Richard Minne counts among Flanders’ most respected poets, but also among its loneliest. The latter should be taken both literally and figuratively: Minne stood alone with his poetry and spent the better part of his life alone.
Minne came to maturity at a time in which neo-Classicists and Modernists were engaged in a struggle for domination in the world of poetry: the years following the Great War. Karel van de Woestijne tended to monopolise the situation in Flanders with his Yeatsian lyricism, while Paul van Ostaijen was busy dismantling traditional western values with a faster expressionistic poetry, steeped in modern sensitivities. Richard Minne should not be located between Van de Woestijne and Van Ostaijen and certainly not above them, but rather – and literally – beside them. Indeed, he mocked them both for a short while and then continued along his own chosen path.
It cannot be claimed that Minne renewed poetry in terms of its external forms – sonnets and rhyme are abundantly present in his work –, but rather in terms of its interior form and tone. As an early forerunner of the Australian poet Les Murray, he employed everyday and on occasion agricultural motifs – as with Murray he lived on a farm for a period of time. Together with unconventional words and dialect, he cast the said motifs in a spoken language reminiscent of the so-called parlando style. He relativised and demystified both the outside world and his work. In the poem ‘Anti-dotum’, he achieves a perfect integration of content and form. The poem articulates how the poet imagines fame and glory and how the latter are ultimately nothing more than a ripple in time. If one reads the poem aloud, one’s voice automatically gets lower and lower, to end in a sort of deep bass: “It’s already being / covered with snow.”
Minne started out as a socialist and writer of militant poetry in the rebellious working-class city of Ghent but it came to nothing. A dyed in the wool individualist, he joined the socialist movement chiefly out of defiance, but the collective straightjacket did not fit. He finally revolted against socialism itself, gathered together his frustrations, misfortunes and broken dreams and withdrew. He lived a secluded existence, like a Flemish Robert Frost, and maintained only limited contacts with the literary world. He evoked this situation in his ‘Hoveniersgedichten’ – ‘Gardener’s Poems’: from a “confined strip of land” he explored language in search of human purity and freedom. Minne cultivated irony or (self) derision in his poems, but just as frequently countered melancholy with sarcasm. An empathetic twinge or ascetic longing drifted to the surface from time to time in his work. His little patch of Flemish countryside could then be transformed into “the upland plain of Pamir”, around which he composed his ‘Ode aan den eenzame’ – ‘Ode to the Solitary One', according to his friend and publisher Raymond Herreman “one of world literature’s most beautiful poems”.
A solitary ironist, Minne was also alone in Flanders. What lay behind his ill-fated early years was unknown. Moreover, his recalcitrant, profane verses were too candid and ahead of their time for Flanders of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Understanding and recognition failed to materialise after the publication of his first collection In den zoeten inval (Open House) (1927). Influence from other poets in the Dutch speaking world is hard to detect, and likeminded poets at home and abroad are few and far between. Richard Minne was a sort of “great unknown”. Some point to similarities with the members of the French école fantasiste such as Carco, Derème and Toulet, because their names appear in his work. Minne, however, found their work too unassuming. He himself endeavoured to produce “serious work in which fantasy is given its proper place and its true identity is restored.”
Raymond Herreman once referred to this identity in Minne’s poetry: more bitter irony, more brutal insanity and more mystical lyricism. The minds with whom Minne really sensed a degree of kinship were old-fashioned foreign satirists and free thinkers – remarkably enough for the most part prose writers. He swore by eighteenth-century writers such as Diderot and Voltaire from France and Smollett and Sterne from Great Britain, established links in his poems with Chekhov and Gogol and particularly admired the outspokenness of Léautaud. He also looked up to Jonathan Swift, whom he called an “ill-natured and spiritual misanthropist” and a “lonely and bitter individual”.
Herreman encouraged him throughout his life to give poetic voice to this disposition, but in actual fact Minne’s career only lasted ten years. He seldom added new works to his oeuvre, and like poets that had died prematurely, he underwent the Keatsian tragedy of the poet’s life nipped in the bud by sickness, intrinsic uncertainty and misunderstanding. His poetic blood continued to flow later in his life when he worked as a newspaper journalist and columnist: prose by the square-centimetre with the much admired Montaigne at the back of his mind. Recognition of his enormous capacities as a poet, however, only emerged after he had taken his place among the figures of history.
In den zoeten inval (Open house), Reimond Herreman and Maurice Roelants, Brussels, 1927
Wolfijzers en schietgeweren (Snares and pitfalls), Manteau/ Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Brussels/Rotterdam, 1942
In den zoeten inval en andere gedichten (Open house and Other Poems), Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1955
Gedichten (Poems) KANTL, Ghent, 2003
Heineke Vos en zijn biograaf (Heineke Vos and his biographer), Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Rotterdam, 1933
In 20 lijnen (In 20 lines), Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1955
Verzamelde verhalen (Collected Stories), Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1996
Verzameld werk (Collected works), Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 2006
Poèmes (French) Henry Fagne, Brussels, 1965
'Eight poems' (English) In: The Low Countries. Arts and society in Flanders and the Netherlands 11, Ons Erfdeel, Rekkem, 2003, p. 221-223
De Bijter, a website dedicated to the life and works of Richard Minne (in Dutch)
Information about Richard Minne in the Digital Library of Dutch Literature (in Dutch)
A website on Literary Ghent, Minne’s native city (in Dutch)
Minne’s publisher Van Oorschot (in Dutch)
An interview with Richard Minne by the critic H.U. Jessurun d'Oliveira (in Dutch)
Richard Minne on Lyrikline