I have been built for humans



One evening, about ten years ago, I was standing at the bar during the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam with the Dutch poet Bert Schierbeek. We were discussing one of his pieces, which I don’t rightly recall any longer:  I, I am, I am nothing. Or something to that effect. To be honest, I thought it no more than hollow, rhetorical emptiness, bare nonsense and he was probably well aware that I thought so. Why so bare and barren? ‘What else could I say?’ explained Schierbeek, ‘I’d just lost my wife’. And it suddenly dawned on me: bareness as an expression of the highly emotional. Yes, that was it. Schubert’s Winterreise.

But at what point had I missed the link between the minimal, bare, purified text and an emotional and human event? I suddenly realised I was a child of the greatest division in Dutch post-war poetry, that between the ‘ordinary’ accessible, psychologising poetry of human happiness and human failings on one hand and the hermetic, autonomistic, impersonal, bare and white poetry on the other. Anyone belonging to one side was not allowed to venture into the others’ territory, it was so cut and dried. This pigeonholing mentality ran like the Berlin Wall through the middle of Dutch poetry.
In their essays and reviews, followers of the ‘hermetic’ school, such as Wiel Kusters and Peter Nijmeijer, ignored or criticised what they called ‘anecdotal’ poetry. And in the opposing camp, they slated what they referred to as ‘white’ poetry. On reading the collection entirely perfect inedible peach, for example, the Dutch poet Benno Barnard called its writer the ‘entirely perfect unreadable Gerrit’. Not terribly witty, but it didn’t matter, it was clear: two more or less fundamentalist communities that wanted nothing to do with each other.

Thing Poetry

Kouwenaar, that was the guilty party, the Godfather of hermetic, impersonal poetry. Funnily enough, he came from the group that had once instigated the greatest revival in twentieth century poetry, the Vijftigers. Nevertheless, he was still primarily the writer of Thing Poetry, poetry of the inexpressible, anti-ostentation, abstraction. Borne off by his paladins and epigones and, perhaps against his will, appointed irrefutably as the head of the autonomic school.
It was sometime in the nineteen sixties or seventies that an old philosophical notion of the insufficiency of language reached the Netherlands. Leibnitz, Nietsche and, subsequently, Wittgenstein, had long agreed that there was a great deal that could not be expressed properly using language. The Dutch novelist W.F. Hermans had presented Wittgenstein’s philosophy in the popular form of the novel (The Dark Room of Damocles, for example), while, elsewhere, the nouveau novel had wreaked its vengeance on gratuitously garrulous authors. This suspicion regarding language as a means of communication finally infiltrated Dutch poetry, the last bastion where one might still have thought it possible to issue communicative and meaningful utterances.
Perhaps the need in those days for bare, unsentimental poetry also had something to do with the urge of the liberalised generation of the sixties and seventies to overthrow the compromising, woolly language of the previous generation of political and social leaders. I can’t be sure, but sometimes it seems as if the new poetry also implied a political choice. In any event, something like an autonomic trend emerged in poetry, towards poems that only dared refer to themselves. And at the fore was Kouwenaar.

It is all over now. The wall appears to have fallen and we can look back indulgently at the past philosophical power struggle. And the funny thing is, there appears to be little to justify Kouwenaar’s position at the head of this guild of cool hermetics. Admittedly, his poetry may look impersonal, it makes a rigid, sometimes even mathematical impression; he once wrote a poem under the title, borrowed from Wittgenstein, ‘on the inexpressible’. He also appears to have suppressed any form of melancholy, but all the same, something doesn’t ring true. Even if he gives the impression of having wanted to write Thing Poetry, he nevertheless fails to meet the demands of his own ‘ideology’. Perhaps a verse entitled, ‘like a thing’, indicates why one may have been misled. The first line reads, ‘A poem like a thing’, after which it is compared to all kinds of things (revolving glass doors, a starched dinner jacket, an aeroplane, etc.), but nowhere does it say that a poem is a thing. On the contrary, it is only compared with it, using an age-old, fine, poetical like-comparison.
In another poetical poem, entitled, ‘take a poem, for example’, one does, indeed, detect an attempt at impersonality: ‘One plants/A garden where there was nothing/Thinks in it I/Master any finite form, I’. Kouwenaar would, perhaps, like to do so, but at the same time he doesn’t actually do it; the ‘I’ stands up straight in this poem, stressed, in fact, by its place at the end of the line. And a poem called, ‘on the inexpressible’ does exactly that, express the inexpressible. It would appear that Kouwenaar is occupied far more with expressing fundamental paradoxes; wanting to remain silent but unable to do so, being an autonomous thing but being unable to be so without something else; wiping out the personal but needing the personal to do so.
Kouwenaar is, in this inescapable contradiction of himself, far more amusing and lighter a poet than one might think; he might pass for elliptical and taciturn, while also bandying with isolated remarks from everyday language: ‘Enough has been said now/About what they call desperation’, ‘I bow to gravity’, ‘The art of poetry/Sometimes it is useful to expand on it’, writing is ‘something to do with thinking’ and even, ‘I’ll probably have to hit the sack soon’. Not infrequently, such isolated phrases touch on something quite essential, which appeals to him and on which he embroiders. The title of the poem, ‘that’s all’, for example, sounds simultaneously loose and rigid; it is a throwaway gesture, but also has something philosophical to say; the singular is the whole. Or take the phrase, ‘I am/Say such a country’. That, too, sounds conversational, but at the same time makes a division between ‘am’ and ‘say’, between being and speaking, between the personal and the poetical.

The fact that Kouwenaar’s work sometimes makes such a cool, analytical impression is because it lends itself so well to dissection and explanation by the analytical scalpel (as the Dutch poet and academic Wiel Kusters and other exegetes exhaustively demonstrate). It’s easy meat for the poetry pathologists. The question is, however, whether it is, in fact, so anatomically constructed. Personally, I believe that when you open up Kouwenaar’s work, you come across far more vibrancy and emotion than is often assumed.

totally white room

His latest collection, totally white room, demonstrates as much. Indisputably yet another bare, estranged title, like those he has already produced so many of, in the genre of 'entirely perfect inedible peach', 'inexpressible earth', or 'the unfathomable map'. All uninviting, un-encouraging titles. All the same, totally white room directly suggests anything and everything. One thinks of a sickroom, an entirely empty room, perhaps, the rigidity of design, or something with snow; the Winterreise home. And they are, indeed, mourning poems; there is no need to read the explanation of the text for that, mourning for the death of a loved one, but without sentiment or grief. Cold, perhaps, but, as with Schierbeek at that time, the circumstances engender such coldness. Take the first poem, ‘a waning day’:

It could only come from the fact that one already
knew everything, that grass sulked everywhere
where it was forbidden, that the full-fledged hedge
shut out the view, the axe had to be sharpened

that on a waning day one reviewed the distance
that the distance was closer than ever
that one had forgotten the year of the day
that the house had outlived and estranged itself

that one broke into one’s entrails, the unslept-in
bed lay ready, the room had been emptied
once more saw oneself for ever for the first time

and that one felt cold and ate meat
and that the meat no longer had any taste and the fire
ignited itself and the walls warmed themselves

A wonderful poem in my view, both complex and transparent. It begins with such a characteristic Kouwenaar opening, nonchalant almost, but also a little foreboding with the discovery that there will be nothing new any more and that one lives in a garden where no more ‘grass’ (green, youth) will grow and around which a high hedge now stands, which shuts out the view of the world and must ultimately be cut down.
The twilight years (following stanza) in which one reviews one’s youth, realising that what was once far away (the future) is now closer than ever; that you remember a certain day so well, but no longer the year and that there is a house where you have lived almost too long and which has become your own, but the words for it do not sound nice: ‘outlived’ and ‘estranged’, almost make it sound like misuse.
And the third stanza, where the room is empty again, as before you move in, so that by way of a recollection of that empty state one, ‘once more saw oneself for ever for the first time’.
The fact that you feel cold (last stanza) and your food has lost its taste but that a fire ignites itself, warming everything. Perhaps that fire in the last lines poses the reader with a riddle in a poem that deals, more than anything, with coldness, loneliness and loss, but it nonetheless seems appropriate. It reminds one of a crematorium and also of the consumption of everything: house and heart.
You can explain such a poem far more precisely, referring to other instances in Kouwenaar’s works or elsewhere, but the essence is clear. No emotional poetry for obituaries, but solid poetry founded on heavy, albeit sublimated emotion.


In his poems, Kouwenaar primarily opposes metaphysics and the consolation of higher things. He is extremely elementary and worldly. ‘I’m too human to fly,’ he once wrote. He attempts to waive the distinction between body and soul: ‘My soul is so fleshly that I have to eat’. You eat with the same organ with which you speak and so Kouwenaar consumes reality, only to excrete it again. There is something of the House That Jack Built about his poems. They are all addition sums and repetitions of all the things you have to experience and assimilate. Some are also a little like nursery rhymes, like the apt, ‘a happy childhood’:

Do you sometimes forget to wind up your father’s clock?
yes, I sometimes forget to forget my father’s time

do you sometimes wear a straw hat an eye patch a stand-up collar?
no, I celebrate a poem, a summer of gold leaf

do you sometimes write to put the last lips into words?
yes, I decipher a kiss of muddied roses

do you sometimes run through grass that badly needs mowing?
no, I stand still in grass that no one’s been sowing

At first sight, it seems as if the questions have not been properly understood; after all the answers do not match up entirely, which incidentally strengthens the impression of dipping and skipping rhymes, which do not necessarily have to be logical, either. But appearances can be deceptive. If you ‘unravel’ the sum, then you come up with the following ‘solution’ for the first stanza. If you forget to wind your father’s clock (an outmoded pastime, it seems to me) then you ensure that time stands still and you therefore don’t (you forget to) do what progress dictates and forget the past.
It sometimes requires an effort to ‘understand’ Kouwenaar’s poems; they do not give up their secrets willingly. You seldom, however, come across an impossibly tangled knot. It is all a little like a cryptogram. The better you get to know their creator, the easier it becomes to solve the riddles. And so you discover that the totally white room from the title is not just a room in a house, but perhaps also the human body and certainly the poem itself.
All those ideas are brought together in ‘stone poem’, another verse from Kouwenaar’s latest collection. Again a poem with a rigid title and housed in a seemingly immovable dwelling (it was commissioned, incidentally, for a real building on Panamalaan in Amsterdam and can also be admired there R.S.). But it is in the final lines, perhaps, that one gets to know the creator the best:

stone poem

I lie like a ship at anchor
off a city centuries old

I am moored to a present
but wear a past name

I dwell here between my walls
like humans inside their skins

space gazes out of my windows
I have been built for humans

However cool and distanced Kouwenaar’s work may sometimes come across, it does not deny that it is created for humans.

Poems translated by John Irons

© Rob Schouten (Translated by R. Vatter-Buck)  
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