Poetry International Poetry International
Poet

Gerrit Kouwenaar

Gerrit  Kouwenaar

Gerrit Kouwenaar

(The Netherlands, 1923 - 2014)
Biography
Gerrit Kouwenaar was first published in clandestine publications during World War II. After the war he earned a living as a translator (a.o. Sartre, Dürrenmatt and Brecht) and journalist. Together with a.o. Lucebert and Hugo Claus he was a leading member of the 50s Movement and edited the influential anthology Vijf 5tigers. His volumes een geur van verbrande veren (a smell of burnt feathers, 1991) and de tijd staat open (time is wide open, 1996) have won him universal critical acclaim as well as the important VSB Poetry Prize.
Kouwenaar’s poetry is usually described as a kind of murder. In his poems Kouwenaar tries to cancel the denotative character of words. “I cut the throat of a word,” according to the opening poem in autopsie/anoniem (autopsy/anonymous, 1965, included in Gedichten 1948-1978 [Poems 1948-1978']). Cancelling the denotative character of words is an attempt to jettison the reality which is formed in and through the words that refer to it. It allows a poem to turn in on itself, becoming a thing among things, becoming reality itself. As such the poem no longer belongs to the poet who can no longer use it as a vehicle for his thoughts and emotions (“this / is no longer your property, master”, Kouwenaar tells himself). The poet and the poem’s inspiration disappear behind the poem, it supplants them. Even time, with its constant passing, the only reality in our everyday lives and something which can only lead to one thing for those who, like Kouwenaar, are simple heathens: even time is brought to a standstill within the poem. This makes the poem a time-and-place-dependent eternity.

Writing poetry is thus an extremely paradoxical activity for Kouwenaar: it is “murder” (bringing things to a halt) in order to escape from death (total standstill); it is a settling of accounts with one’s own transience in order to attain an eternity in which one escapes from one’s own mortality. It is, as Kouwenaar himself described it, “the osmosis of eternity and impermanence”, “something that holds its ground on the edge of loss”. The result is poetry which deals above all with the possibilities and impossibilities of poetry itself. Poetry in which an attempt is made “to put silence to music/ but keep the name silent”.

In Kouwenaar’s early poetry death is a poetic concept but in the volumes that have appeared since the collected poems in 1982 – het blindst van de vlek (the blindest of the spot, 1982), het ogenblik: terwijl (the moment: while, 1987), een geur van verbrande veren (a smell of burnt feathers, 1991), de tijd staat open (time is wide open, 1996) – a gradual change is apparent. For the poet the killed, eternal reality of the poem seems to display more and more similarities with his own biological death. “The word is dead, it must be writ,” writes Kouwenaar now, in the realisation that writing as action, as deed, is the only thing that can offer solace in the face of the suddenly menacing standstill and eternity of the word that has been written and is fixed forever in his letters.

Despite the heaviness of this theme, the tone of Kouwenaar’s poetry is still generally cheerful and militant. Delicious meals are enjoyed and glasses are raised. He might have finished the roast game of the main course, but he is still enjoying the ripe word melon, and he still concludes these poems by pouring himself a glass of the water of life and observing: “here in my dusk the old full life still shoots sparks/ and postponed flesh bickers with the mind”.
© Erik Menkveld
Bibliography

Poetry
Achter een woord, U.M. Holland, Amsterdam, 1953
Hand o.a, U.M. Holland, Amsterdam, 1956
De Ondoordringbare Landkaart, A.A.M. Stols, Den Haag, 1957
Het Gebruik van Woorden, J. Heijnis, Zaandijk, 1958
De stem op de 3e etage, Querido, Amsterdam, 1960
Zonder Namen, Querido, Amsterdam, 1962
Landschappen en andere gebeurtenissen, Querido, Amsterdam, 1974
Volledig volmaakte oneetbare perzik, Querido, Amsterdam, 1978
Gedichten 1948 - 1978, Querido, Amsterdam, 1982
Het blindst van de vlek, Querido, Amsterdam, 1982
Het ogenblik: terwijl, Querido, Amsterdam, 1987
Een eter in het najaar, Querido, Amsterdam, 1989
Er is geen elders waar het anders is, Querido, Amsterdam, 1993
De tijd staat open, Querido, Amsterdam, 1996
Helder maar grijzer. Gedichten 1978 - 1996, Querido, Amsterdam, 1998
Totaal witte kamer, Querido, Amsterdam, 2002
Het bezit van een ruïne, Querido, Amsterdam, 2005
Ik heb nooit, Eikeldoorpers, Apeldoorn, 2005
De ochtend, Uitgeverij 69, Hilversum, 2006
Vallende stilte (selected poems), Querido, Amsterdam, 2008

Prose
Uren en sigaretten (novellas) 1946
Negentien-nu (novel) 1950
Ik was geen soldaat (novel) 1951
Val, bom (novella) 1956

Collections of translations of Gerrit Kouwenaar's poetry have appeared with Kleinheinrich (Germany, 1996), Limes (Germany, 1972), Artistow (Poland, 1986), Ellerströms (Sweden, 2001) and in numerous anthologies and magazines.
Sponsors
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Ludo Pieters Gastschrijver Fonds
Hendrik Muller fonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Literature Translation Institute of Korea
Partners
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère