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Willem Jan Otten

Willem Jan Otten

Willem Jan Otten

(The Netherlands, 1951)
Willem Jan Otten is a poet, essayist, novelist and playwright. All his work is strongly related in content; he writes about the great questions of life and death, belief, the origins and purpose of life, but also about private experiences involving guilt, desire, lust and jealousy. After his début collection Een zwaluw vol zaagsel (A Swallow Filled with Sawdust) he published twelve more, each one a new, personal orientation towards, mostly moral, questions of life.
In Willem Jan Otten’s recent work, our gaze is always guided through our familiar reality to explore another reality, one that transcends our own experience and perception. This is also the case in Genadeklap (Coup de grace), Otten’s first new collection in six years. Clearly religiously motivated, in Otten’s case this perspective is informed by his Catholicism. It makes his work highly reflective and introspective, yet without losing sight of everyday and worldly concerns. This shows in his poems’ images, which are always clear and recognizable, and their language, which takes on many different registers: exalted, sharp, colloquial, musical, abstract, and direct.
The poems deal with liminal experiences like loss and impending death, but also with the love for a spouse, both in contemporary daily life and in the classic story of Penelope and Odysseus. The way in which Otten manages to put into words the complexity of feelings that are constantly in flux is a testament to his profound empathic powers. All Otten’s poems in one way or another deal with the question of how to live a fulfilling life, and he reveals that fulfillment consists of both desire and surrender. Genadeklap poses crucial questions about reality and about humanity’s place in the great cosmology of which our reality is but a small part.

Otten’s poetry is clear in meaning and musical in tone – flowing like the water he lovingly writes about – and decidely essayistic in content. It is a poetry of seeking, a poetry which circles around the intangible and the absent, around what is missing and what missing implies. In his volume Paviljoenen (Pavillions, 1991), Penelope’s love for Ulysses is implied in missing: “Wanting you is missing you. It was missing at first sight.”

Otten often begins his poems with a concrete image, which then soars to great, often mythological heights. While retaining its symbolical, at times explicitly metaphysical content, his language over the years has grown simpler, more intimate, more sober in form. “The best lines are the ones that make you wonder if they're still poetry,” he says. In his collection Eindaugustuswind (Late August Wind, 1998) he links his poetry, even more than before, with water. Water, flowing like life itself, on which, alone in his boat, he can withdraw in silence:

The season open
trying to be of ear
and not the one who
breaks what carries him away.

Deep down in his poetry, Otten knows how hard it is to reconcile the will to understand that which carries away with the desire to leave it intact. In Eindaugustuswind, he cautiously begins to accept the state of not-understanding as that which may truly free the soul. Soul-searching, much as the poet would want it to, cannot provide all the answers. “Do not clarify this,” he writes, and “because I cannot comprehend myself/ as trying to comprehend – that is why I am free”.

His latest collection Genadeklap (2018) is nominated for De Grote Poëzieprijs.
© Mirjam van Hengel (Translated by Florian Duijsens )
Selected Bibliography


Een Zwaluw Vol Zaagsel, Querido, Amsterdam, 1972
Het Keurslijf, Querido, Amsterdam, 1974
De Eend, Querido, Amsterdam, 1975
Ik Zoek het Hier, Querido, Amsterdam, 1980
Na de Nachttrein, Querido, Amsterdam, 1988
Paviljoenen, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1991
Eindaugustuswind, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1998
Gerichte Gedichten, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 2011
De Vlek, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 2011
Genadeklap, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 2018

Een Man van Horen Zeggen, Querido, Amsterdam, 1984
De Wijde Blik, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1992
Ons Mankeert Niets, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1994
Specht en Zoon, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 2004
Droomportaal, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 2014

Denken Is een Lust, Querido, Amsterdam, 1985
Onze Lieve Vrouwe van de Schemering, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 2009

De Nacht van de Pauw, Het Nationale Toneel, Den Haag, 1997


In Dutch:
Otten at the Koninlijke Bibliotheek (The Dutch Royal Library)
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère