Eddy van Vliet, who in daily life was a practising lawyer, was also someone for whom poetry was a vital part of existence. Only at one moment did the two worlds merge. In 1994, he published the passionate essay Poëzie: een pleidooi (Poetry: the Case for the Defence), the text of an address he had given back in 1976 to the annual Conference of the Antwerp Bar. It reveals something of the tension between the demands of reality and the world of the dream, the exact field in which Van Vliet’s poetry operates.
After an unremarkable debut in 1964, the poet, in line with the spirit of the times and like so many others influenced by his reading of Bertolt Brecht, plunged for a decade into social and political commitment. That commitment was fuelled not primarily by political theories, but by moral indignation at everything that detracts from the ideal of a pure, almost paradisial world. Consequently, as the poet begins to find his own voice, starting with the collections Het grote verdriet (The Great Sorrow, 1974) and Na de wetten van Afscheid & Herfst (After the Laws of Parting and Autumn, 1978), it becomes increasingly clear that he is essentially a romantic confessional poet. Not the ethereal, introverted kind, but one who lives fully in the world and is constantly colliding with its imperfections, with loss and madness. His meeting, during Poetry International Rotterdam 1973, with the American poet Robert Lowell, often viewed as among the greatest ‘confessional poets’, may have influenced that development. From then onwards his set themes become love, both its ecstasy and its failure, childhood and the relationship with the absent father, loss of faculties and death.
A first high point in that mature work is Jaren na maart (Years after March, 1983). In it, March stands for the moment at which the father left home and thereby caused a first radical rift in the ordered world of the child. That rift underlies an attitude to life and a way of writing that mark the rest of his work in a fundamental way: the denial of reality and its evocation, the struggle between remembering and forgetting. It is a theme that he shares with Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, whom he greatly admired. In the presentation of his poetry it often expresses itself in the form of heightened attention to “secondary phenomena” accompanying traumatic events. As in the poem, ‘My Father’s Goodbye’: “The garden gate in sudden need of grease. / Gaps on the wall must be covered up quick / quick, get rid of the shaving soap smell.” On the one hand, the eye is diverted from what is shattering the harmony, but at the same time the way in which the whole environment is affected by loss is evoked.
It also operates the other way round, in the many love poems from De binnenplaats (The Courtyard, 1987) and De toekomstige dief (The Future Thief, 1991), in which the perception of reality is transformed by the eyes of the lover: “I recoloured, on love’s authority, what lay there slightly wilted / in the shop into a festive meal. Lettuce regained / its vigour […]”
Finally the collection Vader (Father, 2001), which appeared shortly before his sudden death, can be read as a testament, completely in line with what drove him from the outset. The motto from Graham Swift that prefaces the collection, heralds its tenor: “Narrative reconciles retention and forgetting”. Here Van Vliet simultaneously portrays his father, himself and the world of the twentieth century. He does so in the tone of restrained melancholy so characteristic of him and with great attention to sensory detail.
Het grote verdriet (The Great Sorrow), Nijgh & Van Ditmar, ’s-Gravenhage, 1974.
Na de wetten van Afscheid & Herfst (After the Laws of Parting and Autumn), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1978.
Jaren na maart (Years after March), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1983.
De binnenplaats (The courtyard), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1987.
De toekomstige dief (The future thief), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1991.
Poëzie: een pleidooi (Poetry: the Case for the Defence), Poëziecentrum, Ghent, 1991.
Vader (Father), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2001.
Verzamelde gedichten (Collected poems), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2007.
'n Pleidooi vir die poësie (Afrikaans), Protea Poësie, Pretoria, 1998.
[Selected poems] (Bulgarian), Pet Plus, Sofia, 2003.
Farewell and fall (English), Dedalus, Dublin, 1994.
Avlad i den strängaste av vintrar (Swedish), Ellerströms, Lund, 1997.
Reina Prinsen Geerligs prize (1967).
Ark Prize (1969).
Jan Campert Prize (1975).
Belgian State Prize for Poetry (1988).
Audiofiles and translations of Van Vliet’s poetry on Lyrikline
The author’s page in the Digital Library of Dutch Literature