Most people associate poetry with rhyme and romance, with emotion and personal involvement. But poetry can be something completely different. Poetry can be a special, critical form of speaking. It can be a genre that critically reflects on the society in which it operates and on the accepted use of language within that society. A genre that doesn’t remove itself from reality but positions itself explicitly within reality. In that sense poetry can be an outspoken political genre. This is what poetry is in the hands of the young Flemish poet Jeroen Theunissen (1977).
In the two collections he has published to date, Thuisverlangen (‘Home Sickness’, 2005) and Het zit zo (‘How it is’, 2009), Theunissen takes to task the language of mass media, marketing and the ideology of the free market. This includes the language of idealism and the hypocrisy of the soixant-huitards who conform all too readily to the dictatorship of bourgeois life and the rules of life under late-capitalism. In a world that consists of inflated and bogus language, of “supplemented housing development schemes” and “a broadening of one’s horizon” we can no longer feel the ground beneath our feet. “I am not really alive”, Theunissen writes, “not in a landscape/ with trees/ I buy souvenirs”. The only thing that reminds us of the real bricks and mortar of life is the ersatz of a product that has to be bought. The title, Thuisverlangen, alludes to this longing for a true home, for an undefiled reality impervious to that virus called consumption.
Marketing and advertising language has penetrated all aspects of daily life. Take social activism; whether it be through anti-globalism, rebellion, non-conformism, eco-friendly consumerism—they have all become lifestyles we can buy into using the right products and the right jargon. Social activism itself has become a choice determined by the market. Even the volunteer who goes to work on a South African eco-friendly farm, like a character from one of Theunissen’s four novels, is following a fashion trend. The logic of marketing and market forces is inescapable.
In his poems Theunissen unmasks not only the coquettish and empty language of mass media (as in, for example, a poem made from one long citation of an interview, as a means of exposing its meaninglessness), he also successfully searches for ways not to fall prey to it. Incorporating stylistic idiosyncrasies, he expropriates language from the hands of managers and marketeers to restore it to its true potential and power. The wild, “inappropriate” fragments are spy holes through which to view a reality uncorrupted by neo-capitalist discourse and to allow language to once again coincide with itself. Theunissen knows that this is the true engagement of the poet: the belief that there exists a continuing possibility to escape from “this world of laissez-faire and neo-capitalism”. And that possibility is art.
Theunissen’s second collection, Het zit zo, contains, more than his first, poems that dare to be simply beautiful. Whereas Thuisverlangen was above all a necessary quest to take a meaningful stance against “the land of money” in which the poet resides, in Het zit zo the poet consciously takes on board the knowledge that he might only have to take this stance in his poetry.
Is it at all possible to be an activist and a writer in a world which “yells it’s entertainment and it’s activism from rooftops so loudly” that one can only hear “noise”? According to Theunissen the answer is yes: through poetry. Poetry can lay bare the mechanisms behind the yelling. Poetry can reveal the beauty of the concrete behind the chaos of noise. Poetry reclaims language from the clutches of managers and marketeers that instrumentalise her. In his second collection Jeroen Theunissen is aware of this more than ever and that is, to put it unpoetically, worth a hell of a lot.
Thuisverlangen (‘Home Sickness’), Meulenhoff-Manteau, Antwerp, 2005
Het zit zo (‘How it is’), Meulenhoff-Manteau, Antwerp, 2009
De onzichtbare (‘The Invisible’), Meulenhoff, Amsterdam, 2004
Het einde (‘The End’), Meulenhoff-Manteau, Antwerp, 2006
Een vorm van vermoeidheid (‘A Kind of Tiredness’), Meulenhoff-Manteau, Antwerp, 2008
De stolp (‘The Bell’), Meulenhoff-Manteau, Antwerp, 2010
The works of Jeroen Theunissen are published by Meulenhoff-Manteau.
A short story by Jeroen Theunissen on Radio Books (in English).
A video interview with Jeroen for Cobra (in Dutch).