‘Poetry is more enduring than any matter’

Gerrit Kouwenaar interviewed


For a long time, Gerrit Kouwenaar (78) was branded ‘a cold, calculating constructor’. His hermetic poems have been dissected by scientists. And Kouwenaar is still convinced that a poem is first and foremost a language product. After the death of his wife, however, it became evident to him that keeping your distance in poetry is not always possible. ‘I couldn’t write about Paula in the impersonal form’.

‘Death, dying, is something that has been part of my work for some years now. A theme, you might say, but it’s far more of course. Such a poetic theme, that strange void you can play around with to some extent in words, gradually gets under your skin. But it was always from a distance. Paula’s sickness and death suddenly made it quite tangible. So real and close I could touch it. And that knocked me for six’.

Have you learned anything about death?

‘I don’t think so, really. It remains a mysterious, uninterpretable cliché. As one of the living, you are always an observer. But I did discover something about myself. The grief affected me far more than I had expected. I’d thought I would be able to deal with it in a more controlled manner, more rationally, or whatever. But when I read out the poem "totaal witte kamer" [totally white room] for her at the funeral, and was unable to keep a proper grip on myself, I was annoyed with myself. I didn’t want to stand there like a blubbering old man, overcome with emotion. What I felt was already in the poem. All that superfluous emotion and tears only spoiled it. I realised that as soon as it happened. But looking back, I think my reaction had something to do with the way my father dealt with such issues. He was extremely easily moved, bordering on the sentimental, but he had a kind of self-discipline, something laconic, which I admired very much in him as a child’.

You describe him in a poem as a man ‘with a smile so slow it reaches all the way here’.

‘Yes, particularly where it comes to getting older, as a sort of reflection, as if I was starting to merge with him. He was an engaging man. A journalist with the NRC, an old-fashioned liberal, and I don’t mean that so much in the sense of a party supporter. He was already getting on for fifty when I was born and it was only later I realised he must have been more of a grandfather to me than a father. Time had already caught up with him when I was a child. He liked to use, not without irony, a somewhat antiquated vocabulary. He would talk about "refreshments" and "headwear". He displayed affection with a kind of quasi-nonchalance. He loved to read out loud. Dickens in old-fashioned translations. That mixture of humour and pathos, he was fond of that. As soon as God came into it, he would say, "Let’s skip this bit; it’s not so interesting for us".
I come from a non-believing background. My parents never worried us with heaven, hell and damnation. I did have to go to Sunday school, though; part of your cultural baggage, was how my father put it, just like Greek mythology. My mother always said, "Well, at least you won’t learn anything bad there". My mother was a more modest woman, who went by her feelings and intuition mostly. She embraced the artistic aspirations of both her sons right from the beginning. And she was not devoid of talent herself. She made lovely embroidered pictures, a bit Grandma Moses style. Years ago I wrote a poem about it "Paradise Was Made By A Mother".
My mother was retiring, but sometimes had extremely outspoken opinions and preferences. She wanted no truck with official bodies or red tape. When I told her I had won the PC Hooft Prize, she just said, "Yes, I heard".’

Five of the Vijftigers group have been awarded the PC Hooft Prize now.

(With a derisive smile) ‘Yes, I recently read a rather catty piece about how many prizes the Vijftigers had bagged. Almost with an undertone of: I don’t suppose they came by them honestly. Campert, Kousbroek, Claus, Lucebert and I have, indeed, all received a prize. Only Vinkenoog seems to have been a bit left out. Unfairly in my view. I think he should get something just for the constant enthusiastic role he has played and continues to play. He’s a nice old boy in my book’.

How inspiring has the contact with the Vijftigers been over all these years?

‘When you’re twenty-four or five and no longer solely occupied with your highly personal grievances and ideas, but start to really discover a profession, then it’s good to do it together with kindred peers, particularly if there is an outside world that considers it all a load of nonsense. It feels good standing shoulder to shoulder. In the beginning, we read everything to each other in the living room. Have you written anything new? Yes, everyone had always written something new and was dying to have it heard. At that time, it was not so easy to get anything published and poetry evenings were rare. In the early fifties, we went on the road a few times a year with two cars from the Bezige Bij publishers. Five poets and their lady friends. We all drank a lot, even those who were driving. On the way back, bundled into a Volkswagen beetle, passing round the bottle, I allowed myself to quip that there only needed an accident for an entire generation of poets to be wiped out in one fell swoop’.

‘The main thing that united the Vijftigers was the war they had all gone through and the realisation that it should be responded to with another type of poetry. That had already happened in other countries; that’s where the great examples were. It’s a slight misunderstanding that the Vijftigers’ primary commitment was supposed to be political. What we were interested in, first and foremost, was making poetry of our own time. Lucebert, Elburg and I were the most politically committed. But the way we expressed that commitment was what actually mattered. Not using social realism as a guideline, in any case. Frankly, we couldn’t have given two hoots about the workers’ paradise. For us, it was all about making a clean sweep in the art world. Not to sing the praises of the workers in a sonnet. Like in the Soviet Union, where art was considered to be progressive just because it depicted a man with a moustache. That was, naturally, rather naive of us and, looking back, all modern European art was naive in that respect. If Picasso had lived in Russia, he wouldn’t have lived as long’.

Who do you get to read your poems these days?

(Taken aback) ‘Before anything is published? Actually, that never happens any more. Every now and again I let Kopland read something when we are discussing poetry over a glass of wine. We live a couple of hours away from each other in France. He is a very dear friend. And a poet I greatly admire. Our poetry is also related, but has a different origin, all the same. They are not immediate family, you could say’.

Herman de Coninck said that Kopland and you have done a kind of swap; you’ve started writing more anecdotal poetry and he more hermetic.

‘Oh, all that academic claptrap about anecdotalism and hermeticism. It’s a myth that my poetry is hermetic, and that’s not exactly meant in a friendly way, anyhow. It is more an accusation than a serious characterisation. Hermetic is generally taken to mean not understandable, wilfully incomprehensible, even. What’s at the heart of that is the current misapprehension that art should be accessible to everybody, even the so-called ordinary people. Complicated is not allowed. The artist as educator, comforter, entertainer.In my view - I’ve already said it a hundred times and will go on saying it - a poem is a language product, made from language and consisting of language. But it’s ridiculous to then draw the conclusion that it should therefore be without content, a game of words and sounds. Words always mean something, even though they can come to mean something more or something else when put together. Citing Kopland as an anecdotalist, on the other hand, is equally simplistic. He is a poet who often restricts himself to one theme within a poem. Many of his poems have a meaning, they say something, but that’s not the same thing as being anecdotal. His poems are not only beautiful and moving because he describes something beautiful and moving in ready-made words, but because he brings it all to life with language’.

And you, have you learned anything new as far a content is concerned?

‘These days, I am prompted more often than in the past by an event, an insight, a personal experience. And sometimes by an appealing commission or an in memoriam, when yet another friend was expired. I’ve noticed that such commissions, whether they come from an external source or whether I grant them to myself, can sometimes give me a little push in a direction I would not initially have sought of my own accord. It provides another angle, often with good results. You might perhaps label such an approach as anecdotal. For me it’s a kind of series of stepping stones along which you can lead the reader before he takes to the water’.

Your house in France is appearing more and more often in your poems. Fens wrote, "The house is gaining almost the symbolic proportions of the work itself".

‘Well, the older you get, and I don’t think that only applies to me, the more your poems have a tendency to stay closer to home. You get closer to your own skin. I think staying close to home and your own skin is something inherent. You discover you can reduce the whole big wide world to an orchard and an old elderberry tree.’

Describe your house in France for us.

‘It’s an ancient farmhouse with walls of great rough stones. There’s a neglected garden and a worm-eaten orchard. Everything is old and used. Heavy brown beams in the living room; trees felled a couple of hundred years ago with the sap still on them. You continually come across the shades of previous owners. A house with a personality. Right from the start I had the feeling I was more of a temporary guest than the owner.’

‘The house is in a small hamlet of two or three houses in a hill above the village. It’s quite a climb when you’re almost eighty. Even when we were younger. Then we would go down to do our shopping and always had a glass of wine. At the end of the day we climbed back up with the shopping, which became heavier and heavier. We would sit down giggling on a little wall half way up. Oh, it was all very charming the way things were. To begin with we stayed there from June until September, but we started staying longer and longer. In the end, we lived there for more than five months of the year.’

‘When I think about that house, the first thing I see is the white room at the top. I wrote a poem about it, which I read at Paula’s funeral. The room is under the roof, a pitched roof, white-plastered on the inside. Just like lying in a big, white tent. That’s where our bed was, and the table I worked at. The tabletop is an old door I found in the cellar. An old door with rivets from two hundred years ago. When I rubbed it down, it turned out to be made half of chestnut and half oak. I laid it on two trestles. On one side there was a roughly sawn cat door, which I left intact. I’ve got my waste paper bin underneath. That makeshift table and that tent room with our old bed are more precious to me than anything in this house in Amsterdam. I want to keep that house, sit at that table again, but at the same time I’m scared to do so. What’s the point of being there all by myself? Everything there has been lived with, shared. It almost feels like a memory when I think about it, something over and done with, never to come again’.

‘The amusing thing about being in the poetry scene for so many years is that you’ve experienced all the trends to some extent. Now there’s another debate raging on the age-old question of whether you should lead the reader by the hand or whether you can present him with a puzzle. Mr Pfeiffer is crusading once again for complex poetry. Not so long ago it was exactly the opposite. The Vijftigers and related poets came under fire for only producing cryptograms. Suddenly, I was the champion of hermeticism’.

Remarks have been made such as ‘cold laboratory poet’.

(Satisfied) ‘Yes, I appear to have gagged an entire generation. No, no idea where that predicate comes from. I do remember a review by Morriën in which he wrote, "experiments at low temperatures…" At that time I liked to plead for cooling off any stirred up emotions before starting to write. To be honest, I still feel that every poet should take that to heart. But whether that came across properly, I have my doubts. I was labelled as a cold, calculating constructor for some time, while as far as I was concerned I was simply dutifully elevating the all too private issues from the living room. It was not simply by chance that I started using the word "one"’.

‘Now no poet would dare use the word any more. It has become an almost Kouwenaarian use of language.The danger is that somewhere along the line it becomes a style feature you can’t get rid off. It rolls automatically off your tongue, from your pen. In recent years I have been forced, dare I say, to go back to using "I", without, incidentally, abandoning that cooling mechanism. I couldn’t write about Paula in the impersonal form. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, some naturally to me.’

‘I’m writing a poem about Paula’s death at the moment. There’s a line in it that goes, "You are so entirely absent everywhere…" The house still hasn’t got used to her absence; it’s still full of her. I hear the stairs creaking. No, it can’t be… I used to talk about the surroundings as a silent witness to all that has happened. Something must have rubbed off on all those blind, deaf and dumb objects. That’s what the poem talks about in a way. About the presence of the absent.’

‘We managed to celebrate New Years Eve 2000 at home with friends, a candlelit dinner with all the trimmings, just as she would have organised it. In my memory, she was sitting there quite contentedly, with a pretty blouse on and jewellery, but when I look at the photographs, she looks lost in thought, amazed, as if she is thinking, "What am I doing here? Who are all these people?"’

‘That very last summer, I would like to do something with that sometime, lift it up out of time somehow. I would like to give an impression of her last days amongst all that dear human wreckage. For almost six months I took the number 20 tram every day to the nursing home. I have sometimes thought I might go back there one more time. I’ve never been back since she was lying dead in that little bedroom between two candles, like a real corpse, in her smart black jacket with mother of pearl buttons’. 
(Abruptly) ‘Now, let’s go back to the poetry’.

Tell me, what’s the most important thing you have discovered as a poet?

‘As a poet? Well, that you can use something as transient as words, as language, to capture a moment in time, something that’s humanly impossible. Everyone dies, even the best poet. You wrote something yesterday, you write something today, you will write something tomorrow and the day after tomorrow will see the publication of the works of a man time has finally overtaken. But, hopefully, something sticks; that dead man has strung together a few words that are more enduring than any matter. I still want to add a few more verses. I’d like to produce one more nice volume. I’ll go on swimming against the tide of time a little longer’.

© Elizabeth Lockhorn (Translated by R. Vatter-Buck)  
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