Kees Ouwens began his writing career as a neoromantic. In collections bearing such titles as Arcadia and Als een beek (Like a brook) he published poems full of long, meandering sentences set in alternating high and low registers, as a kind of poetic counterpart to novelist Gerard Reve’s prose. Later, he gradually turned away from the neoromantic impulse and his poetry became darker and more complex, but also more essential and intriguing. The poet is, in his own words, “for study under your magnifying glass at home”.
Ouwens has meanwhile become one of the Netherlands’ most hermetic poets. In one respect, however, he has never changed: his work has always been self-focused, at times almost solipsistic. Yet at the same time he kept searching for paradise. It is the tension between that hypersensitive ego and the wish to find happiness, which often lends a wry taste to his work: “Oh, how I loved myself, and hence I wept, as if I would be lost.” Ouwens’ archaic style may also strike an occasional comical note, however: “I was the welfare state of my body/ and the reconstruction of my self-sufficiency.”
After his collection with the telling title Klem (Stuck) from 1984, Ouwens’ poetry becomes more and more impenetrable. It is as if his existential crisis forces him to look for nothing but the essence and to renounce, for instance, the physical. A division between (physical) appearance and (spiritual) essence develops. In the collection Afdankingen (Discardings) which deals with utter alienation, it says: “that it bewilders your being, being your body.” In his most recent work, the poet seems to some extent to have overcome the entanglement of the soul prying into itself in poems that evoke some kind of private myth and in which he goes out into the world in his own individual way.
Kees Ouwens once said in an interview: “I am not trying to please or to console. I am not into spiritual care.” It is his uncompromising authenticity which makes him an odd man out on the Dutch literary scene, but one who has fascinated poetry lovers for decades already.
In 2002 the poetry of Kees Ouwens was collected in Alle gedichten tot dusver (All poems to date). In 2003 his novels were collected in Alle romans tot dusver (All novels to date). Ouwens passed away on Tuesday the 24th of August, 2004.
With additional biographical information from Thomas Möhlmann.