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Gerrit Kouwenaar

1923,Amsterdam -

9 augustus 1924 – 4 september 2014

He was there, at the first CoBrA exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in 1949: the Dutch poet Gerrit Kouwenaar, who later rose to fame. Together with a couple of his colleagues, he took place in the ‘dichterskooi’, which can be translated as both ‘poets cage’ and ‘poet’s cage’. Visitors could read the poems by Kouwenaar and his colleagues in the cage. During the opening of the exhibition, poems were read aloud there, spontaneously. It’s no wonder high school students read in their textbooks about Kouwenaar as a member of the Vijftigers (‘those of the fifties’): a Dutch/Flemish group of experimental poets, closely associated with the CoBrA movement. The students learn that the Vijftigers wrote associative, wild poetry, often with bodily images. Also often cited is the reaction of the poetry establishment of that time: those news poets are just noisy and incomprehensible. The established poet Bertus Aafjes even compared this group of young poets with the Waffen SS – the Second World War had ended not even ten years before. Knowing all of this, you are in for a surprise when you read Kouwenaar’s poetry itself.

The Dichterskooi (poets cage) at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 1949. Left Kouwenaar

Kouwenaar, born in Amsterdam in 1923, contributed to a number of clandestine magazines during the war. He was sentenced to half a year in prison for it. After that, he became an interesting example of how strongly Dutch experimental poetry is imbedded in the innovations of the avant-gardes of both literature and the visual arts. Kouwenaar – who also did some drawing – was an editor for literary magazines and wrote about art. He also translated experimental authors from abroad, such as the Belgian poet/artist Henri Michaux, who is often associated with the surrealist movement, though he was only indirectly involved with them.

 

1949 marked the publication of another fusion of literature and visual arts: Goede morgen haan (‘Good morning rooster’), a booklet with poems by Kouwenaar and drawings by CoBrA artist Constant. In this booklet, there is no sharp distinction between text and images. The words are written by hand, sentences often flow over the page, and sometimes the text is written over the drawings. Kouwenaar’s poems are – especially when compared with his later poetry – remarkably free in spirit. This publication is a good example of the various crossovers that characterized CoBrA and their related movements. Kouwenaar’s other poems from his Vijftigers years are good examples of Vijftigers poetry, because of their style and their social engagement. ‘Elba’ (1925) for example starts like this:

Page form "Goedemorgen Haan" (goodmorning Rooster) by Gerrit Kouwenaar and Constant

I’m wearing a warning blood coat

and I’m standing on elba.

My name is napoleon, my name is i.a. napoleon

and I’m standing on elba.

I wear a hundred names

and I’m standing on elba.

I am a gentleman’s rear end.

O dear generals, look at my beak

on elba.

Walk with me the parks banishment and doubt.

There are nights I sit up like a little beak dog.

My rock is brown, you can see that.

My eye is the clockwork of your inventions:

ATOMIC BOMB! Thank you, sirs!

By the time ‘Elba’ was published, Kouwenaar already had already broken with CoBrA. According to him, the Vijftigers were seen as ‘a kind of decoration’: they didn’t really have a seat at the table. Nevertheless, his poetry still resembled that of the Vijftigers for a while. However, at the same time Kouwenaar slowly moved towards a different kind of poetry, which was guided by an idea that would underlie his poetry for a long time: language as a kind of self-contained reality. In a 1964 interview, he stated:

 

I don’t want to write about something, not a story, no condensed feeling, not a word as a vehicle. I want to return words to the material. I want to escape abstraction by minimizing the distance between language and reality as much as possible, and the place where they almost touch each other, where they can smell each other, nuzzle each other, that’s where poetry starts. The word as a thing.

Page from the Photoalbum of K.O. Gotz, german artist connected to the Cobra movement. Kouwenaar can be seen, second from the left

Kouwenaar’s poetry became more and more quiet, the engagement dissipated, and his poems seemed increasingly self-absorbed. They also became more impersonal, by using the not very specific word ‘men’ (comperable to the English pronoun ‘one’). The act of writing itself became an important theme: language about language. This style and these ideas had a great following among young Dutch poets; poetry critics sometimes spoke of the ‘Kouwenaar school’. This is a radical change from the Vijftigers poetry. Kouwenaar summarized his new poetics perfectly with the book title Volledig volmaakte oneetbare perzik (‘Completely perfectly inedible peach’, 1978): fruit made entirely of language, which you can’t eat, but the language is perfect nonetheless.

This impersonal style and being solely focused on the language itself was also a temporary phase in Kouwenaar’s poetry. Even though the poems often came across very introverted, they also incorporated recognizable (everyday) situations. Poetry critics also pointed out many of these situations originated from the life of the poet himself. This development found its peak in Totaal witte kamer (‘Completely white room’, 2002). Kouwenaar wrote this poetry collection – his last, aside from a thin booklet with new works, published on the occasion of the international Dutch poetry day, and a thick anthology – after the death of his wife Paula. Mourning and loss are important themes in these poems; a development that seemed as unlikely as the ex-Vijftiger turning into a tranquil poet did a few decades before. Kouwenaar died in 2014, at the age of 91.

Page from the photobook of K.O. Gotz

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