‘The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely,’ Oscar Wilde wrote in his preface to Dorian Gray. The selection of Dutch poets presented here is based purely on personal admiration. It is the most honest way. Trying to apply more ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ criteria in creating the selection would ultimately be deceptive. The 9 poets presented here are the tip of the iceberg of the flourishing Dutch poetry scene. There are many more great poets alive writing in Dutch. Some may be considered ‘more important’ or ‘more well known’ than some of the ones I selected. Completeness can never be a criterion for a selection by definition. I encourage everyone to find the poets they personally like best, regardless of the parts of the world the poets come from. If there is usefulness in a selection of poetry, it is to inspire readers.
It is also true that however original a poet may be, she is never completely on her own. Never completely detached from her precursors and contemporaries. I will introduce the poets in this selection. Not by trying to define their poetics in a few lines, but by highlighting one aspect of their work that I think links them to their contemporaries.
In recent years, some of our great post World War II poets have died. They were all male. For the first time in history, female poets now dominate the Dutch poetry scene. Anne Vegter is the poet laureate of the Netherlands. Her poetry is powerful in every way poetry can be. Part of this power is the natural way in which her poetry exhibits selfconsciousness, a metapoetics.
For many poets the poem is the centre of their work. For others the poem is part of a larger whole. In this selection Alfred Schaffer is an example of the latter. Poems presented here are all part of his 2014 collection Man Animal Thing in which the poems tell stories about Shaka Zulu. Not in a historically correct way, but anachronistically, so the Zulu king who lived encounters contemporary phenomena such as media hype, mobile phones and speeddating.
Dutch is not only the language of The Netherlands. Flanders, the northern part of Belgium, is one of the other parts of the world where Dutch is spoken and written. Els Moors is a Flemish poet. Her work centres around the duality of body and mind, form and content, physical reality and imagination. Especially the parts of the human body play an important role in her poetry, giving it a sensual appeal while at the same time firmly grounding it. She does not stand alone in her emphasis on physicality.
Paul Bogaert is another Flemish writer. While we live in a time where the average length of poems increases, most of his poems consist of fewer lines than a sonnet. He manages time and again to say a lot with few words. The basis for his poems is often a narrative, but Bogaert seems more interested in disrupting and dissolving the narrative rather than telling it.
The Netherlands is only a small country. Dutch is a small language. We are very aware of it, but this awareness hasn’t made us humble. It has made us cosmopolitan. We realize we have to deal with other peoples, cultures and languages. Maria Barnas is an international artist. She is a visual as well as literary artist. She partly lives in Germany. She mostly writes in Dutch, but this selection also contains a substantial number of poems she has written in English. Her poems take us to many places. Berlin, Paris, Iceland, as well as unnamed places. The landscape, the geology of places plays an important role in her work, as does, ultimately, astronomy, because the world is only a small planet after all.
Many poets create poems of distinctively consistent form and style they are easily recognized by. The poetry of Tonnus Oosterhoff exhibits the opposite characteristic: he wildly varies his poetic practices. He writes as easily a poem of three lines as one of many pages. He also experiments with new media. An important part of his poems in this selection are ‘moving’ poems. They are created in the now obsolete Flash technology, but the freshness of the poems remains. And their intent is still relevant: finding out what it means for poetry that it is now presented on and read from a screen instead of a page.
In international as well as Dutch literature there is a trend to give attention to phenomena that transcend the individual. It centers around the awareness that individuals are part of greater wholes. And greater wholes consist of individuals. Sasja Janssen shows this awareness in her latest poetry collection I put on my species. She examines what it means to belong to a sex, a language, a species.
Most renowned poets nowadays write free verse. Menno Wigman has always employed traditional poetic techniques such as rhyme and meter. He is one of the few who do so who are recognized as important poets. Recently, the use of more traditional poetic form has gained momentum in the Netherlands. Time will tell where this will lead to.
In every country and every language there are upcoming and promising poets. Dutch is no exception. Bernke Klein Zandvoort is the youngest poet of the ones presented in this selection. She represents the neverending resourcefulness of younger generations to make poetry new. In her poetry she finds a fresh way to create tension between a single verseline and the total poem, between one stanza and the next.
It has been my privilege and honour to select these poets. My unbounded thanks goes out to the translators, who selflessly granted permission to use their incredible work. I also would like to thank Poetry International in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and Poëziecentrum in Gent, Belgium. These two organisations commissioned most of the translations in the selection you are now reading.