Cees Nooteboom has won international renown as an author of novels, novellas and travel books, but likes to think of himself as a poet first. As a poet, he made his début in 1956 with a collection entitled De doden zoeken een huis (The dead seek a home). He never joined any literary circle or group, but remained a loner who felt at home in many rooms of 'the house of poetry'. The poet also edited the literature section of the glossy style magazine Avenue, contributing his own translations of Wallace Stevens, César Vallejo, Cesare Pavese and Michaël Krüger. In the Netherlands, he found a kindred spirit in the poet Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, the restless, romantic poet-ship’s doctor (1898-1936), who wrote: "Only in my poems can I live / Nowhere else did I find shelter."
An 'I' with personal sentiments is hard to find in Nooteboom's poetry. For him, poetry is a form of concentration, meditation and reflection. In his poems he asks questions about the essence of time, the migrations of the soul in a lifetime, and in what ways he himself or his (classical) colleagues are affected by poetry. Poems about such existential or philosophical questions risk being dismissed as 'abstract' by the wider public. Despite epithets like 'hermetic' or 'mannerist', however, the early poems are far from impenetrable to those who really try. They are exercises in pain, the self-torture of a defenseless spectator who desperately tries to find out where he stands. These 'cold', 'black', or 'mannered' poems penetrate the mystery of time, of fragmentized life, of death, with mathematical, often moving precision. The poems are at once transparent and mysterious. Such a paradox is Nooteboom's favourite figure of speech in this early work, witness a title like Aanwezig, afwezig (Present, Absent).
Nooteboom's later poetry is concerned with mental and sensory perception, with 'the eye' in a literal and figurative sense, with seeing and what is seen, and with the realms of thought they imply. 'He who does not break appearance, sees nothing', he says in his collection Het gezicht van het oog (The sight of the eye), which contains some fascinating sequences of poems dealing with a reality that is intractable and many-faceted and essentially unknowable: 'each thing fallen from its word / and crashed without a safety net.' Nooteboom's new collection, appearing at the time of the 2017 festival, is concerned with the idea that the once cohesive world of poets and thinkers has disintegrated over time. The poet watches this apparently inevitable process with quiet nostalgia: "To have existed there / with time like a shock of hair,/ (…) that, dear friend, is life."
The anthology Bitterzoet. Honderd gedichten van vroeger en zeventien nieuwe (Bittersweet. A hundred poems from the past and seventeen new ones), selected by Nooteboom himself, followed. Over en weer: gedichten als brieven (Back and forth: poems as letters) was his next publication, consisting of a correspondence in poetic form between Nooteboom and Dutch writer-poet Remco Campert. The letters report on a conversation about transience between the two elderly writers. For his volume of poetry Licht overal (Light everywhere), Nooteboom expanded the volume he had published earlier in collaboration with Flemish writer-poet-artist Hugo Claus, who contributed etchings to Nooteboom's poems. In 2016, his latest volume of poetry, Monniksoog (Monk's eye), appeared. Written on the islands Schiermonnikoog and Menorca, the book addresses the writer's recurrent theme of transitoriness, and contains his reflections on language and poetry itself.