Postmodern Poetry Meets Modernist Discourse

Contemporary Poetry in the Low Countries

Jos Joosten & Thomas Vaessens

"Contemporary poetry in the Low Countries [The Netherlands & Flanders] appears to be an extremely multi-faceted affair: never before did so many tendencies inhabit the field of poetry, and commentaries in the Low Countries, but also elswewhere, have repeatedly admitted their confusion about the current dispersal of the field. The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing even talks about the 'Balkanization of contemporary poetry'."

Read the full article in English >>


Samuel Vriezen said...

Interestingly, the paper contains a discussion of a Tonnus Oosterhoff poem which was translated into english and which happens to be a poem I have often wondered about how it should sound in English. Especially the crucial line "Dat gaat niet" is tonally, I think, so extremely important, and I haven't quite figured out what phrase in english would do it. The solution here ("that is impossible") is useful for the technical discussion at hand, but fails, IMHO, poetically, because it doesn't get the tone quite right. "Dat gaat niet", literally "That doesn't go" in this context is much more complex, containing tones of "That won't work", "that's impossible", but also, say, "I won't allow you". It's exactly the informality of this expression which gives it may possibilities for context, which makes a more flat reading such as "that's impossible" dissatisfactory. Any takers?

Samuel Vriezen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samuel Vriezen said...

Perhaps I should just admit defeat, or at least go from the simplest solution - "You Can't" - which would get me something like:


"You're so sincere, so modest!"
"I enjoy it!"
It's a pleasure
to be Tonnus Oosterhoff.
"I wouldn't mind that myself!"
"Indeed, but you can't!"

You can't.

The original:


'Je bent zo integer, zo bescheiden.'
'Voor mijn plezier!'
Het is een genoegen
Tonnus Oosterhoff te zijn.
'Ik zou het ook wel willen.'
Jawel, maar dat gaat niet!

Dat gaat niet.

Tonnus Oosterhoff

Scheve Jan said...

it can't be done?

Also, I'd prefer 'It is pleasant' or 'it's quite pleasant' to 'It's a pleasure' to emphasize the allusion to T.S. Eliot's unpleasant meeting.

Scheve Jan said...

As to the contents of the essay: i only read through it once quickly but it seems a fairly accurate resumé of what is leading up to the ´condition´ the contemporary Dutch poet finds herself in, a condition that is ofcourse shared largely by other western literatures.

The main focus of a critical approach to what is stated, observed here is perhaps that as active participants in the constitution of a poetic reality, we need to look more severely at the economical realities of how the contemporary poet (dis)functions within her society, how the pomo-dictum of Anything Goes is caught within the logic of production it attempts to deny, largely because of its own desire to produce, its nostalgia for the artifice, the lost object of beauty.

Instead the practice of a freed poetic creativity could become an intensification of the strategies that emphasize its procedural aspects, not an illusionary drive of nothing towards a magical substantiation, but an enjoiment, une jouissance, of and in the proces itself.

In that respect we do not have to fool ourselves any longer: we now have largely the means at hand to enable a free flow of poetic production without the immediate need for a double bind with capital, the amount of excess is that scandulously high that it brandishes all intellectual effort that disregards the actual easy-to-attain freedom in favor of institutionalisations, rewarding commercial positions,the shiny paperback covers, the self-indulgent logic of the art-games with its male prize-bunnies, well, all that crap simply as something that can´t be done. Not in the face of all the suffering in this world, anyway.

So perhaps things are a lot simpler that many of these brilliant essays suggest. Nothing goes, or Anything still goes, provided you don´t kill and sell it.

The need for products, our poetic lack, has always been secondary, a rather foolish mistake, a meagre reflection, a distant shimmering of the original desire to create, a desire that is by its very nature cracking up the feeble fabric of the real objective world.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


I do not speak Dutch; but what about "that's not it"?



Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


I am sorry, I made my suggestion, which makes no sense, without looking at the text itself.

What about, "Indeed, but no way"?


Murat Nemet-Nejat said...

I am very hesitant to enter this discussion because I have little familiarity with either Dutch poetry or the poetry from Flanders.

I would like to ask a few questions around Thomas Vaeesen's paper.

My impression is that Mr. Vaessen does not look on post-modernism very kindly, does not even think it is a "real" movement.One can sense that in his associating words like "balkanization" or "so-called" or "dilution" with post-modernism.

The second is the implicit assumption that the avant-garde is, and could only ever be a Western movement in the future, associated with the cultural unity of Europe (even though it functions as a contrary force within it, as the quotation from Marjorie Perloff suggests).

During the last thirty to forty years, there has been a huge influx of Eastern, mostly Islamic, population into Western Europe. This influx started in Germany but already is prevalent in France, England (even Switzerland), and I assume in Holland and Belgium, constituting a significant percentage of the population in each country.Don't they essentially speak the language of the country in which they live?

Do you think this population will fail to have an impact on those languages and their literatures, considering that they are already affecting their political lives. This effect is already clear enough in Germany (the earliest of these influxes), where German writers of Turkish origin and certain Turkish consciousness are having transforming effects on German literature.

Do you think this will stop in German or occur in other literatures, for instance in France, also? What is as relevant here, will these writers strictly and only follow the rules of Western avant garde or in their transformative work in the Western language will they also be deeply affected by the literatures,myths, poetics, "the stylistic identity," sounds of their original culture?

An important aspect of post-modernism is its global aspect. The clashes of decorum, which from a purely Western point of view may appear as "balkanization" (basically a racist word referring to the inferior "there") or "dilution also reflect the realities of these cultural movements, disappearances of borders mainly due to the fall of the Soviet Empire. These changes, under the rubric of the post-modern, may require a re-definition of the concept of the avant-garde and its nature; but they have nothing unreal about them.

This very blog-site itself is in essence a post- modern phenomenon and invention, reflecting the changes we are talking about.


Samuel Vriezen said...

Murat, thanks for your suggestion - I think, though, "no way" is too strong.

RE your other post: if I'm not mistaken, the islamic immigrants as a percentage of the full population in Holland is among the highest in Europe, and the impact on literature has been very, very big. Curiously though the turkish immigrants seem to have less presence in literature than 2nd generation immigrants from Marocco and some exiles from countries like Iran and Iraq. OTOH I've seen more turkish composers than maroccan ones.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


Whether the impact comes from Maroccon, Iranian or Iraqi or immigrants is relatively unimportant. The crucial important is the the effect exists, not as a cultural multiplicity but a structural change within Dutch language and literature.

Even the distinction between music and poetry (literature) is much less defined, pointing to the transforming effect of post-modernism, not as a fad or superficiality, on the European consciousness. A similar transformation, I am assuming, is occuring in the East.

Samuel, can you discuss more specifically the specific changes, if any, the Moroccons, Iraqis, etc., have brought to the literay language?



Samuel Vriezen said...

Hi Murat, actually that question I find as yet a bit hard to answer. Some authors are bringing a new tone to the language that you could associate with the non-western aspect, but at the same time much of what these people do fits very well in the tradition, and I'm hesitant to read too much into their work as of yet without having done much more detailed analysis. Subject matter is a more tangible thing, and certainly some of these authors bring in themes that wouldn't have been thinkable without globalisation.

Two poets I find interesting would include Mustafa Stitou, who has been using a wide range of styles and techniques, which seem to be equally based on experimental ideas of collage and found material as on more traditional poetic forms, and addressing a wide range of philosophical and cultural topics. The other poet I'm thinking of is Al Galidi, a refugee from iraq. His last book is "De herfst van Zorro" (Zorro's Autumn) and I found what I've read in it up to now touching - his language is very fresh and simple, seemingly naive - he claims to try to write silly poems but among them you find some very direct and striking odes, love poems, etc. Here's an example: (the titles in the book are quite long :-)

One night in his autumn, Zorro opened the fridge. THE CUSTARD was shivering with fear. Zorro felt the custard's pain and told it he would not eat it but just wanted to drink some juice. For this custard Zorro sang the following song.

Custard, my brother,
coming from the land of milk,
waiting for your end in a fridge.

Shiver with cold,
but do not shiver before me.
Custard, my brother.
I, too, shiver in a fridge,
colder than yours.
A fridge with no door.

Custard, my brother,
you must be cold here
not to rot there.
I must rot here
not to be cold there.

I am sensitive, unsure.
My big mouth
is bigger than my hart.
If you shiver before me,
I am afraid of myself.

Your fridge is my life.
My fridge is your life.
Do not be afraid of me.

Your fridge is fruit and vegetables,
cheese, jam and summer.
My fridge is dark and waiting,
loneliness and homesickness.

I open myself
and nothing comes,
save for this song
an eternal friendship
between you and me
in this long autumn.

Custard, my brother,
from woman's milk
and cow's milk
we have been built.

In music, I believe that actual influences from non-western music have been equally addressed by the western composers themselves as by the composers of immigrant stock. Holland seems to have quite good gamelans (indonesia being a former colony) but in general, an interest among western composers in non-western modes, forms, instruments, techniques, rhythms, esthetics and scales has been a going concern at least since Debussy.

The first concert I went to where a very noticeable part of the audience was from non-west-european descent was a concert in a plucked string instruments festival organised by the Nieuw Ensemble. For this festival, there was a concert where the first half was virtuoso folk music on two saz, and the second half was 'learned' music on the tambur - less spectacular in sound effects, less 'tuneful' perhaps, but structurally more complex. Interestingly, I got the impression that most of the turkish audience seemed to prefer the first half, most of the western audience (who generally had a 'learned' musical background in western music) seemed to be at least as interested in the second half. But this was ten years ago already.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...

Hi, Samuel,

What I also find interesting in Al Galidi's poem is the human address to the "custard." This pathetic fallacy -possibly regarded as kitch- would be unimaginable, almost a taboo, in modernism. In this poem it is a daring step (though seemingly poetically reactionary) to point to an alienation.

This is the kind of confrontation I am talking about. An animistic attitude runs deeply in Asiatic sensibility, including in its literary forms (I am assuming also in Arabic forms). I discuss this around Sufism in my introduction in the Turkish anthology, Eda.

In my view, Western modernism, including the avant-garde, needs to confront this attitude, which runs so much against its grain, seriously. I believe it will end up bing altered by it, becoming a different kind of avant garde, while also altering the originator.Is that not what the post-modern is? A balkanization or dilution is actually a re-arrangement of relationship.

I am not talking here about a strict distinction between the old and the new or the east and west. The best Asian, non Western artists (poets, film makers, video artists, etc.) are very aware of Western literary and artistic movements and are drawn to and benefit from them. Nevertheless, I think, they are aware that there is a crucial aspect of their lives, beings, the western art does not address and even "erases." Their goal is as poets is to reassert their reality; and, since the present reality is global, they must do so through international media, including the avant-garde poetry.

That is to say,losing its Euro-centric framework (the assumptions presented in Mr. Vaessen's essay the avant-garde will re-emerge transformed, hopefully as vibrant and innovative as before. In other words, the avant-garde will undergo a process of translation.



Linh Dinh said...

Hi Samuel,

Thanks for the translation of the Al Galidi poem. It's truly remarkable. As for animism: In America, it only shows up in cartoons. Check out this Max Fleischer masterpiece!:



Linh Dinh said...

Speaking of animism, here's a Vietnamese folk poem where everything is "irritated":

Snail irritated snail
Twists and twirls.
Duckweed irritated duckweed
Hovers on top of water.
Water irritated water
Is drained to plant potatoes.
Potatoes irritated potatoes
Are dug up to plant water spinach.
Water spinach irritated water spinach
Is plucked to make soup
You irritated you
Lying forlorn, wifeless,
On an empty bed!
Is the bed irritated?

Samuel Vriezen said...

Murat, those seem to me to be good points.

I have the feeling Al Galidi uses his "silliness" to "get away" with those reactionary seeming devices. It works. In another poem, he can write stuff like "I want to lie beside you/as the wave beside the wave/I want to become one with you/as the wave with the wave", etc. - and I believe him. Perhaps context - of the poet, of the book - plays a role: I'm not sure I, the prejudiced and fallible reader, would believe just any poet writing stuff like that. I just can't say. But in Al Galidi, I'm won over.

BTW, I do think I can relate all this to certain aspects of the work of Kenneth Koch - I'm among those who love his work. He of course came out of just about the most avantgarde you could be in the 50s with When The Sun Tries To Go On, but he went on writing all that stuff that at first might seem relatively reactionary. Interestingly, the animist tendency is very much part of his work as well, as well (New Addresses for example which has the poet addressing his Twenties and The Second World War) - but also the strategy of using "silliness" to lay the ground for strikingly direct, simple appeals. One of my absolute favourite poems of his - of anybody - is "Poems by ships at sea", where he records the poems that are written by ocean freighters. The premise is absurd, but the poems are both very serious and very unassuming, and they succeed in giving me a unique and vivid sense of world.

And now that I'm in the Koch mood - Linh, that's a beautiful poem, which also reminds me of Koch in form and content - "a serious moment for the water is when it boils", etc. Also of course, Koch had a strong cartoon sensibility.

Was he furtively Asian?

Samuel Vriezen said...

Hmmm.... I hope you all spotted that in my Al Galidi rendition the line "is bigger than my hart" should be "is bigger than my heart" and didn't take it for some genius surrealist flourish giving it some kind of Disney streak...

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...

Hi Samuel.

I both love and admire Kenneth Koch's poetry. I heard him read from Addresses a few months before his death, at The Poetry Project in New York. I thought they were overwhelming.

I think Koch's earlier work, the poems consisting of walks, hotel stays, love affairs, museum visiting friends in Italy and France, project a paradaisical vision of Europe, Europe as a golden moment. They are full of an intelligent light (another silliness?), a hint of Fourier, which I like a lot.

I am not sure the impulse to address objects comes from animism; but it may have something to do with the idea of style or fragmentation I mentioned in relation to translation, particularly in Adresses. Koch fragments the totality of his life organizing it around metonomic points. In some ways, Addresses is a cubist collage..

Koch’s boat for me have magical associations, reminding me of Passeo's "Maritime Ode," Fellini’s movie with opera stars, a rhinoserus, etc., on a boat (the title escapes me at the moment). Turkish poetry is also full of boats. In that respect, the Koch’s Asiatic element may in essence be a Mediterranean/Adriatic/Levantine element, derived from his interest in Italy. Of course, these connections underlie the nationalist/rationalist partitions of the last four hundred years in Europe. Renaissance works, in Florentine art for example, have endless Eastern (Islamic/Byzantine) influences.

What you say about "silliness" is very interesting. Is that a word Galidi chose himself to describe what he is doing, or is it an epithet given by others? I think animism is one of the signals of suppressed, “forbidden” material in contemporary western texts. Often writers of such texts have to use masks, presenting them as silliness or as translations or as hoaxes, etc., to be at all heard.

Here are two more texts with animistic traces:


like otters
out of water,

on my sighs!

The Girl

The sleepy tree,
Among the vegetable life
of the garden,

A mailbox,
the sentry before the garden,

A caterpillar
lands on it,


A disoriented, half-hearted fugitive
from the green

Framed by a window
a girl of eight,
bored by the whizzing
her eyelid twitches

as the Fly
on the window
cleans its head.



Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


I thought more on "Addresses." Considering that the poems are in first person singular, from the point of view of the "object," there is a dimension of animism in the poems, disorienting, alienating the reader through "silliness." The address is both the location, a focus point, and an address from the object.


Samuel Vriezen said...

Murat, doesn't Koch just talk in the first person to the 2nd world war and all that?

I think there may indeed be some better examples of animist-type techniques in Koch, though I think the address could be interpreted as such - for example, the way he treated the Blake tiger poem not as a philosophical idea but as the possibility poetry gives you of finally talking to an animal (in his teaching poetry to children). But many examples come to mind, in his plays for example things come to life all the time - in the Red Robins, animals are talking all the time and there is even a sequence where you have monologues first by Mike the Tiger, then Jim the Plant, the Pyotor the Red Bird's Gland, then Roughie the Stone and finally Elia the As Of Yet Undiscovered Possibility.

"Silliness" is more or less the word Al Galidi used - "flauw" was his word, which more or less basically means a lame joke but more ironically, a kind of humor that is funny in spite of a seeming lack of sophistication. The 'flauwe' grap may catch you unawares by surprising you about yourself - you're laughing before you realise the joke is really silly, something like that.

Al Galidi was using that word informally, in converstaion. Another thing I find very interesting about him, BTW, is that, bascially self-taught in the language at a relatively advanced age, his mastery of Dutch is less than perfect, but that doesn't stop him from writing poetry and prose in it that works.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


You are right about Koch. Your point about animism in relation to him opens a new way of looking at his work.

The way Galidi came out with "flauw" sounds very convincing. It also reflects the precarious position of writing in a "foreign" language. In my view, writing poetry anywhere, in any language, in our day depends on the poet's experiencing his/her language as a foreign language.


The Waste Paper said...

There is a South Asian language called "BANGLA", which Westerners call Bengali. For information relating to Postmodern Bangla Poetry, I would invite readers to go through the short essay on the subject in wikipedia. One may like to juxt-oppose with, not modernist discourse, but colonial discourse.
Tridib Mitra