The series was initiated by Babelsprech, a two-year-old project striving to connect the German, Swiss, and Austrian poetry scenes, in order to move these respective scenes and their histories closer to each other for a younger generation. With this collection of essays, Babelsprech has decided to leave the German speaking sphere to work towards the possibility of a world society of poets.
Cooperating with three other online, international literature magazines, each addressing its own distinct audience and community, the series will introduce the contemporary poetry scenes of various countries to each other. Babelsprech International presents a series of essays by poets themselves, providing insight on disparate poetic communities and histories from an inside perspective.
Each article is published in German and English on Babelsprech, in English on Hilda Magazine and Samplekanon and excerpted in English on Full Stop.
On the Making of a Crowded Photograph, Including Some People in the Background
As articles like these often start with a series of disclaimers, a logical place to start would be explaining the linguistic and political situation in which the Dutch language and corresponding literary systems are embedded. Dutch is spoken by more or less 23 million people across the world, most of which live in the Netherlands and Belgium, and because of this, and also due to the historical importance of the Dutch language, Dutch is sometimes called “the smallest world language.”
In Belgium, Dutch is spoken in Flanders, the northern part of the country. Apart from a negligible number of idiomatic phrases and regional differences that result in everyday confusion at most, people from Flanders and the Netherlands mutually understand each other quite easily. Cultural exchange between the two countries followed, and writers are read and discussed in both cultural spheres alike, in magazines, newspapers and academia, resulting in both literatures becoming increasingly intertwine.
But the extent of this exchange should not be overstated — Flemish authors are not regularly part of the Dutch public discourse, although literary stars do cross the border, and Dutch authors, a little more known in Flanders perhaps than their Flemish counterparts in the Netherlands, do not take the center stage in the Flemish media. Discussions on poetics have local idiosyncrasies and the countries’ respective histories are markedly different. All this makes the decision to treat Flemish literature alongside, or even as a part of Dutch literature, controversial. Indeed, one of the rifts in literary history and historiography in the Low Countries is the question whether the Dutch and Flemish literary systems should be treated as one, or be considered as separate entities, with largely independent trajectories.
There are good reasons for this. Most importantly, the linguistic situation has, historically, been different. Belgium is a tri-lingual country, with Dutch being the majority language in Flanders, whereas French is the dominant language spoken in Wallonia, the southern part of the country, adjacent to France. The southern part of the country also has a few German communities. This has caused conflict for a long time. Specifically, Flanders had to fight for equal language rights for the Dutch speaking population. French held a cultural and political monopoly, reducing Dutch to the status of a minority language only used by the working class for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. While this has now been reversed, the relationship between the two communities is still problematic.
Due to this linguistic and political situation, Flemish literature (up to World War II, and even after), was part of the emancipatory (and in many respects, nationalist) Flemish Movement, as it was called, that sought, in short, cultural and political recognition of the Flemish-speaking community. Poets like Guido Gezelle, the poet-priest, and Paul van Ostaijen, a Flemish nationalist and member of the international avant-garde, were never just poets, but also fulfilled a foundational role in the emancipation of the Flemish language. Van Ostaijen remains the bedrock of almost every discussion pertaining to poetics in Flanders, even today, as was argued by a voluminous study undertaken by Geert Buelens in 2001. Dutch literature lacks such a towering figure.
To further corroborate this: one historiographer stated, back in 1990, that one can discern in fact three different literatures — Dutch literature, Flemish literature and Flemish literature insofar that it is known by Dutch publishing houses, that hold a hegemonic position compared to their Flemish counterparts. Lumping the first and the third one together would be an act of imperialism, a severe misrepresentation of the cultural situation in Flanders. More recently, in 2008, three poets published an anthology, Hotel New Flanders, that contained only Flemish poetry, asserting that there was no sound historical reason to treat Dutch and Flemish poetry as if they were part of the same system.
We could be economical and brush over these differences in this piece, or be exhaustive and go into depth on this matter, but neither is desirable. First of all, we do not write as professional scholars, who are required to adopt a systematic approach to literature, but as poets, writing from within and not from a, mostly, external position. But perhaps more importantly, the discussion itself is in need of revision. The system described is essentially an old system, that is rapidly becoming defunct. Contemporary Flemish poetry is hard to fit into the categories that are distinguished by for example the Hotel New Flanders anthology — which put forward an essentially territorialized understanding of poetry (its rootedness in Flemish history), but also more metaphorically speaking, by confining poetry to its manifestation on the page, and disregarding the international influences that shape Flemish literature.
Contemporary Flemish poetry breaks with this logic. Poets like Maud Vanhauwaert (1987) and Lies van Gasse (1983) work across disciplines — visual arts, performance art and theater respectively — and others like Xavier Roelens (1978) and Tom Vandevoorde (1978) look towards international (especially American) rather than local traditions, as does Els Moors (1978). Emerging poets like Arno van Vlierberghe (1990) and Mathijs Tratsaert (1990) are highly conscious of the Flemish literary canon, but only use and transform it for their own goals. Literature is becoming a global practice: discussions on poetics have grown into an exchange. Precisely this communal, social aspect contributes to a growing liveliness across borders that would be wrong to suppress. But we have to admit: we will cover much less Flemish ground in this piece.
Similarly, Dutch poetry has been opening up. The old opposition between traditional and experimental, and between ‘accessible’ and ‘formalist’ or ‘conceptual’ poetry is starting to crumble. This started in the nineties, when poets actively began to cross the boundaries between anecdote and concept, between lyric voice and textuality that framed the debate for a long time. Typical poets that emerged in the nineties like Tonnus Oosterhoff (1953), Mustafa Stitou (1974), K. Michel (1958), Arjen Duinker (1956) and Astrid Lampe (1955) played an important role in this. We will refer back to these frames, even though we think they are faulty, because they are important for how poets self-identify, even if redefining and eventually displacing them is our main mission here, and Dutch poetry is far too eclectic to reduce to the terms of fossilized debates of the past.
So, this is not a literary history, or only partially; much more so it is an attempt to trace the past by exploring present developments, telling a story of shared affinities and not of epochal ruptures. A crowded photograph, with a shifting background, a montage perhaps. Sure, our views are biased, and can be thrown up for debate, but precisely this can help connect our situation with the situation elsewhere.
Off the page
One of the developments with a major impact on the direction of the literary landscape in the last few years, perhaps the last decade, is the shift towards poetry that moves outward — off the page, blurring the boundaries between text and performance.
This development takes many shapes, from what you could call “media poetry” to slam poetry, or crossovers with other disciplines and a more expanded view on poetry and its role in the public sphere (more on that in the second part of this piece). The perennial question of what constitutes literary value is revisited here, especially from the viewpoint of literature’s effect, rather than the question of what literature really, essentially is. We will come back to this point more often; it is one of the possible ways of displacing the static, overly formalist frames prevailing in literary discussions in the Low Countries since modernism.
Slam poetry can be seen as one of the fields in which this has played itself out. While Dutch slam poetry has never been programmatic in a very explicit sense, much less political, it can be seen as a cultural force with the power to pry open the literary field. The cultural debate itself had come to a standstill, just like the rest of Dutch society, probably because of economic prosperity and euphoria over the end of history. Politically speaking, the nineties saw a historic compromise between social-democrats and the liberals (of the conservative kind), resulting in an unprecedented wave of neoliberal reforms (in the housing market, the financial sector and many other domains of society).
Still, slam allowed new practices for poetry to come into being. Not so much through purely formal innovation — mostly, slam poets adhere to fairly traditional poetics in that respect — but by opening up the available environments for the reception and production of poetry. While slam embraced established forms, its critique of the text as an object of passive consumption and its endorsement of the dynamism of the stage was powerful. This “wave of democratization” introduced by slam poetry is not in any way new; one of the longstanding proponents of a poetry full of affect and intensity, a poetry that was to be performed, not read, was Simon Vinkenoog (1928-2009), active from the early fifties, one could call him a Dutch Beat poet (he promoted the work of Allen Ginsberg). He brought many acclaimed poets to the stage for the first time in the Netherlands in 1966, during a watershed event called “Poëzie in Carrré” (Poetry in Carré) and remained a great animator and organizer in the scene up to his death in 2009.
More recently, the gap between slam poetry and the traditional world of publishing has begun to close. Poetry slam now occupies a central position in literary culture, it has almost become an institution itself, with its own rules and rituals, like a tongue-in-cheek competitive atmosphere, recurring slam championships in many cities and a prestigious national championship every year in which the regional champions battle each other. While this was hailed as proof of the renewed popularity of poetry, it can also be argued — as it has indeed been argued — that slam’s institutionalization has consolidated the further privatization of poetry in recent years, turning the poem into an object of consumption yet again.
Erik Jan Harmens (1970) won the championship in 2004 and not long after published his first volume of poetry. His second volume of poetry bears a title that ironically and slightly ambiguously captures many slam poets’ self-understanding in an age of anxiety over self-performance, the media’s influence and authenticity: Underperformer. After Harmens, many more slam poets were offered publishing contracts, like Krijn Peter Hesselink (1976), Kira Wuck (1978), Daniël Vis (1988) and Ellen Deckwitz (1982). Nowadays, success as a performer heightens the prospect of being picked up by publishers, who see commercial potential in poets with a stage reputation. Mainstream commercial publishing houses still publish poetry, and slam poets usually do well.
An example is Ellen Deckwitz, who won the championship in 2010 and has become one of the most active members of the community. Her work combines a few very strong currents in contemporary Dutch poetry: ironic distancing, romantic longing and a sense of loss, also in the metaphysical sense of the word. Deckwitz’ second volume Hoi feest (Hey Party) opens with an instruction for a prayer:
Clasp your hands and try
to grasp the meanings that arise:
1a. praying (they wax),
1b. applause (they wane).
Make the above explode
and the hands form a path
between your wrists. Meanings break
arms. Wrists and hands form a suspension
bridge under collarbones. With your head above,
rocking and pulling your arms out of their sockets
until you can jump rope. That’s okay,
moving makes you live even longer. Throw this loop,
everything comes back to you. Span
above the others, make them a ravine
beneath your limbs. Let it
sink in: your arms are not a net
but just a bridge and does that reassure you.
Translation by Ellen Deckwitz
This results in poetry that is attuned to the conditions of writing (the stage, where one’s fragile sense of being, especially in the presence of others, is heightened), while maintaining the hope of transparent communication and real contact.
Slam poetry often plays with this tension, typically in a romantic fashion. This indeed may be a characteristic of the many Dutch slam poets overall: romanticism, commitment to lyric self-expression, and a penchant for theatricality and affect. This particular combination of traits can be traced to a long list of poets, indicating the extent to which slam is a part of the mainstream of Dutch literature, on which it models itself, rather than setting itself consciously apart.
Among these poets are Menno Wigman (1966), a romantic poet par excellence, and Gerrit Komrij (1944-2012). Gerrit Komrij was a highly contradictory figure and intellectual, both as a prolific poet, controversial anthologist and a vigorous polemicist, whose tirades and often unscrupulous editorial choices had a paradigmatic impact on the Dutch literary canon; the way he, in his still seminal anthology De Nederlandse poëzie van de 19de en 20ste eeuw in 1000 en enige gedichten (Dutch Poetry of the 19th and 20th Century in 1000 and Some Poems) debunked the importance of the “Fiftiers”, a legendary, loosely knit group of modernist poets who shaped post-war Dutch poetry, shows Komrij at his most controversial. Saliantly, Komrij himself loved the formal innovation of the Oulipo writers and the experiments of someone like Alfred Jarry and others in pataphysics. It could be argued that Komrij, in a way, embodied a different idea of what a modernist poetics constituted, and cannot be written off as a purely conservative figure.
Komrij’s own poetry, with its parodical intent, wit, cannibalization of different styles and deft use of literary convention proved hard to classify at first — he was labeled as both a neo-romantic poet, an aestheticist and a formalist — and is known for its traditionalism and fixed forms. The poem ‘Desolation’ is a typical example:
The following day refinds me in the maze.
I’m trapped inside for good. It’s now quite clear
I’m once more blinded by that figure’s gaze.
My mother, rising in a sacred sphere.
Amid such bustling traffic — would she still be there?
I dare not leave my alley-web. She looked
Just like a child, the girl of bygone years —
Her face so full of tenderness, yet spooked.
I see her dress still swirling, marble-slick.
This memory I’m most hard put to shelve:
Her right hand resting lightly on a stick,
She winked at me upon the stroke of twelve.
Translation by John Irons, courtesy of Poetry International.
By now his poetry may have become a model for many poets, both in slam and outside of it.
It is not hard to see how poets like Menno Wigman have borrowed from him:
(. . .) — Break every pen. Duff every letter up.
No tongue that can console,
no word blush rose at Kaspar and his doglike death.
Translation by John Irons, courtesy of Poetry International.
(Continued on Babelsprech, where you can read the rest of this entry. Look for an excerpt from part two on Thursday!)