying of chambers, of your veins, the melting
of the dwarf glaciers that we are, this tremor of some
simple dreamt-of thing, breath over ice. Singing. New
springs. Geysers. New rainbows. The wonderful avalanche
they set in motion.

© Peter Verhelst
Translation © Ina Rilke

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The poems discussed so far seem to suggest that the image is the foundation of contemporary Dutch poetry. This is not so: narrative has continued to survive, be it in the margins. Poets such as Wouter Godijn (1959) and Tonnus Oosterhof (1953) maintain a clear narrative voice.

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How gladly I saw the widower a sprig of roses*
(shears in th’other hand, he was just pruning) the lady give.

I still see how the eye, the maiden’s eye moist light farewell
(by the troop-ship, by the troop-ship) had to bide farewell
bide not had to farewell bide.
Toot-toot. Farewell is. Pain a descending octave.

(Each tear was one in butter ration room temperature Holland.)

Were I to return in this flesh, the body full
(Two, three minutes out of time, life no regret) full of plopper wounds.
I married, bred, watched tv, fire, fire, fire, fire in the sweet village.
Today I lost my passport. My wife said: ‘Here. Take better care, man.’

* With the melody of hymn 138 in mind.

© Tonnus Oosterhoff
Translation © Karlien van den Beukel

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TRUTH TAKES THE BUS

The dignified scream of a tree
is not real. It didn’t actually happen
but in a dream — one I had when I was awake.
So that’s impossible as well. It happened
on the bus. (The crashing fall that came later
is of little importance.) Surrounded by ladies

bags full of brick-hard opinions, pigeon breasts raised high:

Don’t touch us. We’ll touch you
if you come too close. Trees don’t
scream, let alone in a dignified way. Yet
I couldn’t help wondering whether you could
die like the rising sun. And what’d be the use?
Why? I read in pigeon eyes that, like death,
I should stop. In a minute I’d get a hard-on.
The only truth is what fits in a bag.

© Wouter Godijn
From: De karpers en de krab (‘The carps and the crab’) Contact, September 2003
Translation © Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper

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The personal story set in poetry which thrilled some of the Beat poets in the fifties and inspired other Anglo-American poets subsequently (Philip Levine comes to mind) has not been pursued in the Netherlands. We are still too preoccupied with Lucebert and his friends to allow this kind of free talking, mind-sharing babble into our perception of what poetry could be. Poems based on imagery and illogical associations are still taught every year in our high schools as the hallmark of modern poetry.

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Fortunately, this is about to change. Recent years has seen the emergence of Poetry Slam poets in the Netherlands. After a precarious beginning, slam poetry has now become firmly established in the Dutch poetry scene. Above all, the slam poets have broadened the concept of poetry. Instead of asking of the reader to lose him or herself in associations and ponder on difficult, academic explanations, direct communication is the most important. Poets such as Krijn Peter Hesselink (1976), Daniël Dee (1975), Jeroen Naaktgeboren (1977) and Erik Jan Harmsen (1970) put themselves on stage when they perform their poetry. Their poems have a clear, personal voice. The subject is often anecdotal, humorous at times, and takes the audience to the predicted closure. Since, at a performance, re-reading is not possible, the poem has to be readily understood, at least at surface level. The illogical associations presented in complex poems are being replaced by a sense of understanding for the sake of the audience. Shakespeare faced the same challenge in his poetic plays. This is an important point to make because open or less obscure poetry has long been frowned upon in the Netherlands: poetry should not be easily understood. The academic world still has a firm grip since many academics are on the boards of funds distributing subsidies for poetry magazines, books and other publications and events. But, after a struggle, slam poets now have their own audience and are being published by the prominent publishing houses. They also bring a new audience to poetry.

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*

as I wanted to surprise her as I wanted to tell her
I came here to give you a feeling of warmth

that’s why I called on my love in her dreams

such a long flight till I got there
such a long flight till I fell
                                                  and fell
                                                                 fell

in a basin filled with oily male bodies
penetrating smell of sweaty armpits makes my nostrils quiver
callous feet and pubic hair tickles in my throat
penises present
                                         struggle and surface

and all her girlfriends laugh
insatiable laughter naked laughter

I see my love give a rag a right kicking
a rag that looks a lot like me

that’s when the concrete man came
who heavy-handedly
whole-heartedly drilled her
                                        stuffed her
how tasty she thought it was how tasty she thought he was concrete man who is my father

and in the end the expulsion of her fruit a rag
a rag with my face on it

© Daniël Dee
Translation © Willem Groenewegen

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Four Poems

1.

don’t you worry mumsie
our kid’s doin’ just fine

he’s takin’ flute classes
and pays his fees on time

thing is, when night falls he yawns at the moon
doesn’t take pictures nor does ‘e asks question ‘bout it

it’s like staring at the moon comforts him seeing how moon is there
nowt to do with the moon, really

he could be lookin’ at the tap for all that
at the alarm clock or my mug

there’s folk that like changes
they’re feckless rowdy swine

© Erik Jan Harmens
Translation © Willem Groenewegen

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Two poets I would like to single out: Mark Boog (1970) and Hester Knibbe (1946). They have skilful poetic voices and are capable of writing in a language that is short, concise and precise, demonstrating the maximum intensity the Dutch language can carry in poetry. The originality of these two masterful poets has enabled them to develop their art in their own individual ways, and they are acknowledged as such.

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BETWEEN THE TENTS

It must have been visible:
the execution of the sentence upon us,
slowly now, still not completed.
We soon shrivelled up, ahead of realisation.

Why did nobody stop us in our tracks?
Why did nobody warn us with a shrill voice
against this fateful course of action?

Now we’re sitting between army tents,
covered in dust and sweat,
telling each other stories of the past;
the past, which trails behind us rudderlessly
as if it were the future ahead of us.

© Mark Boog
Translation © Willem Groenewegen

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THE RIVER

I fill what is low-lying with my passing
and drag along with me through town and country
a past that has to settle

in my depths. No matter if I shrink
or swell, I wear and tear the inside
of my skin; my bed I’m

not and yet I am. I have no eye
for left and right: drifting slowly
on my undertow, my arms at times
outstretched, so that I

take in yet more ground, I drown
in my own me. Not that I
stifle in myself, heaven
I find there and also sludge.


© Hester Knibbe
Translation © John Irons


In conclusion

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This article has been, what it only could have been: a tip of a huge iceberg. There are many more interesting poets to be found in the Lowland than mentioned here. You can find them in English anthologies such as: ‘Landscape with rowers’, by J.M. Coetzee (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004) and ‘Kaleidoscope: Dutch poetry in translation, from medieval times to the present’ (Wilmette, Illinois: Fairfield Books, 1998). The Poetry International Website also has English work of a few Dutch poets online. And the website of Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature offers a search engine for translations of Dutch poets.

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Readers of the Dutch language should pick up the anthologies by the essayist and former Poet Laureate Gerrit Komrij. His best-known anthology is the voluminous: ‘Dutch poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in 1000 and a few poems’, also known as the ‘Fat Komrij’ (‘De Nederlandse poëzie van de negentiende en twintigste eeuw in 1000 en enige gedichten’). His selection does seem a bit one-sided at times but he provides a coherent overview of the work of many contemporary poets. He has been rightfully praised for selecting not only well-established poets, but also singling out newer ones.


Acknowledgements

I should like to thank all the poets and translators mentioned here who courteously gave me permission to use their work for this article. For more information about Dutch poetry I would recommend the following websites.

Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature www.nlpvf.nl
Fund for Literature www.fondsvoordeletteren.nl
Blue-turns-grey E-Zine www.blue-turns-grey.nl
Krakatau E-Zine krakatauonline.wordpress.com
Meander E-Zine www.meandermagazine.net
Perdu Amsterdam www.perdu.nl
Poetry International www.poetry.nl
Poetry International Web international.poetryinternationalweb.org
Prinsentuin Festival www.dichtersindeprinsentuin.nl
Winternachten Festival www.winternachten.nl
Wintertuin Festival www.wintertuin.nl

Joris Lenstra

Joris Lenstra

Joris Lenstra (1977) — Dutch poet, English-to-Dutch translator and sometime essayist. Graduated in 2001 from the University of Utrecht on the Beat-poet Allen Ginsberg and his LSD use (or absence of it) in the Sixties. In 2005 he translated Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself into Dutch. He now lives, works an writes in Rotterdam. He is co-publisher of the Dutch grassroot publishing house and Foundation “Nadorst”. In the past he was co-editor of the Dutch poetry website Poeziepamflet.nl, whose small ambition was to introduce international poetry into the Netherlands.

 
 
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