Gerrit Kouwenaar (Amsterdam, 1923) is considered to be one of the most important Dutch writers since the Second World War. His oeuvre, apart from almost eight hundred pages of poetry, includes three novels and an immense number of (drama) translations. Literary studies, monographs and film documentaries have been devoted to his work.
In innumerable interviews over the years, Kouwenaar has made the most divergent statements on the art of poetry. It is no idle boast to claim that the landscape of Dutch poetry would have looked quite different without his work.
Typically, Kouwenaar’s poems present themselves as ‘language objects’: poetry for Kouwenaar consists of words – not thoughts, feelings or anything else. This does not detract from the fact that his poems often have an incredible emotional charge as is clearly evident from just such a collection as Totaal witte kamer (Totally White Room), which is in part a requiem for his deceased wife.
Via Kouwenaar’s intense mastery of what could be called the entire ‘semantic field’ of language, his poems attempt to get as close as possible to ‘physical reality’ or – as he himself often writes – the ‘flesh’. In his poetry, flesh becomes word. Furthermore, Kouwenaar’s linguistic examinations of the passage of time and its causes are unrivalled. In the language of his poems, that which is fleeting and transitory is captured, and thereby retained. Kouwenaar once said, ‘Art only deals with a couple of simple themes: life, death, injustice, beauty. You want to create something that will withstand time. Nothing is present forever. A good work of art has been stolen from time, has outwitted merciless time.’ In Kouwenaar’s poetry, things are the same ‘today as always’. And that is how it will remain. In 2008 Kouwenaar’s most recent collection was published, called Vallende stilte; een keuze uit eigen werk.
[Gerrit Kouwenaar appears at the 2009 Poetry International Festival. This text has been written for that occasion.]